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The Tough Decision to Leave the Classroom

Recently, I got permission from Josh Waldron, a high school teacher in Virginia, to repost a blog he wrote earlier this month. It’s called, “The Tough Decision to Leave the Classroom”, and I offer it below. It’s an honest cry for reform from a practitioner:

[Please note: Today has a longer post than usual.]

“As the title of this post suggests, I have made the tough decision to leave the classroom for good at the end of this school year.

The decision is a painful one — both personally and professionally. It is also a public one, as I’ve been honored as recently as last month by the Waynesboro Rotary Club as its 2014 High School Teacher of the Year, my fourth such honor in six years.

In that respect, I feel an explanation is in order, as well as a prescription for what we — as a community — can do to right the ship.

students in classroom

Every workplace has its imperfections and challenges. I accept that. But public education is painted as a career where you make a difference in the lives of students. When a system becomes so deeply flawed that students suffer and good teachers leave (or become jaded), we must examine how and why we do things.

Waynesboro is small enough that we can tackle some of the larger problems that other school systems can’t. I want this piece, in part, to force a needed, collective conversation.

In doing so, I don’t want to come across as prideful or arrogant. I simply want my neighbors and friends to understand the frustrations at issue and what’s at stake for the next round of teachers and students.

When I came to this area in 2008, I believed I would be a teacher for life. My wife and I signed a lease on an apartment we had never seen and arrived only a few days before school started. Words can’t really express how excited I was to land a teaching job, work with high school students and invest in teenagers the way one teacher invested in me.

That first year coincided with the first round of school budget cuts. Salaries were frozen and spending was slashed. This basic storyline has repeated itself for the five years that followed.

Over this time, I’ve lost my optimism and question a mission I once felt wholly committed to.

I still care deeply about students. I’ve worked hard to brighten their day while giving them an enjoyable and rigorous environment in which to learn. If this job was just about working with students, I couldn’t ask for a better or more meaningful career.

The job, though, is about much more. And I have very real concerns about the sustainability of public education in Waynesboro (and as a whole).

To make a real difference in the lives of students, raise the quality of life in greater Waynesboro and attract and keep life-changing teachers, we must address five key areas:

1. Tear Down the Hoops

Our teachers spend far too much time jumping through hoops.

Every year, our district invents new goals (such as “21st Century Skills”), measuring sticks (most recently a “Growth Calculator”), time-consuming documentation (see “SMART goals”), modified schedules (think block scheduling and an extended school day) and evaluations (look in our seventy-two page “Teacher Performance Plan”).

As a district, we pretend these are strategic adjustments. They are not. The growth calculator was essentially brought forward out of thin air; SMART goals are a weak attempt to prove we’re actually doing something in the classroom, etc. Bad teachers can game any system; good teachers can lose their focus trying to take new requirements seriously.

These hoops have distracted me from our priority (students). I’ve concluded it’s no longer possible to do all things well. We need to tear down these hoops and succeed clearly on simple metrics that matter.

Over the past six years, I can’t remember a time where something was taken off my plate. Expectations continue to increase and we play along until we invent new hoops.

On a personal level, with 100+ students a year, a growing family and two side jobs, I can no longer be a good teacher and do all the system expects of me.

2. Have a Plan for the Future

I stepped into the classroom around the time of a major worldwide recession. As the individuals and institutions responsible for this recession escaped accountability for their actions, school districts like ours went into survival mode.

Six years later, we’re still there. We have no plan for the future.

Earlier this year, the school board held its annual budget meeting. I left my second job early to attend and asked board members one simple question: “Is there any cause for optimism?” Each school board member, searching for a silver lining, effectively answered “no” by the time their reasoning caught up with them.

These basic mantras seem to govern what we do:

“Just do the best you can.” “We need to do more with less.” “There’s no money in the budget for that.” “We’re hoping things look better next year.”

I don’t fault our district for a worldwide economic downturn. I do fault it for how it’s handled it. For six years in a row, we’ve cut, cut, cut. And for six years in a row, students and teachers have paid the biggest price.

