Wednesday, January 21, 2009

pride and prejudice

Read at your own risk. This stuff has been rattling around in my head for quite a while, and it turned into a giant rambling mass that i can't even think about going back to edit or organize or clarify any further. you should know by now, faithful readers, that i'm not the most articulate on the block. but you can't deny my passionate ideas. :) so yeah, this post: it's long, it covers all kinds of things, and it's probably all selfish drivel. here it is anyway.

So a post summarizing and linking to my 'being resigned' post sparked quite a debate among commenters over on gothamschools. i think that link was responsible for a tripling of page hits, which i can never complain about.

there are some nuances of the debate that i'm having trouble reconciling. i commented early in the thread, in response to another comment, but i chose not to respond to the further comments.

the debate started about me and my quality of teaching but grew into an interesting tangential discussion about responsibility of learning.

one thing that bothered me was that it didn't seem like any of the commenters had actually read my blog at all, but instead were going on an excerpt from one post and another person's summarization of me and my teaching career. i was unfamiliar with almost all the names of the commenters too, which sort of proved my point to myself. now, i suppose this is a pride issue for me (i can admit to a bit of comment whoredom, like most bloggers, i'm sure--comments and page hits are a boon to the ego).

but the bigger issue is it seemed irresponsible. who are these people to make judgments and comments when they really have no idea of what happened? i'm not trying to be all defensive, i'm just thinking of realistic reporting and knowledge. just because someone posts a blurb about some other event, you think you can pontificate and judge that event when you have done nothing to actually learn about it first hand? It smacks of laziness and quick judgments, and the fact that I was the subject of the judging is only the impetus, I swear. :) it's like those hundreds of people who make derogatory comments on an online news brief. when you've only got a few sentences to read, surely you realize on some level that you're not knowledgeable about the situation. And sure, everyone's entitled to his opinion, but jesus, at that point you really don't even deserve to have an opinion!

Understand I'm not knocking the commenters on that gothamschools post here. (And my earlier point about reading will be proven--I'm betting they'll never see this.) I wish they had taken some time to read and get some more background of the situation.

the events that took place that fateful day (which i have since christened Freedom Day, and put it in my online calendar to observe it annually) were the culmination of five months plus four YEARS. not only is that a lot of blog, it's real life that even the most dedicated reader can never fully understand, because only i lived it. i've written anecdotes, both good and bad, over the years. i've talked about lessons i taught or wanted to teach or funny/stupid/awesome/ridiculous things my kids have said/done/written. i've talked to real life friends and family about my experiences, but even they were never in the classroom with me. i could babble for months and never convey the complete truth. because really, what is truth in a classroom of thirty people and managed by more behind the scenes? each of us in that room has a different reality and perspective. and days i thought were great maybe were bad, maybe days i thought were shite were actually okay. maybe i was a stellar teacher, maybe i was the worst teacher of all time.

my instinct, and probably yours too, is to say that it's somewhere in the middle--that all teachers fluctuate in that middle zone. we've got off days just like everyone else, only our off days are either caused by or forced upon thirty other people (or up to a hundred for us secondary teacher) stuffed in the room with us. teachers don't get to hide in their cubicles or take extra long lunches on bad days, and most of us won't call in sick even when we're actually very ill.

one mention was the school, and that someone could be good at one school but bad at another. and that's a weird phenomenon, don't you think? i mean, sure, each person has her own style and moving to a new workplace is very stressful and awkward. but are the kids really so different? are the schools really so different from each other?

and i was able to clarify this today in an interview (related to schools). my school *was* supposed to be different. it had all these ideals, promises, posters, chants. in the grade i was teaching, those promises and posters had nothing to with the reality. and the fact that all of the staff had the same experience (to varying degrees, naturally)? and that i was the THIRD teacher in this grade to be forced out? what does that tell you about how different that school really was?

