The past couple of weeks in my job have been a little weird. I wrote most of this blog post two weekends ago after enjoying one of those “I hate my job” weeks. This past week, however, I’ve been working on a grant that, should I get it, would give me something in my work days next year that would break up the sometimes maddening existence of dealing with childish freshmen all day long. I’m actually pretty excited about it.
Regardless, everything in this blog post is my truth, whether I’m in the midst of a positive outlook or a negative one. Every person in every job experiences both. Every damn one of them. It’s always about whether or not the pros outweigh the cons. For instance, my two main careers in my adult life have been banking and teaching. Let’s do a quick comparison.
My hours in banking were essentially 8:00 to 5:30. I am at school from about 6:30 to 2:30. Advantage, teaching.
When I quit banking, I had been there long enough to acquire three weeks of paid vacation time per year. In teaching, if I spread my check out over twelve months instead of ten, I get about twelve weeks of paid vacation. Advantage, teaching.
The monotony of banking was equatable to spending forty hours a week shaving hairless pigs. In teaching, there are no two days alike, and the likelihood of seeing or hearing something that will make you laugh out loud or bring you to tears is always present. Advantage, teaching.
The “customers.” In eight years of banking, I can’t say I did a single thing that might have a lasting impact on a customer. In six years of teaching, I know for a fact that I have said or done something to a handful of students that will stay with them in a positive way for the rest of their lives. Advantage, teaching.
In banking, especially after they stopped issuing commission for things like new account openings and loan originations, I felt like I was doing nothing but working in a giant machine, making money for already rich people. In teaching, I feel like I am doing something important with my life. Nobody is making money off of my hard work except me and my measly paycheck. Advantage, teaching.
I could continue, because I will work at Lowe’s Home Improvement before I EVER go back to banking, but should I continue with this list, the winner will continue to be teaching. For me, with a very young family and enough experience that I don’t take much work home anymore, it is the perfect career.
But I won’t stay in it forever. Or, should I take on a support role of some kind, I will not stay in the classroom forever. It could literally end in three months. Or ten years. Eventually, I’ll just say I’ve had enough. Here’s why that will happen.
Part 1: The Students
Since my daughter was born in early January, I have worked as a ninth grade math teacher twenty-seven days. In those twenty-seven days, I have taught new material on only thirteen on those days. Why? Well, for six days, we had to administer mid-year assessments that the students knew did not count, and therefore they did not try. No matter what I said – and my rapport with my students is as strong as any teacher at my school – I knew the vast majority of my students would not try. It was a completely wasted six days. I do not enjoy doing things that don’t make sense or waste my time. These assessments did both.
But that’s only six of fourteen wasted days, right? Yep. When I first got back from paternity leave (I took a total of one work week,) about 75% of my students simply looked at the assignments I left for them and emitted a nearly audible, “I ain’t doing that shit.” So what did that mean? That meant I had to spend two days after I got back redoing everything I spent many hours planning for them to do while I was gone. Topics in math often build on one another. I couldn’t leave 75% of my students completely behind. They quite literally would never have caught up. So there’s two more wasted days. That’s a total of eight.
In the past twenty days, I have had to pause my intended lessons for a total of four days because my students enact a nearly universal refusal to actually complete the work I assign them to do in order to practice their new skills. This stoppage of new material in favor of giving extra time to reward laziness has been necessary because of the expectation from our administration and the county office that we do everything in our power – and give them as many chances as possible – to pass our classes. I cannot begin to tell you how badly that eats away at the very foundation of the parent in me. You know, that job we ALSO perform at school in addition to our actual teaching duties.
You could read the above paragraph and say, “Well, it’s your job as the teacher to keep them focused and on task.” Yes, yes it is. I do not disagree. This semester I have 63 students spread across three classes, and that is a VERY manageable number. But the job I do every day is not with the cream of the crop, self-starter students. I teach the “normal” kids at a Title 1 school. For about 40 of my sixty-three kids, their goal is simply “to pass” (and about five to ten don’t even care to do that.) I know this because I’ve had the conversation with all of them. I have about ten who I do not have to beg to do every single thing I ask of them. Those ten have goals beyond just passing my class.
But when you combine chronic, repetitive begging – minute after minute, hour after hour, and day after day – with their chronic cell phone addiction, chronic absenteeism, and a chronic disrespect for themselves, their peers, and me, it makes for a very trying profession.
