The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

This spring, I was having a conversation with a colleague about my career choices. I candidly shared with her how much I disliked what I’d been doing every day for several consecutive years. Her face decomposed to a frown as I spoke. She listened with quiet concern as I explained how little interest I had in my prospects for a new job. While I didn’t think I’d like any of them, I figured I’d end up taking one for the sake of maintaining an income. This upset her. With a look of pity in her eyes, she remarked, “Oh Jeff, you have to love what you do.” What an arrogant sentiment.

Most people in America and around the rest of the world don’t love what they do. I’d suggest roughly half don’t even like what they do. If anything, they’re grateful just to have the opportunity to have something to do in exchange for pay. The best most people can do is to hope to find something tolerable. Simply not hating a job is enough for many. Insisting people love their job is dismissive of the millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide who have no such opportunity to do what they really want to do.

This idea of loving what we do is a spoiled, middle-class American concept. Some of it stems from the years of having parents, teachers, and inspirational posters tell us to follow our dreams. The rest comes from a particular conception of what work is. Rather than a means to an end—a way to support one’s existence— some aspire to make it the end itself. For this somewhat elitist minority, work is a calling. It might be something they believe in or some attempt at personal accomplishment, but it becomes more than just work for them. It becomes what they do, not just what they do for a living. The truth is, decidedly few people have lives like this.

Finding a job to love assumes chasing dreams actually will result in something worthwhile. Sometimes this works. Stories circulate about it working. People get swept up in success stories. These are meant to inspire, but they’re significant because they’re rare. They’re the uncanny ammunition of motivational speakers. A person might dream of writing for a living until the reality of working tirelessly to earn maybe $5000 per year crushes that dream. The same goes for dozens of vocations people chase out of idealistic fantasy rather than practical need. How many people really fulfill their desire to do what they want to do? For that matter, how many people find work they even slightly enjoy doing? Yes, examples exist of those who do. The counter-examples are more plentiful, just less celebrated.

This insistence regarding self-fulfillment and vocational bliss is the arrogant part. People who enjoy their acquired stations often look down in not-so-quiet resentment at those who aren’t satisfied with their lot. A tendency to cast blame exists. Those who have found some kind of coveted occupational actualization might think people who aren’t happy should do something about their unhappiness. The dissatisfied should push to improve their situation and if they don’t, they only have themselves to blame.

Exerting effort isn’t always a recipe for success, though. Plenty of people work hard and make all the prescribed moves, but still fail to find satisfaction in their careers. It isn’t necessarily their fault. At the same time, a great many of those who are content with what they have actually lucked into their circumstances. Those who have what they want too often view what they have as an accomplishment rather than a windfall, just as often as those who do not tend to blame circumstance for their shortcomings.

Beyond ideological exchanges between haves and have-nots, there remains that insistence. Do people really need to enjoy their work? Is work about enjoyment? Isn’t it more about securing a living and supporting the balance of our endeavors? The goal seems like it should be finding something we’re able to do in exchange for pay, not necessarily something we love doing. Matching this with personality is a bonus. Matching it with lifelong aspirations is wishful thinking.

Certainly, spending too much of life working a detestable job would be bad for one’s health. If a distressing job detracts too much from quality of life, quit. No one owes so much to any endeavor to continue laboring for it in spite of personal wellbeing. A gulf lies between not liking work and actively hating it. Everyone is entitled to walk away if necessary.

Most jobs aren’t that bad, though. They might not be satisfying or meaningful, but they usually aren’t unbearable. We typically can go through the motions without much incident. Sure, doing something somewhat enjoyable would be preferred. But how much should we emphasize this in our search for work? What about those who lack the skills to do much more than the most menial jobs? Should they be held to this standard of having to hold a job they love? Can we expect that everyone will find something fulfilling to do?

The notion isn’t based on most people’s reality. It overemphasizes the fortunate individual and is part of a self-indulgence that is one of the least flattering aspects of people born since the mid-to-late 20th Century. Maybe people subscribing to this notion aren’t anymore at fault for doing so than those they criticize for not taking more initiative. I can’t help but think the people who embrace this fantasy are out-of-touch with how the majority of people live. The sentiment might not be arrogant. It might be naïve.

The Arrogance of Insisting We Love What We Do

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

I’m a quitter. Rather than feeling ashamed about this, I recognize the trait as a survival adaptation. Several times, I’ve been able to admit when the balance between income and wellbeing has tipped in the wrong direction. A person doesn’t have to love his or her job, but that person shouldn’t hate his or her job, either. Some work environments are poor enough to make leaving justifiable, even if doing this means giving up a steady paycheck or abandoning responsibilities. In special education, being able to realize this doesn’t make me an exception.

