Why I Keep Teaching (from 3-27-15)

In recent years, it has become common for teachers who are leaving the profession prematurely to post letters or videos online explaining why they are leaving. I completely understand their sentiments and their reasons. I have almost been there myself. My wife and I at one point started a business that would be our exit ticket from teaching in the public schools, but we were too busy teaching to really get it going, and lacked the financial resources to make the jump away. But something else kept me from jumping away as well: I actually believe in public schools. 

And I began to realize that not only did these teachers’ heartbreaking letters not seem to make a difference to the powers that be – I began to wonder if the powers that be were actually happy to see these wonderful teachers leave the profession. 

National Public Radio recently put out a call asking teachers why they choose to stay in the profession, and published an article with many teachers’ responses. I was too busy teaching to respond, though I did enjoy reading other teachers’ responses. My short answer found its way into my daily Daytona Beach News-Journal comic strip (above), Mr. Fitz. Yes, I teach for the students. But that is a very simple answer. Here is the more complex answer. To answer it, I must address two different stake-holders: my students, and the education reformers themselves.

Why do I stay in teaching? 

To my students and their parents I answer: for the same reasons I entered teaching. What I say at Open House every year still holds true. I got into teaching English because I love reading and writing and want you to love them too. Reading and writing have saved my life, enriched and transformed my life over and over again. I want you to experience the power that reading and writing can have for you. Of course they can make you more employable, more ready to go to college. That should almost go without saying. But the real reasons to be educated run deeper than college and careers. Reading and writing are for life: now, before you enter college or the workplace, and for much later when you leave the work place but still, if you are fortunate enough, have many years left to live. 

I want you to experience the power of reading and writing and excel at them. I work towards this goal, even when you resist my best efforts, even when you are rude to me, and act like I am the enemy. I keep on going because I care. 

Lest anyone should accuse me of being soft or sentimental, understand that if you love something you will want to do it well. The main reason people don’t excel at what they do is because they don’t care about it. When you don’t care, you go through the motions. You phone in your performance. You do things to get them over with. 

That, apparently, is what education reformers want us as teachers to do. Go through the motions. 

And so now I address the people invested in “education reform” -a term I use loosely. After over 10 years of No Child Left Behind, education reform has become the new status quo. I include in this list of “reformers” anyone who is in favor of our obsession with standardized testing and curriculum and all the baggage that goes with it: politicians on the Right and the Left; the people who have promoted No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top; the testing companies like Pearson and AIR; organizations like Students First, and the people who run them, like Michelle Rhee; people who claim school choice and competition will make public schools better but know it will actually gut public schools; philanthropists and business people like Bill Gates who have no education experience (and may have never finished college), but who throw their own money at the problem in destructive ways; people like David Coleman who want to rewrite all classrooms in their own image; legislators and governors who have made test scores 50 percent of my evaluation; curriculum and textbook companies who think scripting teachers is a good idea; local politicians and school board members who claim to listen and then treat teachers with a staggering lack of respect; district personnel who buy everything the state tells them “hook, line, and sinker” and support us for all the wrong reasons; media outlets and news providers who keep the “bad teacher” narrative alive and well;  writers of letters to the editor who condescend to teachers and tell them they have it easy… (Did I leave anyone out?) 

To all these people, a large, often wealthy, and intimidating group, I say: 
Do you really think what you are doing is making things better in education? Then you are suffering from a self deception and delusion on a scale I can’t fathom. It seems to me that even you would have to admit that if your “reforms” actually made sense, your brightest, best, most accomplished teachers would welcome them. But I’m going to tell you, they don’t. 

I will only speak for myself here, but all your education reforms have made me depressed and demoralized, in poor health, and ready to quit. Education reform has attempted to undermine and destroy every single thing that makes teaching a worthwhile profession. Many of you say you want to “run the schools like a business.” Well, if I were behaving like a sane employee, I would take one look at this profession, at the lack of respect, at the lower wages, at the lack of autonomy, at the wrong-headedness of every single thing being forced on us as teachers, and run the other way. In fact, I think that’s what you’re counting on. Despite claims to the contrary, I think you actually want good teachers to leave. We’re too much trouble, not compliant enough.