When times are tough, human beings and institutions have the rare opportunity to reflect and refocus, to think differently and creatively. But instead of seizing the opportunity and gathering stakeholders for collective conversations and solution building, we’ve wandered around aimlessly hoping to make ends meet.

We should have a clear plan for sustainability. Instead, we’re really just worried about balancing the budget.

When we have a desperate need like football bleachers that have to be replaced or turf grass that isn’t up to par, we somehow find the money. We — through public or private avenues — meet those needs. Why can’t we find funds to address the areas that seem more pertinent to our primary mission?

3. Scrap Obsession with Flawed Assessments

I’ve seen teachers cry over Standards of Learning scores. I’ve seen students cry over SOL scores. I’ve seen newspaper and TV reports sensationalize SOL scores. These are all indications of an unhealthy obsession with flawed standardized tests.

SOL tests are inherently unfair, but we continue to invest countless hours and resources in our quest for our school to score well. This leads me to the following questions:

  • Do we care more about student progress or our appearance?
  • Why can’t we start a movement to walk away from these tests?
  • Why can’t we shift our focus to critical thinking and relevant educational experiences?

It’s tough to acknowledge that people in Washington, D.C. and Richmond (and sometimes decision makers in Waynesboro) develop systems and policies that affect my students and me negatively. But as they retire and sail off into the sunset, we’re the ones left with the consequences of ineffective measurements and strategies.

Our new teacher evaluations focus heavily on test scores. But while teachers are continually under pressure to be held accountable, there seems to be very little accountability for parents, the community or district offices.

It’s only going to get worse, and it seems that we have no intention of taking a stand or advocating against flawed assessments. Instead, we have submitted ourselves to these tools that misrepresent student growth. It is a game, and it is a game I no longer wish to play.

4. Build a Community That Supports Education

Stop by the high school for a sporting event (and I love sports), and you’ll be impressed with the attendance and enthusiasm. Stop by the high school on a parent-teacher night, and you’ll see tumbleweed blowing through the halls.

If parents and local decision-makers really value education (and there is a small portion of the community that does), student and teacher morale would be much different.

Our school and political leaders must help build a community that truly supports education. A real investment from residents across all neighborhoods and groups would change the climate immensely and allow us to truly tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

Unfortunately, the community seems disengaged with such struggles and more concerned with whether or not we’ll ever land an Olive Garden.

Until the community boosts its value of education…

  • How can we provide high quality to all students?
  • How can we build strong academic programs that meet student needs?
  • How can we prepare students to be productive citizens?
  • How can we successfully partner with parents and others?

If we can’t reflect the values of our mission statement, then we need to change our mission statement.

We simply can’t move forward when there is such little community connection to our educational goals. And if we can’t move forward together, I don’t want to tread water alone.

5. Fairly Compensate Educators

Compensation alone has not pushed me away from education. At the same time, the years of salary and step freezes have taken a toll.

If educators are as valuable as we claim they are (our district website says we “strive to hire and retain quality employees”), then we would make sure we take care of employees and their families. We must fairly compensate educators.

Keeping a sixth year teacher on a first year salary is not looking out for someone who looks out for students. For those like me, there’s only a $100 difference in our December 2009 and January 2014 monthly paychecks.

My wife and I live on a very strict budget. We are thankful for the quality of life we enjoy compared to other people in the world and try to keep things in their proper perspective. But the only financial reason I can afford to keep teaching is because of two side businesses and the generosity of family and friends. I’m not the only educator who manages extra work to make ends meet. Here are some efforts we’ve made to make this job sustainable:

  • We lived with one car (a car that was given to us) for 4 ½ years. During that time, I walked or rode my bike to school to save on gas. We recently bought a second car with money I saved from my web design business.
  • We rarely eat out and maintain our own garden to cut down on food costs.
  • We bought a $114,000 house that needed lots of work. This kept our mortgage payments in the $700 range, which is about what it would cost to rent a decent apartment.
  • We haven’t taken a vacation since I started teaching six years ago.

