Sunday, May 18, 2008

Not The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming Round

Been looking from outside, I’ve been watching
But I don’t know what to say/
Changed the old backdrop, same face
But not who it used to be/
Trying to get out, not getting, thinking you're everything
You said you wouldn’t be
–Avail, Tuesday

I completed three hundred percent of my TFA commitment. I beat the 0-5 year departure curse. But I resigned and I’m leaving. Around the blogs, around the policy world, around the union halls, folks cast about for the reasons why people like me do things like this.

This is why I didn’t.

I wasn’t prepared.
I wasn’t, but that’s not why I’m leaving. I got through the don’t-know-what-I’m-teaching-and-don’t-know-how-to-teach-it-anyway phase, figuring stuff out, thinking about why things did and did not work, selecting areas to get better continuously, and working really really hard. It’s this last part that bears at least some mentioning. My lack of specialized, focused preparation – a lack that is close to near-universal for those of us manning classrooms in the world of high need urban English Language Learners – put some serious stress and strain on the work. Much like the Saturn 4-door I’ve used to get from the 415 to the 408 daily lo these many years, my engine’s fine, my transmission works, but man, I got a lot of miles on me. A lot of miles. This the endless travel over the dashed lines of self-improvement; the grind of figuring out how to do this job well, because my god, there’s too much at stake here to continue being so half-assed and poor at all this. I can still run, but I’m muddy to the windows, and you don’t want to use me to pick up your prom date.

I’m not successful.
I am. By any reasonable measure I’ve been an educator worth the dollars transferred electronically to my checking account each month. It’s worth noting perhaps that teaching is generally bereft of meaningful acknowledgement of success and accomplishment, and so it is difficult to provide any measures for success. To the extent that we have any, I realize I’ve reaped a great deal – leading PD, speaking, talking to reporters, pie-charts, student essays – and that the extent of this reaping is probably disproportionate to the work I’ve done.

I’m not supported.
I don’t even know what this means, but it’s something I hear teachers say all the time. I’m not sure the people who proclaim the not-supportedness could even articulate the nature of this not-supporting or how it could possibly be rectified. For the record, I’m not not-supported. Never have been.

I can no longer stand to work with the disastrously declined youth of today, nor their apathetic, uninvolved families.
Oh, please.

I’m not paid enough.
Okay, so this work is exponentially more “important” than many other undertakings that are far more handsomely compensated. We all should be paid accordingly, and those of us who do the work well should be paid at least as well as your above-average plumber. That said, I’m paid pretty darn well relative to my peers, and certainly well enough for an unmarried fellow whose biggest expenses after rent continue to be whiskey, books, and college loans. Benefits? Got em. Even used em twice [1. vaccinations for S. America adventure 2. separated shoulder hedge-diving on Geary Blvd]. No complaints.

I really want to work at KIPP.

Uh, no.

I’m burnt-out.
This is another one of those things I hear teachers say frequently, and more often than not it prompts an immediate, and probably unfair, response: Burnt-out? Fool, you gotta be on. fire. first. then maybe we can talk about burnt-out.

I think I was on fire, once, and maybe most days still am. If the flames are less high and maybe less intense than they once were, it's only because there's a different type of fuel burning now. Still, the kids are, in the words of Don DeLillo, "an open wound of need and want." There is no free time, no mental energy, no chunk of your finances that cannot be poured in that gaping wound like the most potent of Hydrogen Peroxides, a pouring that fuels the kind of consumption that only reinforces the pouring, justifies it, encourages it, emboldens future pourings and the expansion of the pouring into a variety of other areas. This is the root of the famous many-hats cliche, the thing so many of us simultaneously relish and decry about this work. I'm not happy unless I'm putting the best product in front of kids, but I'm not necessarily happy in the constant construction and revision of that product. I'm not happy unless I use work hours 80-82 to take kids to the District All-Star Basketball Game, but I'm not necessarily happy working hours 80-82. I'm not happy unless I'm being the teacher I see in my head, but the process of finding that guy and living as him no longer makes me happy.

Is that burn-out? If you can connect the dots, feel free, cuz I don't know how to chase my tail on this anymore.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe you just need a break..
make life/teaching a bit easier.
shorter commute.
more motivated kids
admiring admin
you can always return to your service
with your 408 kids later.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Ivory said...

