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

Blooming Late: Tempering Fears About Unmotivated Teens (Repost From iAchieveLearning.com)

Below is an article I wrote for iAchievelearning.com about delayed autonomy in young people. Blooming late might be more of the rule than the exception today. Visit iAchievelearning.com for tips, tutoring, and more.

https://iachievelearning.com/blooming-late-tempering-fears-about-unmotivated-teens/

 

Blooming Late: Tempering Fears About Unmotivated Teens (Repost From iAchieveLearning.com)

What a Master’s Degree In Education Gets You

To elaborate on the title of this article: not much beyond the walls of a school. I can attest to this. In recent months, I’ve sought high and low for a salaried gig (you know, just for something to supplement my wildly successful writing career). With no experience other than my work in schools, my Master’s degree is worth little. The jobs for which I qualify pay less than half of what I made teaching. No one seems to want me for any of these jobs, so the low pay doesn’t even get the chance to be an issue.

The lackluster versatility of a Master’s in education usually isn’t a problem for anyone who has one. Most people who get education degrees aim to teach for a living. Some enter the field with a Bachelor’s degree and stick around long enough to get a Master’s. Others enter laterally from other fields, adding a Master’s on top of some other degree. A Master’s in education is for people who want to teach. Most of these people don’t need to consider what else they could do with the degree.

An emerging problem might alter the way people view the Master’s in education. Evidence seems to point to decrease in the number of people who want to teach. Several states have been reporting decreasing enrollments in teacher training programs. The degree might become something fewer and fewer people even want. Meanwhile, many who have come to the field are becoming disillusioned with it. With teacher satisfaction reportedly plummeting, the potential exists for an exodus. This could send a glut of ex-teachers with Master’s degrees looking for second careers. Pickings could be slim for them.

Experience working in schools helps teacher develop what should be transferrable skills. Teachers have to be quick-thinking problem solvers. They have to have superb customer relations skills. Running a classroom demands splinter skills ranging from data management to ad hoc therapy. What working in a school doesn’t do is expose teachers to protocols and cultures of other fields. Teachers tend to become somewhat insulated from how anything outside of schools works. Employers apparently think this, even if it isn’t completely accurate. Despite the transferrable skills teaching might foster, some employers see former teachers as damaged goods.

Ex-teachers don’t starve, though. Many find work in industry as staff trainers. Some work for colleges and universities, sometimes as instructors, but more often as administrators. Still others become consultants, while a select few work for educational publishers. Doctoral candidates are often teachers seeking to use their existing degrees to leave the K through twelve hustle. A few discouraged teachers ditch the field entirely and move into sectors like insurance or real estate. Those who want to start in completely different fields either have to be extraordinarily deft at networking, or they have to go get new degrees.

An ex-teacher looking to use a Master’s in education for anything unrelated to education will find it has limited utility. Those supposedly transferrable skills don’t shine as brightly as does previous experience in sales or marketing. Training in IT or finance look much better in the competitive job market than a battery of pedagogy courses. The Master’s in education is good for jobs that have some relationship to the field, but many of these jobs aren’t going to offer even as much satisfaction or pay as teaching. Teachers could be in for a shock when they see what a drop off in salary waits for them in related human service-type fields.

Education isn’t the only field affected by this lack of transferability. Paralegals can’t just leap into nursing without jumping through some hoops. However, I’m guessing an engineer could break into teaching easier than a teacher could break into engineering. Complicating matters for everyone is the trend in higher education of granting highly specific degrees. Some Master’s degrees might be too specific to be practical. This might help in certain technical fields in which highly nuanced expertise is important. Otherwise, it seems more likely to help those higher education institutions who stand to profit from people having to continually acquire new degrees and certifications. I suppose this is a syndrome of the service economy.

