Why I continue teaching…

Last week I did something I said I would never do again.  I accepted a student teacher for January.  Anyone who has stuck around Blogush for awhile knows that I have deep concerns with the direction the education system is traveling…especially with the ccss (not capitalized on purpose). I just could not figure out how I could face someone everyday and ask them to give 200% to become what I know is becoming increasingly a robotic profession…one that is painful to endure as I watch the powers that be tearing away the last vestiges of teacher autonomy, innovation, and passion.

I have noticed in the last several months that people have been arriving at my blog after using painful search terms such as “need to leave teaching now,” “how do I know if I should be a teacher?”, “leaving teaching,” and “should I become a teacher.”   I have shared similar angst over the years in multiple posts. More and more I am reading about other teachers quitting teaching.  We have to take their credible reasons seriously as they consider leaving, and then as they finally decide(please check out one of those links).   I have nearly lost faith in my job as the President, politicians, administrators, and teachers continually support  policies and methods that crush students spirit.  From one post last year:

As the weight of proposals such as these and standardized testing crushes my innovation, imagination, and creativity, I can no longer look anyone in the eyes and recommend that they become a teacher. It breaks my heart when my daughter says that she wants to become a reading teacher and the only thing I can think of deep down in my heart is “please don’t let it happen.” I have been passionate about working with college students both as interns and student teachers. It has been one of the greatest benefits of my profession over the last 22 years. But this year I turned down a placement with me, and plan to continue to do so into the future. I can no longer assist people to become a part of a system that is hell bent on creating an educational genocide.

After being asked for the third time to take a student teacher this year…I paused and asked for 24 hours.  I decided to bring it up with my wife over dinner…”Should I take a student teacher?”  She asked me what I thought, and I said I think I should.  She offered no other advice and when I asked why…she said, “everyone knows you were going to say yes.”  At first I was a bit upset, because she usually (always) gives me good advice, and this time I received no answer…but I did.

I remember reading about how when tragedy strikes, people who knew peace and prosperity before the tragedy can recover from it quickly once it is over, and knowledge of how it once was allows them to persevere. Those who were born into it suffer, often lose hope, and quit.  All of those people who are searching for results on “leaving teaching…”  I wonder how long they have been teaching?  Do they remember what it was like to enter the profession at a time when there was hope?  When you could innovate without crushing federal and district policies?  Do they remember back to when if you needed to do something to help kids you just did it…there was no paperwork, committees, and six layers of bureaucracy to get through?

I do…I remember when my dreams were not about raising test scores or proctoring district writing assessments.  I remember taking the empty room and turning it into a green house just because…I remember talking about something in class, a kid mentioned we should visit a place, and three days later we could get the forms filled out and the bus in front of school to take us there…I remember when if something happened in school, the town, the world, and being able to push aside the day’s plans to talk about it…even if it took all week.

I think that is why I said yes.  I see many folks coming into teaching never have experienced that feeling of autonomy, of trust, that feeling that they can create powerful learning experiences for their kids without the district or state giving them plans and telling them exactly what to do.  What I especially see, are teachers who have never experienced excitement in school as a kid.  Test prep is all they have ever known.  Standardization is all they have ever known.  Decisions have always been made for them.

They were born into this tragedy.

Maybe it’s the grey hairs that I keep acquiring, maybe it is because I can smell the end of my teaching tunnel, but I am not going to feel guilty about bringing this student teacher into the profession.  At some point there will be a Civil War in Education nation, and we will need teachers to lead it, and teachers to re-build it in the aftermath.  I think Jason my student teacher will be one of those people.

I was in a session at Edcamp New York City that was aimed at tech integrators.  The discussion was centered around the difficulty of getting teachers to integrate technology…but at it’s core it was about something else that wasn’t mentioned.  If teachers were excited about what they were doing and felt powerful, they would take on the responsibility for their own PD.  They would take risks and not wait for someone to give standards or a packaged writing prompt.  They would not wait around for …dare I make the reference…for superman to come.

The approach to how to get teachers to integrate tech suggested that many of the teachers were born into the tragedy.   Most discussions like this one are centered around how to get the teacher to do something…but if you listen carefully you can hear “how do we ‘make‘ teachers do this.”  A similar approach taken by politicians, administrators, and teachers who grew up in a system that was centered on forcing kids and teachers to do things by implementing new rules and procedures.  It is the opposite approach I take with student teachers.  You can’t teach anyone anything other than facts.  In order for someone to learn something from you, you must be answering a question that they have.  Your role as a teacher then, is simply to get kids to ask questions.  No questions, no learning.  My role as a mentor teacher is to get a student teacher to ask a question.  Not just any question…how do I prime a conversation or situation so that a deep probing life-changing question emerges?

