Teaching on the brink: How it feels to be an educator on the verge of quitting

Listen 38:19
A vacant classroom at Lankenau High School in Philadelphia.

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

This is the second of three episodes in the 2022 season of WHYY’s podcast “Schooled,” which tells the inside stories of people in our K-12 education system.

Note: The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

___

Avi Wolfman-Arent: Typically, about 8% of teachers leave the profession every year — but, recently there has been a lot of talk that this number is on the rise. There was a national survey from The National Education Association, which is a teachers’ union, and it raised a lot of alarm bells — because it said that more than half of the teachers they surveyed were looking to quit sooner than they had planned.

The union’s president called it a “five alarm crisis.”

So, we reached out to teachers in the Philadelphia region on social media — asking if they were tired of teaching and ready to quit. And soon, our inboxes were flooded with responses from teachers who said basically, “I want out.”

And their reasons were a little bit surprising, because it was not so much the pandemic itself — but more what the pandemic had made them realize.

This is “Schooled.” I’m Avi Wolfman-Arent.

Now, of course, it’s a long road from wanting out to actually leaving — but reporter Jad Sleiman wanted to get a better sense of why teachers are thinking about quitting.

And so he connected with two teachers who were on the brink — and got their stories.

Here’s Jad.

Jad Sleiman: I graduated from a public high school in southern West Virginia in 2007. Our schools left a lot to be desired. I remember at one point both the floor and ceiling tiles were removed because they contained asbestos. They stayed removed all year. Fluorescent lights hung from wires in the hall. I remember being taught, in a 10th-grade science class, that the moon landing was fake, something I believed well into my twenties and brought up at parties. “See how the flag is waving even though there’s no wind? How come you don’t see any stars?”

But I also remember my teachers, for the most part, were genuinely happy people who enjoyed their classrooms and their work. And I can’t remember a single teacher — not one — ever quitting.

Aside from bittersweet retirements here and there, no one ever left. In fact, it was pretty common for a teacher to talk about having someone’s mom or dad in their class a generation ago. Sat in the same seat, that kind of thing.

So why are so many teachers now thinking about quitting?

I’ve seen a lot of headlines blaming COVID. Teachers are stressed out about enforcing mask rules, scared of catching COVID, or of catching hell from parents who aren’t scared of COVID.

But in talking with teachers this year I have found that COVID seems to be the least of their concerns. When you promise teachers anonymity they don’t talk about masks. They talk about being crushed by these two relentless forces: A ballooning school administration from above and out-of-control students from below.

I started talking to teachers in the winter of this year. The days were still very short, but the school days seemed very long to them. And I’m focusing this story on two teachers. I checked in with them frequently as they figured out whether they were going to leave or stay — whether this year would be their last as a teacher.

One works at a charter school, the other at a regular public school. One is fairly new to the job, the other has over a decade’s experience.

They’re not representative of Philly teachers or teacher demographics nationally. And of course, when you talk to people on the verge of quitting — they’re gonna give a pretty grim portrait of what the job is like. But I think they do paint in a missing corner of what teaching is really like in 2022 and why it’s become unbearable for so many.

The younger one, who teaches at a charter, we’re calling him Rodney. It’s been his last day on the job more days than he can count.

Rodney: Maybe once a month I’ll come home and be like, “That was my last day.” And they’ll go back in the next day because, A) that’s your job, and B) you can’t let those kids down. I’ve had situations like that so far in my career already where I come home and I’m juiced. I got nothing left. And I say, ‘That was it, right? That was my last day.’ And then I’m back in on Monday doing the same thing. Because who else is going to be there for them and are they going to care as much?

JS: He doesn’t want his class to be one of those revolving doors, where new teachers come and go, chewed up and disillusioned leaving the kids feeling abandoned or unimportant like they and school don’t matter. Rodney’s dad was a teacher and he followed in his footsteps, thinking, “Hey, it’s stable work people and you get to help people.” But while he’s had plenty of last days, the good days for Rodney have been harder to find.