Perhaps I’m completely off base about all of this. Maybe I’ve just had no luck finding a gig outside of education because I’m working under self-imposed limitations. I don’t own a car. I’m reticent to relocate. My work history has a few weird gaps. Networking kind of makes me sick. I’m holding to the crazy notion that I should be able to earn at least half of what I earned working in schools. A better title for this article might be “What a Master’s Degree in Education Gets Me.” I keep reading about other teachers who thrive after their teaching careers. Of course, I’ve also read stories about eight-foot-tall apes roaming North American forests.

I’ll close with this: seeking non-teaching jobs has made me almost completely dismissive of teachers who complain that they don’t get paid enough. Yes, I understand the notion of teachers deserving more for what they do, but I’m talking about the absolute value of their degrees combined with their experience. I’m talking about what worth they bring with them in the open job market. I invite those teachers who feel sour about their earnings to look for other work with their degrees to see what they can get. Of course, teachers know their earning ceiling when they sign up for the job. Of course, other degrees come with higher ceilings. Those with no degree at all sometimes can earn more than teachers. Even UPS drives can out earn them. Despite this, I don’t see much being available to teachers with Master’s degrees that will provide for them as well as teaching will. Considering all of this, someone has to really dislike this field to bail on it.

What a Master’s Degree In Education Gets You

Being A Teacher Without Children

I’ve worked with only a few teachers who didn’t have kids. Most of the ones who didn’t have any were just young and waiting for the right time. Eventually, they’d get around to child rearing. The tendency of coworkers to be parents wasn’t some special phenomenon among educators. Most people want kids. Considering this, I’ve always been on the outside for not wanting any. Some people around me found my lack of interest in parenting to be suspicious for someone in the education business.

A more particular situation influenced my branch of the field. I noticed this wasn’t as representative of the general population. Many of my special educator colleagues had children with disabilities. Most of those who did had entered the field in part because of their experiences with their children. Their connection with the field was deeper than just wanting to teach.

My ability to relate was nil. I’ve never had even the slightest desire to breed. Wanting children has been such a foreign concept to me that I’ve struggled to understand what (beyond biological urges) would make anyone crave a brood. As I aged, I began to think people who wanted children had something wrong with them. The best I was able to do was excuse people for wanting children, chalking this up to something that wasn’t for me but might make sense for others. I realized I was the one with the atypical attitude, but I couldn’t subscribe to the will to procreate.

Not only did I not want kids, my reasons for coming to the field were far less personal than what usually drives teachers. I came to teaching largely because I didn’t know what else to do. I figured there’d be job security. The pay and perks would be better than working in retail. As I started, I developed a sense of obligations to students, parents, and taxpayers. I invested time and effort. I developed relationships. I grew attached to my work, but I hadn’t come to the field with any palpable sense of purpose.

My lack of purpose may have affected my performance. It at least affected my dedication. I saw what I did as my job and little more. It wasn’t a calling. It was what I did during the day for money. I wanted to do it well, though. I gave tirelessly out of the sense of obligation I had developed. This sense of obligation was different than having a mission. To my mind, I could end my obligation whenever I wished. It was a contract. Parents usually don’t think this way. They generally commit themselves without questioning their involvement. Without any sense of a mission, I cut my losses when the work became too frustrating. The willingness to quit and the ease with which I did would’ve been uncharacteristic for teachers with kids.

A critical distinction was that I never thought of the students I taught as my children. Actually, I found this reasoning to be slightly warped when I encountered it in other teachers. My disconnect may have influenced my outlook. I could assume the role of an instructor and facilitator. I could assume the role of an interested mentor. I relished the dynamics of my relationships with students. However, they weren’t my responsibility beyond teaching them. Mentoring them in any way was a choice. I saw a definite line separating my responsibilities from those of their families. My interactions stayed squarely on one side of that line.

Similarly, I struggled to empathize with parents. My outlook was unintentionally cold and I realized this. I could contemplate their situations, but I really couldn’t feel much genuine empathy. As mentioned, I couldn’t relate to what made them want to raise kids. More critically, I couldn’t relate to the protective impulse they felt regarding their children. While I understood that they felt this and I didn’t fault them for it, I saw it as something that occasionally clouded their judgment rather than as a relatable quality. When parents insisted that their children were somehow special, I politely nodded along.

