A Discussion with a New Teacher Who Chose to Leave the Profession

In this podcast episode, the host introduces Kelvin Mak, a recently resigned high school English teacher, who shares his experiences and frustrations with the education system. Kelvin discusses his burnout and the lack of fair compensation for teachers. He and co-host Trina express their frustrations with the oppressive nature of the profession and the limitations they face in bringing about change. They feel that their voices are not heard or respected and that the system is resistant to improvement. They emphasize the need for systemic change and hope that their conversation will create a sense of unity among teachers facing similar struggles.

About the Real Teachers Discussing The Teacher Shortage Crisis:

Trina English

Trina is a Bay Area public teacher, who has worked in multiple school districts and public schools. She has extensive experience in leading social justice-based reforms in education. She has implemented innovative programs, received recognition for her efforts, and is deeply involved in advocacy work related to gender equity. She earned her undergraduate degree in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and her masters in Educational Leadership from Cal State East Bay.  She is a staunch advocate for Title IX implementation and completed a multi-district confidential study on the lack of implementation of Title IX in Bay Area schools.  She is a vocal critic of the exclusionary equity work in K-12 education and has devised and led multiple equity-based pilot projects in her present and prior districts. She has prior experience running a domestic violence shelter and rape crisis hotline, and training domestic violence advocates on trauma response, crisis intervention, and harm reduction safety planning strategies. She has advised numerous feminist student unions over the years, and collaborated with Women’s March Oakland to organize her feminist student union’s involvement in the march—the first ever public school to do so. Read more about her in the blog entry entitled, “Out of the Darkness”.

 

Kelvin Mak 

Kelvin is a recently resigned high school English teacher based in the Bay Area. Prior to teaching, he had experience working as a college consultant, where he helped hundreds of students stay on track to graduate, brainstorm and edit college essays, and guided them through the dizzying college application process. Afterward, he pursued a teaching credential and eventually taught English at the public high school level. Despite his love of teaching and the wonderful relationships he built with his students, he experienced a high level of burnout and made the difficult decision to leave the teaching profession in search of other opportunities. He earned a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree in Education from Stanford University.

 

Amanda Werner

Amanda has been a passionate full-time classroom teacher for 14 years. But, she’s also left the profession twice due to burnout and unforeseen family circumstances. She’s worked in a wide range of educational settings teaching students grades 3rd-8th. For the 2023-2024 school year she will be teaching 9th grade! No matter what type of school or grade she’s taught, engaging and empowering students has always been at the forefront of her work as an educator and teacher-author. Amanda understands that helping students find their voice is core to being an effective teacher and social justice advocate. Amanda shares insights about implementing equitable teaching practices on this website and podcast. She has her bachelor’s degree in English literature and Middle-Level Humanities. 

Teachers are NOT the Problem, They are Part of the Solution

We are losing qualified teachers at a staggering rate. But, to be clear, teachers should never be blamed for the teacher turnover problems our country is facing. The shortage of teachers in America and the decrease in college students seeking a teaching career is a multifaceted and complex problem. 

In this podcast series, we discuss exactly what got us to this crisis point in the U.S. education system. Click the links below to be directed to that part of the series. We recommend listening in order. 

Part 1: The oppressive and outdated teacher pay scale and how to fix it

Part 2: A conversation with a new teacher who left the profession

Part 3: The high cost of becoming a teacher

Part 4: Red tape of teacher induction programs are overburdening new teachers

Part 5: Outsourcing teacher expertise to canned curriculum

Part 6: An ESL teacher’s stand against canned curriculum and the shocking consequences

Part 7: True educational equity reforms are NOT happening and schools and repercussions are severe

In this series, Trina, along with myself, and many other educators from diverse backgrounds will explain the many layers of what is really going on. The shortage of special education teachers and math teachers is impacting schools (especially in low-income urban areas) tremendously. But, it’s important for teachers to understand the extent of this crisis. We are losing teachers in all subject areas. 

We want to give teachers an extensive look at this problem from teachers’ perspectives. This is so teachers listening can share this series with other teachers, school leadership, the media, and even the governor of their state. The need to examine the causes of the national teacher shortage has never been more important.

