Could Anything Have Kept Me in the Classroom?


Almost exactly a year ago, I sat at my desk in the classroom where I had taught middle school social studies for three years. Spring break was starting, but I was furiously trying to finish grading a project that students had just turned in, a timeline of the major events of World War II. Grades had to be entered and finalized a few days after the break, but I wouldn’t be returning. My third child was due to make an appearance in the next couple of weeks, and I had decided that juggling three children under the age of five AND a full-time teaching job just wasn’t doable for me. Something had to go, and teaching was it.

I spent eight years of my life teaching, six of them in public school. Deciding to leave the classroom was a process that took several years and caused me serious mental anguish. The truth is, I loved my job. I loved the feeling of camaraderie I shared with the other school employees. I loved the vast majority of the kids, excluding the ones who went out of their way to be assholes. (Yes, I said it. Sometimes seventh-graders are assholes.) I loved when I made an obscure joke about Napoleon and ten percent of the students actually got it. There were many things about teaching that were creative and fun and rewarding. But then there was all the other stuff.


Things teachers do: Dress up like their favorite author and host of “Crash Course: World History”

I stay in close touch with many of my teacher friends. Each time we get together, I hear them talk about school, and I marvel at the fact that I stayed afloat for as long as I did. Their daily lives read like a revised version of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried: They carry laptop cases. They carry Thirty-One bags stuffed to bursting with spelling tests and homework sheets and lab reports. They carry their lunches in microwaveable Pyrex containers of various sizes. They carry the burden of responsibility, not just for their students’ education, but for the children themselves, who carry their personal histories with them to class each day. They carry frustration, thinly-veiled, about the newest accountability initiative forced on them from the top down to prove that they are doing their jobs effectively, in a way that can be quantified.

They carry too much. I was carrying too much. Leaving the classroom was a viable option for me financially, and I understand that my ability to choose to leave was an enormous privilege. For me, it was the right choice. Even though my days at home are equally challenging and equally exhausting, I don’t regret my decision for a second. But I wonder, sometimes, if there is anything that could have convinced me to stay. If the conditions were different, perhaps. The answer is, frankly, yes. And I need someone out there, someone who has some kind of power over the working lives of our country’s educators, to hear me.

I left the classroom because I couldn’t do it all. Thousands and thousands of other really dedicated teachers have done the same. What would have made the difference? For starters:

Pay teachers more. Like a good teacher, I did some research. Nationwide, in 2014 the median salary for a middle school teacher was $54,940.  Actually, I didn’t make anywhere close to that. Who gets paid more, on average, than teachers? According to the same U.S. News and World Report list, MRI technologists and dental hygienists are just a couple of the listed occupations with a higher median income than teachers. I’m not hating on MRI technologists or dental hygienists; my husband is a dentist, and I know how important it is to have skilled, sociable hygienists. Those ladies rock. My point, I guess, is that these are jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree, and that you don’t take home with you, at least not in the, “Honey, I know you need mommy to get you a snack, but I’m just finishing up this dental cleaning,” kind of way. And for the many teachers who hold a Masters degree, it’s discouraging, to say the least, to be at the bottom of the list of earnings potential with a graduate degree.

Okay, so you’re not willing to pay us more. At least reduce class sizes to ease the burden. In South Carolina, where I taught for six years, class sizes in grades 6-12 cannot legally exceed a ratio of 30 students to 1 teacher. For those of you who have never tried to teach a room full of thirty 12 and 13-year-olds about Imperialism in Asia in the 1800s, I dare you to try. Also, I taught five class periods per day. So I could have potentially been dealing with 150 students every day. I could have been grading 150 tests, 150 essays, 150 homework assignments. Luckily, I think the most I ever had was 130, but seriously. Do people even understand what they are asking teachers to do? IT IS INSANITY. It is unsustainable. Oh right, and then there’s the whole proven fact that students learn better in smaller classes.

Do what is in the best interest of the students. Students get the most out of school when their teachers are happy. I have no evidence for this statement, though I’m sure there’s some study out there. But let’s look at it this way: At home, if I’m stressed, my kids feel it. At school, it’s no different. A teacher who is distracted by her ever-growing list of responsibilities and pressured to get her students to perform is going to be less focused on the children in front of her, and aren’t they the whole point?

Next year I will send my oldest child to kindergarten. I know she’ll learn. But I want her teachers to have space in their lives to love her, the way I felt loved by my public school teachers when I was in school. And I want to make sure that her teachers feel appreciated, not just by me, but by the society they are serving. I just don’t think that’s asking too much.

When Cuteness Turns Dangerous

When I was in my early twenties, about a year out of college, I decided to take in two foster puppies. I’d fostered other dogs for Stray Rescue of St. Louis, and when a call came out for puppy foster families, I thought that taking care of two fuzzy, wiggly little puppie-wuppies would satisfy my desire to adopt one of my own. I set Barley and Hops up in my spare bedroom, a nice big area, I thought, for them to run around and play. And yelp, constantly, night and day. And pee. And poop. And eat their poop. After only a few days of sleeplessness and non-stop pooping and plenty of poop consumption, I was over it. With my sincerest apologies, I returned these two repulsive creatures to the shelter and swore that I would never again be hoodwinked by cuteness.