sure, i wouldn't have 'been resigned' (my term for unofficially fired) at a public school, not until the end of the year at least. i would have toughed it out, which was my plan (well, that was my plan trumping my 'give up and run away in defeat plan,' that i steadfastly refused to obey), but i wasn't given the opportunity to do so. and that's okay--it's certainly much better for me and my health and well-being.

which brings me to another point i meant to make a couple months ago and now is ever so much more relevant. DC Teacher Chic quit her teaching job suddenly, what, back in November maybe? I hadn't read her blog before, but i saw a linked post on another blog (maybe gothamschools?) and clicked over to read about it. she had written a lengthy post and there were over eighty comments there. in the post she described and summarized the main issues that had contributed to her decision. so many of them were all too familiar--illness, anxiety, insomnia, migraines, but also incompetent and unsupportive administration who didn't control or punish students that bullied and abused teachers. i was never assaulted by a student, thank god (i would have been out of there immediately if i had; i was shocked that she stayed), but i was threatened by and bullied by parents, and admin did nothing about it.

anyway, her post made it clear that she didn't take the decision lightly and that she didn't want it to happen this way, but that it was best for her. almost all of the commenters were very supportive and even congratulated her on getting out of a ridiculous situation. and so of course there was one very loud dissenting voice. the flame-thrower (because s/he kept writing and responding, which the nasty ones always do--why???) insisted that that was a selfish decision, because it left the kids in the lurch. who would be responsible for them now, who would teach them now, what would happen to them now?

those questions have rolled around my head for five years, people. it's why i've never given up. it's why i take as few days off as possible, coming in to teach when i can barely talk or am hacking up phlegm in the middle of my lesson (sorry for the graphic tmi), why i never let the seed of doubt grow into a reality. the fact was and is that in these big cities, kids need teachers, period, and further, they need teachers who don't suck. too many kids in my old school simply didn't have a teacher, or had a teacher who did suck.

BUT. is it really a fair trade when a person's mental and physical health is on the line? who is more important, the kids with the potential futures or the teacher trying to help them achieve that future? the reality is that the two fates are intertwined--if the students are the cause of the teacher's distress, the teacher can't function properly, and that cycles back to affect the students. (as in, if too many students are acting up, and the teacher is trying to manage them but can't because detentions, timeouts, dean visits, parent calls, etc haven't worked, then the students can't learn as much because instruction time is wasted and everyone is frustrated (except for the kids acting up--they feel, rightly, that they 'won').

so is it a fair trade? NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT. if a person is working in an office and has an allergic reaction to the wall glue or chair plastic or whatever, do we force them to keep working there, suffering? Please. i'm sure teams of lawyers have made millions fighting against that.
But here's some dude telling a teacher that was successful for something like five or eight years, no, you should keep teaching no matter what. your health and well-being and happiness are secondary.

come on, dude. that is fucked up. seriously. this is what we get for venerating the martyr teacher--the one who sacrifices everything--family, health, time alone to rest and recuperate--in books and movies. people that take this job and keep it do it because we know it's incredibly important, and we all work hard because we know we can never work hard enough, because the work will never be done, because these kids need so much and most of it we can't give them. and some people are willing and able to make those sacrifices and yes, they are inspirational heroes. Are they realistic role models for the legions of young teachers out there? No way! Look at the demographics of charter school teachers, just as an example--young people, the vast majority upper middle class, unmarried and without children. You know why? Because the teachers with families and outside responsibilities (you know, the real world, the one that is causing heartbreak for so many urban children, is a force the rest of us have to deal with too) can't deal with stressful twelve-hour workdays when they face another entire workday at home that night. I can't even imagine being a regular public school teacher with children, let alone a baby or two! I've been tired for five years, and i'm single and childless! Many days I could just barely get through the day on my own, and then usually I could go home and veg out. I can't imagine the stamina and patience that the parent teachers have.