I love Waynesboro. I’m rooting for Waynesboro’s success. But there needs to be real, quantifiable change if we’re going to create a bright future for everyone.

A love for students and teaching drove me for the past six years. Now I’m watching my own kids grow up and am starting to think more and more about my own family.

What will I have to show for myself 10 years from now when I’ve missed crucial time with my own kids to barely break even and exist in a place where educators aren’t really valued? What happens when I dedicate my life to a place only to discover I’m part of their 10th round of budget cuts?

We need answers. I hope this can move us one step closer to asking the questions that will get us there.”

-Josh Waldron

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  1. Mary on July 2, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Exactly how it is. Sadly, instead of addressing these very real problems, a significant amount of time and money will be spent in the next ten years on a witch hunt to get rid of bad teachers as the be all, end all cure for all the issues outlined so well in this article. And unfortunately, without due process protections, you can rest assured good teachers (more expensive veterans) will be let go in favor of cheaper inexperienced ones. If only politicians and the money that funds them would listen to teachers. We could tell them where to focus efforts on school improvement. Currently, people who have never been members of our profession are shaping ed policy and bottom line, it’s hurting kids,

  2. charlene.fonseca on July 2, 2014 at 10:08 am

    So agree with Mary. I read this first thing this morning and thought about by-passing the opportunity to respond because I plainly do not have faith in the system and didn’t want to express the extent of my despondency in relationship to it. This is the real world of the public school system. I don’t want to change it, I can’t change it, and I unfortunately (sorry, Tim) don’t want to be part of it–a very negative comment, loathe to say it, but unretractable.

  3. Traci Cumnings on July 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Interestingly I just had a conversation last evening with a dear friend that encompassed every item addressed in this article! I am a lead teacher in my district and am planning to return to the classroom after a two year assignment as consulting teacher and evaluator in August. The despondency expressed by Josh Waldon reflects the sentiments of so many teachers in public education and certainly resonated deeply within me (hence the reason I took the new assignment after seventeen years in the classroom). During my two year “out of the classroom” assignment I had the privilege of traveling to many elementary and junior high schools within my school district where I conducted informal needs assessments, demonstration lessons, set of visiting days with highly qualified peer teachers, coached/assisted teachers in real time, developed and implemented practicums with new hires that modeled best practices aligned to our comprehensive evaluation system standards and conducted formal observations and post conferences with constructive feedback. Much to my surprise upon the many observations done, I discovered the evidence of good teaching with potential and great teaching from teachers in many of the places where rumors about subpar teaching loomed. The exposure was enough to reignite the passion that lives deeply within my heart for public education. Our children deserve warriors, who at the end of the day will not retreat or throw in the towel but remain on the front lines and fight. If not us…. then who? We cannot leave the future/outcomes of public education up to board members, business leaders and politicians who remain safely entrenched in bureaucracy, and/or misinformed and disillusioned about what’s best for children. We have to be their voices crying out in the wilderness. After all, we have been strategically placed in the trenches and on the front lines. Let us therefore advocate for what we know works and educate those around us. I made the decision to draw healthy boundary lines, invest in myself to be effective and efficient as an educator and say no because I’ve already said yes (So there is no need to seek approval and brown nose to get ahead). Most importantly have concluded that our education system is antiquated, broken, improperly fueled, insufficiently funded and in need of a revolution. I will be a part of that revolution and divest myself in the most valuable tapestry of our educational system, our deserving children. Join me!

  4. mylit on July 2, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    If these concerns are addressed while a teacher is working they are considered “non-team players” or “ineffective” or worse yet “subversive” and then are literally black-balled from the profession

  5. AL on July 3, 2014 at 7:47 am

    I agree with Josh’s article…it accurately describes the plight of public education. I would encourage him to put himself in a position to help make a change…become an administrator, run for the school board, lobby State Ed….If you are not part of the solution, you are still part of the problem.

