Causation’s Messy, Messy Goulash
The system reason
I already wrote this one – have been writing it for three years maybe. This isn’t insignificant. It isn’t minor. It isn’t something that is limited to perpetually unsatisfied, cranky 28-year-old know-it-alls. What does a teacher-promotion look like? Lead teacher/ mentor teacher/ department chair tend to mean very little except occasionally more work. Instructional coach means not teaching. Vice-principal means not teaching. Coordinator of something at the D.O. means not teaching. What does a teacher-promotion look like? We don’t know, not really. What happens when I figure out my job, do it well, occasionally do it more than well? What are my options for professional growth beyond 1) stop doing the job I do well; and 2) continue to do the job I do well, without change, indefinitely?
Not to mention, how do you decide that I know my job and do it well? Do we have anything that looks like outcome-based professional standards? Yeah, not so much, huh?
Teaching is not a profession because there is no wide-spread system of growth and advancement. I suppose you could make the case that education is a profession wherein teaching is the entry-level position, but that argument is deeply unsatisfying. This would make the career teacher inherently and fundamentally less, and it moreover ignores the reality that the skill sets required at the various hierarchical levels of the education system are wildly varied and do not, in any way, build upon one or another or reflect a type of sustained growth and development. Professionals who excel at their entry-level jobs in everything from medicine to politics, the military to cooking, have the opportunity to advance in ways that continue to call upon, make use of, and depend upon a demonstration of previous excellence. They are not compelled to choose between endlessly doing the same thing or earning the right to stop doing what they’re good at precisely because they’re good at it.
The district reason
It's been like this. I'm the guy in the revolving door.
The school reason
Why do some continue to teach, while others leave? Why was it that in 2006-2007 TFAers were leaving the District in droves, while thirteen of the fifteen TFAers to ever work at our school were still there (not to mention pretty much everyone else)? It’s about working conditions. It’s about the quality of the environment in which you work. We had it. I went to work and got out of the car in the cold 6:30 air and felt so F-ing grateful for the opportunity to do this work. Grateful, privileged, and enthused. I remember those feelings now the way I remember the pure joy of seeing a ping-pong table in my living room Christmas morning 1990 – a fond memory distilled by time and plenty of less fond shit along the way.
Check this. We’re not that school anymore, not even close. We’re Arnie Vinick’s poll numbers after the San Andreo nuclear accident. We’re the buying power of the Papiermark c.1923. A divisive and damaging police presence; a vindictive and ultimately incompetent vice-principal; the rise of pettiness and looking out for number one; a failure of teacher leadership and an absence of next-step mission-building – we’ve got it all.
The inertia reason
It wasn’t always like this. Commenter T-bag, wrote thusly:
“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 outta 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'll done good. You pulled a school out of the abyss. It's up to someone else, another team, to take the next steps… 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…”
And of course this is right on. If I never experienced that worst-to-first turnaround, if I never worked as part of a core group of folks coming together in powerful ways to enact change, if I never saw the nearly uncapped potential of adults to reform an entire school and bring the community along with it, if I had only worked in dysfunctional, bitter, and punitive environments, then none of this back-sliding would matter so much. It wouldn’t feel so terrible and tragic. I wouldn’t know the difference, and so would happily go about my business of holding back the darkness by investing my four walls with everything I got… or I never woulda made it this far, and would be back in Boston, tending bar and trying to publish works of fiction.
The broadening your impact reason
This is an important sentence to learn:
“My experiences have been profound, and to a large extent, life-defining, but I want to broaden the scope of my impact and affect change on as wide a range as possible.”
This is a good sentence, and true. I experienced first-hand how structural changes could dramatically improve the work we all do, and the attempts to impart these lessons to others – at West Ed, at the Arizona DOE, at CABE/ NABE – have been exciting and satisfying, even in the absence of any metric for my own effectiveness therein. This is something I find myself chomping on the bit to pursue more fully. More deliberately.
The means versus ends reason
At Dan's place, a while back, folks were creating a teacher classification system. I think that once you throw out everyone who just plain sucks and is in this cuz it's the best, most guaranteed paycheck they can muster, you're left with a central cleave, one simple line of demarcation.
On one side of this line are those that see the relationships, caring, and (gosh!) love as the end to all the work they do. That’s why they man a desk. They see this is as a high, pure, clean reason to do the job, and all the talk of gross, impersonal data just devalues and un-romanticizes the relationship building and the connecting and the life-changing, like spray-paint on the Venus de Milo. Think Pirsig’s romantic quality vs. classical quality. They traffic in the currency of caring, but it’s a limited caring that, in the name of whole person supporting, never seems to get around to the academic aspect of that whole person.
