Why I am leaving teaching…

A friend of mine sent me a twist on the Greg Smith Op-Ed piece in which he explains why he is resigning from Goldman Sachs. I wonder if we will start seeing Op-Ed resignations from teachers that mimic Mr. Smith’s.  Other professions are already following suit.

Why I Am Leaving Teaching

By Greg Teacher

TODAY is my last day at Johnson Middle School. After almost 20 years at the school — first as a student teacher in the high school, then as a 7th grade teacher, and an 8th grade teacher — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of the system’s culture, its teachers, its administrators, and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the students continue to be sidelined in the way the school system operates and thinks only about raising test scores. Johnson Middle School is one of the city’s largest and most influential schools and it is too integral to the education of our city’s children to continue to operate in the manner it is. The school has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Johnson Middle School’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our students. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn the trust of our parents and students for the last 65 years. It wasn’t just about grades, test scores, and AYP; this alone will not sustain a school for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the school. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this school for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

But this was not always the case. For more than a decade I recruited and mentored future teachers in our classrooms. I was selected as one of 10 teachers (out of a system of more than 3,000) to appear on our recruiting video, which is played on every college campus we visit. From 2006-2011 I managed the mentor teacher program for 75 new teachers who made the cut, out of the thousands who applied, and were hired by our system. I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look those teachers in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.

When the history books are written about the Johnson school system, they may reflect that the current laws being pushed through by the Governor, and supported by the administration were the final nails in the school’s culture. I truly believe that this decline in the school system’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

Over the course of my career I have had the privilege of advising two of the largest school systems in the state, and have spoken at local, regional, national, and international conferences. My students have gone on to excel the arts, finance, medicine, and government. I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my students to do what I believe is right for them, even if it does not fit the one-size-fits-all methods endorsed by the school system. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Johnson Middle School. Another sign that it was time to leave.

How did we get here? The school system changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if your students score high enough on state tests and meet AYP you are considered successful.

What are three quick ways to now become an exceptional teacher? a) Execute on the district’s“axes,” which is district-speak for persuading your students to invest in accepting test-prep lessons and attempting to score high on standardized tests that they do not see any value in b) “Hunt Elephants.” In English: get your students— some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to do whatever is necessary to get high common assessment scores and ignore real learning. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like having my students produce a product that will not prepare them to create the future. c) Stand in a classroom and teach using any illiquid, opaque product with a three-five letter acronym.

Today, many of our leaders and teachers have culture quotient of exactly zero percent from the “old” Johnson school system. I attend professional development where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help students. It’s purely about how we can get them to get the highest standardized test scores. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that the student’s needs were not part of the thought process at all.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about their students. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different administrators and teachers refer to their own students as “failures,” sometimes over internal e-mail. No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding. I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but people push the envelope by accepting and using lucrative and complicated products that come with lots of worksheets and software even if they are not the ones most directly aligned with the student’s goals.

It astounds me how little senior administration gets a basic truth: If students don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing “business” with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

These days, the most common question I get from new teachers about good teaching is, “How many points can we get that student’s test scores to rise?” It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave. Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the new teacher listening about “failures,” data-driven instruction, Marzano this and that, doesn’t exactly turn into a model teacher.

When I was a new teacher I didn’t know where the bathroom was, or how to tie my shoelaces. I was taught to be concerned with learning the ropes, finding out what good teaching was, understanding teaching, getting to know our students and what motivated them, learning how they defined success and what we could do to help them get there.

My proudest moments in life — getting a full scholarship to go from South Africa to Stanford University, being selected as a Rhodes Scholar national finalist, winning a bronze medal for table tennis at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics — have all come through hard work, with no shortcuts. School today has become too much about shortcuts and not enough about REAL achievement. It just doesn’t feel right to me anymore.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the school. Make the student the focal point of your school again. Without students you will not have a job. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how high they raise test scores. And get the culture right again, so people want to teach here for the right reasons. Teachers who care only about making money and raising test scores will not sustain this school system — or the trust of its students — for very much longer.

Greg Teacher


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