I decided to keep only one of the two adorable things pictured here with me. (I mean, just look at those dimples.)

Fast forward ten years. Replace Barley and Hops with three small noisy humans. Who also keep me up at night. Whose pee and poop also require close attention on my part. (Although they have never – to my knowledge- eaten their own poop. And if they have, I don’t want to know.) Who also need me to take them outside, play with them, dangle treats in front of their noses so they will display desirable behaviors. The work that I was unwilling to invest with poor little Barley and Hops is now my everyday reality, and I’m okay with that for two reasons. First, my three ankle-biters were conceived out of love and grown in my own body. And on top of that, they are SO. FREAKING. CUTE.

This cuteness poses several problems, which I will now detail, with photographic evidence.

1. You can’t help but spend money on ridiculous things that they want. Because those things are cute, and when you add cute to cute, you get DOUBLE CUTE! IMG_3518

Wait, I take that back. This is creepy.



I don’t remember how much it cost to take a ride in this strawberry, but does it matter? She wanted to ride in a strawberry with her mom. If she asked me again (nicely) I’d bust my wallet out in a second.

2. You devote weeks, possibly months, of your life to taking photos of your darlings, posting them on social media, and then checking to see who has liked, loved, and hilarious smiley-cried over your photos. Until they turn twelve, because zits, braces, and poor fashion choices. (At least in the case of me and my sisters. I’m sure MY children will still be cheek-pinchable at twelve.) IMG_4022_1024Baby selfies. I have no idea what I look like, because I can’t stop staring at the diapered cherub next to me.

IMG_0543_1024If a cute female child is sitting next to a cute male child, you have an irresistible urge to take a picture and then caption it with something like, “First date!” Which is disturbing in that you’re kind of turning a playdate into an arranged marriage.

3. Cuteness deserves massive amounts of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup insisted upon by adults whose own children are past the cute stage. Predictably, behavior turns not cute at all after said generously donated sweets. Thanks, nice stranger. Want to babysit for an hour?IMG_4017_1024

Aww, you just got your hair cut. Here’s a sucker so your mom can spend an hour washing the sucker out of your hair later.


Alright, fine. This time it wasn’t a stranger, but we only went to Yogurt Mountain because I was jonesing for some chocolate yogurt with Heath Bar and graham cracker crumbs. And I had better manners about eating mine than this heathen here.

4. When they do something bad, you cover your mouth and giggle and call your spouse in to see what this little troublemaker has gotten into. Then you snap a few pictures to post on Instagram. Oh right, then you discipline them. Because that’s going to be effective. 






There are so many examples. My kids are bad. It’s a good thing they’re cute.

5. Even though you’re a reasonable adult, sometimes their cuteness bends your will as if by magic, and suddenly you find yourself allowing them to do something that will ultimately be really annoying to clean up. 


Regular diaper in kiddie pool. Sure, why not?


Swimming in your clothes? Completely acceptable.


And when you’re done making a castle out of books, who will clean it up, dear?


Ugh, confetti.


That’s the face of a helper right there.

Clearly I have broken my long-ago vow to stay on the alert for the Kryponite-like effects of cuteness, wielded by puppies and children alike. Thrust me at the next cute kid you see; I’m a sucker. Unless my kids start eating their own poop, in which case I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to look at them the same way again.


To My Five-Year-Old Daughter, Who No Longer Wants to Sit Beside Me


Today, so far, has been a good day for you and me. So far, there has been no screaming, no time-outs, no threats of what privileges I’ll take if you refuse to obey. Today, you wanted a book from your preschool’s Book Fair. You came when called, obeyed requests in a timely manner. You even offered to carry Ceci’s backpack when she collapsed into a tantrum outside of school. “Ceci, if you’re a good listener, you’ll get a book!” you told her as she sprawled facedown on the sidewalk. The voice of perfect reason. You can be that, sometimes.

Other days, your dad and I take everything: no sweets, no TV, no playtime with friends, no books at bedtime. I take your favorite dress or the American Girl catalog that you got your hands on before I could hide it in the recycling bin. I send you to time-out, and when you won’t go there, I pick you up, which is no longer easy. And when you won’t stay in time- out, I carry you to your room while you swing your fists in your best attempt to injure me. I try to care for your sisters while we listen to you scream and rage behind the door. What I want is for you to stop fighting me all the time. What I want, when the screaming and raging has subsided, is for you to crawl into my lap and show me how pitifully sorry you are for whatever started this whole mess. You never do. You look up from your beanbag chair, where you are quietly coloring, and ask if you can have a screen.

