Today, I walked into a high school where I am not an employee. Where I have no classroom, no agenda on the board, no lesson plans, no books, no exit slips, and no first-day-of-school icebreakers, because I am no longer a high school English teacher.
I quit not because I am jaded. My new job working with low-income, first-generation high school students is similar to teaching. I'm still idealistic, young, and naïvely optimistic (although a little less so). But I am no longer willing to operate under the old rules while the weight of our educational bureaucracy crushes our country. And I'm hoping that I can do more from outside of the system, that not grading essays gives me more time to write, to speak, and to help others be heard.
I quit teaching because I was tired of feeling powerless. Tired of watching would-be professionals treated as children, infantilized into silence. Tired of the machine that turns art into artifice for the sake of test scores. Tired of being belittled, disrespected and looked down upon by lawyers, politicians, and decision-makers who see teaching as the province of provincials, the work of housewives that can be done by anyone.
When the teaching profession loses respect, or ceases to become a profession, children pay the price. I'll borrow the Howard Gardner definition of a professional, which is as good as any:
A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.
Are teachers certified experts? No: you need no licensure to begin teaching. Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, suggest that education schools are empty, facile and meaningless, at least for the classroom teacher. I don't begrudge TFA, since it helps many children escape poverty, but its existence magnifies a view of teachers as interchangeable parts, as cogs in our machine. I have no moral high ground on the issue of turnover, since I quit after three years, but policy-makers are increasingly devaluing graduate school programs that train teachers to teach -- to innovate. After all, why spend money on training teachers for a whole year, for a career, when we can pump in a stream of idealistic young people for much less money? Why teach teachers to question the machinery whirling around them?
And prestige? Forget about it. My partner is a corporate attorney, so I have the privilege of spending a lot of time at events where I am often asked, "Oh, so how long do you plan on teaching?" I have to resist the urge to ask how long they intend to practice law.
The prestige problem is, ironically, the worst in some of our "highest-performing" schools. In suburbia, teachers deal with the open disrespect of the upper-and-middle-class parent. I'm talking about those parents who fight for every letter grade, who teach their children to teach the teacher a lesson, and who regard teachers as merely obstacles on the way to an Ivy League admission. I was often amazed by the outrageous lies some parents would tell to get an extension on their child's assignment.
And in our urban areas, teachers wrestle with the inescapable effects of poverty and are afforded little-to-no credit for helping solve it. This poverty, even the mention of it, is completely absent from the political debate. We haven't heard about it since John Edwards and his "Two Americas" speech, and I certainly wish that someone would take up a mantle that was once carried proudly by Democratic presidents (think Kennedy and Johnson). If you think the middle-class and business-owners are owed better, spend some time at least volunteering in a lower-income community before you start railing about tax cuts, and the people (and teachers) who are lost when we slash state and federal spending. Spend some time with teachers at work before suggesting that their job is easier than yours. Spend some time with them grading papers at home before you say your tax dollars pay them too much for too few hours. Perhaps that's a solution- - a Teacher for a Day program for all businessmen, lawyers and would-be congressmen. Having taught in both types of systems, I know firsthand how hard ALL teachers work.
But in terms of prestige, teachers are attacked on all sides regardless of demographics. We've even created positions where teachers are expected to leave the classroom if they wish to "move up" in the profession. It's a self-absorbed, ego-driven, adult-centered system of educational governance.
As for autonomy, it's gobbled up by these people leaving the classroom, usually for reasons of pay. So no, teachers can't live comfortably on our currently salaries. And I haven't heard anyone talk about teachers being "called" to the profession in a really, really long time.
Rather than just complain, I propose a solution. It's a drastically simple, Steve Jobs-approach to education. You have teachers teaching in a school. And that's really about the only thing that goes on. One of those teachers is selected as an instructional leader, by peers. These leaders continue to teach at least one class. Then you start dividing up responsibilities usually handled by administration. Who orders books? A classroom teacher. Who writes the curriculum? A classroom teacher. Who handles discipline? A classroom teacher.
Evaluations are done by peers, and the tools are developed by teachers. Teachers are hired by other teachers. There are no outside consultants, no central office administrators, and no superintendents. There are no unions because there is no one to unionize against. There is a secretary, who is usually the most important person in any organization, who makes phone calls to parents and greets visitors.
If there must be a principal in this ideal school of mine, let it be someone who still has a classroom. Let it be the person who pays the electrical bill, who makes sure everyone gets paid, who is a sounding board for teachers. Let it be someone who still has to lesson plan, grade and walk in front of a room of children every day and figure out what's best for them, one day at a time.
So for now, I quit teaching. I quit not because of my students, who were wonderful, bright, capable, eager-to-learn, and deserving of a better educational system. And deserving of a more-experienced teacher, probably, but I did my best for them, even those unfortunate kids during my first year of teaching. And I didn't quit because of an administrator, or a boss, or a colleague.
I quit because the system is demeaning. It's a structure that consumes everyone in it, from the top to the bottom. I didn't quit because of a single school -- I quit because of the pattern of inanity that is replicated throughout the whole country. Our schools are still living in a post-World War II fantasy.
So the rage of teachers is building. You can see it in the impending strike in Chicago. You can see it in the protests in Wisconsin. Teachers are slowly realizing that we hold the power.
So what is the answer? Unions? Hardly. We can't allow union leaders to absorb teachers, to use them as a platform on which to stand. Our union leaders have failed us. Union politics have contributed to us getting to this point by forcing administrators to deal with them rather than teachers directly. They teach us that we cannot speak for ourselves; they teach us powerlessness. Union leaders are too often mere mouthpieces skimming off teachers' paychecks.
What teachers want is so fundamentally basic to professional life. All people want to not only do what they love, but to be respected for it. We shouldn't be negotiating for a 1 percent pay raise; we should be negotiating for enough money to take a vacation, to lease a car, to start a family. We should be negotiating for enough to attract top talent, and for raises to be given to the best, not the oldest. And we should be negotiating for structural changes that will allow top teachers to be recognized and given leadership positions while remaining in the classroom for their entire careers.
No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendants, more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.
If we continue to treat our teachers like children, what will become of our children?