To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

My commencement address would be titled “Envious, But Not That Envious.”

Most colleges and universities will be wrapping up their commencement ceremonies by the time of this post. Thousands of education majors will be hitting the field in earnest, ready to wave their degrees and certificates at schools with vacancies. A few fortunate (or ambitious) types will have positions locked before graduation and will be spending the summer prepping for that petrifying first day. Many more will be scouring the market for whatever position they can find, possibly continuing the search into the fall. It’s a dizzying time for all.

I’m envious of those experiencing any of this. To specify, I’m envious of the moment they’re experiencing. Completing college feels great. Proud reflection on accomplishment mixes with the realization of being free from coursework. The word “career” still refers to a set of aspirations rather than a collection of memories. The moments that will become memories haven’t had the chance to be qualified as fond or regrettable.

Addressing the graduates directly, yes, I’m envious of the moment you’re having. Even if you end up having a second career at some point, no moment will feel quite like this one. What I’m less envious of is your fortune entering the field in its current state. I won’t spoil your moment with a diatribe about education. I will say that the dumb luck of your timing isn’t great, at least from my perspective. Based on my experiences, I’m glad I’m not entering the field right now.

This sentiment risks seeming like that of the guy in his forties lamenting the current music scene and claiming the music of his youth was “real music.” I’m sure some teacher could have pulled me aside back in 2000 and told why I was making a mistake becoming a teacher, along with how much better everything was when she started. If I would do the same today, I’d be ignoring a decade and a half worth of advancements in technology, methodology, and even accountability that have improved conditions for students and enabled the effectiveness of teachers. Echoing the jaded not only doesn’t help much, but it might not be accurate.

I have to echo it a little, though. Every aspect of getting a teaching job has become more complicated since I started. I’d like to say this helps in some way, but I’ve struggled to see how. The day-to-day of being a teacher has become more complicated as well, largely in detrimental ways. The whole of public education stands to take a hammering at a policy level, all while it’s becoming an option rather than an expectation. I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop here. Comparing my early experiences in the field with what I know teaching currently entails, I can’t say I’d want to get started in 2017.

I’m not starting this year though, dear graduates. You are. You don’t have the perspective I have. I didn’t know any better in 2000 when that crotchety teacher would’ve given me an earful about the descent of everything. Without a point of reference, you’re entering the field as though it has always been as it is. This returns my perspective to envy. I think you’re going to have a rough go of it, but you won’t know anything but this.

My hope is that each of you prospective teachers leaving the safety of college for the wilds of the field lands in a position that suits you. That might matter more than anything else right now: a strong match between personality and the culture of a work environment. If these align, wonderful. If not, be not afraid to retreat and regroup. You don’t owe some school your sanity. Don’t forget that while time might not feel like an asset at the moment, it is. I’m becoming more envious as I write this.

Best wishes Class of 2017. I hope you’re still at it in 2037.


To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

The Danger of True Believers

A breed of exceptional professionals stands out in schools. They announce their presence. Those around them witness them working for a greater good with a zeal that can be inspiring or troubling, depending on perspective. Educators of this breed can’t be convinced that they’re doing anything but the most important work anyone could be doing. They’re also convinced they’re the only ones doing this work right. These educators are True Believers.

Who are True Believers? These are teachers and administrators who genuinely buy generic educational rhetoric. They live by motivational posters and inspirational quotes. They believe wholeheartedly that schools are the most important change agent in any young person’s life. They believe every student can perform at grade level and can do this well. They refuse to believe any student can’t do this. Their conviction defines them.

True Believers readily subscribe to the latest in educational panaceas. They insist that macro-level policies will improve outcomes for all students, if followed with fidelity. They find a policy or a program or a methodology and dive into it, convinced this will be the answer to some issue of underperformance. They love throwing technology at any deficit while maintaining how the “old-fashioned” way of doing anything retains its merit. All along, they know they know better than anyone else does.

Often, True Believers find their work in schools to be more than a job. They invest the whole of their being into what they do. They never really stop working, filling their evenings and weekends with school business. This is admirable in many respects, except that True Believers tend to not let anyone around them forget how dedicated they are. The True Believer frequently comes off as condescending and even self-righteous. They have a mission. Anyone who isn’t on board is in the way.

Teachers might start as True Believers. Those fresh recruits with glowing eyes hit the field ready to serve students and to be that change agent. The realities of the field smash many of these new teachers back into the surf like a salty, frigid wave. Others make it past the breakers and end up thriving in the chop. The survivors remain for their reasons, chiefly their belief in a mission. Importantly, many stick around long enough to become administrators.

Actually, a disproportionate number of administrators are True Believers. The True Believer tends to be ambitious, so aspiring to administration makes sense. Administration can appear to be the most efficient avenue for implementing change. A True Believer isn’t likely to see administration at the building level as being akin to middle management. Instead, a True Believer will see it as a genuine leadership opportunity. When thwarted by the practical frustrations of managing schools, True Believers sometimes make their way to district level administrative positions.

The trouble with True Believers really begins when they wield power. Prior to that, they’re merely insufferable. When they have the opportunity to take the rhetoric to which they subscribe and subject everyone else to it, they can unwittingly do some damage. They become inflexible and insistent. They adopt a “no excuses” model and attach this to everything. They see success as the end goal of education and they define success by narrow, quantifiable measures. The worst is that they see their brand of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” or whatever as the recipe for fixing all issues. They expect to fix these issues within the span of a school year, even though no one else has figured out how to fix them in 60 or 70 years. Plus, they’re fully prepared to blame teachers when everything falls apart. Their version of leadership ends up being divisive and leads to low morale.