I often wondered if my disinterest in having children was part of a personality construct that inhibited my ability to teach. I’m not a particularly warm person. My matter-of-fact approach to everything turned out to be an asset in the classroom, because I ran an organized program and I could effectively multitask. However, I focused more on clinical results than emotional needs. Being detached helped me make difficult choices, but it prevented me from developing connections with some students. I came off as too formal to some parents. I lacked empathy and others picked up on this, sometimes at the worst times.

I was insensitive. I actually had to feign sensitivity in some instances. Working in schools required me to adopt a persona. People around me were better off not knowing how I felt about particular issues. I harbored thoughts others would’ve found horrendous. I privately condemned parents who had chosen to have multiple children while not having the resources to take care of one. Observing the struggle to care for severely disabled children worked as an effective form of birth control for me. I knew such sentiments were way outside the norm for professionals in the field. I kept my thoughts to myself.

Meanwhile, over and over I heard from colleagues and parents, “You don’t understand, because you don’t have kids.” I agreed. Typically, their point was to say I was out of touch in some way. I tended to think I could see certain issues more clearly without emotion-tinted lenses. Maybe those lenses would’ve been helpful sometimes. I could organize a classroom, plan and deliver instruction, and implement useful interventions, but I lacked the sensitivity piece that many parents who taught could naturally cultivate.

I held my own for a decade and a half. When I had enough, I was able to cut bait and leave with little regret. Lack of attachment made this easier. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt this way if I had kids of my own. With mouths to feed, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford to desert my career. My obligation may have felt more like a mission for my children and for the students I taught. I might still be on that mission.

Being A Teacher Without Children

On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

Teaching never felt like a good fit for me. Despite this, I played the part. I maintained a professional decorum in the company of students and colleagues. I kept quiet about my discomfort. While I never would have admitted to students how out of place I felt, I was similarly reticent to share my actual sentiments with other teachers. I had a canned explanation ready in case anyone asked me why I taught. I realized that speaking honestly about much of anything would have confused other teachers. They couldn’t have known that part of my discomfort was knowing  just how different I was from them.

Looking back, I should have noticed the early signs that I wasn’t right for teaching. They were there before I entered the field; even before I started before college. I hated high school. I was disinterested and disengaged. Somehow, I was able to disregard my work but still earn adequate grades. All that kept me out of trouble was my ability to avoid getting caught. I skipped school frequently. I regularly shoplifted and vandalized. This continued for my first few semesters of college. The stealing and destruction increased in magnitude. Had I been caught doing some of what I did, I would have lost my chance to teach. My general dislike for school and propensity for crime were definite signs.

In high school, I had no interest in going to college. I went because I never devised a better plan. My attitude about college was completely negative. To my teenage mind, college seemed like something between a scam and a mirage. People didn’t go because they wanted to learn. They went because they wanted to get particular kinds of jobs. They only wanted the jobs so they could earn sufficient amounts of money. They wanted the money because they wanted to have stuff. I figured if I didn’t care about having stuff, I could skip the other steps. This made sense to me, but no one around me seemed to get my reasoning. As enrollment deadlines approached, I had no concrete second option. I conceded and enrolled, largely because I got a grant and scholarship.

I spent nearly two years fighting the urge to drop out of college. I remained undeclared until the university forced me to select a major. Education hadn’t occurred to me until a friend’s father suggested it. He figured I should pursue special education based on my part-time work in human services. Without anything better in mind, I reluctantly enrolled.

My attitude about my first few education classes couldn’t have been more cynical. I really didn’t want to be in those classes. Although I knew even then that my attitude was affecting my judgment, I couldn’t help but think some of the course content was nonsensical. Much of the theory discussed in the courses was trumped up common sense. The professors presented it with conviction and the students around me eagerly bought into it. I already felt alone.

