Education | Opinions & Editorials

They Say We Don’t Love Our Students

So why do I feel so guilty leaving them?

Lizzie Smith

In my twelve years teaching social studies in CPS, I’ve taught at two different high schools. I have recently made the decision to go to my third.

When I left TEAM Englewood, the first public high school I taught at, I felt like I had to. TEAM, which opened in 2007, was where I started teaching and where I learned how to teach. I was a part of that school. Our principal used to call the original teachers the “founding teachers.” She gave us credit for helping to create that school. We gave input on everything from the hall pass policy, to the hiring process, to what we learned in professional development, and everything in between. When I left TEAM after seven years, it had changed to a point where I didn’t feel it was healthy for me to stay. The principal and assistant principal who I learned so much from had left and we had gone through two other principals who I felt were not helping the school. I was also grieving the loss of a baby. So personally, and professionally, it became necessary for me to make a change.

The next school I worked at was Chicago Vocational (CVS), which is in the Avalon Park neighborhood. When I started teaching there, I wasn’t really prepared for the guilt I would feel about leaving TEAM Englewood. I felt like I didn’t belong at CVS, not because of the kids, but because it wasn’t TEAM. At TEAM I helped create the culture and influenced how the school ran. At CVS I was just another teacher.  However, I quickly built connections with students and began establishing my presence in the classroom and school.

This past school year at CVS has been one of my favorite years in the classroom. I have worked hard with my colleagues to create a curriculum that connects to kids while also pushing them to think, reflect, and analyze the world. I brought in twenty guest speakers from Chicago to speak to my students. These speakers included award-winning writers, poets, singers, rappers, veterans, and community activists. I helped coach our academic decathlon team. Our librarian and I created a spoken word program that got kids excited to write and perform poetry. Our students competed in Louder Than a Bomb, a youth slam poetry festival.

I was happy at Chicago Vocational.

Then in May I heard about a job opening for a social studies teacher at the high school in my South Side neighborhood.

At first, I didn’t even apply to the opening because I was not ready to leave CVS. But I eventually decided to apply due to some major personal and professional reasons I couldn’t ignore: it is a neighborhood public school located in the same neighborhood that my partner and I chose to live in twelve years ago for its racial diversity; it is the school where my partner works; and it is where eventually my kids will most likely attend high school.

The whole application, interview, and acceptance process took about one month. Throughout the entire process, I cycled through a huge range of emotions that I have been working through.  I had to decide when and how to tell my students that I was leaving and heading to a new school. When I left TEAM Englewood, the decision was made during the middle of summer, so I sent every student I taught an email telling them that I was leaving. But I made my decision to leave CVS during the last few days of the school year, so I decided to tell my students in person. I experienced a range of reactions from them. One student became angry and asked, “Mr. Stieber, how can you leave us?!” Another reaction, that was even more difficult to hear, was the student who simply said, “Mr. Stieber, I will miss you,” and then walked away. I told the kids that I am not leaving because of them, and I am not. The kids are what I love. But the kids don’t understand that, and to be honest, no matter my reason for leaving, I am leaving the kids.

In fact, during an interview, I was asked, “Do you even want to work here? Your body language seems like you don’t.” This caught me off guard because this person sensed how I felt. I had to tell them that I felt guilty for leaving my students at CVS. I told them that I am a loyal person. In fact I am so loyal I felt guilty for my first son, when my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our second son. I thought I might have blown the interview, and I was okay with that idea, but I also hoped that my explanation let them know that I was interested in switching schools—but the decision was extremely difficult.

For better or worse, teaching defines who teachers are. Schools can shape teachers as much as teachers can shape a school. Our schools, then, also become who we are. So when a teacher decides to leave a school, it is almost like they are losing a piece of who they are.

A colleague told me, when I talked to her about switching schools, that teachers can’t be martyrs for their students. Ultimately, we have to do what is best for us. I agree. The issue is since our city has many issues (hyper-segregation, lack of democracy in our schools, police violence, intra-community violence, resource theft), if we all did what was best for us, many of us would want to leave Chicago.  As teachers, I believe there must be a balance between our willingness to stay and fight for our students, our schools, and our city, and our own mental health.

Despite my own personal and professional reasons for switching schools, it is still true that CPS, and especially on the South Side, schools experiences extremely high levels of teacher turnover. A 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study found that a hundred CPS schools, many of them with majority-Black student populations, lose at least a quarter of their teaching staff every year due to reasons like “principal leadership, teacher collaboration, [and] student safety.” Losing twenty-five percent of a teaching staff per year causes many issues. Students feel like they are the reason that their teachers leave them, and will refuse to allow themselves to get close to their teachers because of the likelihood that their teachers won’t be there the next year. According to the report, having to rehire a quarter of the staff every year also leads to the hiring of “inexperienced, less effective teachers” and can also “produce a range of organizational problems for schools, such as discontinuity in professional development, shortages in key subjects, and loss of teacher leadership.” Why is it okay for certain schools, many of which serve Black and Brown students, to have teachers with little experience, while others have more experienced teachers? What would schools like the one that I am leaving need to make sure teachers are supported and want to stay?

Ultimately, CPS needs to solve the rampant issues it has with inequality in resources and support for the sake of not only its students but also its teachers. Every school deemed “Level 2” should get twice the support of every school deemed “Level 1.” To make this happen, I am not saying we take from one school to give to another, but rather to get funding from other items in the city budget. One of the largest chunks of the budget is policing, which takes up forty percent of the city’s operating budget. Schools and the communities that they serve need resources, not more cops. There is currently $95 million slated for a new cop academy on the West Side, which many activists from the community have organized against.

As I am about to begin my twelfth year at CPS, I have learned that it is only through giving all schools the equitable resources they need that teachers can dedicate their careers to educating their students. With more funds directed towards CPS and schools that need more support, these schools could afford to have more counselors, who could work with students and staff to provide trauma services and individual counseling. A Level 2 school could have a teacher aide for every single class. By fully taking care of our students, you are also taking care of teachers.  

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Dave Stieber is a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher in his twelfth year of teaching for CPS. He last contributed an interview with Pat Frazier, the National Youth Poet Laureate, in August.

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Thoughts on “They Say We Don’t Love Our Students”

  1. Well stated Dave. You hit the hard issues right on the head. Thanks for finding words for what many, many teachers have experienced.

  2. Thank you for capturing the truth, the emotions. Moving to another school isn’t getting a promotion or transferring jobs. It’s just how you described.

  3. Great points Dave. I’m not sure if any other readers were invited to one of the meetings CPS set up with an outside firm trying to figure out how to retain teachers. Frankly, I left disgusted about all the talk of “leadership roles” and “autonomy” that they said their data showed teachers wanted. To me it felt like they were avoiding the issue, resources, both capital and human. I’ve seen over 100 staff leave Fenger in the past 10 years, many of them to better-resourced schools. Sure, part of the issue was a micromanaging administrator that led, too much, by fear… but for some of the best I’ve worked with and left, it was about being in a place that was set up for success.

  4. David Stieber you only left us because your new job is a dream come true… Therefore I forgive you! It still hurts to lose you because you make a difference in not only students lives … you make a positive difference in the lives of every person you come in contact with. Enjoy and know that I am in the background rooting for your continued success in making a positive difference in the world.

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