Wait, this was a tangent, what was I trying to get at? Oh yes--priorities. Who really matters the most? Yes, the children matter. That's why I was there, that's why you're there, and that's why I never actually quit, even when my body and brain were begging me to. I would never ever make a decision for another teacher, and I will never ever judge someone for leaving the classroom. If it's not right for you, if it's unhealthy for you, and you make your decision, then I will support that. For two reasons: first, because an unhappy and unhealthy teacher is not a great teacher, and second, because quitting is not at all an easy decision. So if someone is able to make that decision, then it was probably coming anyway and had been thought over and was most likely the right thing to do for all parties.

This wouldn't be a problem if we had more qualified teachers. It's not my job to worry about the eighth-graders at my old school who NEVER HAD AN ENGLISH TEACHER. I can't save them. I can't actually 'save' any of my students, because any problems are so much bigger than my forty-five or ninety minutes with them a day. I always wanted to do my best, I always wanted to help them, and it breaks my heart that some of these kids can't get what they need--from their peers, the school, their parents, the community. I have to remember my place and my limitations (of time, money, patience, energy, knowledge, etc).

So. Was I a bad teacher? No. In fact, the number of times I despaired over being a bad or ineffective teacher tells you (and me, in my conscience) that I couldn't have actually been one. And I don't know if this makes sense to anyone else, but the fact that I worried about whether I was doing a good job meant that I was putting a lot of effort and heart into the job. Does that make sense in reality? I'm not sure. But I think a truly ineffective teacher wouldn't think about all the things that need to change and try new things and continue engaging students in thoughtful discussions or activities in and out of the classroom. My principal this year called me tenacious, way back in the fall when I was still crying all the time but I wasn't giving up on my standards or my job. I took it seriously and I worked my butt off. Did it work? Eh, I have no idea. But honestly, I felt that way all the time in past years--I always looked back and despaired, oh god, have my kids learned ANYTHING this year?! even when their evaluations listed the things they learned and explained how I was a hard teacher but explained things to them so they could learn it.

Those little things can motivate us again after a hard day or a difficult week or an impossible month. I think I got trapped in my negativity at times (which one of my supervisors correctly called me on and tried to encourage me to think about the part of the day that worked)(which when it was only a minute or two, out of twelve hours, was hard to take seriously) and other times I doggedly pushed forward, always thinking of new things to try, or possible strategies, games, lessons, talks with disruptive students. Is it fair to expect a teacher to be perfect every second of the day? I say no, but maybe that's because I'm highly imperfect. :) Teachers are human, we have needs, we have minds. You can't judge me (or DC Teacher Chic, or anyone else) because you haven't been in my shoes, you haven't been in my mind (lucky you). You may have read my blog (thank you!), but remember, even that's only snippets when I choose or remember to share.

Good god, I think I've been typing solidly for an hour or more. My elbows hurt. Is that a thing, blog elbow? Sorry this has been so very long and rambling--I went back earlier to add a 'warning' at the top. If you made it all the way through it, phew, that was rough, hope you weren't too confused/traumatized/enraged/disgusted/surprised/weirded out. Cheers. :)


Anonymous said...

I'm totally traumatized by this. Clearly.

Good rant!

rabi said...

I've been thinking about this too -- not resigning, but how long I can sustain the way I work now. it's funny because at my old school, while I worked a lot less (usually at school from 7 - 4ish, while here I tend to work from 7:30 - 7:30 and have a lot more to do on the nights and weekends), I was pretty miserable about everything except what happened in my classes. I hated the environment there, had no sense of collegiality, agency, or investment in the school's future. all of which is a big part of why I went back to graduate school, because my feeling of "this is NOT how education is supposed to work" was so strong.

but I could have worked like that and come home and raised a family in the rest of my time. I could have balanced that life with another, non-teacher life.

here... there's just no way. and while I LOVE my job now, I love my school and my colleagues, I love my kids even though they're more challenging than my old students, I love how much I'm able to do what I think is right... it is my whole entire life. there is nothing else except the occasional evening out with a friend. right now that kind of existence is a little bit of a relief because it prevents me from dwelling on what else I've lost recently. but doing it for even a few more years is just not compatible with what I want my life to be. AND I LOVE MY JOB! so, like, ... what is supposed to happen? right now I'm just going to stick with it and see if it gets less all-consuming, because I don't want to leave my school, but I am also not going to compromise my family (which I will have one way or another, but that's a whole different mindfuck right now) in the long run.