Listening to discussions between my classmates further highlighted my distance from them. Directly engaging them made me feel like a foreigner. I sought some kind of commonality, but the truth was I simply wasn’t like these people. Not that they were all the same; they weren’t. However, I wasn’t like any of them. My values were different. My tastes were different. I felt like I was acting when I spoke with them. I knew my actual opinions would bother them, so I kept my mouth shut during conversations about sensitive topics. My colleagues had positive attitudes that seemed delusional to me. Long before I started teaching, I had trouble relating to their optimism.

Student teaching should have been enough to tell me I didn’t belong. What I found in the classroom was profound. I didn’t like teaching. I considered dropping out during my final semester. This meant more than my discomfort around other teacher candidates, but their enthusiasm salted my wounds. At a seminar for student teachers, I recall sitting and contemplating leaving the program when I heard a young woman seated near me express how much she loved what she did every day. I couldn’t relate.

Perhaps foolishly, I carried on and finished. After graduation, I looked for jobs in other fields. When I couldn’t find one, I came to teaching. I wasn’t excited to start. I hoped I could fulfill my obligations without screwing up or quitting out of frustration. I ended up quitting a pair of jobs and living off my savings for a year before settling on a teaching job I didn’t hate.

At each school, my colleagues were nothing like me. The differences were fundamental. Most of them had kids or wanted to have kids. I looked forward to the day I could get permanent birth control (I’ve since had that done). I couldn’t relate to their interest in breeding. While sitting in a staff lounge one afternoon, I mentioned my general dislike for small children (I taught in high schools). An aid in the room condemned me, saying I had no business in education with that attitude. She may have been right.

The differences went beyond interest in childrearing. Every teacher in every school owned cars. I didn’t. I was considered weird for riding a bike and using public transportation. Most teachers either had or were working towards having homes. Home ownership seemed like complete misery to me. My colleagues talked about television shows they liked. I had never seen most of these because I didn’t have a television. They talked enthusiastically about local sports teams. I couldn’t have possibly cared less. Many of them drank and liked to get together for happy hour outings. I had no interest in drinking and felt really uncomfortable at such gatherings. Most ate meat. I hadn’t since middle school. At each school, I was the lone teacher who refused to use a mobile phone, who didn’t use social media (I begrudgingly use Twitter now), and who didn’t even have a credit history. I suppose I could have talked with them about our differences, but when I tried that, I just felt even more distant.

I stood out because of what I didn’t do, but also because of what I did do or had done. I had a repulsively foul mouth. I could turn this off as needed, but I know I made some coworkers cringe at the moments I left it on. I tended to snicker at the tasteless and blatantly offensive jokes students told. Outside of work, I had hobbies and history that were unlike those of my colleagues. My interest in cycling and triathlon was something others admired. My interest in firearms wasn’t as well received. I enjoyed gory films and didn’t like admitting what I liked about them to others. I was secretly tattooed (well, I still am) and didn’t want colleagues to see some of the more objectionable images on my body. I had a former life traveling the country playing in filth-spewing punk rock bands. I had spent weeks sleeping in cars and vans and had realistically considered becoming a squatter. I didn’t bother sharing stories about my experiences because I figured no one would believe them.

The differences extended to beliefs. Almost all of my colleagues were religious. I couldn’t even begin to relate to that. I never discussed faith with anyone, because no one would have wanted to hear what I had to say about religion. Most teachers around me were democrats. Although I never identified with a party, I felt most aligned with pure libertarianism (strange for a public teacher, I know). I was part of the union’s building committee in one school, but I had trouble backing the union. I resented being told who to vote for. I didn’t need the salary increases the union demanded. I was satisfied and grew tired of listening to others complain about conditions. My opinions about organized labor in America differed greatly from those of my colleagues. Such differences in beliefs were deeper than diet or television preferences.