No one enjoys hours 80-82 of their job. You are not "burnt out" but you are sounding tired. I think it's unreasonable to expect people to work as hard as you do, commute as long and feel like they're not neglecting some major portions of their life.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous AttorneyDC said...

Don't beat yourself up about your decision to leave. It sounds like you gave 110% effort all the way for many years - more than most people. Teaching low-income, high-need kids is really hard work: I left teaching several years ago to attend law school, and from what I've experienced since as a lawyer - it's nothing compared to teaching tough kids in tough schools! Good luck on your future ventures.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Corey Bunje Bower said...

You lasted 3x as long as I did (so I'm not judging) but I'd really like to hear more about why you did decide to quit . . . I think it's important.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous jose said...

Even in your earnestness, you made me laugh approvingly:

"I really want to work at KIPP. Uh, no."

or even

"Burnt-out? Fool, you gotta be on. fire. first. then maybe we can talk about burnt-out."

Too true.

I do wish you the best in your future endeavors, but I also think that maybe taking a break from teaching and then returning to it might be in your best interest. It seems that you're a good teacher by all accounts, and it's sad to see someone so diligent leave the profession.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Coach Brown said...

I read your comments here and watched your video earlier and I can only make the observation that you are more self-actualized than the normal person is, and that you are acting upon that awareness.
Or maybe I'm just full of shit.
I saw a little of myself in everything you write about (KIPP! HA!) except that it isn't to your level. I also had the benefit of creating classes that I love teaching because I was in a school that wanted to become more academic. When I got tired of the bullshit politics and games, I just withdrew into my classroom, ignored my colleagues, and worked on being a better teacher. That has drawbacks, but I'm not interested in burn-out.
Anyway, maybe I'm rambling and making no sense, but I just see your situation as very relevant to where I'm at right now. I'll keep watching your blog because who knows; maybe you've given me a heads up, or maybe I'll want to follow your lead.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous HH said...

I heard you speak at the Ed in '08 conference, and it was definitely the highlight of the conference, as far as I'm concerned. You have a great energy and "real"ness that a lot of the suits didn't share. I'm on my 10th year of teaching in a radically different place than you (suburbs, lots of white kids with two college-educated parents), but I often feel the same way you do:

"I'm not happy unless I'm being the teacher I see in my head, but the process of finding that guy and living as him no longer makes me happy."

I'm afraid that in this job it is IMPOSSIBLE to be the teacher I see in my head. I'm not sure that teacher CAN exist, in me or any anyone else, in this real world. And it is DRAINING AS HELL, not the teaching, but the constant feeling that one is falling short. Cutting myself slack, letting myself believe I'm doing the best I can and that should be okay... that feels to me like surrender.

I'm sorry you're leaving too, but look at all the good you HAVE done in your several years in the 408... you've done the boy scout thing, left the campsite better than it was when you got there. Cultivated your garden, Voltaire would say. Don't forget to give yourself credit for the massive good you have done.

1:06 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

You have nothing to feel weird about; you're not chasing your own tail.

I hope we don't lose that honesty from you.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

kinda feels like a group hug...
but more real.
oh; i guess you will still be "here" blogging?

9:12 PM  
Blogger RPondiscio said...

My neck hurts from nodding in agreement with your non reasons. I left my classroom last June feeling not a little tired, not a little frustrated, but still not quite able to articulate exactly how the lights dimmed.

There are still plenty of ways to keep doing the work without doing the job. Get in touch.

Robert Pondiscio

10:42 AM  
Blogger ms. v. said...

I started a comment but I think it might be a post this weekend. Or earlier, who knows? It's amazing to me how many of the longer-time inner city / "under-resourced" teacher bloggers are out this year. Or considering some pretty huge changes. Huh, that's another post, maybe. Anyway, the core of my response is that for me, what I was calling burn-out prompted a response that I think is more accurately called, narrowly-avoiding-burnout so I don't leave totally bitter and with no possibility of teaching again, ever...

7:36 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

Ok, so your burnt out. Why are you burnt out? More importantly, what could be done (by the system) to have prevented you from burning out?

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm kinda starting to like the above
parentalcation.. you know
good cop/ bad cop.

