For the last two years, social media has been awash with a new subgenre of writing: the “Why I Quit Teaching” essay.
After two challenging years for students and teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, waves of educators have been leaving the profession or retiring early, with many having their say on the way out the door. Long Beach wasn’t immune, with an uptick in the number of Long Beach Unified School District employees retiring.
Stanford Middle School teacher Hank Waddles saw those personal stories of frustration, and on the eve of the 2022-23 school year, he wrote his response, a blog post titled “Why I Teach” that could just as easily have been called “Why I Didn’t Quit Teaching.” Waddles’ post is a tribute to the joys of being a teacher—in contrast to the many pieces from exasperated educators making the rounds on social media.
“There were a lot of these posts on Twitter and TikTok of people posting, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” said Waddles who teaches seventh and eighth grade English at Stanford. “It was a hard two years, it was really bad for the kids. But I was seeing these sentiments like, ‘This whole structure is wrong, we can’t do this, why would anybody want to do this job?’ And that’s what stuck with me, because I tell people all the time, the only other job that I would have wanted to have had for the last 20 years is playing shortstop for the Yankees.”
While Waddles’ piece is well-written, it was widely shared in Long Beach for another reason, too. The city is an “education town” the way some places are “steel towns” or “lumber towns.” The biggest employer in Long Beach is the LBUSD, and four of the biggest nine employers are schools or colleges.
While posts about quitting because of frustration with parents or school administration were more likely to go viral throughout the pandemic, Waddles’ piece speaks to an attitude he thinks is more commonly held among the city’s largest workforce: a realistic, hard-won optimism. It comes through in his description of the challenges of working during the pandemic. In discussing the emotional whiplash of going from being hailed as “heroes” to being denigrated as lazy within the span of weeks or months, Waddles wrote:
We were heroes, but only for a minute…It was humbling and disappointing, but it was a reminder of what many of us have always known. Teachers are not firefighters or doctors or rocket scientists. We are mail carriers. We are street sweepers. We are bus drivers. Essential, but so ubiquitous that we are taken for granted.
Waddles said his two decades of experience was what allowed him to make the most of the pandemic, to embrace the challenge of changing how he taught without throwing everything he knew away. That same experience lent him optimism as the first hopefully “normal” school year since 2018-19 began:
I’m lucky to have been doing this long enough to know what happens on the other end. To know that the boy who scowls in the corner after I’ve moved his seat might one day meet me for breakfast on a Saturday morning and thank me for believing in him.
Waddles said the piece had been kicking around in his head as a letter to his daughter, Alison, who is 22 years old and who began student teaching last week, on a path to join her parents as teachers. She decided early in college that she wanted to follow her parents’ career path, something that Waddles said was gratifying.
“She’s grown up with two teachers and she knows that we both love our job,” he said. “She knows the downsides, too. But I just didn’t like that as she and other young people are beginning that there’s this idea out there that this is a bad career. And I just wanted to counter that and talk about what an amazing job this has been for me, and could be for somebody else.”