I guess what I am trying to say with this longwinded comment is that it sounds like you had the worst of both the worlds I've experienced -- the soul-sucking job that also takes all your energy and mental/emotional equilibrium away from you. and who could be an effective teacher in that situation? it's weird to me that some people think that it's only the teachers who need to change...

Schoolgal said...

Can a teacher who is bad at one school be great at another?? YES,
and for the reasons you posted.

I knew from your first posts that I would never have survived in your school. I would have handed in my "gone fishin" letter if things weren't slowly improving. And I don't mean the kids. Your admin sucked and when you posted that teachers weren't speaking to you, I doubt I could have suffered through that and not cried myself to sleep at night.

I have had plenty of rough classes, but w/o supportive teachers and admins, I doubt I would have made it. I have also had classes that I hated, but I knew the next year would be different. That's the game when you are teaching in NYC. But I also had something even more important--the Union!!

And I learned one more important lesson the day I got my first lay-off letter. Teachers are expendable. You could have raised scores 3-fold, and you would get a wave goodbye and the kids adjust.

Ignore those comments. Your well-being comes first.

I love the fact that there were other teachers before you who had left. Your school had a revolving door policy. They rather put teachers through abuse than work to support and retain them.

Enjoy your freedom!!

Casey said...

I have been an occasional reader of your blog for quite a long time-- in fact I started teaching in 2004 as well. And I left after my second year for so many of the same reasons that you've listed above. I don't think the guilt ever goes entirely away; every now and then I find myself thinking that I should be in a classroom instead of working in my ed policy job-- that I would be able to make a greater impact there. And maybe I could, but much like you described I knew that I could not continue at the pace I was working and stay both physically and mentally healthy. I guess what I am trying to say is I understand, and hang in there. I know you will go on to great things.

And I know just from reading your blog that you were not a bad teacher. And your students know it. I taught high school so I have now had several students track me down once in college to say hello, or ask for advice on researching a college paper-- I bet yours will too. :) Best wishes with the job search.

Ms. George said...

I'm so glad you got all this out there. It is cathartic for us to read and I hope it was helpful for you to articulate it all so well. You are not a bad teacher, for, as you said, a bad teacher would never have given as much self critical thought as you did to your job. You were always trying to make things better for your kids, and you shouldn't have to do that at the expense of who you are, no matter what the Michelle Rhees and the Arne Duncans of the world have to say about it.
Take care...oh and I'm seriously thinking about that Australia pic on Etsy (good on you) if it is still available...

Tillie said...

MM--thanks for posting this rant, which I found very interesting and which I certainly can relate to myself. I first read of your situation at gothamschools and want to clarify that although I responded to your scenario, my point was really not to judge you as a teacher, since, as you've pointed out, I've never seen your classroom or even read your blog. My point was purely philosophical--what does good teaching entail? What does it mean to be a good teacher, especially in an urban school where students may need more than what a teacher can reasonably give.

In any case, I'm sorry if you felt judged by my comments, because that was not the intent at all. It's clear that you work hard. That said, I don't think anyone should stay in a job that makes him/her miserable, and I don't think someone can be a great teacher if they are unhappy. I think you made those points yourself.

Finally, I think you raise a REALLY important question about sustainability. I've seen how charter schools burn through young, passionate teachers, and that same phenomenon exists (maybe to a lesser extent, but it's there) in some public schools. Sure, a teacher like that might love his/her job AND be a super star in the classroom. But I bet they won't stay there when they hit their thirties, when they have kids, whatever.

It's an issue that the educrats really need to tackle if we're going to see real improvements in schools.

NYC Educator said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing. I was really upset at what happened at Gotham Schools, but it was not a conversation that I felt was a productive place to say more...

