Monday, June 02, 2008

Causation’s Messy, Messy Goulash

I wasn’t going to do this one, originally. But then I wrote it, and it’s been sitting in my computer, waiting for current events to reach clarity and resolution. That ain't happening, so I'll go with the redacted version here.

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
It’s time.


Anonymous Benjamin Baxter said...

Plenty of good reasons.

Personally, with these benefits, I have no problem being a camp counselor with delusions of grandeur, and I happily agree with that way of putting it.

How much of teaching is motivation? How much of teaching is generating interest? How much of teaching is making something seem fun and worthwhile while at the same time both the counselor and the campers might individually denounce it as outright silliness?

With time, I may become a second-grouper, with a drive, a desire and a need for significant self-improvement. Not yet.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Jenny said...

"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."

I read this and was amazed to find that I feel exactly the same way. I've taught for ten years, switching back and forth in fourth and fifth grades, and trying a gifted classroom. Changing levels, teams, and adding gifted has kept me moving a bit. But I'm bored. I know there are things I could do better, but I can't get truly motivated. So, I'm moving to first grade. It will be a different world and I feel like I'm getting ready for my first year teaching. I'm lucky to have a way to shake things up enough.

Good luck.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Mamacita (Mamacita) said...

I'm sorry. I had really hoped it would never happen to you.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Ben Chun said...

Thank you, again, for choosing to write about your experiences and perspectives. I am going to miss your voice.

5:37 PM  
Blogger lily said...

uh.. i don't know..
maybe there isn't really "job satisfaction"
out there.
not just in education, but health care and other "service" jobs.

is it urban legend??
anything after a while.. you just loose the mojo?
tell me it ain't so.

7:54 PM  
Blogger lily said...

and one more thing ( sorry!)
will this site stay up ?.. i find it helpful to cruise back to old posts and reread them.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous A. Mercer said...

Some questions:
1. Are you really doing that much worse this year with the kids?
2. Are your still gaining, but not as much as you were?
3. Are the kids coming in higher, so the climb out of the pit is not so huge?
4. Are your "numbers" really different, or is it that you don't have the whole adult team pulling together and patting each other on the back?

Good post, good reflection, thank you for sharing.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

A rebuttal that teachers are not professionals:

Doctors participate in extensive education and residency to work a job in their specialty for the rest of their career. Sure there are opportunities to open up their own practice or become "head" of some department or hospital and occasionally move from job to job in an effort to increase their pay and benefits. Yet they ARE called, "professionals."

Teachers participate in lengthy education and credentialing to work a job in their specialty for the rest of their career. Sure there are opportunities to open up their own school or become "head" of some department or school and occasionally move from job to job in an effort to increase their pay and benefits. Yet they are NOT called, "professionals."

Aside from length and depth of a doctor's and teacher's education and training, pay seems to be a major significant difference. Perhaps if teachers were paid more we could call them professionals.

Doctors are experts at fixing the body. Are teachers experts at "fixing" the mind? I would argue that high quality effective teaching is just as important as high quality effective medical care.

All doctors were once students in some primary or secondary school.

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a soon to be TFA Corps member I look forward to your posts. I think in the recent backlash against TFA in the news and blog community what you said about the retention rate of TFA teachers really strikes me, as well as your posts generally remind me that not all bloggers dislike TFA. Hope to keep reading your posts in the future.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Kris said...

Above and beyond all else, thank you for getting me through my first year as an ELD teacher. For giving me ideas to lighten up High Point and for providing a place that has provided great idea tossing by lots of other good teachers. You are wished the very best and more importantly a very quick end to the drama you seem to be dealing with - most importantly so you can get back to the blog world of course! JK Good luck!

5:44 PM  
Anonymous sylvia martinez said...

You should try what you are curious about. You may find that having a wider, but less direct influence on education suits you. Or you may find that the direct jolting impact you have on kids in a classroom is worth the hassle and angst. That journey could take a year or a lifetime.

Personally, I think you are very wrong about how other professionals have opportunities to advance and remain hands-on. It's not true - the decisions are very similar in all professions. You get promoted, and then have to manage the people who are doing the "actual work." Everyone struggles with this dilemma. Not sure if that makes it better for you.

