After an unconventional path to teaching, Amy Sarah LaMena of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers lays out why she’s staying and striving forward.
I was recently confronted with the very real possibility of leaving teaching after over two decades in the classroom. Days before the start of the 2020–21 school year, I was one of many educators who were suddenly laid off from an urban district struggling under the weight of budget cuts. Education funding had once again become a political football on the national level and, for the first time in 20 years, I wasn’t a teacher.
Curiously, I had never set out to be one.
I began teaching entirely by accident in 1999. The Jesuits offered me the opportunity to travel overseas, see a bit of the world, and generally bide my time until I could figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. In return, I was to teach science and math on a small island in the Pacific. During that year I experienced an entirely different world. I was immersed in cultures unlike my own and languages I’d never heard. I was called “Teacher” as an honorific that felt alien, and struggled to earn the title. While I knew that experience would shape me, I never expected it to define me.
A year later, I was working a pleasantly boring job in a chemical company with good pay and benefits. I liked it most days, but only truly loved it when I had the chance to teach equipment and procedures to new hires. Those days left me smiling and uplifted, and came with an undeniable pull to return to education.
My connections in the Catholic church landed me in St. Agnes Boys’ High School in Manhattan. I learned to let myself be a part of my school community, and to let it be a part of me. I felt like a teacher, and I fell in love with my career. I used my savings to start my master’s degree. Where teaching had once been a job I had wandered into, it was now a conscious career choice.
In the past couple of decades I have been lucky enough to teach hundreds of remarkable children and serve with amazing colleagues. I have learned and grown through all of them. Every year in the classroom has further shown me that I made the right decision.
When the pandemic shutdown forced us into an asynchronous model, the loss of connection with my school community was heartbreaking. I prepared video lessons and research projects while filling my Google classroom stream with corny science jokes. My students texted me cat memes, or chatted with me about recipes. I called homes to make sure everyone was safe and did my best to comfort scared parents. We did what we could to remain together while forced apart.
I was new to my district and, having left behind my seniority at my previous post, had no protection from the cuts that were coming. The fall of 2020 found me reevaluating my career while frantically searching for a paycheck. I was luckier than many. I found places that let me cover many of my bills while giving me a sense of home, community and hope. I got to keep teaching.
When funding was restored and I returned to my district, I was greeted with exhausted colleagues and disconnected children. The damage of the past couple of years, while most brutal on those schools that had to go remote for 2020–21, is not unique to them. Many teachers did not return to the classroom that year. Many more are planning their exits.
I am staying.
My choice to stay is not a referendum on those who leave; it is as personal a decision as it was when I came to this career. I am a teacher. It is a fundamental part of me, and this is where I belong.
I know these coming years will not be easy. This career is a difficult one on its kindest days — and these are not kind days — but there is work to be done.
Years ago a mentor told me, “It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s what you do next.”
What I am choosing to do next is rebuild. We have all been through an awful experience together. I want to help us recover together. I’m staying for my students and their families. I’m staying for my colleagues and my community. I am staying for myself.