Maybe the deepest difference was in how my colleagues viewed their roles. Many referred to the students they taught as “their kids.” They talked about loving their students like their own. Now, I worked hard for the students I taught. I felt an obligation to them, to their parents, and to taxpayers. Along the way, I cultivated strong relationships with students. These were reciprocal and meaningful. I involved myself in their pursuits through discussions, but also through going to see their sporting events, musical performances, and art shows. Unfortunately, I went to several funerals. I was invested in these kids. However, there was a dark line between their lives and mine. They were not my children. Beyond providing them with an opportunity for a fair education, I had no responsibility to them. I chose to involve myself with them in a mentoring role out of human interest, but I was no surrogate parent. Hearing others talk about taking on more involved roles didn’t seem appropriate to me.

From the outside the field, I meet teachers online who continue to reinforce how out of sync I am with the majority of teachers. I see teachers describe themselves on social media as (I’ll paraphrase) passionate life-long learners dedicated to children and thinking outside the box. I see email signatures that include insufferable motivational quotes. There is my cynicism again. I guess I really never belonged in their ranks.

I’ve never felt comfortable in any room full of people. That’s just me. No group of teachers ever did anything to make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, each faculty I met was welcoming and supportive. That didn’t mean I ever felt at ease. Retreating from the field has allowed me to breath easier. I don’t have to pretend to be anything while sitting at my desk at home.

On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: Looking For Another Job

Ending my career in education has given me a taste of the unforgiving job market. The thousands of teachers who flee the classroom each year know this experience. Although I’m currently chasing an atypical second career, recent months have smartened me to the struggles of other job seekers. As a teacher, I had avoided this reality. Stepping outside the security of education has plunged me up to my neck in it.

The build to my departure from the field was long. From the start, I didn’t have strong convictions about teaching. I felt uncomfortable throughout my career. My last few years in the classroom wore at my resolve. Being a special education liaison convinced me I had to leave. While working in that position, I spent my days distracting myself from the misery of my job by fantasizing about doing anything else.

All along, I planned what I might do after leaving. I investigated options and weighed costs and benefits. I devised several contingencies. My schemes for alternate careers excited me more than my actual career. I figured this was typical across professions for people on the brink of leaving. Contemplating how many people loathe their jobs was disheartening.

I had a vision of how I would leave. In my fantasy, I would stride proudly from the tumult, leaving behind those who felt bound to the profession. From there, I would move on to something more dignifying and personally engaging. I would look back and sneer at the rubble of special education. Surveying the ruins, I would feel no regrets for deserting. All would be on my terms.

My actual departure was notably different. For three years, I searched for a new teaching position and an escape from my administrative trap. I wanted out of special education. I had a high school English certification, but no one wanted me for an English position. All my experience had been in special education. In my third year of searching, I conceded and accepted the lone offer I got from a public school (some charters offered positions, but I was leery). To my chagrin, it was for a special education position.

When I started at this school, I found the job was going to be drastically different from what I had agreed to do during the interview. Due to staffing issues, I would be doing two jobs simultaneously without the resources to do either adequately. The working environment was going to be absurd. The teachers around me didn’t seem happy, but they did seem ready to accept ridiculous expectations and substandard conditions. I wasn’t going to play along. The indignity was too much. I left at the beginning of the year, abruptly severing my relationship with the district I had served for twelve years.

I hadn’t expected to leave so suddenly. I wasn’t ready to enact any of my contingencies. Although I had no debt and enough savings to sustain me for a few years, I panicked and decided to find another teaching job. During this round, I opted to include special education positions in my search. I applied for ten positions. Every position was at a charter. Once again, none of the schools seeking general education English teachers got back to me. Out of the ten, I got four interviews—all for special education positions. Three schools made offers. I misguidedly accepted one. Upon seeing what I was going to do all day, I rescinded my acceptance. I didn’t need money that badly. My patience for dealing with special education was gone. At last, I acknowledged I was done with the field.

My plans for what to do post-teaching included trying to write for a living, pursuing a doctorate, or starting a business. Writing interested me the most, but I wasn’t ready to get started with any of these endeavors. Staring at what living without an income was going to cost me, I chose to seek another job for the interim. Someone would hire me, right?

