- Mahala Kuehne taught middle school science for five years before leaving to work at a nonprofit.
- She says large classes, low pay, long hours, and safety concerns during the pandemic contributed to quitting.
- “It might be more succinct to say what’s not wrong with teaching than what is wrong with it,” she said.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Mahala Kuehne, a former middle school science teacher in California who now works at a nonprofit. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my biology degree, and I always loved school, so I thought I’d teach.
Teaching could be really fun. I loved working with kids and seeing them get excited about learning.
But there were also a lot of challenges in teaching. It might be more succinct to say what’s not wrong with it than what is.
One issue was large class sizes and the lack of available support in those classes. In my last year, my classes varied from 22 to 35 students. It can be very complex to prepare lessons for so many different people with different learning needs. When classrooms are packed and you don’t have an aide, it’s difficult to give each student the special attention they need.
Another issue is the lack of mental and physical health support for teachers. I burned out probably within my second month. I would come home and not have any energy. No one prepares teachers for this.
There’s also not enough time in the day for everything. There were weeks when meetings took up my prep period on four out of five days. I can’t grade 150 papers, respond to emails, make parent phone calls, and plan lessons all in one 48-minute period.
By my fifth year, I was making around $55,000, which was actually relatively high. But the work really requires like a 9- or 10-hour workday, so I often worked early, and I started feeling resentful that I wasn’t being paid for that extra work.
There’s this unspoken rule that you shouldn’t complain because it’s a passion-based job; you’re not supposed to care about the money. But ultimately, I should care about the money; this is a job. I won’t be a martyr for my 9-to-5.
During the pandemic, it felt like people were happy with us in the beginning. I actually really liked teaching from home because it took away a lot of the burnout factors, but ultimately the kids weren’t getting the support they needed.
As the pandemic went on, people started blaming us for staying remote longer and for requiring masks once we were in-person again. But we were just doing our best, trying to follow the rules and protect ourselves.
I got really stressed about returning to the classroom. I was seeing 150 kids every day; I was afraid I’d go to work and get sick or even die because someone didn’t want their kid to wear a mask. During the pandemic, I found myself questioning, “Am I happy? Do I feel fulfilled?” I started thinking of what I was scared of in the classroom, like school shootings, and I wondered, “Do I want to put myself in this vulnerable position again?”
When we returned to the classroom, it was actually better than I expected, and class sizes were smaller. But I still felt like our wellbeing wasn’t being given as much weight as that of other professionals. It was like people needed somewhere to put their kids, and they didn’t care what the cost was to us.
The final straw for me was that I started having panic attacks, and I’d never had them before. I realized I couldn’t keep trashing my health for a job.
I quit, and now I’m a remote assistant director at a nonprofit. I still experience a lot of my favorite parts of teaching in my current job, just without the stress and burnout. Now, I make $80,000 a year. I work from home and manage a team of like a dozen people, instead of 150 kids.
I felt guilty about leaving, but teachers deserve to prioritize themselves, to feel safe and valued at work, and to be paid more.
If any teachers are on the fence about leaving, it’s important to be honest about what you need, and if you can see yourself getting that by staying. Sometimes switching schools or districts is all you need. But ultimately if you want to leave teaching, start familiarizing yourself with your skills and your value early. People are surprised when I say my job uses many skills I gained from teaching, but teachers wear so many hats that they have a lot of transferable skills.
Teaching shaped me a lot and made me a better person. But looking back, I wouldn’t have stayed as long. I’m glad for the experience, but maybe not as much of the experience as I got.