Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's the substance & the stress (not the salary), stupid.

As some of you know, I am starting to look for, ahem, a job, including positions that would put me back in the classroom. The position of "unpaid writer" isn't exactly putting food on the table and I'm starting to feel antsy writing so much about education without actually doing much about education. Reading over and updating my teaching resume, I am reminded of former students, colleagues, schools, and yes, curriculum. I am reminded of how much I enjoy teaching, for teaching itself but also for the content I got to ponder. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and went to an elite college. I'm "the type" many education reformers talk of attracting to teaching and, initially, attracted I was, but given what teaching has become in many cases, I am somewhat reluctant to go back.

The first reason is the working conditions. While I agree teachers are underpaid and I appreciate Secretary Duncan's strident acknowledgement of this, I would do the work at the current salaries if the working conditions made the job more manageable: if I knew classes would be reasonably and appropriately sized; if I were given adequate time for planning, development, collaboration, and frankly, bathroom breaks; and if I knew the school where I might work would be fully staffed with content teachers, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker, enough administrators, etc. If I knew I could do an adequate job in a 40-hour week (obviously, it would be more some weeks and a bit less during others and yes, the work would always be on my mind), I might never have taken the break I did in the first place. I can't work the punishing hours because I have my own children to raise. And I'm in favor to the idea of changing compensation systems to reflect the different roles and demands of different teaching jobs. If there are teachers out there who have the space in their life and desire to take on more work and responsibilities than I can, I think they should be paid more. I would be happy to take on a lesser teaching position for less money than a harder working colleague if it meant I could be in the classroom again and still be the parent I want to be. Unfortunately, it became clear to me that I had to choose.

Second of all, I was attracted to teaching because it's intellectual, interesting, stimulating, creative, and socially useful. Well, at least it should be. As Diana Senechal put it in this comment:
The McKinsey researchers examined teacher recruitment and retention in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. They found many factors that make teaching an attractive profession in those countries: salary, job security, autonomy and trust, cultural respect, and more. Given their own findings, it’s odd that they or anyone would conclude that financial incentives should reign supreme. And there were things they should have investigated but didn’t–for instance, the intellectual and spiritual appeal of the profession.  
Look at the talented people in professions where the pay is decent but not stellar–the arts, humanities, teaching, scholarship, nonprofits, journalism, and more. What brings people to these professions? Not incompetence, but interest. The work has substance.  
But when the substance is driven out, when the work turns into busywork, people turn to professions that offer the combination of qualities that they seek.
Yes, the work has substance. Or it did. Or it should. Of course teaching is going to have some busy work--all jobs do. Sometimes I even look forward to the busy work as it gives me a break from the harder tasks of thinking, evaluating, planning. Of course, there are going to be some tasks I enjoy more than others. Reading up on the Bubonic Plague, planning how my students will learn about it for a world history class, and then assessing what the students have learned counts as enjoyable. Figuring out how to teach the standardized reading test to my world history students and doing a technocratic version of reading tea leaves, i.e., charting who got the "main idea" and "context clues" questions wrong on said standardized tests is not. And when the job starts to become mostly useless, fruitless busy work and mostly teaching vapid curriculum, that's when I'd rather work as a self-employed, unpaid writer and blogger or work at something less demanding that would still save time and energy for writing.

As Nancy Flanagan put it in her typically thoughtful way,
Good teaching is not about classroom rules, cute videos, raising test scores, cool field experiences or unions. It's about relationships, mastery, analysis, persistence, diagnosis and continuous reflection. It's complex, layered intellectual work. And it happens in hundreds of thousands of "regular" classrooms, every day.
Yes, it's complex, layered, challenging, and intellectual work with so many decisions to make at almost every turn. This is primarily why I want to do it. Okay, so the pay isn't great, but when you take away the substance of it, I no longer even enjoy the work and I don't want to do it. I'd rather do something mindless (wait tables, bar tend, or be someone's personal assistant) where I won't have to go against my principles.