R: I think a better question than “what is a good day” would be like, “When was the last day that you weren’t exhausted at the end of it?” The last day I wasn’t just completely drained and tapped.. just the nature of teaching is exhausting. But then also having to manage these outsize behaviors, these, you know, things that would be, you know, if you heard them on the street, they’d be the most shocking thing you heard in a month.

JS: He’s talking about the students. For Rodney, the worst part of being a teacher is the way the students behave.

R: The one thing I don’t think people understand is that the easiest way to get rid of a charter school teacher is just to act out. You know, I was at a school one year earlier on. The kids really decided they didn’t like me and they basically, whenever the principal was around, they would start bugging out and freak out. They would do their worst, most unmanageable behavior.

JS: This kind of thing, It’s something he says teachers don’t like talking about, it’s unsavory — a bit like blaming the kids for a divorce.

R: And then when the principal came in, they would literally say stuff like, “Hey, Mr., you know, whatever your name is, can’t manage us.” Like they, they know the language. You know what I mean? That’s the weirdest part.

JS: He says compared to teachers, the students have become very powerful and they know it. To be clear, he doesn’t actually blame the kids for their behavior, not completely. Instead, he points to a system that allows them to behave the way they do.

R: There’s no kid who was born bad. It’s what kids sustain. It’s what kids grow up with. It’s what kids learn to tolerate. And it’s what kids learn to be acceptable or what they can get away with.

JS: Schools nowadays he says don’t want to be the school that suspends students. They don’t want to kick kids out of school and risk pushing them into a prison pipeline. Rodney is sympathetic to that. He is an unabashed, bleeding-heart-lefty type.

But he says this aversion to real discipline means the kids get basically free license to do what they want. They know it and, well, they’re kids. Of course, they’re gonna act out.

R: I think there’s sort of an intentional blindness to why teaching is hard. And whenever you see people … and to be specific, this is how it’s been presented to me. The mystery of burnout. There is no mystery. This job is mentally, spiritually, and emotionally taxing in a way that is basically indescribable and in a way that most teachers don’t want to discuss.

JS: Rodney is still pretty new to the job, he’s only a few years in. And I wondered if maybe he hasn’t yet developed the savvy it takes to succeed as a teacher in the inner city.

But, the other teacher I spoke to, the older, more experienced one who works at a public school, we’re calling him Jason. He told me horror stories about kids’ behavior as well.

Jason: I had a male student sitting in class with his girlfriend. And for some reason, drama is drama. He decided that in the middle of class he was going to start punching her. I just put myself between them, you know, willing to take whatever I took in order to make sure she was safe. And then he lunged at her again. And all I did is just gently put my hand on his chest and said, “You need to go walk it off. Go take a walk.” And he grabbed my thumb and proceeded to try to break it. He was twisting it up kung-fu style like you’d see in the movies.

JS: The kid eventually let go

J: I have no desire to harm a student. I have no desire to retaliate or anything like that. But there was a brief moment in my head where I thought, “What? What next?”

JS: It was a scary moment but what happened next as the kid was being led away by another staffer was worse.

J: And the kid saw me and turned around and knew that I had, quote, “ratted on him” and told me when, where, and how and with what he was going to shoot me after school.

My only response was, thanks for telling me when and where. I just won’t be there now.

JS: Jason’s been a teacher for over a decade. This incident happened during year two. And believe it or not, this represented the good old days. The kid was suspended, came back under a week later and the class moved on.

J: I have never and will never press charges against a student. I can’t find it within me to want to do something like that to a child, no matter what happens.

JS: Jason wasn’t fazed by this whole thing, not really. He sought out a tough school with tough kids. This is exactly what he wanted in a lot of ways.

