Eric Stinton: Why I'm Going Back To Teaching - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Editor’s note: We first met Eric Stinton in 2015 when he was one of the winners of our inaugural Emerging Writers Contest. Now, he’s joining us as a regular columnist. Eric, who grew up in Kailua, is a special ed teacher and is returning to a public schools job at perhaps one of the most interesting and challenging times imaginable. We hope to hear more from him about what that’s like, but he’s also got an eye on education, culture, economics, politics and how they all intersect with the everyday lives of local people. Most recently Eric was an online journalist at KHON2 News. He’s a combat sports columnist for Sherdog, and his fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Ka Wai Ola, Longreads, Medium and Vice Sports, among others.

If you Google “why I left teaching” you’ll get several pages of sad, frustrated former educators discussing the whirlwind forces that flung them from the classrooms they loved. Most of these articles offer a police lineup of the usual suspects: low pay, lack of support, personal and professional burnout. Virtually every teacher knows these characters well, whether they’ve left the profession or not. They’re familiar to me, too.

I worked in Hawaii public schools as a part-time teacher from 2010-2012, then became a full-time special education teacher from 2012-2014. I was an emergency hire – meaning I was enrolled in a teacher education program but hadn’t completed it – but by the time I was a fully licensed and qualified teacher, I’d had enough.

I was working with co-teachers who made it explicitly clear to both me and my students that they didn’t want SPED kids in their classrooms. When my schedule bloated to include more classes and an extra subject, my requests for help from my team were met with audible bitterness, if they weren’t outright ignored. On top of that, I was paid about $920 twice a month, which forced me to keep second and third jobs while still in grad school. I burned out quickly and comprehensively.

Perhaps most importantly, I’m going back to teaching because I miss it.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

All this combined with the millennial scourge of crushing student debt made my situation untenable. I could either languish at home and hope to pay off my loans in a decade or two, or teach in Korea for a few years and not only get out of debt, but save money and travel the world while doing so. It wasn’t a hard choice.

Teaching in Korea couldn’t have been more different. I wasn’t just supported; I was valued. I was given opportunity, responsibility and creative license. I was more financially stable working one job than I was working several in Hawaii, granting me enough personal time to start freelance writing, a goal that was perpetually shelved while I was mired in busyness, exhaustion and debt back home. When I first got to Korea in 2014 I was asked why I’d ever want to leave Hawaii. When I left Korea five years later I was asked why I’d ever want to come back.

But every now and then, amid the perks and pleasantries of my Korean life, the reality I left behind crept back into view. News of teacher shortages, specifically in special education, left me feeling guilty and complicit, like I was actively failing the place I dearly loved. The place that made me who I am.

I knew my time in Seoul had an expiration date, but the residue of my initial stint in the Department of Education was strong enough of a deterrent that when I started making plans to move home last summer, I didn’t bother to look into teaching. Instead, I applied to a local news station. This past year was the first time in a decade that my day-to-day was spent somewhere other than a classroom.

Being at KHON2 News was enjoyable and novel. I learned a lot, did work I’m proud of, and met a newsroom full of talented, wonderful people who I will miss seeing every day.

But that nagging feeling of disappointing my community tugged harder as the months went by. I wasn’t just reading about our teacher shortage; I was reporting on it. It was no longer an abstract problem 4,500 miles away; it was directly impacting people right in front of me.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Objectively, this has got to be one of the worst times to be a teacher in recent memory.

I approached the idea of going back to the DOE with trepidation. Many of the same challenges from when I left are still present, compounded and intensified by the pandemic. Teacher salaries are on the chopping block once again as the state considers continuing the tradition of sacrificing the education of Hawaii’s youth, only this time it’s under the guise of Somber Fiscal Planning.

Meanwhile, plans for reopening are bombarding teacher inboxes with constant changes and adjustments, resurrecting an educational phrase I never wanted to hear again: “building the plane while flying.” The chaos is of course understandable – I do not envy the people who have to decide if or how schools should go about in-person instruction – but the same delinquent trio of low pay, weak support and a grinding work environment remain dutifully loitering on campuses across the state.

Objectively, this has got to be one of the worst times to be a teacher in recent memory. Whether we welcome students back with temperature screens or on computer screens, people will be upset. If I’ve learned anything in the last 10 years it’s that teachers will always be a knee jerk recipient of frustration.

So why go back now?

In a way it feels like a mulligan, a rebuttal to the “why I left teaching” essay I wrote in my head a year ago. I’m oddly heartened, even motivated by the challenges I will inevitably encounter in the coming school year. I’ll be working with a team of passionate, dedicated teachers who have gone out of their way to keep me in the loop and make sure we, as a team, are as ready as possible for multiple scenarios. I know this won’t be like my first experience all those years ago.

More than that, I want to be a part of the community I care most about: Kailua, where I grew up and continue to reside. I want to be a part of my town in a way that I never have. I want to sow myself into the soil that supported me and see what blooms.

But perhaps most importantly, I’m going back to teaching because I miss it. I miss the hilarity and heartache of working with kids. I miss the fellowship of educators, pacing back and forth and throwing ideas on the white board until we figure out a better way to deliver a lesson. I miss being the person my students need me to be, and the melancholic pride of watching them no longer need me at all. I miss challenging my students to be better versions of themselves than they were yesterday, and I miss the bittersweet truth that I need them just as much for the exact same reason.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo nui loa for coming back to teaching. It gives me hope to know there are teachers like you. I've had the good fortune of knowing many caring, dedicated teachers. May you and all teachers continue to learn, grow, and love what you do. Take good care of yourselves. We need you.

KMK · 2 weeks ago

All of the people who are posting on other articles about how teachers have it so easy with a 10 month year should be required to read this article before writing.  Most if not all of them wouldn't make it past lunch on the first day.  Mr. Swinton is also fortunate to be able to live in and possibly inherit his parents' home.  Otherwise his salary might never be sufficient to allow him to buy more than maybe a one bedroom condo.

TH · 3 weeks ago

I taught for thirty five years in the inner city.  I loved my job.  It never felt like "work".  It was a playground with a bunch of wonderful playmates.

Richard_Bidleman · 3 weeks ago

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