Since teachers leaving the profession seems to have had no effect on you, I have decided to stay. But let me make this clear: I am staying not because of you, but despite you. 

After 23 years, and with 7 left to go before retirement, I am staying, but on my terms, not yours. 

I am staying in teaching despite the fact that our entire system is obsessed with standardized tests.I am staying despite the fact that these tests have little-to-no validity, narrow the curriculum to only what’s tested, and are set up to make kids fail; despite the fact that the results of the tests are mostly beyond my control but are now 50% of my evaluation; despite the fact that the tests have changed from year to year and the cut scores and results have been arbitrarily tinkered with; despite the fact that testing now takes up about 1/4 of the school year in my class; despite being exiled and sent to a portable for several weeks so that my class room can be used for computer testing; despite the fact that the testing actually interferes with the real teaching and learning I know needs to happen for my students. I don’t teach to the test: I teach against it. I tell my students that the test is meaningless drivel. Surprisingly, this usually results in them performing better. They don’t feel so stressed about it.

I stay despite the fact that you want us to turn students into data points and analyze their performance on individual multiple choice questions that don’t really show us whether they can think about something for real, but show us instead whether they can think like the adults that wrote the questions to try to trick them. I stay despite your attempts to make students feel lousy about themselves. I tell them to ignore their scores and focus on the brilliant insights they have during class discussion, the books they have read and enjoyed without any tests afterward, the writing they have done about topics they care about to reach a real audience.

I stay despite your attempts to kill teacher creativity by making us follow curriculum maps, which are really just documents designed to enforce our use of standardized textbooks and workbooks so that publishers can make money. My best teaching comes out of the interaction between my knowledge of how reading and writing work, my knowledge of how teaching works, my knowledge of my students and their interests and shortcomings, and my own creativity. I create units that tap into universal human concerns (happiness, success, power) and expose students to questions and ideas they need to lead better lives (having a growth mindset, defining success, the power of education). I choose essays, stories, and plays that get them to really think both about what they read and about their own lives and life in general, and that also provide them with models of great writing. I create writing exercises that get them thinking and also teach specific writing skills. I give them freedom to choose their own topics. I let them be creative. (I once had a former student I ran into introduce me to a friend as “the only teacher who ever let me be creative.”) I design a school year that builds layers of skills and complex ideas, so that by the end of the year, students read something new and make associations back to things we read and talked about in September. This is what excites me about teaching–what my students and I create together: great shared reading experiences, writing that is compelling, fun, and publishable, fascinating discussions. I stay and continue to do these things, because when I try to just follow someone else’s idea of what a lesson or unit or school year should look like, it falls flat. 

I stay despite your attempts to control what I do in the classroom. When you micromanage me, you make me less of a teacher. It is breathtaking hypocrisy to tell us exactly how to teach, and then tell us we are responsible for the results. Whoever controls the process controls the results. If you tell me how to teach, then you are responsible for the outcomes, not me. Of course, I don’t do what the system tells me to do. I teach my own way, and get better test results than many of my more standardized peers. A Florida teacher was once asked how she got such great test results. Her answer: “By not doing anything you say.” Exactly. Very seldom has anyone asked me how I get the results I do, though. 

I stay despite the fact that the education reform agenda takes the kids most in need of enrichment, arts activities, and field studies, and puts them in remedial classes that rob them of their electives. Our most successful students are successful because of the ways people have invested in them with enriching, motivating activities not tied directly to test scores. We need to invest in our lowest students with more enrichment activities, not more test prep. The system you have created is actually harming them. I work against that by trying to create an enriching atmosphere in my class. I run a cartooning club and a drama/play-writing club. I try to make up for what your policies have taken from them. 

I stay despite your attempts to kill student creativity by making us focus on testing skills to the point that arts classes are cut or are turned into just another test-prep class that leads up to a ridiculous end-of-course exam. We really need elementary school students writing about how colors show emotion in paintings? How about actually letting them paint instead? 