Twice I’ve walked away from my chosen field. I nearly walked away while still an undergraduate. Irrationally, I went ahead and started a career despite my apprehension. I never found that inspiration some take from each day spent working with students. My day-to-day of working in schools dissolved my dignity. The field found one way after another to wear at my will. I suppose working in the classroom had its encouraging moments, but working in administration took years off my life. No matter how hard I worked, results were the same: disappointing. I had to accept that staying around wasn’t going to make anything better. It was going to continue making me miserable, though.

I was able to walk away each time because I didn’t feel an obligation to stay that was more powerful than the push I felt to leave. To be fair, I had the financial stability to be able to fearlessly quit. Not everyone has this. Some who continue only do so because they can’t afford the risk of leaving. Aside from this advantage, I recognized that any obligation to stay only existed in my head. This was a critical realization I’d like to pass to others who press on without regard for the numerous signs telling them to stop.

Teachers, whether on the cusp of leaving a position or the field as a whole, need to understand that they don’t owe anyone anything. They might feel they do because of connections with students or to a community. This is understandable, but a few points are important here. First, a person’s own mental health should be the priority. No one will be much help to anyone else if overcome by work-related depression or anxiety. Getting out with mental health intact is crucial to quality of life. Next, if a teacher chooses to leave, someone else will be along to pick up the slack. This happens all the time. Colleagues are used to it. Students are used to it. Everyone is replaceable. The belief that any individual is irreplaceable is foolish. Schools move on with or without specific team members. Finally, if a teacher leaves one school for another, there always will be new students to teach. Connections can be made elsewhere. As much as everyone would like to believe otherwise, educational professionals are movable parts in a larger machine.

With all that established, this notion of owing anything must be dismissed. In this field, people tend to dress up teaching as a more than just a job. It can be (and maybe should be if it’s to be done effectively), but at its essence, it isn’t different than anything else anyone does for money. A teaching position is an agreement between a trained professional and school to render services provided to students in exchange for pay and medical benefits. That’s it. After contractual requirements are completed, nothing is owed, at least not in an absolute sense. Teachers might feel they owe something, but I would refer them to the preceding paragraph.

Quitting certainly has repercussions. On the school’s end, resources are strained in the search for a replacement. Former colleagues might have to assume some of the deserter’s previous role. For students, stability is upended. The quality of instruction could suffer under a succession of substitutes. For the teacher who quits, a departure could be a dark spot on a resume. It definitely brings a disruption in income, savings, and benefits. It might even represent a personal failure for some.

The guilt needs to be overcome, though. Anyone who leaves any job causes a rift. This rift gets repaired in every other field just as it does in education. The teacher who feels guilt over leaving might be artificially inflating his or her importance. Some teachers who quit do leave quite a void, but again, the educational wheel keeps turning.

Instead of focusing on the negative effects of leaving, teachers who feel they’ve had enough should consider the negative effects of staying. This might be as self-centered as feeling vital to a school’s mission, but I’d argue it’s more important. Teachers need not be martyrs. If any teacher is taking too severe a psychological beating by trying to tough it out, that teacher needs to consider getting out. When the tolls associated with staying outweigh the benefits of leaving, teachers need to drop the guilt and just go. Too many burned out teachers stick around past the point of effectiveness. Quitting isn’t a crime. It might be the best decision a struggling teacher can make. The business of education will continue in the absence of any one teacher. Life will continue for that teacher, too (and might be better for it).

Teachers Who Quit Shouldn’t Feel Guilty

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover

Articles about urban education tend to have a negative tone. Writers relay the sorry state of schools or attack the funding structures that contribute to these sorry states. Rarely do writers come forth with good news from schools in cities. Many use expressions such as “the trenches” or “the front lines” to describe classrooms. The analogies might be exaggerated, but the sentiment is telling. This sentiment hints at a plain but frustrating set of answers to a simple but persistent question: why do urban schools bleed staff?

Everyone in the field knows this is a problem. Popular understanding of the problem isn’t as ubiquitous. The people it affects most—students and parents—might understand it the least. Older students often think they know, but they sometimes assume the most obvious reasons are the only reasons. They might not have enough information to realize the deeper issues. Parents might have a better idea, but might not want to acknowledge the reasons. However, they get reminded of the effects every fall when their children return to school to meet the ten teachers who replaced those who left the previous spring. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators are closer to the causes, although they often see their own circumstances rather than any wider phenomena.