Full Transcript

Amanda (00:00:00) – This is a conversation after the episode post episode one about the oppressive teacher pay system that occurs in America, the United States. And I know there’s a lot of teachers that are listening that actually are in many different countries. And in this conversation we’re going to be Trina and I are bringing on Calvin Mack. Calvin is a recently resigned high school English teacher based in the Bay Area. Prior to teaching, he had experience working as a college consultant, where he helped hundreds of students stay on track to graduate, brainstorm and edit college essays and guided them through the dizzying college application process. Afterward, he pursued a teaching credential and eventually taught English at the public high school level. Despite his love of teaching and the wonderful relationships he built with his students, he experienced a high level of burnout and made the difficult decision to leave the teaching profession in search of other opportunities. He earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in education from Stanford University. We really want to bring in many, many voices, many different types of teachers, teachers that are from many backgrounds and teachers who are brand new teachers who have been in the profession for many years.

Amanda (00:01:26) – We just we really want to hear from you because the main message that we are trying to send the public about the teacher shortage crisis is that teachers, their experiences and perspectives matter. Welcome to the Empower Students Now! Podcast, a podcast about equity, neurodiversity, mindfulness and student engagement. There’s a lot that needs to change in our education system. The good news is teachers have the power to make these changes now. So Kelvin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself before we start kind of diving into your reaction to the episode?

Kelvin (00:02:11) – Yeah, sure. So my name is Kelvin Mack. I was a high school English teacher for two years and I have recently resigned and for the meantime, do not plan on returning to teaching.

Amanda (00:02:24) – Becoming a teacher is a lot of work, so I’m really curious. Why did you decide to become a teacher in the first place? I mean, I know you’re leaving and that’s really, really sad and unfortunate that you did all of that work to become a teacher, only to decide two years later that you’re not coming back.

Amanda (00:02:48) – So why did you become a teacher in the first place?

Kelvin (00:02:52) – Yeah. Um, I think that my motivation for becoming a teacher actually started when I was in high school. I remember observing my teachers and thinking, you know, they have this curriculum that seems to have nothing to do with what my future will look like, right? Just like, for example, like my English curriculum was like pure literature. I love literature, but also felt, what am I going to do with this? I actually am not sure the purpose of this class and the work I do seems so abstract and removed from real life. So I remember thinking, you know, if I were to ever become a teacher one day, you know, I think I would have some pretty good ideas. Um, yeah, uh, I kind of just, like, kept that, you know, like, stowed away in my subconscious for a very long time. After I graduated with a degree in English, I worked as a private college consultant, so I was helping kids apply to college, you know, helping them with their essays, brainstorming which colleges they want to apply to.

Kelvin (00:04:01) – And after a while, I felt, you know, I think I could really, really enjoy working and mentoring kids. So then I had this idea that, you know, I think the teaching profession is calling to me a little bit. So I did the whole credentialing and master’s program combination thing and went into teaching and realized that it would be very hard to make a difference in this very strange and like you said, oppressive system. I think I kind of just saw that, uh, this might not be for me, but the things that I’ve encountered in teaching.

Amanda (00:04:39) – Kelvin, your experiences with this very oppressive profession are so valuable to us because I believe.

Trina (00:04:50) – In my heart, and I know for a fact that it’s gotten more oppressive for the younger group that’s coming up. Like I’m, you know, Gen-X and I got into the profession like it’s a second profession, but I’ve been in it, you know, for ten years now. It is only getting worse, isn’t it? Do you want to react to some of the things that came up for you in the episode? Like what was something you hadn’t considered or what was something that you’ve been experiencing that just felt really great to hear someone else say? What do you think other teachers might not agree with? Or maybe things you didn’t agree with with us, please.

Kelvin (00:05:25) – There are a couple of things that were extremely validating. I think it was Trina’s quote around like the 2020 one minute mark where you might have said young, educated, self-possessed people are not going to start a job that gives you a fraction of a full salary. And I’ll be honest, uh, that same exact thought had been running through my mind since I started when I thought about, Wow, I’m working so much. It’s. I’m working, you know, during the school day, I am doing planning after hours. And it’s not even just the labor, but it’s like the emotional energy that it took and that it continues to take. Even when you’re done, even when you’re off at night, like after dinner, I’d be thinking before I go to sleep, Oh, man, how is tomorrow going to go? What do I need to do to talk to this kid about this thing? What’s my what’s my late policy for this assignment? Do I need to change up my classroom management? I felt I was doing a lot, a lot of labor and I am I think.

