Becoming Disillusioned with Teaching

By “Matthew”

As told to Cliff Williams

“In place of ideas and curiosity and the beautiful blooming of young people discovering life, I felt as though I was dying in front of them.”

Edited by Cliff Williams from a recorded and transcribed conversation with Matthew on December 13, 2023. He was in his early thirties when we talked. “Matthew” is a pseudonym.

Becoming a Teacher

Matthew’s road to teaching began four or five years after he finished college. “I had studied writing when I was in college, but didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I worked as a barista for a while. Then I spent several years doing various marketing jobs. I did copy writing, I wrote blog posts for businesses, and for a time I was a brand manager.

“After spending a few years in the world of marketing, I got jaded with it. I didn’t believe that more things needed to be sold. So I left marketing and started working at a bookstore.

“When I was in college, one of my professors had us read Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. I wasn’t ready for it at the time, but when I read it again after college, I fell in love with it. Then when a friend who also worked at the bookstore told me about Robinson’s new collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, I read it too. 

“That book expresses Robinson’s frustration with the way the humanities were treated by government institutions and businesses, even by the educational system itself. She advocated for the beauty of reading and writing, and wrote eloquently about deeply human things.

“I resonated with what she said and decided I wanted to enter into the struggle to help the humanities find a home in the twenty-first century. I wanted to fight their constant exclusion from our day-to-day lives. So I applied for a master’s degree in teaching and left my job at the bookstore.”

On Fire for Teaching

Matthew became passionate for teaching. “I took my studies seriously. We students did student teaching at the same time we were doing classwork, and I went to the classes I was teaching with a lot of enthusiasm. I loved it all.

“I especially loved seeing young people engage seriously with books and poetry, then write seriously. I was teaching freshmen. I don’t know whether I had some special group of kids, but they dove into everything all the way. It was a beautiful time.

“When I finished the program, which was two summers in addition to an academic year, I worked as a substitute teacher, beginning January, 2020. I was doing that when the pandemic hit.”

The Pandemic

Matthew noticed an immediate difference. “It was as though the students thought doing school from home via Zoom was a joke: ‘We don’t really have to do this stuff.’ They phoned in their responses to the assignments. Their responses were breezy. The assignments were breezy too, because changing to at-home school happened so fast that we teachers didn’t know what to have kids do.

“I got a full-time position, starting in the fall of 2020, at the same high school I had gone to. I taught the standard English class for sophomores and juniors, plus another class called Literacy Workshop. That class was for freshman students who were in need of more help to acclimate to high school English. It was something of a remedial class. A number of students in that class had been left behind or for one reason or another had gotten lost in the educational system.

“Often they were disinterested in school. They had given up on it, maybe because they felt that it had given up on them or that there was no place for them in the world of education. That meant that fewer than half of them were showing up to the Zoom classes.

“In my other classes, students showed up but often were doing something else. Actually, I didn’t know what they were doing, because they didn’t have their screens on. They were just black. It quickly became the norm for students to have their screens off. Usually only one or two students, sometimes even three, consistently had their screens on. That was nice, because I wasn’t just talking to myself. Someone was nodding their head and engaging with the class.

“Some teachers tried to put in a policy that you had to have your screen on during class. But a case was made that requiring students to have screens on was not equitable, because it might reveal a home life that students were not eager to reveal. That was seen as an invasion of privacy. So we teachers had to stop requiring students to have their screens on.

“The outcome was that students could get away with doing anything during Zoom sessions, because there was no way of knowing who had a legitimate reason not to have their screen on and who didn’t. Even asking the question was seen as insensitive.”


The matter of the screens was the beginning of Matthew’s disillusionment with the American educational system. “What online teaching introduced was a complete and utter lack of expectations for students. The norm became that if students handed something in, they would pass the class. Prior to the pandemic, of course, that was not the case.

“There were also arguments about whether a grade was an equitable way of measuring the work students did. Was it taking into account all the things in students’ lives that they brought to the work up to the moment they handed in an assignment? If not, then basing grades solely on the quality of their work was not appropriate. Suddenly we teachers had to reduce our expectations for whether students even did an assignment.