  6. Charles Wilson on July 3, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Hi My son was a teacher for 16 years. Loved the job but hated the bureaucracy.
    He ha staken a year out to develope his business which is a behavior management site that also allows parents to be involved. For me that is one of the most pressing needs in education today. Parental engagement.
    Best wishes Chic (Charles)

  7. Mary Pecci on July 3, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Everyone will agree that SUCCESS is ALL in the FOUNDATION – that foundation being READING. Yet, it’s possible for someone to actually come up with a SOLUTION to reading problems and be relegated to the oblivion of a list of endless choices, as is my book, “At Last! A Reading Method for EVERY Child!” Why is it? Because of the myth that ‘There is NO ONE best way to teach reading. In my 1995 book, “Why Johnny Ain’t NEVER Gonna Read! (A Challenge to the Nation), which is a thematic title following Rudolf Flesch’s 1955 book, “Why Johnny CAN’T Read” and his 1981 book (26 years later) “Why Johnny STILL CAN’T Read,” I detail my efforts to bring a proven solution to the aid of victims of the reading crisis – explaining how just about every Tom, Dick, and Harriet has a reading method in their back pocket – and those with funds or influence (regardless of the effectiveness of their reading method) gain prominence – as the ratio of reading failures continues to accelerate.

    This is my Challenge to the Nation. It’s time for a put-up or shut-up move. Invite anyone who claims to have a viable solution to reading problems to a competitive demonstration with 8 year old nonreaders who have been professionally diagnosed as “dyslexic” and then OBSERVE the results. Who are you going to believe? Those with grandiose claims or those who are willing to put themselves on the line?

    Until then, endless amounts of dinero, test scores, common cores, or NCLB will accomplish nada. Here’s the irony: If someone (with the research and years of experience) were to come up with a SOLUTION for Typhoid Fever, they would be taken seriously. However, let someone with commensurate qualifications in reading claim that they have found a solution to reading problems (that works with EVERY child) and I explain what would happen to them in my book, ‘Why Johnny AIN’T NEVER Gonna Read! (A Challenge to the Nation!).

  8. Kristen @ Joyfully Thriving on July 4, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Sadly, this letter echoed conversations my husband and I (both parochial school teachers) have on a regular basis. I think the biggest challenge is as Josh said, demands are constantly being added to our teaching schedule, but nothing is ever removed. While no teacher ever enters teaching for the money, the compensation does need to reflect some of our time invested. Thanks for sharing this, Tim. It’s actual nice to know other teachers are struggling with the same dilemmas.

  9. Lorena Wood on July 4, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Please read or you may watch it at :

    Tonight, I want to talk to you about something else that is beginning to absolutely collapse on us. It’s our education system. It has begun to collapse, and I don’t know if you remember, when we first started feeling like the country was collapsing, we feel the loss of rights, we all asked each other, “How did this happen to us? How did we get here?” And it was important to go back to Woodrow Wilson and look at the progressive era to understand what we’re going through now. We have to start at the beginning.

    Well, that’s the thing that we have to do with education as well. America’s earliest days featured some of the most prolific thinkers in history, people like Thomas Jefferson, who could write two different languages at the same time. He could write sentences backward starting at the period. Franklin, who was absolutely a genius, if it wasn’t for Franklin, I contend we wouldn’t have had Faraday, we wouldn’t have had all of the electrical experiments in Paris, and we wouldn’t have probably the electric that we have now the way we do – brilliant man.

    George Washington, all brilliant in their own right. Jefferson studied Latin, Greek, French, and that was by the age of nine. He was giving advice to everybody, never read any book not in its native language. He got onto a boat, he never read Spanish before. He got on a boat to go over to England. By the time he got there, he could understand and read Spanish. He brought Don Quixote in English and Spanish. And he read it, and he figured it out – brilliant man.

    Benjamin Franklin invented just about everything and a huge philanthropist, started the first hospital in the United States that was a public hospital. Washington was an official county surveyor at the age of 17 years old. Now, were they a product of some giant government-run school that the king had spent all kinds of money on that somehow or another we destroyed through the American Revolution? No, there was absolutely no system in place.