Kelvin (00:06:29) – Yeah, I just. I recently turned 29. I’m looking at my friends who are in other jobs in other sectors, lots of like software engineers, people who work in marketing, etcetera. You know, they’re also extremely busy, but they can negotiate salaries. They have unlimited PTO. We have summers, but that’s not quite the same. But I’m watching all my friends basically save enough money to have a life, and I’m just here. I feel like not being fairly compensated for my labor. So really, really listen to that quote validated me. I think I’d rather just do less and get paid a fair amount. I guess one more one more thought about this quote. I think there’s been kind of like a shift in attitude, I would say, especially for millennials onward, where life is no longer about working. It’s like you work to live, you don’t live to work. And I think that like puritan, like Christian attitude that has influenced American attitudes towards labor, you know, where the more you work, the harder you work, the more prosperous you will be and you’ll get what is fair.

Kelvin (00:07:42) – That’s kind of going away. I think that mentality, it’s going away. And people in my generation and I think from now on, like onwards realize you. You work to live like clock in, clock out, just give me my paycheck and I can do the things I really want to do outside of work. Whereas I think, like the previous generation was very much like this is your life, your work is your life. So.

Trina (00:08:07) – I think those are incredibly important insights. It’s absolutely essential that teachers who have been in the profession for a long time here, honestly, what a younger teacher has experienced, and for me, going into the profession, I was always like just flabbergasted by the reaction of baby boomers. They had just had a very different experience with climate and culture of their campuses, a very different experience with the amount of debt they had to take on to become a teacher. And, you know, not only was cost of living more affordable child care, education, health care, all of that was more affordable then, and there was less debt to become a teacher there.

Trina (00:08:51) – They were compensated more fairly and so it wasn’t great. I’m not saying it was great, but it was better then. Right. And your experience with why you departed from the profession is going to intersect with a number of the topics we’re going to be discussing. Can curriculum and school cultures are definitely a part of why you departed, not just the pay and the preparation process. So we’re going to hear from you, thankfully react to a number of our episodes, but I think the term that I use. Which is really revolutionary of considering teacher pay is incomplete until you top out is an important term because it names the thing for what it really is. Because in education and you know, in society, we like to play around with labels to cover up realities and truths. There are not other professions that pay you out like this. And I mean, when I talk about other professions, having considered it, you know, nurses, the nursing industry considered it. And again, a female-dominated field considered paying a one specific union, fought back against this idea of step and column for their nursing staff because the idea of some nurses making a lot more money because they’ve been in the profession longer was insulting to them.

Amanda (00:10:16) – And their education and their professionalism. I just this is making me remember how much I got paid my first year of teaching in Salt Lake City. And I think you’ll be shocked. I mean, the number is still in my head. And like at the time I thought, wow, you know, because I was just out of college and I was like so poor and like relying on my parents a lot. I think it was 32,000.

Amanda (00:10:42) – Salt Lake City, Utah, 32,000 my first year teaching. And my husband was in grad school getting paid to get his PhD, which is completely unfair, but because he’s a scientist. But I do. I don’t know. I feel like I never really questioned the salary because I was so excited about having a salary. You know, like, Wow, this is cool. You know, I’m a grown up now. And I also think that some people don’t really, especially someone who might be married and like has a second income, might not be as impacted by all of this as someone who is single, going into.

Amanda(00:11:27) – I know that for a fact.

Trina (00:11:29) – That’s the structural sexism bit, because this whole profession was built up around the idea that there is these married women who have husbands with money. Yeah.

Amanda (00:11:38) – What did you think of that then? Like that part was that surprising, like the history of it all or.

Kelvin (00:11:45) – Yeah, it’s. I did not know that. That’s how Horace Mann, this guy who thought who had such noble ideas. Right. Like make education accessible to all could also have this insanely sexist like teaching income policy. I really did not know that. And it appears that this attitude just remained for some reason in the teaching profession. It made me think a lot about like, why is it then that I think in the previous episode it was mentioned unions fight to increase the salary at each step on the pay scale. But why not just like do away with this and allow teachers to negotiate salaries or allow teachers even just like pay teachers a full income? I found it incredibly ridiculous. I remember when I first looked at my first salary schedule thinking it tops out at 120,000 or so.

Kelvin (00:12:44) – After 25 years, I think someone outside of the education sector can get there in five years, six years maybe if they worked really hard and like jumped companies and negotiated well, they could get there in six years. I it’s such a bad deal economically to be a teacher. And it’s so sad to say, because I love this job.

