Now that some time has passed since the school year ended and I left my high school teaching position, I’ve had some time to reflect. I made the decision to leave over Christmas break, amid heavy frustration and deep-seated anger. Around the same time, a grass-roots education group that I follow put out a call for teachers to “tell their stories”. I decided to vent. My story was posted anonymously to their site, and subsequently shared on half a dozen others. I spent an agonizing week in awe and terror of the power of the internet, hoping no one I knew would read it and recognize me. I want to share it now so that I can explain what I’ve learned (and am still learning) from this chapter in my life.
Why I’m Leaving Public Education – January 2012
I’ve had a radical change of heart recently. Those who worked with me in my previous position as an Instructional Coach (helping teachers to improve instruction and overcome difficulties with high-needs students) must be shocked by the links I am posting online. They might say that now that I’m back in the classroom, I don’t want to practice what I preached. They’d be at least partly right.
Wasn’t I the one reassuring other teachers the new teacher evaluations, based 50% on student test scores, was exactly what was needed to bring credibility and respect back into the teaching profession? Wasn’t I the one who said, “Merit pay? Bring it on! I’ll be makin’ the big bucks!” Yep, that was me. It was frustrating to work with some teachers who didn’t seem to care about their huge responsibility for educating our youth. Reforming tenure and paying teachers based on their efforts made sense to me, at least in theory.
I tried to reassure the teachers I worked with that they were great teachers who had nothing to worry about, and ignored the nagging voice in the back of my head that said it wasn’t so simple –like what about Special Education teachers? I’d worked with one who had a huge case-load of kids, including Jose, a boy with autism who struggled socially and academically but was a gifted artist. I had offered to help Jose’s teacher administer the state test because she had so many students that required special accommodations.
I was asked to read the questions aloud to Jose, and stop if he became agitated. The previous year, Jose had felt so bad about not knowing the answers that he had gouged his fingernails into his arm. This year, they felt he had made great academic progress, and his improved scores would make the school look good. After a few minutes, I could see that Jose was getting upset. I suggested we take a break. He vehemently shook his head, determined to “be good”. When his tears began to flow, I insisted that we stop. Why were we torturing this young man, when, as a student with an Individualized Education Plan, we knew exactly what his levels of proficiency were? Still, I reasoned that it was necessary to assess all students, because we wanted No Child Left Behind.
The following year, we relocated for my husband’s career and I was headed back to the classroom. I was a little nervous; more is expected of teachers now than ever: instruction must be data-driven, lessons tailored to specific “research-based” methods, assessment both formative and summative. Still, I was excited to have my own students again, and felt I still had a lot of “teach” left in me.
My trepidation started in the summer, when my new school district sent me to be trained on a new writing curriculum. “This curriculum will raise your test scores!” the instructor boasted like a circus ringleader (pun intended). The curriculum was completely scripted, requiring students to write using a specific format consisting of at least one simple, one compound and one complex sentence, one instance of multiple modifiers separated by a comma, one simile or metaphor, etc. The idea is to make evaluating writing, a very subjective task, more objective (read: easy for under-trained, low-paid standardized test scorers to evaluate). Apparently it doesn’t matter if everyone’s paragraph reads exactly the same.
I tried to swallow back my disgust and focus on the way this curriculum made it easy for teachers to differentiate instruction. I was determined, as teachers almost always are, to remain positive, improve my instruction, to soldier on. I chatted with the teacher next to me, who said she worked in a district I had heard a lot about – one that piloted merit-pay. When I asked her about it, she shook her head in disdain. “It’s impossible to get the big pay raises unless you are in the principal’s inner circle,” she said. “I’m looking for work in another district.” I was shocked. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
In spite of myself, I began to worry about my students’ test scores. I have always believed that teaching to the test is unnecessary; good instruction leads to good scores. I hadn’t done the greatest job of implementing the writing curriculum; not only did I not like it, but the students didn’t either. Plus, some students were threatening not to take the test seriously – they were fed-up with this annual rite of spring that had no relevance whatsoever to their lives. I could hardly blame them. In fact, one of my students opted not to take the test, but not without consequences. She ended up in my classroom, sobbing, telling me that the other teachers had berated her for not taking the test. I was flabbergasted. This was nothing short of emotional abuse – over one stupid test! Her mother later called to thank me for being the only teacher who supported her, and I shared with her my disdain for the test. Whoops.
The principal informed me I was not to disparage the test out loud – certainly not to parents. I vowed to behave better, though I didn’t really want to keep quiet. Being silenced has the curious effect of making one want to speak even louder.
This year, I did start speaking up. No one else wanted to confront the administration about our school’s focus on one test. Sure as the sun, I was called in to speak with the principal again, the week before Christmas break. He had a list of things I’d said at faculty meetings. “It sounds like you’re not happy here,” he said. I tried to explain that I was having a great year with my students (a project we’d done was featured on the front page of the paper a couple of months earlier), but I couldn’t help noticing the fall-out that was resulting from our school’s focus on test scores. I gave him some examples: a student who told me that another teacher asked him what he liked, so that she could use it to bribe him to do better on the test. He’d dropped out a week later. Another student, who earns straight A’s and participates in numerous extra-curricular activities, came to me crying because the guidance counselor had tried to shame her for not taking an “optional” ACT-prep class in the morning before school.
I asked my principal what gains we would achieve by demoralizing students and making them feel like nothing but a test score. We debated. He suggested that perhaps, over the break, I needed to think about whether or not I really wanted to be there. Wow. Under the guise of wanting to make sure I was happy in my job, he had once again made it clear that I needed to shut up or leave.
I did think about it. I thought about the new teacher and principal evaluations, based on test scores. I thought about my own daughter, an avid reader, being given a practice reading test every Friday, and wondered how long she would continue to love reading. I thought what would happen to me if I decided to opt her out of the test this year and whether I could truly advocate for my own children in my current position. And I decided it was time for me to go.
This week I let my principal know that I am looking for work outside public education. I am heartbroken and will miss my students dearly, but I realize that I can neither teach them properly nor fight for their education while trapped in silent submission.
Looking back, while the outpouring of support I received was gratifying, never again will I write something so critical of my employer without their knowledge and consent. And despite the fact that it resonated with so many other teachers, it had no capacity to effect change. Why? Because it was about moving away, not toward. While anger can be an important first step, it is powerless to bring about improvement. What we resist persists. So what is the next step?
Life coaches are trained to help clients shift their thinking from what they don’t want to what they DO want. Many people are shocked to discover that it’s much easier to say what they don’t want than what they do want. Sure, we think we know what we want, to win the lottery, to be thin, to be famous…But deep down, if we really allow ourselves to explore, we realize that while these things might bring us fleeting happiness, they are not the recipe for a fulfilling life.
Research shows that the recipe for true happiness comes from far more intangible states of being: belonging, purpose, and self-actualization.
Not long after writing that piece, I was forced to ask myself, if not this, then what? For a while, I was at a loss. Dan Miller’s book, 48 Days to the Work You Love, led me to the realization that I wanted to be a life coach. This was not a difficult decision; it was rather like falling in love with my husband: that sense of absolute certainty combined with “I feel like I’ve known you all along”. With Dan guiding me, I coached myself to shift my thinking: instead of away from my teaching position, toward coaching.
Recently I was asked if I had any regrets about leaving teaching. Though I will miss my students dearly, I can honestly say that the decision to move toward something positive, rather than staying in a negative situation, has been the most energizing and self-confirming venture I’ve undertaken in a long time.