“During the second semester of that first year of teaching, in the spring of 2021, we switched from a completely virtual system to a hybrid system. In the virtual system, classes were held on Zoom. In the hybrid system, half of the students in a particular class were at school and the other half was at home. Every other day they switched places. Wednesday was an off day. 

“To do classes this way, we had a camera in the classroom that streamed to the students who were at home. The idea was that students who were at home would be listening in and engaging with the class that was happening in person.

“It was, however, nearly impossible to teach both to an audience you could see and to an audience you could not see. I think a lot of people believe that teaching is like giving a TED talk or something. I just get up there and do my thing, and you’d get the same result no matter whether you’re in person or at home.

“But anyone who has taught knows that teaching is physical, that is, happens in a space. The students who were at home ended up not doing anything. They told me as much: ‘It was a hybrid day. I had my computer on but was doing something else.’ I replied that I still expected them to do something. But doing class online was such a miserable experience for them that they didn’t care.

“The students were totally fine telling me they weren’t doing anything while at home because they knew, and I knew, that the at-home in-person system wasn’t working. It was, in fact, not working to such an extent that participating in it could make things worse for them. Why submit yourself to such an awful online experience more than you had to?

“In reality, students were getting only two days of being taught during the week, the days that they had to show up in person. And, again, there was an incredible reduction in what we teachers could hold students accountable for. It was all a mess.”

In-Person Teaching

The next school year, 2021–2022, was completely in-person. “I was looking forward to it a great deal. All the problems we had earlier were going to go away because students would be embodied again. They would no longer be able to check out.

“For the first week or two, students seemed to have the same sentiment. Unfortunately, that changed. A full year of virtual and hybrid learning, and a lot of home time, along with the reduction in expectations, had changed the psychology of the students. That change was so dramatic that even though we were back in person, things were never going to be the way they had been before.

“Imagine being a freshman the year school became virtual. You would have missed getting a pep rally when you first came to school plus all the things that induct you into the high school environment—you would have to know where your locker is, learn where your classes are, adapt to being surrounded by humans in varying stages of puberty. There was the whole psychology of entering into high school you would have missed. And when you became a sophomore after spending a year at home, you would still be an eighth grader psychologically.

“We teachers thought, ‘Surely, those freshmen would get the classic high school experience when they did school in person as sophomores.’ But no. The whole system had become off kilter. As sophomores, they had lost crucial periods of interaction. And they had gotten something entirely different during the virtual year.

“What they had gotten was a lack of structure, a lack of expectations, plus dramatically increased amounts of time which they had spent on their phones and computers connecting with the rest of humanity. They had been shaped by the internet in that year of lockdown in ways no students had ever been shaped before. What they went through was huge.

“I wanted to teach my students books and writing when they came back to school. I wanted to read their writing. I wanted to read about what students were interested in and how they expressed themselves. But it was very rare that I got an earnest effort from a student.

“My response to their learning loss required a high level of interpersonal connection. But I had 140 students per semester. I was trying to teaching them all how to read and write, which are intensive and demanding things to learn how to do. I would be lucky if I could have the required connection with fifteen students total. 

“With 140 students, they were turning into data pieces. I’d look at the grades I was giving them and hope I could remember what I had experienced when reading their assignments. But I couldn’t hold all that information in my head.

“In addition, I had to respond to the trauma students had experienced from the incredible amount of societal upheaval that had occurred during the lockdown.

“I was swamped.”

A Tussle with the School Administration

“During that first in-person school year, 2021–2022,” Matthew said, “the administration of the school I was teaching at told us English teachers, without consulting the English Department, that we could no longer tell a whole class to read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This was because it has sixteen instances of the n-word in it. The administration was worried about the impact the book would have on our Black students, who were already struggling.

“We English teachers got upset about this. No matter the rationale, it was a book ban. The administration told us that the new policy was not a book ban. We could still have the book in the school library, and students could opt to read it if they wanted to. But it couldn’t be taught. In the mind of an English teacher, though, all literature can be taught, no matter how horrific it is.