9:18 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

@hh: Thanks for those words. I appreciate. You're right about reaching an idealized self, but there's still this concept of the effective teacher that, frankly, I know I've realized. I know I've taught at extremely high levels to extremely demanding learners. I realized a practical application of the effective teacher in a rigorous environment. This isn't navel-gazing. I did it, but it's hard to keep doing, and more importantly to keep getting back what you got back before.

@Coach: The close your doors and go for yours approach was my move this year. It didn't work. I can't function like that. It's not how I understand my role and my work. That's not a judgment; it's just me.

@Jose: Thanks.

@1st anon & a little @Ms.V: Yeah, maybe. But I'm real histant to say the I'm-gonna-do-something-else-than-come-back line. It's right up there with I'm-gonna-work-corporate-law-till-I-pay-my-loans-and-buy-my-house-THEN-I'll-go-work-probono-for-poor-people line. Can't go there.

@Rory: Keep throwing down. We'll talk soon.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

I swear this is my last words on the subject...

For the record, TMAO at Teaching in the 408 has been one of my favorite bloggers, and a prime motivating factor in my drive to become a teacher after I retire, but ever since I have found out he is resigning, I have been a bit annoyed.

I'm sorry, but what he describes sounds exactly like burnout. I just completed 18 credit hours in one semester with a 3.8 GPA, but I had to take the semester off. While I enjoyed learning, I enjoyed my classes, and I enjoyed the sense of satisfaction I got making progress towards my degree; I just didn't enjoy studying anymore. I didn't enjoy the long weekend's writing papers. I quite simply was burntout.

Perhaps it's the military NCO in me, but I call it like I see it. Instead of trying to make play word games about the reason he resigned, I am much more interested in what he thinks the system could have done to prevent his burnout. What could of he done differently to prevent his leaving the profession?

Supposedly it's not because he wasn't supported, or prepared, or successful, but it must be something... because if there is nothing the system could of done better, and there is nothing he could of done better, then it seems to me the whole concept of education reform is f*cked.

Perhaps what really annoys me is that in his resignation, I have to face my own insecurities. If the system can't keep a bright, articulate, dedicated teacher like TMAO, then what chance does someone like me have?

I'm scared because if I were his situation, then I would probably be resigning as well.

12:55 AM  
Blogger T-bag said...

It's about the context.

You started this adventure six years ago with the POY, right? You were part of something big. You were on a mission with a fired-up group of teachers and administrators who were all T-ing their AO to defy the myth. It's no big surprise that you are outa there now. The transition from the POY to the next Admin didn't go so smooth. I bet you're not the only one from the days of POY who has turned in the three line note. Ya'all done good. You pulled a school out of the abyss. It's up to someone else, another team, to take the next steps.

I imagine you're pretty great in the classroom, but you're too big for just that. You can't do your thing behind the safety of a closed door. You've gotta be part of something bigger than yourself and I say your leaving is evidence that you just aren't feeling that sense of a team on a mission anymore.

Your departure is no crisis for those of us who find energy in your writing. It's about the context - your context.

You've gotta admit that you've been lucky to be part of something so great. Many spend a career in the classroom and never get the opportunity to feel a part of a team as committed as yours has been and to experience the incredible success and been worthy of the praise you all have received.

Celebrate it and move on.

5:52 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


No arguments. None at all. Except to say that I sometimes don't like what the contextually reason implies about my own rigor and perserverance. But you nailed a big part of it, really.

Are you a close reader?
Or close to the events?

6:31 PM  
Blogger T-bag said...

Yes, and yes relatively.

Doesn't the context point say everything about your rigor and your perseverance? I mean aren't your more intense and more committed when you know that the guy in the room next door is pushing the FBB's just as hard. And don't you think the women across the way isn't looking for a new angle everyday to make it stick in the EL minds knowing that you're going full throttle in room D2.

The real heroic work was changing the context and that's not just a you thing. As good as you might be, it took a confluence of a bunch of yous being ready to step it up to make it happen. They might not've been able to do it without you, but relatively little would you've done without them.

Love your blog. Not because I think you're walkin on water, but just cause you're damn good at putting it all into words.

9:03 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Aw man, I'm all intrigued by your "relative" yes...