Admittedly, I didn’t put forth a tremendous effort. I only applied for a dozen or so non-teaching positions. Some were administrative positions at local universities. Others were fundraising positions with non-profits. I applied to work for a publisher. I applied to work for an educational software company. Hoping to capitalize on a previous job, I applied to work for a human service agency. In addition to my fourteen years working in schools, I had a smattering of volunteer, human service, and advocacy experience. My roles in schools were varied and dynamic. I figured I made for a viable candidate. No one gave me so much as a courtesy email in response.

These bleak results shouldn’t have been surprising. I had fled the field over a decade earlier. After two years of teaching, I decided I was done (this pattern is revealing). I spent months looking for another job. I applied for a supervisory position with my then part-time employer. I applied for social work positions. I applied to several entry-level insurance, real estate, and financial positions. Nothing. A retail manager snubbed me, as did an office supervisor and a landscaper. My teaching degree wasn’t a hot commodity.

With my pride in tatters, I returned to teaching following that first departure. Getting new teaching positions had never been an issue, as long as I sought special education positions. After quitting my first job, I found another almost immediately. After quitting the second job and spending a year out of the classroom, I got offers for several new and better special education gigs. When I started looking for positions outside of special education, I faced brick walls. I had stayed in special education too long, undermining my chances. The degree and experience continued to offer little mobility.

My resume wasn’t stellar during my first attempt. I think it looked much better for my second search. I had acquired what I thought were transferrable skills. Those who received my resume apparently disagreed. I laughed about how the job searching techniques I taught my former students had failed me. Perhaps I was being naïve. The current job market is a dark place. I probably should’ve applied to forty or fifty positions before declaring myself unwanted. Rather than doing that, I elected to work for myself.

Currently, I’m trying to write for a living. This has been what I’ve wanted to do for years. I’m doing it while I have the financial security to give it a try. I run this blog. I’m working on a book that will critique special education. I’m taking whatever freelance work I can get. The results after several months have been frustrating. Writing is about working really hard to get casually rejected and then repeating that indefinitely. I knew this before the start. For as taxing as it is, I can say with certainty I enjoy it much more than I enjoyed working in schools. From this vantage point, I can look back at the smoldering disaster I left behind and feel good about my decision. I might have to abandon writing and try something else when I start to go broke, but I feel better about this than I would have about slinking back to public education.

I might be happy, but I’m not making any money. Considering how I got shut out while job seeking, I have to wonder how others who leave the field manage. Most of the people I know who left teaching did so over a decade ago. I know far more people who came to teaching from another career or who returned to teaching after a long break. When I read about what teachers do after they leave, a substantial number pursue new degrees. Some people are able to move laterally with teaching degrees, but I wonder if these degrees are becoming less transferrable. If this is true, I’m more worried than ever for those currently planning to teach. I remain among those ex-patriots who would never recommend this field to anyone.

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: Looking For Another Job

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers

Working with student teachers was one of the highlights of my career. I served as a cooperating teacher for nearly a decade. Even after leaving the classroom, I continued my involvement with them by presenting sessions on special education protocol and holding practice interviews. I volunteered to do all of this. I’m glad I did so.

My connection with student teachers was rewarding. I felt a need to share my knowledge and insight with those entering the field. This need stemmed from my positive experience as a student teacher. I had a splendid cooperating teacher and supervisor. They were instrumental in my decision to continue with my career path. Their push was crucial, because I had doubted whether or not I wanted to teach. I didn’t commit until near the end of my assignment. The system of priming teachers turned out to be pivotal for me. As I advanced in my career, I carried a desire to give back to this system.

Giving back resulted in reciprocal relationships. I enjoyed helping them hone their craft while imparting what wisdom I could. All throughout, they helped me grow, even if they didn’t realize it. I felt I had to be at my best while they were in my classroom. Their presence improved my performance. They rejuvenated me too, as their enthusiasm helped me shake off some cynicism. Although I sometimes felt humbled by how they were able to take over my classroom with such ease, I appreciated what they brought out of me.