    In fact, for decades after our founding, most Americans were primarily educated in a way that is completely foreign to us now. They were taught at home by their parents or tutors and in a completely different way. Now, how could that be?

    Teachers unions will make it sound as if without the teacher that has gone to school, there is no chance of you being anything other than an uneducated rube. They’ll tell you that you’re harming your child if you teach them at home, but the fact is going to school was not always a way of life in America. You’ll never guess when it began.

    Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights even mentions a public education. You’d think with these guys who were so smart they would have thought of what are we going to do for education? They knew it was the parent and the family’s responsibility. The first public school didn’t even appear until 1821. Now, progressives will suggest to you, I’m sure, that we were subhumanoid imbeciles roaming the country grunting when we wanted something, but nine out of ten people here in America, they were all farmers, were literate.

    Their parents, their tutors or local educators, taught them to read, nine out of ten. And then they went out and did something really unusual, they actually read books, lots of books. I challenge you right now, go back and just Google, you know, 1870 test for eighth graders, just do it. You will never be able to even understand their mathematics. You won’t be able to do it, and it’s not Common Core. You won’t be able to process what they already knew.

    You go look for their test on citizenship. It was rhetoric on citizenship. They were just asked a series of questions. You had to prove why freedom was better, and you had to do it by the time you were ten. Most adults couldn’t even do it. It was a parent’s responsibility to educate their child. You could do it yourself or the towns often had an educator that all the parents would decide, and then they would bring all the kids into the schoolhouse. Regardless of what age, everybody was together.

    So what happened? Well, everything began to change rapidly during the progressive era, and I know, it’s a real shock. The long-held idea that children were the parents’ responsibility was aggressively being challenged. See what’s happening right now at our hospitals. They’re challenging your right to take care of the health. Well, they’ve already challenged your right to be responsible for their education, why not the health, then the food?

    Well, it would be the turning point that began to build the progressive education infrastructure that is now collapsing our education system because it doesn’t work. But on the think tank, we wanted to show you a few key moments on what happened. In 1867, we began the Department of Education. It was called the Office of Education, now the Department of Education.

    It was created with a budget of about $15,000, and it was designed to study how can we make education better? You’ll see in a minute, and you decide, did it make education better or just bigger?

    1874, this is when we have the Board of Ed, and this one is really important. The Massachusetts, surprise, surprise, Board of Education stated, “The child should be taught to consider his instructor, in many respects, superior to the parent in point of authority.” That sounds exactly like Woodrow Wilson a few years later, the progressive ideal, the state knows best.

    Let me give you some quick perspective on this one. We went from a nation where parents were primary in education to today, most Americans start sending their kids off to school at the age of five. Think of this, at five years old, instead of being with mom or dad or anybody in the family, your child is shipped off at 8:00 in the morning or 9:00 in the morning. You don’t usually see them again until later in the afternoon, maybe 3:00-ish. That’s six to seven hours a day that you let someone else other than you program your child.

    As you know now, we do not have similar views on the country or freedom or anything else. You know it. You’re seeing it. What is it that they are programming your child to believe? This is why it’s no surprise that Mayor de Blasio is actually pushing for prekindergarten for all. This is something that they wanted to do for a very long time. They want control from cradle to grave, and with that control, they are now pushing for year-round school 12 hours a day.

    But let me go back to the timeline because this is where Woodrow Wilson is introduced, Woodrow Wilson and the American Federation of Teachers. It’s a union, but remember, at the time, unions were communist looking for that communist goal. It was established in Chicago by 1918, and all states now have a compulsory attendance law within two years. So now you’re trapped. America’s youth had been trapped, and there is no way out.

    In 1919, you have the Progressive Education Association, founded with the same goal of reforming the systems, and boy, did they ever. By 1922, the state of Oregon actually made it illegal for children to attend a nongovernmental school. What they were trying to do was they were trying to squeeze out the religious schools out of the education picture. That later was shot down by the Supreme Court who said children were not mere creatures of the state, but this was a harbinger of things to come.