Not a single commenter, as I recall, wondered about the school itself, and they should have...

Not a single commenter, it seemed, read your blog and said wow, this was an effective, reflective teacher. What the hell happened? How did they miss that...?

I'm so glad you wrote. And I'm glad that people commented here.

Sometimes, even when we don't think it's "us" vs "them" it is. Not our choice.

NYC Educator said...

I deleted my previous comment because it looks like I'm talking about people here--I was actually referring to comments at Gotham Schools in which people clearly assume to know more than you do about what happened to you.

Katherine said...

I think you absolutely need a break from teaching. If you find that you miss it and are ready to return, you will be able to do so when it is better for you and your students. The worst thing is to give up a bit each day, and eventually become one of those completely embittered burnt out teachers who retired 20 years ago, but still shows up each day to work to bs their way through class. That won't do you or your students any good. I'm quite certain that there are many things you can do well - including teaching - and you just need to find what will make you happy now.

Dr. G said...

Well I wouldn't classify your long blog entry as a rant. It could be tighter, but you express significant ideas that connect with all teachers. When we stop teaching we wonder "How were we physically able to do that?" It probably kills us by degrees.

You were obviously up for a challenge when you started into the education field. I wonder if you would consider a masters degree in administration and trying to move to a higher level to help bring help bring education to an ignorant world.

Teachers get hammered in the newspapers, but administrators are not doing half the job teachers are. You could make a difference.
Just a thought.

I've been thinking about you a lot and I'm wishing you well.

Anonymous said...

Everything you say makes perfect sense. I'm not a teacher - but I understand working your butt off at a thankless job in general. I have no doubt a "bad" teacher at one school can become a "fabulous" teacher at another school. No matter the job - if you don't have a supportive, smart, non-judgmental management/administrative team at the top - nobody wins. Not the teacher/employees and definitely not the kids.

And yes - if you worry about it so much, then you can't be a "bad" teacher. You can tell the "bad" ones - because they obviously don't give a s*it on any level.

And there's my rant!

Schoolgal said...

I just read Dr. G's comment and agree that it's the teachers that get hammered.

When I think of someone like Michelle Rhee who by her own admission was not an effective teachers now in charge of DC, it reinforces my feeling that not every one should be an administrator just because they have a vision.

If you read Rich's column last week, it reinforces the fact that it's the powers that be and not the teachers that are the problem in DC. And I have seen it in NY too. Rhee is putting the blame on the teachers. Teacher burn-out is due to people like Rhee who do not see teachers as collaborators. Nor are teachers supported hence the revolving door mentality. Rhee, like Klein, has marked all senior teachers as undesirables. And the media is falling for it.

Miss G said...

I'm sad for you that your new school did not turn out to be what you hoped it would be, and happy that you have an opportunity to pursue other interests.
I hope that people realize, though, that some schools ARE different. Kids buy in to the posters and culture as a result, behave differently than they might have in a different school. Parents are more invested because they know that the school supports their child (not just 1 or 2 teachers, as was the case in my old public school). I feel like my school makes an incredible difference in the lives of the kids we teach (and it's not upper middle class white kids). The work is hard, but we're also taught how to priortize tasks and balance work with other things.
It's possible :)
I hope you find it in your new field!

Angela said...

Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post. It may be your most famous one ever, based on the number of mentions on other blogs! Cool. I'm the latest to share it: I've featured it on my blog as one of The Cornerstone accolades for January 2009.

And by the way, you may not be teaching anymore, but I still think of you as "one of us". That's a good thing, right? ;-)

Elizabeth Blake said...

I found an entire website devoted to teachers who have gone through this type of experience. Very interesting.
I can relate to this, and even wrote a book about the obstacles I fought while teaching, (abusive principals, gangs, a riot, shootings, murdered students) and all the stress I had while teaching at-risk students in an inner-city school. I loved my job and my students but the stress got to me. "No Child Left Behind? The True Story of a Teacher's Quest" by Elizabeth Blake.