The reasons, for readers who don’t already know, are as follows. The order of importance will vary for the individual teachers who flee, but one of the most common reasons is pay. Urban schools often start new teachers at rates that are competitive with neighboring suburban districts. They need to do this to attract recruits. After just a few years, most of these urban schools no longer can keep pace with what neighboring districts offer. Money can make the decision for new teachers looking to pay off loans, buy homes, and start families. Closely related is support for professional development, specifically tuition reimbursement. Urban schools rarely offer as much assistance with paying for continuing education as suburban schools do. This is crucial for new teachers seeking additional credits or degrees needed to maintain certification. It also helps in schools that offer higher salaries to those teachers with more education. Benefits are less often cited as a reason, but in urban schools that face frequent labor disputes, teachers can get tired of the push and pull. The increased likelihood of staff cuts and associated instability also makes teachers nervous enough to want to leave preemptively. Finally, where residency restrictions don’t apply, teachers quite often choose to live outside the cities in which they teach. This becomes more likely the higher up the salary scale they climb. Traveling into the city everyday starts to become a bother. If a job closer to home opens, teachers tend to jump on it.

After these highly practical and undeniably concrete reasons, teachers look at some intangibles. Teaching in the suburbs has a lure to it, or perhaps a perceived lack of disadvantages. Urban schools face magnified versions of the ills other schools face, along with some ills unique to them. The mythos is that these magnified and unique ills vanish in suburban schools. They don’t completely, but resources usually aren’t as strained and student needs typically aren’t as severe. Less specific is this nebulous idea of becoming “damaged goods” in the eyes of potential employers. The fear is that principals of suburban schools will have such a negative opinion of urban schools that they’ll view any teacher having come from one as being unworthy of consideration. An assumption precedes urban teachers that they’ve learned bad habits and haven’t picked up and good ones while in any urban school position. This leads to a fear among urban teachers of getting trapped by staying too long.

Other reasons related to conditions within the schools have nearly as much weight. Parents don’t like to hear about these, but denying these exist is nothing short of delusional. Working in urban schools is particularly exhausting. All the tribulations of striving in poorly funded schools with disproportionately needy students taxes the will. Teachers might really want to continue pressing on for their students, but the students don’t always make this appealing. While students can’t rightly be blamed, some of them bring caustic emotional baggage to school that manifests as behaviors that are perfectly incongruent to anything productive. This doesn’t describe a majority, but the minority is too distressed and distressing to ignore. The number of emotionally imbalanced students is disproportionate. Many have mental illnesses and related emotional needs teachers simply aren’t qualified to contend with. At the same time, many of these students have underdeveloped skills that appear to stagnate despite all efforts to address them. Trying to make headway amid all this eventually drains. Neighboring districts have their own needy students, but usually not to the same degree or in such high incidence. The climate in schools with so much concentrated human dysfunction can get the better of teachers, especially when supports are lacking. Few teachers like to admit this in surveys and exit interviews, but maladjusted students often inspire their flight to the suburbs.

Inadequate pay and the funding structures behind it contribute to turnover, just as difficult students and the systemic problems in their communities do. Another unheralded contributor is the quality of teachers coming to urban schools. The best young teachers aren’t all clamoring to teach in depressed inner cities. Urban schools too often get teachers who couldn’t find work elsewhere. This is an unfair generalization, as many outstanding new teachers come to urban schools every year. So do some lousy ones. Urban schools can’t be as picky as other schools if they wish to fill vacancies. This influences their willingness to bring in teachers in varying states of certification. These teachers might turn out to be wonderful, but they start in a noteworthy deficit.

All this piles up on urban teachers. As it does, don’t forget that urban schools face all the same hurdles other schools face regarding adherence to standards and emphasis on state assessments. Some argue these disproportionately affect urban schools. Teachers lament this everywhere, so it’s just one more factor opening the exit door for urban teachers. These are large-scale factors. Urban teachers also die a little each day as they feel the nitty-gritty effects of budget constraints. The copier is broken again. There’s no toilet paper in the staff bathroom. We have to move our class to the auditorium because the heater is broken in the classroom. No subs are available today, so a few of us lose our preps to cover classes. Groan.