On the other side are educators who, far from rejecting the power and importance of relationships, appreciate and enjoy them, but also see them as means to a greater end: achievement. Fist-pounds and back-slaps, smiles and jokes and the kid who comes back three years later with big grins and cool updates are all well and good, say second group educators, but if those things don’t take us closer to learning and advancing and progressing academically, then we’re just camp counselors with delusions of grandeur.
I'm in the second group. I can dig a kid being a kid, all that ridiculous goo of the middle school'd, and I dig too on the essential sharing that lies at the heart of teaching and learning. I dig the way that sharing lasts and grows, whether it's my IB kids come back, those achievement-gap-closing kids, to invite me to events and graduations, or just gossiping with Y. for half and hour about all the break-ups and get-togethers of the kids who used to wander through my door. It’s great to get asked to the quincenera or the football game. It's great to get the phone calls, and texts (especially now), great to see the kids all grows up and talking to you about college and careers and how their mom's back is much better, thanks. Even the shitty times, the times you have to go to the hospital to see your boy with his stomach stapled back together after a stabbing, or see your guy, the one you teach for, incarcerated and asking for books, you wouldn't trade those times. I am a better person because I signed up for TFA back in January 02, less solipsistic, less cold, a puzzle piece with more fuzzed-rounded edges and more inter-locking points. I'm better because of all of the relationships and the sharing, everything that dug its way inside and worked its (re)defining work, and this is what I talk about when people ask why I do what I do. It's what you talk about, too.
But if you're in this second group with me, you talk about all that because that’s what people understand. It's also what they want to hear. What they don’t understand is how you feel when you see the CST quintile pie-chart, and it’s so F-ing full of green (interquintile growth) that you cannot sit in a seat and you run out and get drunk on whiskey because that’s what you did together. What they don’t understand is how you feel when you hand kids the first essay they wrote, and place it next to the final essay, and watch their faces because that’s what you did together. What they don’t understand is maybe those invitations — to football games, and parties, and graduations, and jail cells — wouldn’t be as forthcoming if the other part wasn’t there, vibrant and strong. Look at what we did together.
I received a student survey back at the end of my second year. It’s the most valuable piece of paper I own. The kid ripped me a new one, strongly disagreeing all the way down the page. On the back, in the comment section, she wrote:
“I hated this teacher. I don’t know why, but I just did. He thinks he’s funny, but he’s not. He gets butt-hurt about everything.”
Then there’s a five-line pause, and she writes these last two sentences, which allowed me to calm down over the next four years, and do this job much, much better:
“But I gotta admit he’s a damn good teacher. He taught me, like, everything.”
[cue: Rocky theme song]
See, I’ve taught far more kids like this, kids who didn’t come ready to be cool with me, who didn’t need it and didn’t want it. Kids who’ll never come back and visit, kids I never saw again (except that time her brother was being put in the back of a cop car), but you still have the opportunity to teach them, like, everything.
Here's why this matters in our current context: It's harder for us second-groupers to remain. What gets me going is the pursuit of exponential student growth, and what keeps me coming back for more is the chance to hack away at the intensely complex pursuit of that growth. What stymies me, what blunts me, is the unraveling and solving of this particular puzzle. When the work becomes less about discovery and innovation and more about delivery and application, when the achievement becomes less shocked success and more the expected norm, when the cool thing you did to dramatically accelerate progress still accelerates progress but becomes less cool every time you do it, further and further removed from the spark-joy of innovation... I start checking for exits.
This isn't to say I've got it all figured out, so nailed down and hammered out that it's easy to do the three years of growth in one year thing. Of course it isn't. But the difficulty and challenge becomes one of maintenance and minor tweaking, and that just doesn't grab hold of me Temple-of-Doom-style. And because I'm a second-grouper, I can't supplement with the pure joy of the kids, the thing that rolls me over the doldrums and the low points like it does for the first-groupers, like it does for the one teacher I know who may straddle both groups in equal measure. My past successes impair my ability to keep coming round to generate future successes.
("Sure I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to."
"That's all he has to do to be grounded?"
"That's all. Let him ask me."
"And then you can ground him?" Yossarian asked.
"No. Then I can't ground him...")
The 4:47 a.m. reason, after shutting off the alarm, but before walking over the cold floor to the shower and the start of your day