9:15 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Some answers for you, Ms. Mercer:

1) Am I doing worse? Yeah, probably. One group, the kids that start at about 2nd grade ability, are tearing it up. They're gonna do great. The other just fell apart, partly based on all the transfers, but partly based on the deterioration of kids that in the past we were able to keep from deteriorating.

2) Yeah, there's always gains. Gains are good. But if I can't get 2-3 years, might as well pack it in, because it's the equivalent of treading water at this stage.

3) Higher? Naw. School-wide, we have this fun duality thing where we simultaneously have a) more proficent kids and b) more Far Below Basic kids. Blame Open Court, the lack of effective elementary interventions, no homogenous grouping, and no Newcomer Centers. For me, as the guy who wants the lowest and most hard-up, it means my kids are, on average, lower and lower every year. Neat-o.

4)We'll see on the numbers thing. School went down last year for the first time since I've been there, a product of a lot of new teachers, the expansion from 7-8 to 6-8, and a slow, calculated leadership withdrawl from the POY, who chose the opposite of the pull-the-band-aid-off-quick-it'll-hurt-less exit strategy. But we're definitely not pulling together, not as much, not like before, and not only does it not feel good, it's not terribly effective way to run a school.

And look, here's the thing: We educate kids in a context where every.single.factor pulls down. Every miscellaneous thing folks point to as affecting educational/life outcomes is a negative in our case. That doesn't mean the ball game's over, but it does mean that you have to bring it at extremely high levels to even have a chance to make a dent.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous john thompson said...

I hope I didn't sound like a jerk in the previous debate, and my experience isn't universal but it may provide some more context.

Just before NCLB, and the enormous money it brought in, we got a great new principal who was a collaborative leader. As we started to turn the school around, we were able to recruit great middle school teachers who wanted to join the crusade. Had we enjoyed a fraction of the resources that would soon come from NCLB (and be wasted, but that's a different story) we would have had a better chance in dealing with crucial problems.

Overnight, January 2002, discipline problems soared. There is no lag time between an economic downturn and the resulting family problems that the students bring to school. Then a gang war broke out, and we were slow in recognizing how cell phones and other digital technologies were transforming gang violence. I still remember the first time that I knowingly observed a text message on a cell phone. I didn't know what the student was doing but I knew that members of both gangs involved in a recent murder were in class together, and I didn't like the body language.

When we were not allowed to enforce our school's disciplinary code, despite the escalating violence, and despite the principal's good faith promises, a lot of teachers used that as an excuse to give up. One day in exhaustion the principal explained why she just didn't know whether she could keep her promises to the teachers anymore. The last straw was a girl who was on a 504 waiting for a heart transplant who disrupted every class on every day. She ambushed kids at the bus stop running over one, backing up over him, and running over him again. Because a 504 is the equivilant of an IEP, the principal wasn't allowed to Long Term Suspend the student.

At the end, I knew this dynamic young principal was going to leave because she would come in my class, sit down, and join whatever Government discussion was going on. I'm informal but I would have never opened up the way she did, and her words kept slipping into past tense.

With NCLB we quadrupled per student expenditures in tested subjects, but test scores didn't budge, and we went back to losing 100 students a year. (I estimated we lost 1/2 to better schools and 1/2 to the treets.) Citing NCLB, we were required to grade weekly benchmark tests. Few teachers supported it, but the agenda was presented in a divide and conquer manner with each dept being told (falsely) that other teachers supported the process. Only one teacher refused to comply and left. I resisted politically (almost losing my Fulbright over it) We killed the program after 1/3rd of a year but the damage was done.

Our average high school students read at about a 5th grade level, but they were subjected to 8th to 9th grade high stakes benchmark tests every week. Failure was piled on failure, and the school went empty. Had we had a couple of dozen students needing remediation, as in magnet schools, it wouldn't have been a problem. But we were having a 95% failure rate in some class (often they were taught by the best teachers but those young teachers were such true believers in "Expectations" that they didn't adjust.

We, who had been so afraid of hurting a couple of dozen students by enforcing disciplinary consequences, were now driving hundreds of kids out of school with test prep. Some got degrees (of a sort) through "credit recovery" online tutorials, but the social fabric of the school collapsed.