I think I can do that. I can get a student teacher to ask life-changing question to me, and more importantly to themselves.  I am not going to run for office.  I am not going to write a book.  I am not going to be a consultant or a keynote speaker.  That is not who I am.  I am not a talker or writer, and I enjoy leaving the crowd behind and eating lunch by myself.  Unfortunately many of the people who have ascended into leadership roles at the national, state, local levels, and the internet aren’t the ones with the best ideas, but they are ones who can talk the best and the loudest.  There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas. So what is my role in the civil war…

How does a quiet person lead a revolution?

Not by quitting teaching or saying I will never take another student teacher, but by assisting people to become a part of a system that is hell bent on creating an educational genocide.

I will quietly continue doing what I do in the classroom with both kids and student teachers, I will go to conferences and lead sessions that are quiet calls for disrupting the system, I will quietly mentions things to teachers in the hallway, twitter, and email.  My hope is that someone much louder than I will ascend to power and lead the revolution.  It will not be me, but I hope that I can help in their training.

That is why I will continue teaching.

Thanks @royanlee for finding the above video


  1. I wanted to add something to the post but did not know where…so maybe here in the comments.
    I deeply respect anyone who decides to quits teaching. Putting your own sanity and health first is noble. And I bet that many who quit end up finding themselves as educators in other positions in which they can make a huge difference whether its as a coach, cub master, or museum volunteer.
    I also understand the situation that most of these people are quitting in…they are not plush suburban schools. I quit my first school district after 10 years. I did not leave to further my growth or any other nice sounding reason…I just quit. Before anyone critiques one of the many teachers who are quitting, you really do need to teach a mile in their shoes to fully comprehend how difficult it can be in certain schools and school districts. No matter how hard you think you have it, there are others who have problems much worse…and sometimes quitting is what will keep them alive to fight another day.

  2. Paul, The changes you see in education, and the lack of change is some respects, is not limited to teaching. I am responding as a citizen and an early-retired professional and a proud parent of two young men who decided to enter ‘alternative certification programs’ to teach: one Elementary ESL in Brooklyn NY, the other Science (H.S. Physics/Biology) in Springfield, MA. I could not be prouder of my children’s decision to choose teaching as a profession. Ironically, they each feel that the system they experienced as student without the changes in testing and accountability was failing them. (They each could identify popular teachers that failed to be good teachers.) It was their ability to read, and the encouragement they had to ask questions that help them navigate in that system and what they feel will help today’s youth in a more ‘accountable’ system. As new teacher’s they are impressed with how the techniques they have been taught help them manage (yes, manage) the classroom & their teaching objectives; but do not limit their creativity. The loss of passion is a reason to retire, be it from teaching or other organizations that may be stuggling with dysfunction or derailed by cultural mythologies. My children admit that they do not know if they will be teachers in 5 years but they both feel that in the next 5 years their passion, their willingness to work within the system that they are also willing to question they will make a difference I child and one day at a time. You did the right thing by welcoming a student teacher into your passion.

  3. Fight the good fight! If you and Jason agree, I think it would be really awesome if he would blog about his experiences in your classroom.

    In this first semester in my MEd program, my professors and my mentor teacher have asked on a few occasions what I would like to learn more about. I haven’t yet been able to tactfully say that I want to learn about revolution, but that’s what I crave most. I ask for discussions about revolution in roundabout ways and I push where I can, but it’s not something the college of education really seems equipped to help me with. So I am mostly silent, although teachers-in-training seem to be where this revolution can come from. Some of my peers and I talk about ways to win mini-revolutions. We talk about strategies of when to blend and when to stick out. We talk to the few teachers who are already fighting and taking their punches and we appreciate them.

    Thank you for continuing to write. Happy Halloween!

  4. This:

    “I am not going to run for office. I am not going to write a book. I am not going to be a consultant or a keynote speaker. That is not who I am. I am not a talker or writer, and I enjoy leaving the crowd behind and eating lunch by myself… I will quietly continue doing what I do in the classroom with both kids and student teachers, I will go to conferences and lead sessions that are quiet calls for disrupting the system, I will quietly mentions things to teachers in the hallway, twitter, and email.”