As teacher James Boutin describes here (and again here), at some point in my teaching career, I began to feel like a bureaucrat:
During a visit I made to a private school in Denver last November, one of the teachers there confided in me that he moved out of public education because he didn't want to be a bureaucrat. The comment struck me. I'd never thought of myself as a bureaucrat before, but he's right - I am.
Yes, there's certainly more room for me to be more data-informed and consider the values of a technocratic approach. But if that's what I wanted to do, I'd go be a bureaucrat or a technocrat. If I wanted to teach test prep, I'd go work for Kaplan. That's not what I see as the primary role of a classroom teacher. As James further demonstrates in this must-read series, the data-driven dimension of teaching has gotten out of hand and has become a huge waste of time and resources for educators and students alike. Moreover, as I was engaged in it and was forced to make ill-advised curricular choices, I realized that such tasks weren't helping my students learn or improving my teaching, but were fueling political point-scoring and sustaining the education reform industry.

So thanks, Arne Duncan, for saying teachers should be paid more and thanks for your attempts at debunking flawed research that states otherwise. For a next step, consider advocating against acceptance of the "new normal" that translates to terrible working conditions for teachers and principals and terrible learning conditions for students. And then consider how you're going to attract more serious college and graduate school students to the profession if the work you're asking them to do lacks substance and insults their intelligence and, eventually, expertise. Finally, consider that if the most educated among us don't want to do to the work because it's bankrupt of creativity, intellectual exercise, meaning, and substance, then the education our students are going to be getting will hardly be rich, meaningful, and relevant. Think about how many of our best and brightest would rather get paid poverty wages working as adjunct professors and journalists than teach in the classrooms your and your predecessors' policies are molding.

Perhaps this isn't the best post to put out there as I apply for teaching jobs, but then again, I'm not going to lie or pretend. I'm going to do my best to be a team player and to be open to the advantages of a more quantitatively- or data-based approach to teaching. But I'm not going to give up my principles or knowingly engage in educational malpractice. Frankly, I'd rather scrub floors.


  1. You might consider teaching overseas. We're not tied to standardized test scores, class sizes are usually reasonable, and the housing comes as part of the deal (so you can keep your current house). Parents tend to treat teachers with more respect (especially in Asia where it is a cultural expectation), and you'll probably have specialists to teach art, PE, and a foreign language. So, you'll get bathroom breaks too.

    I love teaching overseas because I spend my time planning, instructing, assessing, reflecting, and communicating with parent. Really.

  2. Here here!!!!!!
    Thank you for writing this!
    I too am a former history teacher and miss the classroom so badly. I am currently in a "mindless" job that allows me to be the parent I couldn't be while teaching. The most important thing I did in the classroom was build relationships with my students and create a safe environment for them to take risks and express themselves. That is what I miss. What I don't miss is data meetings during my planning time, being guilted into working 60 hour weeks and falling asleep every night at 7:30 with papers left to grade.
    I wish you luck in finding a job where you don't have to compromise your principals or the balance of your sweet family. If you find this kind of job as a teacher (in the U.S.A) please let me know!!!

  3. @Janet - I would looove to teach abroad. My plan during grad school was to do just that and then I met my now husband and instead of going to Turkey, I went to Central Virginia, got married, had kids, bought a house. . . But perhaps when the kids are older. Thanks for reading & commenting. I look forward to checking out your blog.

    @Gretta - Thank you for reading & commenting. It seems like in education there is part-time or less intense work that is less meaningful or there is full time work that is more appealing but also much more time. I will let you know what happens, though I fear I may not have time to blog or write anymore after that.

  4. Thank you Rachel for your blog entry. Seven years ago I made the decision to leave my career as a software engineer and become a teacher. After about 20-some years, I had lost motivation for programming. I just couldn't force myself to do the work that I was being paid to do. Plus, I was laid off three times. But the last straw was the software company hiring a new vice-president and giving her a one million dollar interest-free loan, while at the same time laying off engineers.

    I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I did a lot of "inventory" work. A friend finally suggested I write down all the things I love doing in life. I did that. Tubing down rivers, working with children, testing software, photography, etc. I then analyzed those 20 things and decided that the one that I could make a living with was working with children. I wasn't sure if that was directly working with them, or indirectly. Should I work for one of the many fine non-profits that do wonderful work FOR children, or should I work with children. I decided also that I wanted to make more of a difference in life than I had been as an engineer. The only difference I was making there was giving the higher-ups more money.

    I then found a program at the Univ. of MD where I could get my Masters in Education in a year, provided that was the only thing I did. I took 42 college credits that year, and student-taught at a large HS in this area. Needless to say, it was a very busy year!