By the beginning of that year, I kept hearing the same phrase, "we've tried everything else." Most of the great young teachers who we recruited would be "good soldiers" and never utter anything negative. By the third and fourth quarter, though, several were crying uncontrollably at night, having migraine headaches, and going sleepless. We lost every single one of those great teachers. They are now in lower poverty and magnet schools, doing great.

I'm the only one left from that great team that tried to turn around the school, but I won't criticize the others. I didn't have a mortgage or kids at home. Years of students' funerals had taught me to roll with the punches. I probably cried as much as the young teachers but not at home. I had reached the point where the students allowed me to cry with them. (that may be another difference between high school and elementary where I guess you have to be outwardly strong, but with older kids you can have those intense conversations that give strenght to both teens and adults) I had built up political capital which allowed me to fight back. And the process of fighting back allowed me to get things off my chest, and it empowered me. Had I been ordered to give benchmark tests for a grade, I could have put my keys on the desk, hugged the kids, walked out the door knowing I'd done my best, and then issued a press release.

But I'm glad it didn't come to that.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TMAO was a mentor of sorts to me back in 2003 (my first year as a TFAer at a rival middle school in the same district). I did the false "promotion" gig. Lame teacher for years 1 and 2. Badass teacher for years 3 and 4. Then instructional coach here in year 5. During years 3 and 4 of tmao I had some of the most impressive improvement in the district in students algebra 1 scores, and I had fun. Then I left the classroom to support teachers and my motivation waned. Now I'm leaving the 408 for a whole host of the same reasons that TMAO is leaving.

But I'm going back to the classroom. At KIPP.

This move is driven by the opportunity to finally operate as a member a strong team of more competent adults, in a system that seems to recruit, retain, and validate quality (and a desire to cut my commute in half). We'll see how it turns out...

One thing is certain: I'm more excited than ever about teaching. For me, it took a sabbatical year (coaching), and a concrete departure from a dysfunctional district.

Adios to the 408 for now, and thank-you to TMAO.

4:14 PM  
Blogger S.King said...

I have been reading your blog and following closely the explanation of your leaving. I absolutely would not pretend to understand the challenges of working in a system such as yours that manifests so many of the social ills of our country on a daily basis. What I do believe is that we continue to attempt to solve these problems with a system that does not, cannot, and will never be ever to address them. There is no amount of tweaking that can be done to the current structures of a public school system that will allow students from environments where basic human needs are not met on a day to day basis from birth to become academically "proficient," let alone emotionally & physically healthy and productive citizens - not even KIPP schools. And different types of school systems deal with different types of challenges - there are no "one-size fits all" solutions - except that in some way, education needs to be willing to be held accountable . . . . accountable for what it is we are supposed to be accomplishing and how do we measure that in a reasonable, logical, fair way. If you were to go throughout my school district and ask all of the staff members, parents , and kids what the school should be responsible for - you would get responses that were so varied, you would never be able to design a way to measure "success."

Personally, I keep working on remaining optimistic about our education system and our country ... it is getting more difficult, but I do not like the other option. I just want to use my energy to exploring how to do it!!

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another problem with professional status of teachers and other school-based personnel is that there's little effort to match pd to skills or needs ... so we sit through intro workshops on our dissertation topics, or on technological devices we don't have access to, or on some specific achievement problem that didn't actually emerge in our own school, or we "share" in the name of pd ...

I'm not sure lawyers and doctors are forced to endure such inappropriate pd! Yet, even as I whine about it, I think we all share a lot of responsibility on the pd front ... we can seek out and provide appropriate training for ourselves and our teams. And if we do get stuck in some terrible training, we can do our best to handle that situation appropriately (i.e., be polite, challenge others respectfully, don't bully the presenter or make a big show of being bored or disinterested, leave discretely, if we must ...). Sometimes I cringe at the way my peers behave during a sub-par workshop ... let's act like professionals even when we're not treated as such.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

Thank you. That post was closure. It was the missing piece of "No Country for Old Men".

I get it.

Good luck.

8:58 PM  

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