    Too many “great” teachers leave the classroom to become administrators, tech. or instructional specialists, consultants, etc. I admit this used to be a goal of mine too, but I have since come to believe that we need to stay in the classroom with students. First make a difference with them, they are the most important part. Then seek to publish what we do in informal media and mainstream media given the opportunity. I think this can be our highest duty and make the biggest difference in the long run.

  5. I go through this thought process almost once a month during each school year – more often during the really hard times or when I am in a place with too much going on that keeps me from really doing the teaching I love to do in the classroom.

    I think we can make changes by keeping people (and ourselves) passionate about being willing to challenge the system. I think I also make changes when I teach students to think outside the box. The other day it was as simple as getting a student to really understand and think about what she meant when she said a female was acting like a boy. I turned it into a five minute lesson on what is normal and what different societies, past and present, think are normal. She was in awe of it all and said she will never judge people that way again.

    Granted, that thinking does not necessarily fit into any ccss (love how you don’t capitalize), but it is something that will, hopefully, stick with her when she wants to make judgements about people.

    I guess it is those teachable moments that keep me going on some days.

  6. Did you ever see the final episode of Night Court?

    All the characters go off to bigger and better things – Christine to Congress, Bull to Jupiter, etc… – but Harry ends up staying where he is, so he can quietly slog along and detangle injustice on a small-but-vital scale.

    I think of that at least once a week.

    – John

  7. Thank you for your post, and for your willingness to train the next generation of educators! I am currently a student teacher at the elementary and middle school levels. I have become overwhelmed with frustration and hope, which feels like a healthy (or at least essential) balance. It has been the mentors like you that are revealing to me the faults and traumas of our current system in action, while also showing me how to work within it and giving me visions of what it could be.

    I have also come to see that not everything can become standardized. Teachers like you stand out, at least to those who are really looking. Your classrooms feel different, have a nourishing energy that can’t be found in every learning space. Don’t discount that power.

    Over the past few years, I have really witnessed a strong sense of urgency for social change in this country. Many people talk about the need for “grass-roots” efforts, yet it seems the same people that throw around this phrase are seldom involved in this micro-scale trench work they theoretically value. Thank you for taking on this gritty, messy shadow work and slowly (but surely) encouraging others to do the same.

    Even though it must be a ton of additional work, do you find the mentoring of a teacher-in-training to be re-energizing, re-inspiring, re-motivating? Even without systematic change, how do you feel taking on this role impacts your own practice positively?

  8. As a fellow educator, I share your frustration during these times of education reform. However, I believe that we should not give up hope on teaching. I believe that it is more important now than ever to become a teacher in this demanding and rapidly evolving world. We need passionate, creative teachers who will lead our nation in education and challenge the minds of our students who will be running the world in the 21st century.

    We need to remain positive in education and know that each teacher can make a significant impact on our students. Teachers today can still find creative ways to successfully prepare students for their future AND meet state and national standards. We need to establish a healthy school culture by collaborating together to solve today’s problems in education. Negativity is contagious and creates a toxic environment by all of those exposed. Let’s stop complaining and start positively working together to collectively inspire new teachers and current teachers to be the change they wish to see in education! I have faith that if every teacher does his or her part we will have successfully reformed education. Let’s focus on the factors that we can control as teachers and make our best effort to positively improve those factors! Thank you for sharing your frustration, your vision and your commitment to the field of education!

  9. Thanks for the comments and tweets of the post everyone…have been without power due to the storm since posting and it’s great to see that this has resonated with folks.

  10. I like to think about my work with pre- and in-service teachers as preparation for guerilla warfare. For me, the first stage is always inoculation: how to stay true to oneself in a system that seems to want to homogenize teaching & teachers. I think you will learn as much from your student teacher as he learns from you. Bravo for taking on this challenge!

    1. Thanks for the kind words John. You used a scary word in your comment which caught me off guard–“advice.” Obviously I am aware that anyone can read the posts, but I have never considered them “advice!” O’ now the pressure increases 🙂

      1. No worries – I was referring to some emails we traded back a few years ago. You shared some thoughts on how you connected with your kids. I remember something about an activity involving a crayon. You also shared your ideas about making Common Craft videos which I would consider in the ‘advice’ department. Very good information – and certainly nothing preachy, so fear not..!

  11. I too find myself frustrated lately and have also questioned if I should just walk away from teaching all together. I just read a great book you might like called “Teach Like A PIRATE” by Dave Burgess. You can check him out and get the book right from the website http://daveburgess.com/. After reading this book, and really taking some time to sit and reflect I remembered why I got in to teaching in the first place, and I was able to find my passion once again. Thanks for the post!

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