Combining it all, no one should be surprised that after two, three, maybe five years urban teachers cease to be urban teachers. They leave. Some leave the field, while others seek supposedly greener educational pastures. How many former urban teachers talk about how that city school in which they used to teach was a great place to work? True, they’re biased because they left, but they still left. The number leaving says more about the schools than about the teachers. We should celebrate those who stay—their dedication, their drive, and their endurance. We really shouldn’t blame those who leave, though. They signed up for it, but knowing the scope of what they’ve signed up for is tricky at the start. Feeling it is something else entirely.

A Refresher on Urban School Staff Turnover

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education

Everyone who has any contact with special education can attest to its languid pace. Certain processes move forward at a crawl. School employees and parents alike lament this unfortunate tendency. Newcomers to the field gradually become accustomed to it. Everyone involved seems fond of commiserating about the red tape and redundancy. They simply accept this like they accept bad weather. Why?

Some of those doing the complaining might be jaded and cynical. However, others might be accurately describing the reality of special education. It does come wrapped in layers of bureaucracy and regulation. Most of these layers are meant to protect the rights of students and parents, while some exist so schools can protect themselves. Laws inadvertently create some of the gridlock in the field, but certainly not all of it.

One of the fundamental reasons special education moves so slowly is that everyone working in the field has too much to do to get any of it done effectively. This is a generalization, of course. Some schools presumably have adequate staff to serve their relatively small special needs populations. Then there are all other schools, where the effort to meet the demands created by exceptional learners is an exercise in frantic scrambling.

The following is a typical scenario. A school has a set team of special education teachers, related service providers, and administrators. This team might grow based on the number of identified students in the school and the neediness of these students. Then again, it might not. Already busy with providing requisite services, these teams are forced into unsustainable overdrive by requests for additional services by parents and advocates. The professionals who only have so many hours in each workday (and would like to have lives outside work) do what they can to respond to these requests. Their responses routinely fall short, too often because IEP teams agree to do what they probably can’t do. It usually isn’t a matter of competence or will. It’s a matter of time.

As school teams fail to meet demands, more time is lost in attempting to redress the failure. Legal entanglements ensue. Sometimes these end up benefiting students. Often they don’t in any measurable way. While teams are mired in focusing on a few extraordinarily squeaky wheels, other students suffer. Their needs too often get neglected (or at least glanced over) if their parents aren’t as noisy. These parents might become noisy, though.

At the classroom level, special education teachers only can handle so much. Their training isn’t going to cover all the complexities they’ll face. Parents might be aghast to know how little special education teachers actually know about their craft. Teachers make mistakes. They overlook details, which sadly is excusable considering the number of details to which they’re beholden. The missteps result in further gridlock as parents and advocates call out the school.

Administrators have limited ability to help. Many aren’t keenly aware of special education protocols, another fact that chills parents. In truth, special education law is so convoluted that few school officials have more than a slight understanding of it. As much as they’d like to help, administrators often are wrapped up in coping with macro tasks such as budget reviews or micro tasks such as student discipline. They’re busy. They sometimes fail to respond to teachers and parents in a timely manner, thus further delaying processes. Special education administrators similarly are too busy to help all the teachers who are trying to soothe impatient parents. Teachers ask them for support, such as approval to move ahead with certain processes the teachers themselves lack the authority to initiate. Special education directors and supervisors receive dozens of emails every day asking for the same. The best they can do is triage, which tends to favor cases concerning money. Parents don’t like when they find out they weren’t a priority.

Unrealistic demands can hurt progress as well, with many parents upset that special education doesn’t seem to be fixing their children. Frequently, parents seek some kind of refund for the poor results. While difficult to prove, a few attorneys might be preying on this more than they’re advocating for the rights of children. In some schools and districts, staff can lose track of who wants what with the number of dissatisfied parents seeking solutions. Parents are in their right (most of the time) to want more for their kids. When they all ask at once, everyone is likely to get less.

Special education creaks along because of all this. The lack of time and the constant racing sometimes stem from staffing issues, which usually are budgetary issues. Each also has to do with how much is being asked of schools by parents (which sometimes results from schools not being able to provide enough due to said budgetary issues). Meanwhile, mandated timelines seem too short for school teams, but parents sometimes find these to be suspiciously too long. The required paperwork and record keeping bog down everything. Little issues such as actually teaching during the day get in the way of special education teachers attending to everything else demanded of them. When teams rush to make everyone happy, they end up making many people upset. One shouldn’t be surprised with how unhappy many people are in the sphere of special education.

A Few Reasons Nothing Seems to Get Done in Special Education