J: My heart has always been for the damaged and the ones that get overlooked and tossed away and who are often misunderstood and everybody’s first response is to punish. In my first year teaching, a veteran teacher said, “If you’re in the district for more than five years, you’re going to lose one student to gun violence at least.” And I’ve been in the district for seven years, and I’ve now lost count of the number of students I’ve lost to gun violence. And to me, those are the kids that I think inspire me to continue. Or at least have inspired me in the past to continue because I think every interaction I have with a student could be potentially my last.

JS: Jason is a bit cagey about it, but he hints at having a pretty rough upbringing himself. He told me he was homeless for a while as he put himself through school to become a teacher.

He knows how to deal with tough kids and he has a lot of sympathy for them, even the ones who try to physically hurt him. What he can’t deal with is what he says the school administration — the lack of discipline and consequences — has allowed kids to become.

J: This may sound weird, but the most hurtful thing and one of the most upsetting things to me that really, really has done me in this year is when you’re standing six inches from a student who’s doing something they shouldn’t be and repeatedly saying their name over and over and over again, trying to get their attention, not yelling or anything like that, not doing anything out of the ordinary other than, “Hey, can you get back on task” type of attitude, and they literally look past you.

JS: A teacher he says is no longer any kind of authority figure. Like Rodney’s students, the ones Jason is teaching have recognized a system they can game.

J: Students are using the principal’s names as threats. You know, they’ll curse me out and they’ll say, “I’ll go get the principal for you. You want me to get the principal so she can straighten you out?” You know. So it’s like there’s no humanity left in it.

JS: Jason says in his school, as he suspects is the case in many in the district, the teacher has become the least powerful person in the building. He thinks it stems from some well-intentioned ideas, things like restorative justice. That’s a practice that asks for dialogue between parties in a conflict instead of punishments, or draconian discipline. Doing this right, the experts say, takes quite a lot of time and effort.

J: With this restorative justice and restorative practice and these wonderful ideas that are poorly executed, it puts teachers and students on an equal playing ground. If a student is offended, and this has happened this year in my school, if a student is offended by something a teacher asks them to do, even if it’s a homework assignment or a classwork assignment, if they’re offended by the fact that they have to do it, not by the content of it, not by the whatever the, you know, it’s not a critical race theory thing, it’s literally they just don’t want to do the assignment and it offends them. And they say something to the teacher and the teacher is authoritative back, not in a mean way, but just in a, “No. Sit down. We’re not going to have this discussion. I’m an adult. I’m not going to go round and round with you.” That student can then go to administration, and tell them that the teacher wasn’t communicating with them in a proper way because they, quote, “shut them down and didn’t hear their voice.”

JS: At which point Jason says, it’s off to a restorative practice meeting where the parents and the student and everyone else tell the teacher all the ways they were wrong.

Jason says it’s become easy to make mistakes as a teacher. He recently got a new principal who’s always on the prowl for any kind of misstep.

J: This principal will look for essentially ten things wrong with each grade book check that she does. And it doesn’t matter if there are ten things wrong or not, she will make stuff up and find ten things wrong.

JS: The principal, or principals — some teachers actually have multiple principals in charge of them — can search long and wide for mistakes because these grade books aren’t books anymore. They’re Google Classroom.

Every test homework assignment and worksheet — it’s digital and searchable.

J: She went into a single student, went through every single assignment that that student had done, not on gradebook but the actual assignments on Google Classroom, and essentially in her mind regraded them based upon what she thought should be done, and then questioned me about every single assignment that this student had done, why I gave them that particular grade.

JS: He feels like he’s everyone’s punching bag. The students who pretend he’s not there, running roughshod on his class. The people in the administration who watch him through a microscope.

J: It’s — at this point, I spend less of my time actually teaching and the vast majority of my time justifying what I’m going to be teaching and justifying how I’m planning it and then justifying how I’m delivering it and then justifying how I’m grading it. I have to justify my existence every step of the way.

JS: Jason feels like the job he’s doing now, it’s not teaching. He’s not sure how much longer he can make it. During our conversation in March, I asked him, “Do you think you’ll quit this year?”

