Leave My Teachers Alone

Angry FaceI forget sometimes how fortunate I am to be in a building where my various superiors pretty much want the same things I do.  I’m given a fairly accurate idea up front of what they will and won't defend me for doing, and it’s not so far from what I’d reasonably hope.

The higher-ups not only tolerate but encourage a certain amount of mutually respectful, productive dissent. They seem to have this belief that we’re all professionals with comparable goals, and that collaboration is not the handing down of clichés to be implemented, but the discussion of goals and methods to be refined.

It’s almost like we’re on the same side.

I forget, but I’ve been reminded quite often lately as I work with other teachers across the region. I’m glad to be of some encouragement, but I hate how common their stories are getting to be. It’s so completely unnecessary that they’re being made to feel the way they do.

“I’m worried,” they say – or scared, or overwhelmed.  They’ve been pressured by their superiors to raise some scores or salvage some program, because they’ve been identified as the ‘go-getters’ or ‘reliable veterans’ or some such. The consequences range from crippling guilt to official removal should they fall short.

“I’m not sure I can do this.”

This is not the healthy self-doubt and perspective of which I’m such a fan, but the opening stage of emotional and professional collapse.

These are the already pretty good and sometimes nearly great teachers who feel an ethical obligation to implement every idea and strategy which might serve their kids, now or in their futures. They feel professionally bound to cover everything in their ever-changing state standards, participate in National History Day, partake in home visits, community outreach, fight AIDS in Africa, establish peace in the Middle East, reduce teen pregnancy, end racial inequity in education and society, and coach not only track and basketball but wrestling - hopefully only this one year since Coach Zephyr had that “situation.”

They don’t like excuses in their students, so they make none themselves. They are needed, so they try.

“I don’t know how to add everything we’re doing this week with everything the rest of my department did in the other workshop last week and still cover the content and how do you do it all for every kid every time perfectly but differentiated and data-driven?”

And I sometimes say things to them that I don’t like to say, but which are nevertheless true.

"You realize no one else is covering all of this all the time, right?"

The nice thing about the state tests being so erratic and poorly designed is you don’t lose much based on what you do or don’t cover. Lots of great teachers have sucky test scores and several pretty crappy teachers have good scores. Don’t get too hung up on them.

The strategies and skills we’re doing this week are great, but they’re not how I spend all day every day. They’re part of what I do, mixed in with stuff that’s fallen out of vogue despite its usefulness - lectures, discussions, reading, some cute little projects. I’m trying to get them READY for college, not require them to complete it THIS YEAR.

And besides, at the risk of committing some sort of sacrilege by saying it aloud… no one else wants this job.

A half-dozen districts within shouting distance can’t fill their positions with warm bodies, let alone qualified applicants. Has no one explained the paradox of this to those-of-the-polished-desks? May I try?

Dear Leadership,

Sorry to tear you away from your Twitter feed or whatever title was hot at FedEx this month (“Hey, Who Licked My Sucker?!”) but you need to re-open your eyes to some realities of teaching.

The people you need are all about to either break or leave, and you’ll be left with a building full of heavily tenured bozos. 

The pay sucks, and the pressure is daunting. The folks who come in with missionary zeal and a heart for kids are being driven out of the profession by the lack of autonomy and the elimination of any sense of purpose they felt when they signed up.  If you can’t or won’t provide extrinsic rewards and insist on crushing intrinsic motivation, what did you think was going to happen?

The current system – the same one trying to desperately to crank kids through a 19th Century factory model for reasons we can no longer agree on – is well on its way to ensuring that the only people likely to remain in the classroom are those either unqualified to do anything else or not motivated enough to move on.

And you want to “raise standards” on those who are left? Or what? You gonna… put them on an “improvement plan”? Fire them? Replace them with…?

No one else wants this job.

But you know this handful care, and try, and so you target them. They already worry they’re not doing all they could to help their kids, and now you’re demanding they “up their game” with a bunch of stuff they had no idea was coming when they signed up to teach. 

I get that you’re frustrated taking the blame for those state scores, but you’re taking it out on the wrong staff.  They love these kids even when it’s sucking the life out of them to watch the system do what the system does.

You can tell they still want to get better and do more and be the kind of teacher they signed up all those years (or weeks) ago to be.  You can tell there are still signs of life in them – unlike that group you’ve pretty much written off until they retire because they quit a long time ago and you can’t do a damn thing about it so you just avoid them.

You can tell the teachers who have that intrinsic sense of responsibility. They carry that weight. They don’t feel particularly strong, or skilled, or heroic, or prepared, but they stand in that gap and wait for the hordes to continue their storm. They didn’t get any of that from me, and they sure didn’t get it from you – it’s just who they are, broken and imperfect as they may be, and you can sense that.

Here’s a crazy idea – why don’t you find some way to make yourself useful?  What can YOU do to help reach those kids about whose scores you seem to be so concerned? What can YOU do to improve the climate in the building that keeps losing its best teachers and where we send the problem teachers in hopes they’ll go away, or at least do the least damage while they remain? What are you contributing to forward momentum other than rhetoric and clichés?

You want us to reach our kids by out-high-expectation-ing them? By “raising the bar”? You know that’s stupid, right?

There’s considerable discussion going on at the moment about what motivates young people, but “high expectations” isn’t the unanimous winner you’d like to think. It doesn’t turn turds to gold for their teachers, either.

What leverage do you think you’re wielding here? You wouldn’t have to be such an ass if you thought you had any real influence on any of this, so leave them the hell alone. If you can’t be useful, just leave them alone.

They’re the best thing you have going for you, and however inadequate they feel, they’re the best thing their students have going for them as well – at least until we manage to make more meaningful systemic changes. Stop grinding them down, and stop pretending you’re inspiring them with every new thing you pile onto their plate.

I get that you feel pressured from above and impotent from within to actually MAKE the changes those clever speakers at the convention say you should. I get that after so long out of the classroom, you reek of illegitimacy when it comes to effective classroom management or practical pedagogy, however desperately you desire to prove you’re a “teacher at heart.”

And yeah, I’d imagine most of the teachers and parents and situations you deal with on a daily basis are like the kids your assistants see day after day – the highest maintenance, least responsive, not-nearly-as-fulfilling bunch.

It’s enough to make anyone grumpy. 

But part of why you’re so unhappy and hating how you feel is because you’re doing this wrong. Stop trying to figure out what everyone under your jurisdiction should be doing differently and focus on what you could be doing to support whatever they’re doing already. If nothing else you’ll start to build a little credibility to cash in when you do have a good idea or essential policy from time to time.

You don’t go to war with the workforce you wish you had, or hope to have someday. You go to war with the teachers you have. Untangle leadership from overseeing and start making yourself useful. If not, then at least stay out of the damn way.

Comments

Thank you for always being a voice for those of us who don't know what to say. Thank you for not giving up and for calling out those who need to hear us. So many of the things you said could've been exact thoughts and words of mine. I've been there. I'm one of the ones who left the state and my "home" because the gap I was standing in couldn't be filled in the way it needed to be by me alone. I was appreciated, but overlooked because who would fill my shoes if I moved into a new position? My admin had fantastic intentions and I truly believe most wanted to support me and thought they were, but they were the same as me. More stuff kept piling on. They we're in the same boat as me and it was the Titanic and we were all going down together. Some of us were surviving, but at what cost? Admin, take his advice, grab a lifeoat and start helping your teacher's get on board. Otherwise, you'll all be left out in the cold drowning in your own helplessness.

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