    And then you go back to 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed by none other than the world-famous LBJ. It’s frightening, the sweeping legislation helped pave the way for federal government to exercise control and influence over the local schools through funding. They got it passed by claiming it was just for poverty areas, that’s it, but within a few years, it provided aid to 60% of America’s school districts, and we were all hooked.

    By 1965, the one miniscule Office of Education now had 2,113 employees and a budget of $1.5 billion. By 1976, the NEA did something they’ve never done before, they endorsed a candidate for the very first time, the one and only Jimmy Carter. Then the one real final death blows to this whole thing, in 1979, Jimmy Carter signs a law elevating the Department of Education to cabinet level status. Now that meant your education was not in the hands of the federal government. When it’s in the cabinet, it means it is in the hands now of one man, the President of the United States. That’s who the cabinet reports to.

    By 1994, it’s reported that the government was losing $3-$4 billion a year to waste, to fraud, to defaults in its student programs. They now get $72 billion a year in funding, and they all say it’s for the kids. And you’re a hatemonger who hates children, and you just want them to fail in life, you want them to live in the gutter if you oppose more education funding.

    But what have been the results of this progressive education explosion? We saw what it was like at the beginning of our country where people were literate. We’ve had lots of spending. What are the results? Because it’s all about results, isn’t it? Or is it about control? Is it about conform? Look at the results, look at the spending.

    We put this book out what, two weeks ago, three weeks ago, shot to the top of the New York Times best-selling list. It was the number one selling book in the country, number two on the New York Times best list, but it has everything in it that you need to stop Common Core. And it must be stopped. Glenn Beck

  10. Clay Staires on July 24, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Tim! More Gold! Great Post.
    I was a high school teacher and coach for 15 years. Like Josh, I got local and statewide awards for my achievements, but, unfortunately, never saw a change in my compensation. There was no incentive to improve or become better, other than just leaning on the teachers “inner drive”.
    This was my solution…
    Because of the CONFINES so eloquently described by Josh, I had to THINK A DIFFERENT WAY ABOUT WHY I WAS IN THE CLASSROOM. As per some of the other comments, this is where new thinking by a classroom teacher becomes heresy!
    Because of the awards I was getting and because of the testimonies I received from students and parents, I KNEW I HAD A GIFT. The problem was that My Gift was stuck in the WORKPLACE, where my boss, the company or the government (for a public school teacher like me) determined my value! AH! This was so frustrating! I was out of control of my destiny! School Boards and Policy Makers were determining my future!
    So, I shifted (like Josh) and took my Gift to the MARKETPLACE and now “I”
    get to determine my value! It’s no longer about “what I get paid” but about “what I charge for the value I bring”. There were always teachers where I worked that had “secondary jobs” to supplement income and help them make ends meet. Several of the comments refer to this. I finally decided to make the “secondary” the “primary”. Now I teach, train, coach, encourage, write books and curriculum and make training videos for individuals and companies all across the country! Taking my Gift to the Marketplace has allowed me to impact a greater audience. As a public school teacher, MY CLASSROOM WAS TOO SMALL! Even with 30 kids in a class! Now I get to influence tens of thousands of individuals and my annual compensation has quadrupled!
    Yes, our educational system has a lot of broken pieces, so until they are able to change, I counsel and advise all the teachers I come in contact with to use their classroom job as a “Furnace” to shape and hone their gifts and talents (more heresy). Spend time in the WORKPLACE expanding your talents and influence. BUT, don’t lean on the “school” to take care of you. That’s YOUR responsibility as a good steward of your Gift and of Leading your family. The axiom, “If it’s good for the children…” has blinded us to the needs of the teachers. I see the reality of the growing needs for our kids, but It’s gotta be a Win/Win!
    Keep it up, Tim!

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The Tough Decision to Leave the Classroom