Trina (00:13:09) – But I know hearing your reaction is so validating for me too, because I was thinking about you and your generation when we were talking because also, like I’m whatever, halfway through it and I know I’m not set up the way I need to be to provide just the basics for my aging parents, my son and we don’t have any wealth. We don’t own home. So I was I was thinking like, why would any young person want to do this? It’s only getting worse. It’s only getting more expensive to become the teacher and to live. But you also talked about like this work life balance that your generation is so like wonderfully and beautifully considering. And you’re right, it is like, um, very like white puritanical, this idea that we’re supposed to sacrifice so much.

Trina (00:13:55) – But the deal here is that like, yeah, a lot of us, me included, you know, signed on for a job which we knew we weren’t going to necessarily get a ton of money. I remember my very first class in my credential to become a teacher. It was a boomer and she said, You’re never going to be rich, but you’re always going to be able to own a home, take vacations and provide for family. That was the promise that they were given. That’s not the promise now. But you and then you get into the profession, you realize I’m broke, I’m in debt. I’m never going to get a. But this job is meaningful and important. And then you see all the social justice problems in our society mirrored and exacerbated in our classrooms. And nothing that you are able to do makes anything better. Like we are literally forced to tie our hands behind her back because they don’t listen to us or respect our experience or expertise when we give them real good solutions to making our schools safer and more equitable.
Trina (00:14:52) – It’s all baloney.

Kelvin (00:14:53) – I think I often felt that there was no avenue for me to ever, you know, speak up or provide constructive criticism. I felt like it was very hard to communicate. Like, hey, I think this thing could be improved. I’m noticing this. What can we do about it? Like the systems to give good criticism to improve our schools didn’t seem to be very present. It felt like everyone is kind of siloed away or just very, very busy. Like people don’t have the time or energy. It was just like, just put your heads down and, you know, do what you can for the kids. But yeah, it seemed very hard to create any like structural change. There was no outlet for for me, I often felt so yeah.

Trina (00:15:49) – So the sort of unseen compensation of knowing you’re doing something that’s good and important, it isn’t there. One of the things we’re going to talk about in another episode is, you know, if you’re really, really good teacher and you put your head down and you do what you’re told, you can impact the lives of dozens of individual students.

Trina (00:16:12) – Or if you’re a school leader, dozens of teachers and families, which is awesome, but it’s not enough. You need to change the system. And if you are a person who is super self-possessed around actually changing this and making it like getting us away from the school to prison pipeline, for example, or just making our schools safe and producing human beings that can compete in the world economy, right? That are well trained, which our schools are not even doing that right now. If you’re a person who insists on that, it is crazy making. So there isn’t that that feel good benefit of knowing that you’re having an important impact on the world because you’re not because our schools don’t let us do that. So like, what is the what is the point? That’s what I feel so much of the time.

Kelvin (00:16:59) – Yeah. Now I want to I want to echo that I came in with so much idealism thinking like, well, I think I could really make a difference. And I think emotionally I did.

Kelvin (00:17:09) – I think I was there for my kids. I really enjoyed building relationships with them. But curriculum wise, skills wise, I felt, you know, like, wow, I’m not sure why. Again, like as someone that loves literature, well, I really don’t sometimes don’t know why we’re teaching, like how to analyze a book when we could be analyzing, for example, the rhetoric of a presidential speech or more like a rhetorical analysis type of skills that are based in real life. Those are the things that those are the skills. I think that you need to be an informed citizen and to participate in our civic life. But I wasn’t sure like, how do I talk about this? How do I say this? Who do I talk to? I don’t know. And I was so busy eventually that I was just like like, I guess I’ll just let it pass for now. But, you know, it stays with you. You just eventually feel like, huh? There doesn’t seem to be a point in what I’m doing.

Kelvin (00:18:09) – I came up against that a lot.

Trina (00:18:10) – So we’re going to talk a lot more about why you experienced your school culture and the educational system at large this way, because it has been set up to exclude teacher voice. There is a strong vibe that actually studied in my master’s program, which is regarding a term you may have heard of known as neoliberalism. It is opening up our profession to the capitalistic marketplace with this idea that someone else other than us, other than the people inside of our schools who work there, know more about what we need to teach and how we need to address the kids and how to fix our problems than we do. Um, because the school districts are able to buy these can content this can can content and purchase this these consultants cheaper than asking us to do the work and there’s no expectation that anything they do is actually effective because people move on so quickly from their positions of leadership. The nobody’s actually going in authentically investigating the efficacy. And just wait until we talk about reading education.

Trina (00:19:22) – I don’t want to reveal, but we are doing a very poor job of teaching our kids the very most arguably the most important thing, which is how to read.