I’m now on the outside of the field, having essentially fled it. I maintain contact with some former students and colleagues. The colleagues include former student teachers. Despite these remaining connections, I no longer have that direct connection with those staring at the field. I might lack that connection, but I do have this platform as a way to reach prospective teachers.

I posed a question to many of the student teachers with whom I worked. I never expected any of them to answer it. In fairness, I didn’t expect them to be able to so early in their careers. The question seemed crucial, so I encouraged them to remember it and reflect on it at a future juncture. I’ll never know how many formed an answer.

As a way of continuing my connection with anyone considering special education as a career, I’m going to offer the question here. It requires some context. I’ll provide that and then I’ll pose the question directly.

By several measures, special education is a failure. If the goal is merely the provision of services to qualifying students, it more or less succeeds. If instead the goal is to engender qualifying students with the aptitude necessary to functionally participate in adulthood, evidence points to sorely disappointing results. Students with IEPs drop out at rates higher than those without. In some districts, more than half of students with learning disabilities drop out. Think about that: as many as half of the students on an elementary level special education teacher’s caseload—the students he or she gives to every day—might not go on to graduate. Worse scenarios exist. Urban districts serve students with behavior disorders who are nearly as likely to be incarcerated as they are to be employed as adults. Nationwide, unemployment is disproportionately high among all adults with disabilities. Disability benefits are the primary source of income for many former special education students. Such dire outcomes follow decades of special education legislation.

While the field struggles to help students forge independent adult lives, it costs an exorbitant fortune. Students with disabilities routinely cost two to three times more to educate than their non-disabled peers. Those requiring approved private schools or intensive health services can cost as much as a half-dozen general education students. The most disabled and vulnerable students are often the most expensive to teach. This means the students with the least potential tend to have the highest price tags. Special education employs many people, but it consumes resources like no other aspect of education. Unfortunately, it does this while infrequently making a satisfactory difference in post-secondary prospects for those receiving services.

Here is the question, posed directly to student teachers, or to any others about to enter the field: considering all of this, how do you justify the effort and expense that go into special education? Posed another way, how do you explain why schools, states, and our entire society continue with such outlays for such poor results? I’ll offer yet another phrasing: why should we bother?

Having done this for a living, I feel someone signing up to do it needs to be able to answer this question. An answer might help rebuke a critic of the field or explain a career choice to a doubter. More importantly, it might provide a sense of purpose for a new teacher. For some, the answer could veer from any supposed mission. A person simply might need a stable income. One might seek a job with built-in time off. Fine. With what awaits, I think more personal reasons to press on might be helpful.

Special education can be a bleak field. The job can drain the enthusiasm out of the most dedicated teachers. Look at rate of flight from the field if you feel I’m exaggerating. Rolling a heavy rock up a slippery hill has the potential to crush someone. To be more direct, getting up every day to fight a losing battle (or a battle in which victories are quite small) can be demoralizing to the point of driving someone to quit. Without a well-reasoned answer to the above question, I think a new special education teacher’s career could be drastically short, or worse yet, long and miserable.

Much of what new teachers will encounter can’t be taught. When I started, I didn’t realize how dealing with obstinate students who were completely resistant to being taught would feel. I didn’t realize how many parents would be outright combative and how frustrating coping with most irrational among them would be. Dealing with special education bureaucracy wasn’t yet a concern. I hadn’t figured out that I would be a service provider spending at least half of my time staring at paperwork rather than an actual teacher working with students. The desperate imbalance between efforts and results didn’t sink in until after I had started. Hence, I don’t expect incoming teachers to have the perspective to form an answer. This is an inherent problem, but I figure the earlier they can begin to contemplate one, the better.

I might be the wrong guy to ask the question I’ve posed. My aim here is to pose it to others and encourage its consideration. If I can get even one person on the brink of his or her career to pause and reflect on why it might be worthwhile, this article will have served its purpose.

A Question for Those Embarking on Their Careers