How the system broke my heart (and how my students mended it)

I originally wrote this story back in April in an old notebook on a Sunday afternoon, amid tears. I meant to rewrite it here in the space of my blog, but I wasn’t ready. I’m not sure why. I simply hesitated and put it off, positive I would post as soon as I was. Subsequently, I experienced a serious bout of writer’s block because I couldn’t possibly write on another topic until I got this story out. I am posting it now because I hope it can help others in similar situations, and selfishly, I know writing it will help put it behind me for good. This experience has also profoundly shaped my perspective and my heart. In simple terms, it has made me stronger.

So, it goes…

A sign is posted to the left of my doorknob which reads,“You enter this classroom as a student who is respected, empowered, challenged, and loved.” Originally created by my teaching soul sister, I adopted it as my own because it spoke to my philosophy of education. It does not feel natural to teach without this extension of love.

At 11 a.m. on Monday, April 13, the first day back from a restful spring break, my principal strolls in my classroom. She stops just past the doorway, picks up a small piece of trash and meets me halfway while asking whether this is my plan period. I have just finished three hours of teaching, reenergized to be back with my students, and reply yes with a smile. I meet her eyes and she says, “I just wanted to let you know your contract is not being renewed.”

Instinctually, my hand went straight to my heart, my spine elongated, shoulders back. Fifteen minutes later on the phone to my husband—amid sobs—I would explain it felt like I was punched in the stomach, literally punched, my breathing turned rapid.

I only processed pieces of that ten minute long conversation with my former principal. Snippets rang in my ears. Something about budget cuts, an apology, personal days, and the affirmation that I am a great teacher. I tried hard not to cry in front of an administrator who had yet to show any emotion with me. Damn, did I try. But, they came. In a professional tone, I apologized for the tears. In an attempt to be reassuring, I think, she said she would be emotional too. She then encouraged me to reapply for my position if the budget was approved and stated she would also be happy to write a letter of recommendation. And then with that, she left. Headed down the hallway to share the same news with another probationary, first year in the district, teacher.

Later that week, in meetings with the department chair and union reps, I would learn the decision was made unilaterally. My evaluations and peers agreed I was doing great work with the students and they loved me. It didn’t change the fact that my teaching spirit was crushed. Sadly, I have learned, this happens all the time to teachers new to a district. A fellow English teacher colleague of mine said his contract had been non-renewed five times, five times. He is my age—about 30.

The rest of that day was the hardest. I still had three more classes to teach and I had lost all my appetite for lunch. I made a cup of tea and found the name, “Benners” in my call log. I shared the news with him, and he shared the shock. When my husband got home that afternoon to find me painting with our daughter, he gave me my first embrace of the day. Because despite my need to be comforted, I chose not to tell anyone at my school that day. I simply sat in my classroom, lights off, door closed. I wrote, meditated, prayed, read blog posts from other teachers with similar experiences, and cried some more.

Eventually, I reapplied make-up, put on a smile, and greeted my students determined to be the best, damn teacher I could be, just as I had vowed when I began teaching seven years ago. I knew in my soul that it wasn’t about my principal’s power or budget cuts, it was about them—my students. And what matters is that despite everything else, they are the ones who make me feel respected, empowered, challenged…and loved.

Someone very close to me who understands my love for teaching, upon hearing the news, prayed I would receive kisses from God. I learned that later when, during a phone conversation, I shared just how intensely my students had been showering me with gifts of kindness and admiration the rest of that week. They did not know I was undergoing such a difficult trial in my career in public education, but perhaps they felt it. I was and am grateful for all of the loving reminders I received that ultimately mended a teaching heart, broken by the system.

Now that over two months have passed, I feel lighter. I enter a new chapter, carrying forth the stories of my students, and nothing more.

IMG_2264 IMG_2269 IMG_2271 IMG_2297

IMG_2457 (The first four pictures were all gifts from students. This last photo is taken of me and the school mascot. The students and staff voted me as staffer-of-the-month in May. I ended the school year feeling very appreciated by my students and colleagues.)


2 thoughts on “How the system broke my heart (and how my students mended it)

  1. Dear Libbi,

    The system is not equipped to handle innovative thinkers. Status quo is safe. Status quo is comfortable.

    You are a resilient person. And resilient people view setback as nothing more than a challenge to get better. To work harder. We know the value in what we do. We don’t “do” to impress, we do because it is our moral imperative.

    Stay strong. Believe in what you do, even when those around you do not.



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