Amanda (00:19:31) – And Kelvin, I really, really, really appreciate you coming on today and responding and reacting to episode one and comment. You’re invited back for all the other episodes, whatever you have time for. And I have, I don’t know, I got goosebumps many times listening to you talk and I know that you are going to impact young people’s lives and be able to because you just seem like such such a caring, warm, just authentic person. I know that kids were connected to you, you know, like and I feel like that is what teaching is about, is connecting with your students. And I know that new teachers feel like they have to kind of follow all the rules and follow the can curriculum and and do what they’re told. But like I’m saying, I’m just going to say this right now. I mean, we have a teacher shortage and I know it’s risky to do things that maybe your team isn’t doing or what you’re, you know, like kind of going off and being a rebel.

Amanda (00:20:32) – But like, that’s what I was. I was such a rebel, like even my first year of teaching. And I’ll I think I talk about it in the canned curriculum where I was just like teaching from a script and same thing, like, I want to teach kids how to be a human in this world, you know, like I want to teach life skills, like how to communicate with people and that you’re in relationship with how to critically analyze like the news and all of the information coming at us, how to de-stress, You know, those are all like such valuable skills that we should all be teaching in our schools.

Trina (00:21:11) – That’s the Can curriculum episode. We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Amanda (00:21:14) – I know, but I’m just I’m just wrapping this up and just saying that I’m just any new teachers who might be listening. There are way like Kelvin, I wish you had taught. You know what you’re talking about, like analyzing a presidential speech and and just doing away with whatever you were supposed to be doing that week and like, hey, let’s analyze this speech together.

Amanda (00:21:37) – Yeah.

Kelvin (00:21:37) – And I ended up doing that too. In my last year. I did like an entire unit on ChatGPT and I was like, let’s analyze like the history of this. Let’s talk about how like, AI has come about. The final task of this unit is a Socratic seminar. Let’s also like teach you how to use this effectively. Also, like what are the implications of these technologies? You know, and I think near the end I really went off script because I kind of knew that I wasn’t going to return. And I was like, like, screw it. I think I’m actually just going to teach what I myself think is incredibly important. And I ended up leaving that unit with, um, with everyone at my at my school and.

Trina (00:22:20) – Sorry, you’re leaving. I know. So, so that’s my that’s my feeling is I’m feeling very, very polar opposite feelings about Kelvin leaving. Is that like, darn it, we need you. But, like, run for the hills.

Trina (00:22:35) – Kelvin, get out. You love you. You deserve better. But we want, you know, get away. No, we want you.

Amanda (00:22:43) – Well, you could write curriculum too, you know, and sell it on teachers, be teachers or these, you know, platforms that allow you to become an entrepreneur. I mean, that’s what I’ve been doing. But yeah, we should probably wrap this conversation up. Is there anything else that either of you want to say?

Kelvin (00:23:01) – There was one thing that I did want to mention, and this this this is kind of stayed with me. My mentor teacher told me this really great quote saying that teaching is one of the few professions that rewards idealism. And I think that that’s exactly what allows the system to prey on teachers. I don’t disagree with my mentor teacher. I want to agree like, truly, truly, I have never felt so connected to people in my in a job as teaching. But also I think that’s exactly why this system is so difficult to change, because all these teachers, they show up for their kids, they show up for the profession because they love it.

Kelvin (00:23:42) – And I think. The system may not individuals, but the systems will prey like on quote unquote, the weakest link. And that’s maybe what makes us most vulnerable, is that we love and we love our kids and we love our job. So that’s that’s all I wanted to say.

Trina (00:24:02) – That was beautiful. I got chills. I feel like I feel like our love and compassion are exploited. Yes.

Kelvin (00:24:10) – Yes.

Trina (00:24:11) – Absolutely. And then we’re not able to do anything with the knowledge we gain as we go to make things better. Not really and truly, it is absolutely infuriating, honestly. Yeah. To watch all of society’s problems coalesce in front of, you know, what you need to do to start making it better, not fix it, and then not be able to do it. It is demoralizing.

Amanda (00:24:38) – Yeah, I Agree.

Amanda (00:24:40) – So value and appreciate being able to talk to people who understand and yeah and I’ve gotten all the chills this, this whole entire conversation and I really I really hope the people who are listening, the teachers who are listening, feel the same and feel connected to us through this conversation because we are thinking about all of the many thousands of teachers out there being impacted by this.

Amanda (00:25:05) – So thank you so much for listening. And please, please, please share this with a colleague or two or 10 or 20 and administrators and your governor. Okay, bye.

 

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