J: I’ll be honest with you, It’s even hard to say out loud, but the answer is yes. And even when I get asked that question, I still have to pause and think, “Wait, what? What am I going to say? Am I going to say this out loud?”

JS: I read a lot about the stress teachers were feeling from the pandemic but the way Jason describes it, the pandemic showed him how much stress he was under.

The work-from-home months were a kind of bliss, a break he didn’t know he needed.

J: And I think having that hiatus for a little while is weird, as it sounds, not having that disrespect in front of you and that there’s classroom management issues and behaviors and not having admin have access to you physically and digitally. I think for me, when I returned to the real world, so to speak, it was like getting punched in the face.

JS: I came into this story thinking maybe the pandemic was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, one more thing that teachers had to deal with that wasn’t part of what they got paid for.

I was really surprised to learn from both of these teachers that the pandemic wasn’t a factor at all. That the biggest problem is that they have less control over the classroom, while being asked to accomplish more. And that’s been building for years.

Philip Howard: There was a study in California a few years ago of good teachers quitting. And I think the second reason given for them quitting was too much bureaucracy. I think half the states have more non-instructional personnel in their schools now than they have instructional personnel.

JS: That’s Philip Howard, a lawyer, and author who studies government and legal dysfunction and reform. He regularly testifies before Congress.

He tells me first off this explosion in administration it’s not in my teachers’ imagination. Schools really do have far more staff nowadays who don’t actually teach.

PH: In the 1960s, we woke up to a lot of abuses, including racism and pollution and gender discrimination and ignoring children with special needs and other things, and that we needed to change those values. So that was important to do. But we also got the idea that we should change the way we govern so that there would never again be people exercising or acting with bad values. And so all of a sudden, we started making rules for how to do things correctly. And so there was no such thing as a thousand-page rulebook before the 1960s.

JS: More rules and regulations around schools he says made for more administrators to, well, administer them. It’s a trend that’s continued through the decades. Think the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” — or more recently the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs that have been adopted in schools nationwide.

He says the issue with thicker rule books is that they reduce the role of human decision-making and so human mistakes and abuses. I’m old enough to remember one such rule, probably the polar opposite of restorative justice: zero tolerance.

I remember a kid at my school who got expelled for mooning a bus. We had a zero tolerance rule about that.

The inflexibility of a rule book is one issue Philip points out, but the one that’s maybe even more relevant to teacher burnout is this idea of cognitive overload.

PH: And so when you give somebody too many external criteria to keep track of that they can’t internalize, you exhaust them. It makes people go crazy. It’s like being sleepless or something. People can’t endure it for that long because there are too many things going on up there that are out of their control.

JS: It’s like, not only do you have to figure out how to teach a class you have to also figure out how to teach it while not violating this protocol while fulfilling this requirement in this prescribed way.

This stresses teachers out. And Philip says that he’s not convinced that it makes teachers better. He tells me about a study From the University of Chicago where researchers followed high-achieving teachers to see what made them successful.

PH: And if you read the profiles of these teachers and what do the good teachers all have in common? The answer is nothing.

JS: Instead of conforming to a thick rule book He says teachers need to be able to feel their way through teaching. To use the force.

PH: Letting the force be with them. [laughs] You know, if you’re running your classroom and you’ve got 25 or 30 kids in front of you. You’re constantly getting feedback and feelings and you’re having to go with the flow and trying to figure out ways to interest the class and reengage that student and be sensitive to some student who seems to be upset for reasons you can’t figure out. It’s just incredibly complex. Being a teacher is an incredibly hard job. And it requires all of the human preceptory talents and feelings and you know it that the teacher has and all of this bureaucratic stuff shuts all that off.

JS: The more I look into the story the more I see good Intentions gone awry. The rulebooks, the metrics, the explosion in administration — it was all meant to make schools fairer. To make sure kids got the best shot they could get.

The latest addition to the rule book governing our schools, restorative justice, also seems to have the best of intentions. I reached out to researchers who study and champion this approach.

