November 21, 2015

Why I Quit Teaching.

teacher chalkboard learning school math

“Conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult.” ~ J. Krishnamurti


I have this I Love Lucy lunchbox my parents gave me several years ago which contains the few photos and mementos I have saved and kept with me over what seems like eons and all my moves from place to place.

The other day, I unearthed a little folded piece of paper, on which is a typed bio of yours truly, written by one of my ad agency colleagues, circa 2002:

Michelle Fajkus, Writer/Proofreader

Michelle Fajkus is yoga-teaching, proofreading, world-traveling, film-reviewing, English-as-a-second-language-teaching, media-planning, environment-protecting copywriter. How’s that for versatility? These days writing and proofreading duties for just about every client on T——’s roster occupy most of her time. That means when she’s not aligning chakras as T——’s resident lunchtime yoga guru, she’s realigning copy for greater clarity and grace. Michelle got her start with T—— back in the Spring of 1999. Since then she has worked miracles in just about every department in the agency, all the while working towards her BS in Advertising from The University of Texas. Looks like all that yoga is paying off. They just don’t come any more vocationally flexible than Michelle.

I’m happy that I saved that piece of paper for over a decade. Much is the same, yet much has changed.

I am grateful for my background in advertising. I learned a lot of skills that I still use to this day. I am also grateful be out of that field.

I am grateful for words from the past for reminding me of who I was then—and for bringing into greater focus who I am now.

What is the good of learning if in the process we are destroying ourselves?  ~J. Krishnamurti

I had a commonsense realization a few months into my full-time advertising career. Advertising breeds consumerism, and consumerism is destroying the world, or at the very least not helping to make it a better place. I was a writer, paid to put words together in a clever, coherent way. Yet, I was going out of my mind, hating every minute I had to sit in front of the screen and attempt creativity on call, corner office or no corner office.

So I did what needed to be done: I moved to California. Relocated my existence to Silicon Valley, of all places. There I taught yoga classes galore and supplemented my income with myriad odd jobs, including temping (very temporarily) at Google, valet car parking and substitute school teaching.

I enjoyed the experience of subbing. I would go all over the Bay area to all kinds of classrooms and schools. I spent single days with kids from kindergarten to high school. I thrived on the variety and appreciated the noncommittal aspect of the job.

Then, summer vacation came, life intervened and threw me for a loop. Next thing I knew, I was back in Austin, working in marketing again. I had a grey cubicle in a grey office in a grey building.

I was making money but drowning in boredom.

Long story short, my dad gave me a newspaper clipping of an ad (ironic) for an alternative teaching certification program to which I applied and was accepted into the bilingual teaching cadre. I had to brush up on my Spanish, big time. I learned all about classroom management, pedagogy, learning styles, lesson planning and curriculum.

Nine months later, I was released into the wild and in charge of my very own bilingual third grade classroom.

The individual is of first importance, not the system. ~ J. Krishnamurti

My experiences at that school, and the next one where I worked in Guatemala City, showed me unequivocally that the system is of first importance in a traditional school setting—not the individual. Testing took precedence over learning. Administrators admonished teachers with frequent reminders of the rules and references to the employee handbook.

Students’ needs—even basic, primary needs like hunger—were ignored until they could no longer be ignored.

My third and final school as a teacher is located in the western Guatemalan highlands and has former UN undersecretary Robert Muller as its namesake. He developed the “World Core Curriculum,” which is used by a handful of schools across the globe.

Below are two of his quotes, to give you a sense of his philosophy:

To students of political science: forget completely about any textbooks ever written, any systems ever devised, any ideologies ever constructed, for none of their authors knew the entirely new, planetary, global and scientific conditions of today. You will have to write the new textbooks, devise the new systems and construct the new ideology needed for our time. Old ideas will only confuse and blind you. ~ Robert Muller

Midway through my third year at this third school, the veil was lifted. I saw, painfully clearly, just how corrupt this wannabe utopian school actually is.

Moreover, my paradigm had shifted. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and all that jazz. New shit had come to light: school is oppressive.

School is not the answer. School is a bully. School is not the way to a good quality education.

So I got out. But in a messy, dramatic way that made me the talk of the town for a while. I literally heard strangers gossiping about me as I strolled down the street.

I missed my students, those bright, innocent, bubbly children but felt free from an unhealthy, borderline unsafe work environment.

My liberation from the school was a catalyst in our search for and purchase of a tiny cabin across the lake from where we’d lived when I was teaching. I was approached by a small group of mothers in my new neighborhood to “homeschool” their three fifth graders. I gladly agreed, and we embarked on the new project in September.

For the first month, it was like a honeymoon. The site of the new “school” was my neighbor’s lakefront house, a mere 10-minute walk from my front door. The kids would jump into the lake at recess for a quick swim. I took the plunge along with them a couple times, too. We did a lot of bonding, team building, mindfulness, free writing, and poetry. I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to them.

But by late October, it was becoming clear that the project and I were moving in opposite directions. I was wanting to get more into project-based, student-led learning while the parents were wanting more structure, formal assessment and disciplined studies of spelling, grammar and reading for their kids.

We mutually decided it would be best for another English teacher to take over, but no one was readily available, so I agreed to continue until we found a replacement. Just last week, something happened which propelled me to say, “no more.” I collected my belongings and hugged the children goodbye on Monday.

I am no longer a school teacher.

I am still, and always will be, a teacher and a learner.

May you live with light, love, goodness and beauty every hour, every day, every week, every month, every year of your life.

I wish happiness to all those I love
I wish happiness to all humans
I wish happiness to this divine planet
I wish happiness to God and to the universe

What an extraordinary universe we live in!

~Robert Muller





Author: Michelle Margaret Fajkus

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Jaine at Flickr 




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