“We fought against the policy. We had a big meeting, but the administration didn’t listen to us. We provided sophisticated arguments why they shouldn’t be able to make the policy without consulting us. They didn’t care. When that became evident, I realized the administration did not see education the way I did.

“They thought of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as ‘problematic.’ In reality, it poses a difficult problem that would have been very interesting to suss out with students. It says a lot of very important things about race and poverty and class and class warfare. It uses the n-word in ways that the N-word was used at the time the book was written, in 1937. What do we do with all this? I wanted to engage students with that challenge. This is what I regarded as the whole duty of teaching.

“I think the school administration was scared of complexity—and also scared of making mistakes, scared of doing something that could invite negative public scrutiny.

“I was ashamed of them, because I saw what they did as complete and utter cowardice. I realized that they would not protect me if I were to make a mistake in my classroom, a mistake made in an effort to have hard conversations. Hard conversations would inevitably end in a mess. You can’t avoid a mess in the classroom. That’s part of learning. Teachers are going to make mistakes. Students are going to make mistakes. At some point, we all will unintentionally hurt each other.

“It is like any relationship or anything else we do. It can’t all be beauty and truth and goodness. Sometimes in the pursuit of these, we step on our own feet.

“I would have liked to know that my administration understood that, understood that we were all a bunch of humans and that we were doing our darnedest and that we had to talk about the hard stuff. We had to talk about it even if we didn’t know how to talk about it. We had to give it our best shot. But the administration didn’t want us teachers to have those conversations.

“The same thing was occurring in the United States. People didn’t know how to have conversations about hard things. You were only allowed to present your stance, and then someone else presented their stance. And then you said, ‘You stupid bigot. I don’t like that, and I’m not going to listen to you.’ Then the conversation stopped.

“It became scary knowing that my administration would not support me in having hard conversations. This and the other stresses of having to figure out how to care for students individually when I had so many and trying to figure out how to reinvigorate the educational system so as to revitalize the love of learning among young people who had become jaded and did not believe they needed to know a lot of what I was teaching, on top of the societal pressures not to have the conversations or not to have them in a way that was so clean as not to be conversations at all—all of these made it so that I had to get out. Teaching in person became too frustrating.”


“I think if I was as brave as I wanted to be,” Matthew declared, “I would have stayed and fought to the bitter end. But for my own well being, I had to leave. I was in a terrible, hopeless place. I literally could not function outside of teaching. I had only enough energy to get myself into the classroom to do what I needed to do. And after school, I collapsed. I sank into a bitter, ugly darkness.

“I couldn’t have a life. It was getting worse as the year progressed. During that year, I told myself that if I ever felt that hopeless again, I would leave. And I wouldn’t regret it.

“In December of the following school year, 2022–2023, I again felt a terrible hopelessness. I was not able to look forward to the rest of my life. I knew that this was impacting my presence in the classroom. I could feel that the ugly bitterness inside me was bleeding out into the space I loved so much. In place of ideas and curiosity and the beautiful blooming of young people discovering life, I felt as though I was dying in front of them.

“At the end of that school year, I didn’t sign my contract for the following year. I let my coworkers know in January that I would be leaving so that they would have enough time to hire someone to replace me.

“Even though I had to leave, it was a hard decision to make. I felt a lot like I was fighting a war and that I was leaving my fellow troops in the lurch. I was saying to them, ‘Sorry. I’m out.’ That was a heartbreaking thing to do.

“But if I had stayed, I would not have known who I was anymore. I think I would have become a husk of a human.

“When I went into teaching, I thought I was going to keep teaching until retirement. Now I don’t know where I’m going.

“I think about getting back into teaching all the time. I wonder whether I would have the strength to do it the way I know it needs to be done, no matter the cost. I don’t know whether I would.

“Still, books and words, reading and writing, are the loves of my life.”

© 2024 by Cliff Williams


About Cliff Williams

Home page