They say the restorative justice approach in schools came as an answer to the policy I remember: zero tolerance. Back then, you could get kicked out of school for, for instance, pretending a chicken nugget was a gun. Anything violence-related. It was one strike, and you’re expelled.

Katherine Evans: And then it started to kind of creep into other kinds of behaviors where students were removed from the school building and suspension rates went up dramatically.

JS: That’s Katherine Evans, she’s an associate professor of education at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia.

KE: And we know that this was felt particularly on the backs of African American and American Indian students. We know that they’ve been disproportionately represented in school discipline for decades now. So there’s been a real social justice and racial justice impetus and urgency to reduce school exclusion.

JS: She says Getting kicked out of school with no access to education often means ending up in prison, ending up addicted to drugs, or worse. Expulsion is one of the biggest predictors of a life derailed.

She says the way we used to kick kids out of school didn’t do much to improve schools because there were always more kids with the same behavioral problems. Bigger issues like poverty, systemic racism, addiction, and gun violence all contributed to that behavior and none of them were addressed by kicking a kid out of school.

She thinks now, that something similar is happening with restorative justice. I also spoke with Anne Gregory a researcher at Rutgers University who studies discipline in schools.

Anne Gregory: We’re adopting restorative justice as an approach to addressing misbehavior without addressing all of the things that lead to the misbehavior.

JS: I told her what the teachers told me about what restorative justice has looked like in their schools: the kids kind of running the show, these meetings where teachers are told they were wrong to tell a kid to do their homework.

AG: I just can’t underscore enough that restorative justice isn’t just about addressing the needs of students. It really is addressing the needs of everybody that’s involved in the learning community, and that has to include our educators. And right now, there are a lot of things going on for educators that aren’t working very well. And so it doesn’t surprise me that teachers are leaving the field.

JS: A big problem she thinks is that a lot of what is called restorative justice actually isn’t. A real restorative justice program takes a lot of groundwork, lengthy trust, and community-building exercises between teachers and students, parents and administrators where they get to know each other and form real relationships.

AG: And it’s not just about discipline. And when it is about discipline, it’s responding to the needs of everybody that’s involved in a situation. And what I hear you talking about in that situation isn’t meeting the needs of educators.

JS: More than anything, the researchers I talked to said restorative justice is supposed to be proactive. You do all this groundwork ahead of time to avoid disciplinary issues down the road.

I asked, what happens if a student gets violent though? What are you supposed to do? They explained that everyone would sit in a circle and talk about how they were affected by the violence. Maybe one student says they lost out on class time and they feel that was unfair. Maybe one of the aggressors says, “you know I had a tough morning and I’ve been stressed out.” Maybe the teacher shares that they felt disheartened by the violent outburst. An outcome might be that one of the aggressive students agrees to come to class early the next day and help set up for a so that they make up class time that the rest of the students missed out on.

It sounds nice.

But It’s hard for me to imagine this happening at a school like Rodney’s or Jason’s. There’s a kind of Catch-22 to this restorative justice stuff that honestly these researchers had trouble answering in our conversation: How do you implement a restorative justice program in a school that already has a lot of disciplinary issues?

I checked back with the younger teacher, the one we’re calling Rodney, and told him about what these experts told me. This was a couple of months after we’d first talked.

R: I mean, get those academics in my building and see how it goes.

JS: He thinks they’ll see it doesn’t work. What’s happening in schools like his, this move away from discipline, he calls it the path of least resistance.

Kids come to his school with big problems under the long shadow of mass incarceration, neighborhood divestment, gun crime, and drugs. But like draconian zero tolerance, this restorative justice doesn’t fix any of those tough underlying problems. It doesn’t reduce bad behavior and despite its name, restorative justice is often not all that just.

Rodney says it’s not just hurting teachers’ ability to teach, but the students as well.