I stay despite your attempts to shove new standards and new teaching philosophies down my throat. We were told we were going to be using the Common Core Standards, and that they were so different, they would transform our teaching. Then they became controversial, so my state changed the name but kept the standards. Meanwhile, I quickly figured out that I actually was already teaching the standards in the ways that actually mattered. What I wasn’t doing was teaching the philosophies behind the standards. I wasn’t telling my students, as Common Core architect David Coleman has told teachers, that “nobody gives a $#!=” about your personal story or your opinion.” I have not limited my students to New Criticism when they read. I haven’t told them to not relate what they read to life. I have not followed Coleman’s “model” lessons, which include close-reading “The Gettysburg Address” without any historical context, or reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and explaining it to your students for several days. I know how to teach, thank you very much, and have 23 years more classroom experience than David Coleman. What I don’t have is tons of money and the backing of powerful politicians like Jeb Bush. I will continue to teach my students that their personal stories do matter, but that they must also set them aside at times to write more objectively. I tell them that there is a place for listening to and focusing on the text itself, because you can’t connect it to life until you understand what it says, but I also tell them that once you have listened to an author, there are all kinds of ways to look at a text: relate to it personally, or view it through different critical lenses. This approach actually leads to thinking. The approach being promoted leads to disengagement, apathy, and thinking what the teacher wants you to think -if you are even still awake. 

I stay despite your attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. I have to hand it to you, your public relations smear campaign has been brilliant.

Various Newsweek and Time covers announcing how bad teachers are, the movie Waiting for Superman, the use of test scores to “scientifically” prove how our schools are failing, the memes that get spread about how lazy, overpaid, under-worked, and ineffective teachers are… It’s all brilliant, if you want a demoralized, depressed, downtrodden workforce that will be increasingly ineffective in the classroom. In my district we haven’t had real, regular raises or steps for several years, but when we protest, we are condescended to about how we don’t know how the real world works. In my own small way, I try to let the public know what is really going on by publishing my comic strip about teaching in my local newspaper and online. I have a small but loyal readership with fans as far away as New Zealand. I am helping people see teaching in a different way. I don’t have millions of dollars to spend on my campaign, but I’m doing what I can.

I stay despite your attempts to infringe on my free-speech by telling us what we can talk about with our students. When you tell teachers that there are education-related topics they may not discuss with their students, topics like the Opt Out movement, you are, as I have stated elsewhere, not promoting education. “When you undermine free inquiry and discussion, you undermine the very foundation of education itself.”

Reformers and Reformer Supporters: Nothing you do makes teaching better or learning better. You are the enemies of real education. Nothing, absolutely nothing you do makes me want to stay in teaching. But you don’t really want me in the classroom anyway. You don’t really want public schools to succeed. You want them to fail and close and be replaced by profit-making schools. You don’t put students first: you put your own money-driven interests first, your own careers first, testing first. You don’t deserve a teacher like me. I stay despite you, not because of you. 

There are still people in the system who support me, who shield me from the forces that would stop me from being the teacher I am. You know who you are. I salute you. But I may not always have you. Someday soon, I may have to keep Teaching Right in the face of opposition at every level, and if you want to stop me, you will have to drag me out of my classroom. But whoever drags me out won’t be thinking of what is really good for kids, but what is good for their own bottom line. 

I stay for my students. 

I stay for you, especially for those of you eager to learn, but also for those of you who have been ruined by the system and think you hate learning. If all you’ve been given so far is test prep, you don’t even know what learning is. I am here to show you that learning is more than standards and grades and test scores

Learning is life in all its vast, messy, paradoxical complexity.

I am here for those of you who want to be teachers someday. I am fighting for you to be able to answer your call and teach with joy and enthusiasm and love. 

On a recent planning day when no students were on campus, we recently had an “active shooter drill” at our school. We had to pretend a person with a gun was on campus to harm our students. We were told our options were to run, hide, or fight. 

My wife, Andrea, who teaches at my school, pointed out what an apt metaphor this was for the teaching profession as a whole now. Unless we are going to let the powers that be into our rooms to destroy it with standardization and test preparation, we have three options: run, hide, or fight. Many teachers have run by retiring early or simply quitting. I cannot blame them. I have been to the emergency room with a stress-induced heart attack scare. Many of us have tried to hide: go into the classroom, close your door, and hope the forces of standardization pass you by as you teach the way you know you should. 

But the time is at hand now when I think fighting is the best option. The only question now is my method of fighting. I think the best place to start is to teach well… but that may not be enough any more.