Lately it feels like NO is the only thing you and I say to each other. Our relationship has shifted in other ways, too. A couple of weeks ago we went together to Ash Wednesday service. You asked if you could sit in the front pew with some of your preschool friends, but it was already full. Sit next to me,  I said. You stayed  a sullen three feet away from me throughout, shaking off my entreaties. Come closer, Maggie. No. Come sit with me, honey. No. When it was time, I led you to the front of the sanctuary, where our pastor waited. I watched him dip his thumb in the ashes and place a cross on your forehead. You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” he told you quietly. And all I could think was, One day my baby will die. And today she won’t sit next to me.

You’re only five. Even though you roam the backyards of our neighborhood with the older kids, you’re still little. You haven’t outgrown tantrums. You haven’t fully realized how big the world is, how many other people it holds. You want what you want because your world is small, and everything, to you, feels important. Probably, this behavior, this pulling away, is just a part of that. Probably you’re just doing what kids do.

But you’re my first, and we’ve never been here before. Everything with you is new. So I worry, my love, that this isn’t just a phase.  I worry that this is just who we are, two people who dig in our heels, who are destined to misunderstand each other. I will still love you, even if that’s true, but I don’t want to fight with you. I want you to scoot on over in the church pew and let me pull you closer. If we are both dust, I want you to return to me again and again and again.



Why We Should Stop Fearing for Our Kids


I feel lucky, as a mother of three girls, to have been blessed with daughters who are tough. Five-year-old Maggie picks up bugs and climbs trees with the older neighborhood kids. Ceci – accident prone since she learned to walk at ten months – has taken some bumps to the head that would make me cry. The only reason she was crying was because I made her stop playing for five seconds so I could assess the damage. And Baby Alex, with older sisters as rough and tumble as hers, is going to have no choice but to learn to defend herself early on.

My girls are active, confident, strong. Not to say that they’re completely fearless: Ceci will tell you that she’s afraid of the car wash, beards, and the overly aggressive ducks that hang out at the local pond; Maggie thinks her two-wheeler bike with training wheels is too tippy and doesn’t like watching the scene where Luke’s hand gets cut off in The Empire Strikes Back. Alex, I think, is a little afraid of her sisters. Which makes sense.

I am so glad that, for now, their list of fears is relatively short. The last thing I want is for my children to be boxed in by fear, unwilling to try anything new.  Which is somewhat ironic, because my own heart, so full of love for my family, is surrounded on all sides by fear for them. When I compare my daughters’ fears with the fears I have for them, the lists are woefully unbalanced. Certainly I am afraid of physical harm, which lurks everywhere, all the time: high up in Maggie’s favorite climbing tree, in every object small enough to place in Alex’s mouth, in that terrifying combination of two-year-old stubbornness and poor decision-making.


What else do I fear? I fear for their spirits. I fear that their peers will not understand or appreciate the qualities that make my children unique. I fear the meanness of other kids. Worse, I fear that they will be the mean kids. I fear everything that comes with adolescence. I’m afraid of the way that they will one day view themselves and their bodies. I fear that they will lose themselves in the pursuit of prettiness and popularity. I fear that no matter how many times my husband and I tell them that they are beautiful in every way, they won’t believe us.

I fear the corrosive influence of our culture and its values: competition over compassion, wealth and consumerism over simplicity. If my children are kind (as I hope they will be), I fear that their kindness will be viewed as weakness. Mostly I fear that they will learn to internalize this jaded worldview, that they will give up on idealism and accept the status quo.

I fear for the future, for the ability of our country’s leaders to truly do what is best for all. I fear the precarious state of our planet. If you have not read the stunning novel The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker, about a phenomenon similar to climate change, I’m not sure I can recommend it. Although I’m sure it wasn’t the author’s intention, I left the book feeling like maybe allowing my children to inherit this damaged world was a terrible, terrible mistake. (But seriously, it’s an amazing, beautiful, devastating book.)

Fear, from an evolutionary point of view, is only helpful insofar as it keeps us alive. So of course, I should give my five-year-old reasonable limits when it comes to tree-climbing, and I should probably not allow my living room floor to be strewn with choking hazards. In order to keep my children safe from harm, I should exert control on the conditions over which I actually have some level of control. But to live in a state of fear when most of my fears are out of my hands? When these hypothetical situations may or may not come to pass? Such a state of existence isn’t helpful. Not to my daughters, not to me.

Our children do not need our fear, and neither do we.  But can we, as parents, choose to live free from fear? Honestly, I don’t know, but what if we started here: We were children once, and we lived through it. We made mistakes, and they will too. Our job as parents is to give our children the tools to navigate an often treacherous but always awesome world. Every day we build our children up. If we trust in our abilities as parents, and if we remember to believe the best of our children, then we have a foundation that doesn’t feel so “tippy”. For those of us who pray, pray. For those of us who don’t, hope. Parenthood is too precious to waste with our minds in dark corners, so take a step toward positivity. Come out into the light. Just don’t forget your SPF.