R: It sort of assumes that everybody is willing to immediately forgive everybody else for something that happens. Do you know what I mean? Like, I’ve seen so many situations where basically kids are, you know, a kid bullies another kid and the other kid is not, you know, clear to say, “Yeah, I’m ready to talk about this.” They’re pissed off as they should be. Being, you know, mistreated and picked on is wrong and bad, you know? And they’re sort of just made to sit down and pretend like both parties had a hand in it.

JS: I ask Rodney about his days now, what’s going on. We were getting close to April. It was getting warmer out, the school year slowly wrapping up. He tells me about having to abort a class. It’s a trick he uses when a whole class is out of control instead of a couple of isolated troublemakers. He went on a one-man, one-day strike.

R: I said, all right, here’s what’s going to happen since you guys you know, since you guys are dedicated to screwing up the schedule and you really don’t want to take this test, what I’m going to do is I’m going to give everybody a 50. And you guys can just attempt to get a 100 on it without instruction. And, you know, I kind of dangled that sort of Damocles over their head and they got really frustrated. And the next day I said, all right, here’s what I’m going to do. I can take that 50 away, and we are going to redo the lesson from yesterday, but I need your guys’ full attention and being completely on point and I got it.

JS: It was one of those rare victories, one he really needed this year.

R: You know, normally there’s, like, pits and peaks when you teach there and there are lulls. But this year, it’s just really felt like gritting my teeth and grinding through the whole way. You know, just everything has felt very dire for the whole year.

JS: When we spoke there were still about two months left in the school year would he make it.

R: I feel an immense sense of longing for something else. [laughs] You know, I look at the job and I’m like, Oh boy, I could work from home. I could work in an office where people are quiet. You know, it’s probably very rare that I would have to break up a fistfight.

JS: In the end though, he tells me he’s gonna finish this year. He says he told his boss he’ll teach another year as well.

R: Dude, summer. You go to like, Virginia Beach and you’re sitting on the beach and you’re eating a peach donut and vibing out. You know, listening to Vampire Weekend, and you’re like, hmm, maybe school isn’t that bad. I’m here hanging out, vibing, and, you know, I got through last year. My kids did pretty OK. Then you get back there in September or August. And you realize you made another big miscalculation. Yeah, summer really screws with your reasoning capabilities.

JS: Rodney is in his 30s. He has a young family. It’s tough to up and pivot to something new and there’s something else. A kind of guilt.

R: Oh, you’re going to abandon these kids just so you can go make more money? Oh, you’re going to leave this school just because you can be happier, spiritually and personally? You know, at the end of the day, we’re institutionalized.

JS: He’s stuck between a moral rock and a hard place. He’s still the bleeding heart he always was despite his gripes about pie-in-the-sky progressive academics.

Who knows? Maybe he’s on his way to being a grizzled vet, able to roll with the punches. Maybe every summer will be enough to justify every school year.

But after checking back in with Jason, the older teacher, I saw a different possible future.

I hadn’t realized this, but apparently, he had been having a lot of health problems this year, and his doctor had actually advised him to quit months before we spoke.

J: The physical stress symptoms started probably early to mid-October where I was actually having, I mean, I don’t know the better term for them other than they’re not real, they’re not like epileptic seizures, but they’re almost like tics and, you know, muscle spasm-type seizure things. My hands were shaking to the point where I couldn’t eat soup. [Laughs] That’s the only way I can describe it.

JS: His primary doctor didn’t know what it was exactly, but the cure was obvious

J: If I took a week off of work because I just couldn’t function, those symptoms would start to subside towards the end of that week, you know. So if I took off Monday through Friday, by Friday-ish, those symptoms would start to subside.

JS: Jason isn’t actually that much older than Rodney. He’s got maybe ten years on him. But he looks like he could be his father.

J: You know, the tremors and the pseudo-seizures and nausea all the time and, you know, joint pain and not being able to sleep and all the other stuff that went along with it. I had to ask myself, “Can I survive like this until June, mid-June?” And the answer was no.