Oh, before I forget. Those last two days that I didn’t teach? Those are what I like to think of “mental health days.” I assign a project every nine weeks, and I do so for a number of reasons. First, I like to give them a project that incorporates some real life skills into a curriculum of topics they will probably never see outside of high school. Second, if they follow directions, it’s a REALLY easy test grade that can easily help offset some lower grades. This is, of course, an issue for many of them. Last semester, I ended the semester with 54 students. Fourteen of them were perfectly content with the zero they got for not turning in anything for a project most kids got a 100 on just for turning it in. This was, naturally, after MUCH begging and preaching and nearly saying, “Just turn in words and numbers and you’ll get at least an 80.”
(And to update the third quarter project completion rate, tomorrow is the last day of the quarter and 28 of 63 students have essentially said, “F**k it, I ain’t doing it.” It was due last Friday. They ended up getting nearly three full class periods to work on it. I would still take them late. They’d get twenty points off, but I’d take it. They know ALL of this. I barely grade them when they turn it in. They know that, too. It’s the easiest test grade they’ll have in high school. And almost half say, “F**k it.” These kids are HARD to teach.)
Lastly, the reason I like doing a project is so that I don’t have to take work home. A couple of days per month, I give them “project days” where they can use their class time to do nothing but their project. On those days, I’ll typically get about thirty minutes or so per class to catch up on some grading and/or planning. Why only thirty minutes, you ask? Aren’t the blocks eighty minutes long?
Why yes, they certainly are. For the other fifty minutes, I am begging kids to work, I am begging them to stop playing Fortnite, I am answering questions they are too lazy to find in the project instructions, I am teaching fifteen year old kids how to research things on the internet (and they’re supposed to be the techno kids, HA!!,) and I am giving instructions so repetitively it is like I am the subway announcement asking people to stand clear of the doors all day long.
So that’s part one of why I will probably be forced to one day quit teaching. I’m one of those rare people who was built to teach high school kids. They respond to me, I CAN get them to listen, I CAN get them to try, and I normally have the patience of a cicada. The problem is that all four of those things are full time jobs, and there is only one of me, so that means I get about 25% of each one from each student. So while I wholeheartedly feel it was my calling to teach high school kids, I can assure you the patience will end and my calling will expire. It’s not a matter of if. It’s most definitely a matter of when.
Part 2: The Parents
I teach at a Title 1 school with approximately 80% free and reduced lunch. The demographics are approximately 40% Hispanic, 40% black, and 20% white. I pass no judgment on those demographics. I love ALL my kids. I truly enjoy teaching at a challenging school because it challenges ME. But when I consider the impact parents will have on my decision to one day leave teaching, I have only one simple question.
These kids have parents?
Part 3: The Fluff
I could have titled this section “The Administration,” but it’s not all about them. I get the impression that in many cases, they are simply following orders from the county office anyway. The fluff is all the stuff we deal with outside the classroom that impacts (and sometimes greatly impacts) the success we have inside the classroom.
When I say the word “impact,” however, I am struggling to find a scenario where I might use that word in a positive light. Most often, the fluff has a negative impact on our success in the classroom. Why? Because professional development is often an entire day filled with stuff I could have read in a ten minute email. Often it is filled with stuff so stocked full of common sense that I really want to create a PD workshop of nothing but regurgitated educational theory, quotes, anecdotes, and best practices, make it flashy, create a Powerpoint presentation, maybe invest in a teacher tie, and then see if I can get two grand a day to go present this educational vomit to schools across the country.
The overarching theme of professional development – at least lately in my opinion – is “How do we get kids to excel?” I teach kids that literally just want to pass, and since most of what professional development pushes is how to make kids excel, what good does it really do me? I would be better off – and my students would be better off – if I spent that time trying to figure out how to make quadratic functions relatable to fifteen year old kids. Only then will I get the effort out of them that is required to push them a little past “just passing” and into “average” territory. Most of my kids are not ready to excel. They don’t know how. They come from homes that don’t instill that expectation and they’re unable to model it. They need little victories to help them catch even a glimpse of AVERAGE.
And, yes, I admit, I’m being a little tough on the kids with this assessment. When 80% fall under that assessment, however, am I not only trying to be fair to the majority? If the majority of my kids have no idea how to strive for average, why in the hell would I put much stock in how to teach them to excel? I need to spend my time trying to find their niche or their trigger. Why do I need to know how to incorporate enrichment activities for the “high flyers” when I struggle to keep the “low flyers” off the ground?