    I am now certified in three areas: math, computer science, and technology education (took the PRAXIS test to get that one). The funny thing is, I am now teaching what I had lost motivation to do: programming. I teach a HS class for Writing Mobile Apps! Plus I teach three Honors classes in math. It's a great school (ranked #1 in MD).

    Did I make the right decision? It's exhausting. It's frustrating at times. It's extremely challenging. But there's nothing that could match the relationships I have formed with the kids. I work with about 135 kids a day now, rather than sit in front of a computer screen all day long. I have responsibility for finding ways to teach all these kids.

    In the end, it comes down to, I have become a contributing member of my community. I couldn't ask for anything more.

  5. @ Anon 11:33 Thank you so much for taking the time to compose such a thoughtful & inspiring comment (& for your service!) I hope you stay in the classroom for a long time to come.

  6. Oh. -- oh. We could start our own school. We could call it The Diffendoofer School. It'd be awesome.

  7. Thanks for the quote, Rachel--and for writing a powerful piece on what teachers really want.

    I don't think there's a better model for what motivates candidates to pursue teaching than Daniel Pink's: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Think of what we know about teachers in Finland, who have all three (plus higher social status).

    Now think of how ed-policy is re-shaping teaching. Scripted curricula. Elevation of unprepared teachers and their personal "grit" over fully prepared and certified teachers. Suggesting that teachers' true purpose can be altered by offering them more money. There go autonomy, mastery and purpose, down for the count.

    Great piece. Will share, widely.

  8. I love *Hooray for Diffendoofer Day* It's one of my favorite books.

  9. I came to public school teaching late, as it happens after 10+ years working with computers. Now in my 17th year and approaching my 66th birthday, I give serious thought to leaving the classroom after this year. we don't have children of our own, so I have been able to put in the 50-60 hour weeks of teaching, planning, mentoring, and all the (largely unpaid) writing I do on education, etc.

    This year I have no bad kids. I wonder if that is the sign that this should be how I go out? Also, I see education and teaching very much at risk, and have to wonder if I do not have a responsibility to focus my time and energy to try to prevent what could be a disaster.

    I talk with other teachers in my building (I am lead union rep) and in other buildings and the frustration of being the whipping boys for politicians, for those who seek to profit from the public purse, contribute to many also considering leaving. Increasingly senior teachers who have stayed when they could have retired are leaving as soon as they are offered a buyout. I know such buyouts make some FINANCIAL sense for the school system, and they often do for the teachers as well - which is why I may myself take one. But a building can quickly lose much of its expertise, community memory, etc. We lost 7 senior teachers last year to buyouts. The school is noticeably different as a result.

    I think the problems will not change until the voices of teachers are much more a part of the discussion on policy, not merely through what we write electronically, but also sitting at the table when the decisions are being structured.

  10. I'm so glad I found my way to this blog! It's always nice finding like-minded teachers. I also left the classroom after 8 years to be a stay-at-home mom for awhile. This is the first year that I am not teaching and I honestly miss it so much.

    I really want to get back into the classroom next year, but I'm afraid that I won't be able to find a school that allows me to work to my full potential. It seems like every summer I would use my time to develop great units of study and try to fine tune my craft, only to be blindsided by last minute changes and newly mandated curricula and schedules. Somehow I need to find a subversive principal that will allow me to be creative and inspirational.

  11. Thanks so much, Eillen. I'm glad you made your way here, too. And I share your fears.

  12. Thanks for this post, Rachel!

    As I look for teaching positions and research various districts in DC, I am surprised and dismayed to find that the spiritual and intellectual challenges that drew me to teaching in the first place are being squeezed out in favor of accountability. One district even requires teachers to give a standardized test every 6 weeks on a bundle of the CCSS. I could handle a common assessment a few times a semester to keep members of my department on the same page regarding rigor, but these assessments aren't even created by teachers. They are imported from an assessment consulting firm--whatever that means. I don't get it. Ed reformers want to recruit highly qualified teachers but then don't trust these teachers to teach! What gives?

    I wholeheartedly agree that those who enter our profession are not motivated by salary alone. Are teachers not the most intrinsically motivated people on the planet? It is the work that gets us out of bed in the morning, not the paycheck. It is the kids and the content and the magic that happens when our students discover for themselves the things we have been studying our whole lives. I would never trade the heart and soul of teaching for more money; I would simply find a new job.

    Looks like I have my work cut out for me as I continue in the job search.


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