The lofty expectations of True Believers undermine their goals. They want all students to achieve at high levels. However, they use the least helpful means of targeting students who struggle to do this. The students they attack most often are students with IEPs. Like it or not, these tend to be the lowest performing and worst behaved students. True Believers have a nasty panache for suspending these students and pressing for their failure. Administrators sometimes fear taking any action against students with IEPs, but True Believers frequently show contempt and disregard for the protections these students receive. They want to extend “no excuses” policies in the face of federal law, thinking of themselves as truth-seekers in the process. In doing so, they reveal how silly the concept of “no excuses” really is.

No one can talk with True Believers about the possibility of anything being beyond the control of a school. Suggesting something is outside the scope of what a school can handle is seen as an attack on their faith. Because of this, they end up supporting legislative mandates that heap unrealistic responsibilities on school staff. This makes True Believers unwitting enemies of other school employees. They also set themselves up for bitterness. When their schools continue to underperform, they become incensed, ready to blame the faithless around them for the failures of students. Worse than this is when they misinterpret anomalies in data as evidence of their coveted policies finally working. It reinforces their beliefs even when the slightest examination would prove their policies didn’t in fact affect the results. Again, they can’t be convinced otherwise.

True Believers are more than vain and annoying. They’re indeed dangerous. They’re least harmful in the classroom, but even at this level they can be exhausting as colleagues. As building administrators, they force their unrealistic visions and end up marginalizing the students who most need their support. When they get the opportunity to be policy makers, their insistence and commitment to canned rhetoric lead to their investment in ideas that undermine what teachers are trying to do. Even if their policies have little effect, they still can inflict their will as ratings officers. Think about working under someone who will never believe he or she could be wrong about anything. Dealing with the True Believer in power can end up being the most tiring part of working in a school.

The Danger of True Believers

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

Opting Out in 1994

A recent conversation reminded me that I had been an early entrant in the opt-out movement. Actually, several of my friends and I were nearly two decades ahead of today’s subscribers. Our motivations weren’t especially noble. Our actions had limited reach. Regardless, I’ll proudly claim that we opted out before anyone was using the expression.

I was a high school junior in 1994. My classmates and I were one of the first cohorts to take the 11th grade PSSA in Pennsylvania. Our teachers didn’t do much to prepare us for the tests beyond telling us we had to take them. We were close to indifferent. Getting out of class seemed like an acceptable trade, so we had that. I can’t speak for the parents of my friends, but I know my parents had little to no interest. They probably weren’t aware.

Before the testing window began, we found out the tests wouldn’t affect our credits or academic standing in any way. Instead, the scores would be used to rate the school’s performance. Telling us that was a mistake. We had no reason to care about the tests if they had no bearing on us. Additionally, the idea of being able to make our school look bad by purposely tanking the tests seemed fun.

My friends and I weren’t notorious troublemakers, but we did enjoy subversion for its own sake. Most of us were relatively capable students, but none of us were especially ambitious. Out of sheer laziness, I’m guessing a few of us would’ve given up on the tests about halfway through. Simply skipping school on the testing dates would’ve been the easiest route, but it wouldn’t have worked because make-up dates were prescheduled. The school insisted on us taking the tests. We insisted on not playing along. Worse than that, we insisted on giving the school a black eye out of immature, angsty spite.

We made a pact. Each of us would mark “B” for every answer without reading anything and immediately turn in the test booklet. We’d be taking the test in a cafeteria, so we’d see if anyone balked. Shame is a powerful motivator, although we didn’t need it. On the first testing date, I watched my friends finish in mere minutes, close their books, and hand the tests to the proctors. I felt proud as I did the same with mine. The proctors were angry, but they had little recourse. I put my head down and took a nap with the remaining time. My future glowed.

This wasn’t intended to make a statement. We went through with it because we were lazy and because we thought defiance was entertaining. I have no idea what impact our action (or lack of action) had on the school. I don’t think any of us truly cared if we made a negative impact. We were just being jerks because we liked being jerks.

Looking back, we probably could’ve encouraged more students to join us. We only talked about it within our group. The message would’ve been easy to spread via word of mouth or even a few strategically-placed posters. True to our nature, we didn’t put much effort into our threadbare cause.

Thinking about this makes me wonder how quickly a student-led opt-out movement could spread today. Students still don’t like to take tests. Teenagers in particular like to do what their friends are doing. I’m guessing a test protest could spread nationally in a matter of days. The movement could be called “The Straight-A Challenge.” Teenagers love social media challenges. This one would encourage them to mark “A” for every answer on whatever statewide standardized tests their schools make them take. Yes, my friends and I marked “B,” but “The Straight-B Challenge” isn’t as catchy. I’m not certain the challenge would need to have any kind of social or political slant. I think kids would buy in just the way my friends and I did. For all I know, kids might already be doing something like this.

Opting out was fun when I did it twenty-one years ago. Notions of tests being harmful to child development or counterproductive to learning outcomes meant nothing to me at the time. I had no interest in taking a test that had nothing to do with me. At the same time, I thought poisoning the school’s results would be good for a laugh. I’m thinking schools today are filled with kids who would agree. I’m not advocating for any of them to go through with it, but I might smirk to myself if any of them would.

Opting Out in 1994