I have often told the first part of this story, as if it were a fairy tale come true.
When I was seventeen, I decided to become a teacher in the high school classroom where I currently practice my craft. I was lucky enough to be a student in the class of one of the most extraordinary educators I’ve ever known. Mrs. B was tremendous at her job. She was a gifted artist, and was equally gifted at the art of teaching. Kind, respectful and loving, Mrs. B had the undivided attention and respect of her students and I wanted to model myself after her. I set out on the path to do just that.
I became a teacher in 1996, and over the past nineteen years have poured my energy into becoming the embodiment of the woman who influenced me long ago. I spent eleven years as a Special Educator, but ultimately transitioned into Art Education and became the Department Chair. I like to think I have been largely successful in pursuit of my goal and that over the years I have wielded positive influence over the hundreds of those in my care.
A common discussion I have with my students focuses on the importance of digging in to discover what drives you. I explain that uncovering one’s passion and translating that into what one does for work yields amazing results. “Find your passion first,” I tell them. “and money will follow later when accompanied with hard work!”
When you do what you love for a living, it doesn’t feel like work. It equals happiness. Bliss. A fulfilling life.
For most of my career, I’ve been able to tell my students that I am an incredibly lucky woman. I would tell them that my job is my passion and my work has not felt like work.
I can no longer state that truthfully.
In 2002 the No Child Left Behind act, a product of pressure to introduce nation-wide standardized testing starting in the 80s, was signed by then President Bush and set off a chain of events in what has come to be known as the Reform Movement in education in America. Both teachers and students have been reduced to and measured almost solely by numbers calculated with unsubstantiated, under-development, unreliable standardized tests. Our system of public education has eroded while large corporations like Pearson reap large monetary gains. The American public school system has been declared defunct by those behind this movement, as they point to unreliable test results as proof. More and more money slated for public education has been funneled to “non-profit” charter schools (which are actually quite profitable), further eroding the state of our schools. The results have been horrific. Teachers are held up in the media as scapegoats of a “failing” system. Students lose countless hours of time prepping for tests, cutting into what could otherwise be a well-rounded education. Arts, electives and sports programs have been slashed and cut and cut some more as they cannot be measured on the all-important test. Students have been reduced to test taking machines and more and more teachers are being reduced to narrators of a strict script. The pressure to perform well on these assessments has had negative consequences on both the experience of being a student and an educator. The soul of what made so many classrooms great has been ripped away bit by bit, causing psychological turmoil for all on the receiving end of the movement.
As an educator, I don’t agree with but recognize the motivation of large money-hungry corporations to target public schools as a revenue streams and harvest once private data about students for profit. This drive encourages them to spew their vitriol against us, painting us as lazy, entitled know-nothings to the public because it improves their bottom line. I believe they view us as casualties in a war they have waged to profit from us. What has puzzled me for so long is why so many administrators have bought their ideology hook, line and sinker as they get no corporate cut. Conversations with colleagues has led me to the conclusion that many of our administrators have been groomed to not believe in the professionalism of teachers. Not all, but so very many of those in charge from the Department of Education through local building principals hold the belief that teachers are not worthy of respect. The combination of corporations desire to topple public education for profit and their ability to get so many in charge to believe their gobbledygook has caused so very much harm. Nationwide, teacher morale is at an all-time low. Student attendance rates, especially on the elementary level, have suffered as young children are held up against Common Core Standards that are incongruous with their learning capacities and have led to a sense of disenchantment with school at a young age.
Diane Ravitch stated, “Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?” The answer is no.
Personally, I have found myself growing more and more dissatisfied with my profession as the attack on public education has mounted and lack of respect for what I do has grown. Angst set in and I turned to nurturing my other passion—visual art.
Originally trained as a sculptor but not having the means to do welding, woodworking or stone carving in my home, I decided to teach myself to paint about three years ago. Painting has brought me so much joy and rekindled a fire in me. After my work is done for the day and my children are tucked safely in bed for the night, I tuck myself away in my studio and get lost in my work. Over this time, I’ve dedicated countless hours to the practice of my craft. It has made me even more effective in my art classroom, but has very much become a second job as it is incredibly demanding of my time.
I’ve gathered quite a following through effective sharing of my work on social media and my art has become a viable business yielding a substantial part time income. Last year, I began to believe it might be a possibility to leave teaching to pursue a career in art. Since then, I have sold several original paintings and multiple reproductions, have booked two solo shows (one at a private gallery in Massachusetts and the other at a University in Providence, Rhode Island) and have taken on private painting classes which are doing quite well. My art business is taking on a life of its own and the momentum with which it’s moving is truly amazing.
This year, I made a choice. It’s gotten to the point where I cannot sustain success in both my public teaching and my art career. Something had to give. My art won and paperwork I filed to take a year leave of absence was recently approved.
It’s all still sinking in. I’m leaving public education.
I did not make this decision lightly or alone. I’m fortunate to have an incredibly supportive spouse and together we are working through the transition of me pursuing this new career. There’s lots of work to be done, but I’m excited to get to it.
This is an exciting, terrifying and bittersweet time for me. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be considering leaving this career, I would have told you that you were crazy. I never would have believed that it was possible to sustain my family on an income stemming from my art. I would have wondered how it could be possible that I would want to abandon a position I had worked so hard for and loved so very much. Back then, I could not have possibly guessed what was coming down the road for my profession.
I guess I owe the Reform Movement contingent some kind of thanks. If it hadn’t been for their sustained efforts to “improve” public education, I never would have been motivated to follow this path. I do believe that America is waking up and that the pendulum is swinging the other way. Finally, there is push back against the machine to retake our schools. I’m so very happy for that for the sake of my children.
For me though? It’s too late. The damage has been done and a choice has been made.
A big part of me still is and always will be a teacher. It will manifest itself in other ways as I move forward into this new chapter of my life. Mostly, I will miss the interaction I have with the students and my colleagues. Yesterday, I received a letter from our chapter of the National Honor Society informing me that I have been chosen as the recipient of their annual Distinguished Faculty Award. I am honored and humbled and I’m choosing to look at it this way—I’m leaving on a high note, but it’s time to move on.
Sadly, I believe that I am part of a large trend and the public education system is losing out on some of its most valuable assets. I could choose to go back to my position after this year but somehow, I don’t think it’s in the cards.
Jennifer’s art work is available to view and purchase through the following websites:
www.jgcahoon.com (currently under construction)