You're examples about the context make my point, y'know? Like, it doesn't say much about you, maybe, if you only bring it at high levels if those around do so as well -- especialyl when you consider how many there are out there who bring it at high levels while surrounded by just barren, lightless acres of nothing. What you're describing is certainly the way these things build exponentially, and it certainly is the way you bring a group of adults together. It was my response to a colleague who said we weren't unified. Look, we don't collaborate effectively or often, but we have (had, really) this unity of purpose and trust that everyone was breaking backs for this work.

And of course that took a group and wasn't at all about just me. If I've ever written something to the contrary, point it out so I can delete it. I was a cog in that context changing, doing most of it by accident, and can't claim to be driving or visionary force at all.

And man, forget water, I'm just trying to walk through these next weeks.

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Phoenix said...

But you were not supported, you and your team. At least this year.

One of the key components of the growth in the once-believed-desert was the support at every level -- district, administrators, counselors, police (outside), and even parents (at least to the extent that they were not opposed to what you were doing).

It appears that your district once told you that you had one mission -- do what it takes to make this school grow. No strings, no directives, no mandates. Just get it done.

So POY, your team, and you did, with the full support of the stakeholders listed above.

It probably felt good. Pretty damn good. But you just couldn't be satisfied with that. There was so much more work to be done. You knew it. I'm sure your team knew it. And you forged ahead. But then something happened.

From reading your previous blog entries, it appears that the district pulled its support. It went from fully supporting your team to fully intent on dismantling it. For reasons beyond comprehension, your model of growth was not to be replicated. No test scores, no data, no amount of educators (and politicians for that matter) seeking to sip just an ounce of your water could convince your district that what you had done was worth its time and money. So it fulfilled its intent. Your school was not supported, and it appears to be on the verge of withering back into the crack on the desert floor. At least for now.

I know I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but I just want people reading this to be aware, be fully aware, that in my humble experience, districts will never achieve sustainable growth without, AT THE BARE MINIMUM, (1) entrusting the professionals at the ground level with the mission to achieve growth at that level, and (2) providing the support necessary to achieve that end. (As I have said, this is a bare minimum. There is so much more to it, but this is absolutely essential.)

I am sure your presence will be sorely missed at that school, but it will be felt for years to come. Your district did not listen, but hundreds, even thousands have. With the power of your message, the eloquence of your speech, and the data behind your arguments, they will see you again. And again. And again. For, by that time, you will not have changed just one school, you will have changed the entire district . . . and beyond.

10:17 PM  
Blogger T-bag said...

But it's like you've tasted the good stuff an now they're trying to pass something off that isn't even close. Once you have experienced being a part of something big, anything less just won't satisfy. Push on, one might, but they'll always be lookin at options, always have any eye out for a new big thing or on the contrary always be lookin back at the good ole days. It's just not as much fun doin' it alone. If you care about real change. If you teach with your door open to the big bad education world, the work can feel pretty empty when you in the desert by yourself. And that's the experience of most of us and that's why most leave in the first five.

5:40 AM  
Blogger ms. v. said...

oh, I totally agree that "I'm taking a break and coming back" is a line, a probably-false-promise. But leaving something that, in some ways, I love more than anything else I've done... I don't want to leave in a way that closes the door forever, because I could see teaching again as one of many possibilities. Just not right now. So it's never a promise or a guarantee, just a possibility. Stay until total burn-out, maybe that possibility is gone for good.

9:06 PM  
Blogger LE said...

I'm a newish teacher coming into the profession after several years in a variety of jobs/ careers including a year in Americorps. I dig your style and can relate to some of your feelings expressed. Some questions/ comments coming off the top:

What was your experience before teaching? Did you grow up in Oakland or? How do you feel about serving/ working in communities that do not share your cultural background? What were your expectations coming into teaching? I ask you these questions because they are ones that I've asked and continue to ask myself. Perhaps you've answered some of them in previous posts- I looked at a few only. I will say I'm coming from a skeptical place in terms of TFA... How can one summer prepare for this job/ life? I mean really?? Are we ever truly prepared? I mean were experiencing life with groups of young people- sh** happens everyday- it's always different. Some stuff I dealt with today has never come up before and I had to deal with it the best I could...I just know that I feel blessed to get paid (yeah it ain't much) to do something that I feel passion for. I've worked enough crappy, mind numbing jobs to know that I'm blessed and really I'm not gonna get to stressed cause in life nothing is taken for granted.

9:32 PM  

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