Professional development is not one size fits all. My kids would learn more, and be better prepared for life after high school, if I skipped it. I would be better off going to trade schools and asking them to show me all the math they teach there. Imagine if I knew how to relate math to cosmetology or diesel mechanics or plumbing? Even if I teach kids who are destined for college, would they not benefit from some knowledge about what to expect from the people who will one day be fixing their hair or their car or their shitter (and quite possibly making more money than them?)
We had ten days of professional development in August this past year before school started. TEN DAYS!! That was six months ago. I could not tell you a single thing that happened in those ten days, other than the day and a half I actually got to spend in my classroom. Can you imagine what I could have accomplished if we had had representatives from ten industries sit down and comb through the Math 1 curriculum with all of us Math 1 teachers to see how we could relate it to an area our students might be interested in pursuing one day?
That is, of course, just one idea (and perhaps an impractical one) of how to make better use of our time, but it’s better than what we’re doing now. An even better one might be to allow us the time to actually make some progress on the county’s “JoCo 2020” campaign of incorporating personalized learning across all subjects and grade levels.
When I spend ten days in professional development learning common sense that often does not apply to me, and then I spend every weekly Math 1 meeting looking at how to incorporate arbitrary “data” that’s about as reliable as using cooked spaghetti as shoestrings, how can I even attempt to incorporate true “personalized” learning with any real success? Planning already takes a LOT of time. Planning for sixty kids to be at sixty different places in the curriculum, plus planning unique pathways to mastery, remediation, enrichment, and, in some cases, individual assessments, is already a nightmare I am thus far refusing to attack.
Additional fluff at school can take many forms. There was a two week span a few weeks ago that I lost my planning period for two straight weeks. One day was a workday (with completely worthless professional development,) but over that two week period, I lost nine consecutive planning periods. We had our weekly Math 1 meeting each week, plus an emergency Math 1 meeting to discuss meaningless mid-year assessments (see first section,) so that’s three out of nine days gone. I had to attend an IEP meeting one day, I had a parent meeting another day, spent one entire planning period making copies for all the students who had lost or otherwise not completed the worksheets I had already given them once before, spent another day with our “Teaching and Learning Coach” completing an online professional development activity that even he admitted was pointless.
Well damn. That’s only seven days. I lost nine in a row. I don’t know what else happened. More damn fluff, that’s all I know.
I hear teachers all the time talk about working seventy hour weeks and how they work nights and weekends and they plan all summer. I’m not doing that. I’m sorry, I’m just not. I love my job, and I love doing something important with my life, but THE most important jobs I have are that of husband and father. If I am missing out on those two jobs because of the one that pays me, I will find another place to make a wage.
This is my sixth year of teaching, and I’ve worked a LOT of nights and weekends to get to this point, but with experience comes better planning skills, better time management skills, better knowledge about what assignments give the most bang for the buck, and a better understanding that my job, first and foremost, is to make kids believe in themselves. I don’t need to work nights and weekends to accomplish that. I’m good at that.
But I freely admit that I sorely lack the attributes necessary to be a GREAT teacher. I may have the patience of a cicada most of the time, but I only have it because of the sarcasm that balances it. Many ninth graders simply do not understand sarcasm, so they sometimes look at me like I’m wearing a horse saddle on my face. That’s why, for the most part, I’m either loved or tolerated. I can’t say I’ve had more than a handful of kids truly hate me, but a whole lot enter my class with nothing more than a goal of surviving for eighty more minutes.
I also lack the ability to find any snippet of good out of an entire day of professional development filled with more educational vomit. I realize that my attitude going into these days could use some minor adjustments since I see it as educational vomit prior to walking in the door, but attitudes and preconceived notions are borne through experience. I’ve had a LOT of experience with the vomit!!!
Perhaps we need to give our teachers better experiences? More appropriate experiences? Experiences that recognize a Spanish teacher and a math teacher should perhaps develop and grow in their professions a little differently? Maybe let’s acknowledge that the data being forced down our throats in PD (and in almost every weekly department meeting) is sometimes applicable to only a handful of students? Maybe the greatest form of “data” about students should come from their teachers, not some crappy diagnostic that a kid spent more time trying to create words with the bubble sheet than they did trying to answer questions.
I just read back over this section of “The Fluff” after a week of not having time to touch it, and you know what my first thought was? I sound a little lazy. I sound a little uninspired. I sound like I’m not the best team player. Some of that may be true. But my words carry nothing but truth. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have read back over it and my second thought be, “Every teacher that reads this is going to nod all the way through it.”
But the Grass Ain’t Greener
The list of things I like about teaching FAR outweighs the stuff above. Seems hard to imagine after seeing all the negative stuff, huh? But it does. No doubt in my mind. I work at a school where I am not micromanaged. They know I do a good job, and they let me do it. I can leave most afternoons by 2:30 and be home by 3:00. No nights or weekends. There are not many professions that can say that.
I really like working with high school kids, even when I am ready to give them all a treat and lace it with super glue so they’ll shut the hell up. But those kids keep me young. Some of them inspire me to act like it. I love seeing a kid that has never passed a math class on his own showing the motivation to work for ME. He might not work for anybody else, but he’ll work for ME. That kid will pass my class a hundred times out of hundred. Effort is SOOOO much more important than intelligence.
I love to get to know the kids that are so embarrassed by their home life that they walk to school rather than have the bus stop at their “house.” If they walk, the other kids can’t see where they live. But when they get to school, they’re equals, and in my damn classroom, if they are not TREATED as equals, I will embarrass the hell out of somebody. I have a ZERO bully policy, and I will enact it with full deployment even if it means the BULLY feels bullied.
I’ve read other blogs about why people leave teaching. These thoughts are really not new. Maybe some different ways of saying it, and maybe a little more honesty and candidness, but nothing totally new. The way I see it, we have two main problems with education today, and as they get worse, we will continue to see teacher shortages. And pay is NOT one of them.
The first problem is the entitlement of today’s youth. The second is that we have allowed it to alter our requirements and expectations of those students. That shit does not sit well with me. You are not allowed to be disrespectful without consequence, and yet they are and there is no consequence. You are not allowed to do nothing in my class and pass, and yet I feel pressured to push kids on through. You are not allowed to NOT turn in a test or project and get anything other than a zero, and yet we have policies in place to give them a fifty.
You are not allowed to half-ass your way through high school and get the same diploma I got, and yet they carry the same weight mine does. You are not allowed to play on your phone the entire time I’m teaching and then ask me questions, and yet they try. That shit doesn’t work with me, but they try. I tell them they better go find a friend or a YouTube video. Those are the kids that don’t like me. I don’t cater to their disrespectful, entitled needs. But their parents do. Society does. Worse, the school system does.
The entitlement displayed by the majority of kids I teach comes from two places: home and school board policies. The home I can’t do a damn thing about, but I can complain about the policies. Why should I be made to feel guilty if a kid EARNS a failing grade in my class? Why are we mistakenly equating “pushing them on through” with “helping them believe in themselves.” No. Just hell no. Life is all about failing and getting your ass up off the mat and trying again. Life is about putting the damn phone down on your own and learning to work because I refuse to fight the cell phone game with you; grow up and put it down or fail. Your choice. It absolutely pains me to see these kids passed on through when they DESERVE to learn how to respond to their own failure.
Still, the grass isn’t greener on the other side. But is the grass better for my peace of mind? If I can’t stand the direction of our education system in this country and feel helpless to change it, am I not better off finding peace in my career? I don’t know the answer to that yet. I’m at peace with my job about ninety percent of the time.
Teaching is one of the most important jobs on this planet. I’m absolutely proud to be one. I’m even prouder that I truly believe I make a difference. But I admittedly do not believe in the Utopian importance of my job the way I did six years ago. I believe we are trying really, really hard to not hurt anybody’s whittle feelings, and the system is slowly turning into an unsustainable input/output machine where the product exiting is actually worse off than the product entering.
I could write SOOO much more on this topic, but I’ll leave it with this. If I taught the way I truly believed I was going to teach when I started this journey, I would currently have over half of my students failing my class this nine weeks. They would only need to do three things to pass. They would need to listen, display effort, and complete assignments. That’s it. They would ALL pass if they did those three things. Listen, give effort, and complete assignments. Notice I did not say a single damn word about anything they completed being correct.
Over half of my kids can’t do those three simple things. And I’ve preached that sermon about fifty different ways and tried fifty different tactics to touch on all the “learning styles.” Something needs to change or those of us with principled expectations are going to get chased out. It will probably take me years to get to that point, but I can assure you of one thing. If my job ever leads me to want to drink, I’m done. I’ll call the front office that very day and say, “I need some coverage for the rest of the day and a long-term sub. If you find anything of mine in this room, find a needy kid to give it to. I’m out.”
I honestly don’t see that happening. It would have to get REALLY bad for that to happen. But if it did, I would be out. And I would sure miss those twelve weeks at my favorite job.