This morning new and veteran teachers watch from classroom windows as school buses pull into the back parking lot or cars pull into the front. Those teachers wear eager smiles and may try to disguise the signs that they feel a little nervous, too. They offer hugs and pats on the back. They ease parents’ tension and welcome students warmly.
For the first time in ten years, I am not standing in the hallway with them.
The reasons for my resignation as a public school teacher are not a laughing matter, even though today it feels like the joke is on me. It just isn’t right to miss out on the first day of school. Last spring when I turned in my notice regarding this fall, an exciting new future reached out to shake my hand, but now I’m wondering if he’s wearing one of those metal buzzers in his palm.
I resigned by choice, but I didn’t resign because I wanted to. There is a difference.
I resigned because the fuel light came on. Our bodies are like motor vehicles that take us where we want and need to go, and when there is a problem, they give us warnings. With automobiles, there are readings everywhere: gauges, dings, pings, buzzes, bells, and blinking lights that caution us when we need to slow down or cool down or shut the door or wear our seat belts or change the battery, the oil, or the refrigerant. But these warnings are only as effective as the driver who heeds them. Our bodies are the same way. Yet, most of us trust a car’s warning system more than we trust a body’s warning system. We all know the danger of being stalled out on the side of the highway, so when the dashboard light comes on, we turn into a gas station as quickly as we can. Yet when headaches, arthritis, and stomach pain alert us, we think we can outsmart ourselves, “Aww, I can go just a little longer at this pace. I’ll slow down soon.” The danger of our bodies breaking down is far greater than being stuck beside a busy road.
I have learned to pay close attention to those physical signals, and last spring, when I saw subtle signs that I was wearing down, I knew I had to “pull over quickly.” I am a person with a chronic auto-immune disorder and a disability, and I cannot ignore those facts. I had been teaching full-time during weekdays, writing during week nights, traveling and speaking to groups on weekends, and trying to stay involved with my church, family, and friends whenever I could. Fatigue flared up like a flashing signal I could not dismiss.
The more I prayed and thought about my options, I deeply sensed that it was time to take a break from full-time classroom teaching, as it presents the greatest strain on my mobility limitations. By May of last year, it was difficult for me to walk down the hall without using a walker. Last September, I had only needed a cane. I knew it was time.
To me, classroom teaching is a season I am leaving, but it doesn’t mean that I am altogether finished as a teacher. If I am not able to continue influencing students directly, then I will influence them indirectly through inspiring and motivating their teachers, who deserve all of the encouragement that I can offer from a podium or page.
The right decisions are often the hardest decisions. I knew one of the realities of resigning would be that teachers would wonder if I truly mean the words that I say in my speeches. If I believe in the beautiful things we do in the classroom, why would I leave?
Well, I still think classroom teaching is one of the most significant and rewarding jobs in the world. But of all the lessons I could teach in my lifetime, the critical ones will always be those that my students learn from me OUTSIDE of the classroom. Can I expect them to trust me when I tell them to take good care of their health, if I am unwilling to do the same for myself?
No, I am convinced that even now, students from both the recent and distant past are watching and will learn from this moment: There is a time for every purpose under heaven, dear class. If a contract or a vow is not at stake, you can embrace a new purpose at any time. Change does not mean failure, especially a change in favor of your health. And while you take precious care to avoid unhealthy substances, such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, excessive sugar and fat-laden foods, you must take equal care to avoid unhealthy circumstances, such as overwork, busy-ness, stress, lack of community, and lack of rest.
And may you always, always know that the lessons I teach are also ones I am willing to live.