Pictured: Teacher entering most traditional schools. (illustration credit: Antonis Papantoniou)
If your job makes you miserable, it probably isn’t going to get better.
At almost any school you will find the lifeless, dead-eyed educator going through the motions, miserable at the sight of their students, administration, parents, or the education system at large. When I first started teaching, many seasoned veterans of the public school system saw my enthusiastic pitch of empowering students as annoying and unsustainable — they’ve seen it all before. “That’ll change after a few years,” they said. Decades seeing the latest buzzword craze, hours-long PD sessions that amounted to nothing, an unwieldy test culture, low respect, low pay, an opaque non-visionary administration — had driven them mad with disillusionment.
Having toured, visited, conferenced, and collaborated with a variety of classrooms, I’m sad to say that so many feature a breathless, terrifying display of soulless education:
You walk into the school and gaze upon a fading row of fashion trends demonstrated over the years via student athletes, an array of sports trophies are prominently displayed. Off-colored lockers are crammed in the narrow hallways with bleak, worn lighting. Students scurry frantically from class to class within four minutes or risk punishment.
Each teacher has their standards for that day’s exactly 45-minute long lesson written on their board. As you look into each window-slit on the door, you find an array of PowerPoints, students passing time at their desks on worksheets, and a few lively group discussions.
Of course, this paints a dismal view of public education. Many have criticized Betsy Devos for her overarching, sweeping statements advocating for more school choice (and our failing public schools). I don’t want to unequivocally paint all traditional public schools as near-prisons — however, I also want to acknowledge the reality of many aspects of traditional ed., in both the physical and policy-realms, as prison-like.
Even schools seeking to change their policies “for the 21st century” aren’t necessarily making grandiose, needed changes to their curriculum. In an effort to combat stale teaching methods, many administrators cram pre-built “workshop” PD to embrace the “newest thing in education!” Although it’s definitely worthwhile to keep up on trends, without any shift in mindset forwhy these techniques matter — or the greater question — what is the role of schooling? — the efforts to push PBL, the other PBL, CBL, the other CBL, Google certified educators, Apple certified educators, the 100+ education apps. to help engagement, mastery grading, competency grading — etc. are lost.
It’s not uncommon to walk into the classrooms described above and see just a minor — arguably improved — change to practice. You may find some teachers using a SmartBoard instead of PowerPoint, or iPads to have students make videos of how they do math problems, instead of filling out a worksheet on how they do math problems, or maybe a “fishbowl-style” philosophical discussion. Again, I don’t want to disparage against teachers that incorporate elements of updated practice, but have an active discussion on why so many educators are burnt out, annoyed with, leaving, and possibly pushing a destructive narrative towards students’ educations. This desire for the latest craze features often “one-and-done” segments that teachers are exposed to, utilize for a few days, then never speak of again. “That was a fun activity!”That’s about it — there was no systemic change to something that could change students’ lives.
Therefore, after 3, 5, 10, 20 years — you’ll find veteran teachers, the most experienced and hopefully knowledgeable educators in the field, spacing out, rejecting, and making resounding arguments against change. I don’t believe this is because these teachers don’t have students’ best interests at heart — it’s because change — as it’s been used in traditional schools everywhere — has had so little meaning. The second someone proposes systemic change, it’s either impossible or too much work — it’s entirely the opposite of what’s always been done. And these teachers are the ones who have sat through vast amounts of boring, head-trauma inducing buzzwords over the years. Sadly, many have lost their love of educational practice — they’ll just do what they’ve always done.
This causes rifts in a school’s community. Teachers on social media decry about the lack of buy-in amongst a sizeable portion of their peers. And, in-turn, it affects them as well: they become embittered. They’re faced with three options:
Move into a different field or look for a new teaching position.
Stay within their classroom, stick to themselves, begrudgingly going step by step — slowly turning into the stereotypical “stick to their guns” educator.
Continue to push for change, but become more and more worn out.
So, what is the solution? I always hesitate to write and talk about this, but I stand anchored in the idea that teachers should educate on what they know is best — through solid research and sought out best practice — even if that means they will face reprimand or be let go.
Adam Grant writes in Originals: How Non-Conformists Rule the World about those who go against the grain and how they take calculated risks to achieve massive success and happiness. It’s not about going “all in” on an ideal — instead, it’s about weighing your pros and cons of making the largest movement-forward possible.
If you’re a progressive educator and teaching best practice is nigh-impossible at your school due to administrators, the state, or the culture, then you’re left with:
You continue to make a (fairly low) salary.
You don’t need to move. It’s safe.
You can continue to impact the students you see, as much as you can, within the system.
You are miserable.
Overtime, you feel yourself losing more and more energy.
Your salary isn’t worth the hours you put in.
It’s unlikely that you’ll see any real change in your lifetime.
The amount of students you can impact is marginal (and surface-level) since you can’t reach nor impact as much as you’d like to.
In this light, I would take a radical approach: teach to get fired. Do exactly what progressive education is: ditch grading, go all out for your students, build passionate projects, disobey standards, reorganize for student voice and choice — every single facet that you know that’s the best (and in the meantime, you may want to line up your options for better places to teach — they do exist.) It’s a risk, but all great changes require it. Personally, I’d rather know that I’ll be happy in my lifetime with my achievements, self-respect, and mission than have employment. After all, with a degree you could take up doing many jobs that aren’t even in the education field (and you may even be happy doing them!)
The sad truth is, I believe that most educators have decided to play it safe over the years, started tackling every new teaching fad when they started — and slowly lost that energy. They weren’t embraced, they couldn’t express their ideals, they decided to take their meager step-based raise and move on. A job’s a job. And that’s it. I can’t express how much the idea of working until retirement (or death) as being once a passionate educator sickens me.
Plus, I know there’s a big caveat: what about my current students? Where will students in this area get a real education? It’s a worthwhile standpoint, and it’s a tough truth to swallow, but I believe that there’s no sustainable way for a single person to fight for everyone. If change isn’t on the horizon, then one will simply burn out.
And, of course, there’s a few educators that maybe weren’t so talented or passionate to begin with. They just flat out shouldn’t teach.
There is one other solution: having a strong, visionary administration who takes time to demonstrate progressive education and push it to their staff. Teachers can be revitalized if the vision of the school is empowering to teachers and guided towards best practice. A strong leader, just like in almost all facets in life, will drive real change. Even some of the most disillusioned teachers will reignite if given an opportunity and real space to do so.
This could take the form of a teacher leader. There are so many teachers doing great things in education — who care about their students passionately — who fight back against the system and encourage their peers, administration, and students to drive forward every day. So many teachers share their amazing experiences on Twitter PLNs and other social media — and I don’t want this blog to imply that it isn’t good practice to do so. Again, however, it is concerning the amount of effort, drive, and energy something like this takes over extended periods of time at unaccepting locations.
This hard-lined approach, in my opinion, is necessary for real systemic change in our education system. Energetic, progressive teachers need visionary administrators who push for and care about their needs — who guide the school towards an authentic, organic community. Without this partnership, change will be too slow for one person to make a large-scale difference. We need people to start a movement, amassing together toward the betterment of our students — and that may just start with polishing one’s resume.