JS: Jason’s last day was in early March. His students asked him why he was leaving and he told them: “It’s because of the administration, and well, it’s because of you.”

J: A couple of them were shocked. You know, I can’t believe you just told me that I’m one of the reasons that you’re leaving. And that it was my behavior, God forbid that I’ve done anything. But a few of them really kind of seemed to take it to heart. Most of the students who you know, the kids who kind of get it, and the ones that weren’t behavior issues really understood. There were a number of students who were very sympathetic, very empathetic. They were very excited for me and happy that I was kind of getting out of it. Other students, quite frankly, said, “You’ve betrayed us. We don’t like the new teacher or the new teachers that we’ve got. We want you back.” To which I replied, “Why? You know, you didn’t want to learn anything when you had me in the first place. So why?”

JS: Jason quit without getting to slam a single door. There was no speech. In the end, he tried to take some medical time off, got a typical run around by administration, emails unanswered, and the like. In the end, quitting just consisted of filling out a form and hitting send.

J: It sounds weird, but there wasn’t any kind of turn and look, you know, look at the building one last time and say goodbye to the students. In that aspect, it was just saying goodbye to the faculty, and walking to the car. I wish I could have done a donut out of the parking lot, but I drive a Corolla.

JS: No donut, but there was the email.

J: I did send an email. The bell rings at 2:34 in the afternoon and I did send an email at 2:35 when I handed in my computer and stuff and kind of peaced out. But I didn’t see any administrators at all and they have avoided me like the plague for the last couple of days I was there. But I did write a letter explaining the real reason that I had quit, and I did send it to every single adult in the building along with the admin. And I did call admin out on some of their behaviors, and then I posted a picture of the Breakfast Club fist in the air at the end of it. Felt good.

JS: I wondered how he felt later, in the days after when he was no longer a teacher.

J: Just to know that I was done with it was … I keep using the word, it was like I was set free. To not have the crushing weight of complete nonsense and data and information gathering and trying to justify yourself at all times. I knew that there was nothing else the admin could do to me.

JS: Jason kept waking up automatically at around 5 a.m. for the first few days before his body learned it no longer needed to. His hands are his again, no more tremors. He’s back to working on furniture, one of his hobbies, and he’s redoing his mud room while applying for jobs.

He’s also working with a partner on launching a new type of school. One that doesn’t teach to a test but instead gives kids practical skills. Maybe you graduate with a high school diploma and your commercial driver’s license. Maybe you know how to fix things.

His partner is working on the academic side of things courting home-school kids. Jason’s going to figure out the hands-on stuff. Not everyone has to go to college, he says, kids should have options. There are good-paying blue-collar jobs out there.

I ask him if he thinks of his old job, the hallways still swell with students when the bell rings. It all just keeps happening without him. He says he thinks of the teachers. He says the teachers that stay are like X-Men, superhuman, or they’re close to retirement and counting the days.

J: I still know they’re plugging through, I feel much more … I feel healthier on my end kind of mentally, physically, and emotionally to be able to help carry any burdens that they may be having. So, you know, they’ll vent to me via text or email and, you know, I can kind of sit back from a more, a less involved point of view and kind of help them out as much as I can. And the more I think about them, the more I’m driven to start and continue to pursue my school program because I want to hire teachers and I want to create a place where they feel safe, blessed, and cared for.

AWA: “Schooled” is produced by WHYY in Philadelphia. This episode was written by Jad Sleiman, a reporter for WHYY’s health and science show “The Pulse.” It was edited by Maiken Scott, with help from Mallory Falk, Emily Rizzo, and me, Avi Wolfman-Arent. Engineer Charlie Kaeir mixed the sound. WHYY’s vice president of news is John Mussoni. Next time on “Schooled,” we’re taking a look at a very different type of loss of control in the classroom: Book bannings and the curriculum wars. For more on this episode and “Schooled” in general, visit WHYY.org/schooled.

This transcript was compiled by Sarah Kerson.

Get the WHYY app!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal