Why Deciding to Become a Teacher Is Like Playing High-stakes Roulette

All teachers know of sentimental turns like the answer to the question “What do you make?” asked of a teacher, or of movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus.  We have all seen those urban-legendary lists of Teacher Rules from 1872, compared to which we presumably bask in the meridian sunshine of modern education. What many teachers really bask in appears in Pryzbylewski’s classroom in Season 4 of The Wire. Which will it be? Little wheels spin every day for teachers. Now, it is true that little wheels spin for everyone, but why add to their number by choosing a chancy profession? For that is what teaching is becoming.

You may place your first bet when your parents pay, or you borrow, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance your education for a job that in many places does not pay very well. Will you find work, as one friend did, at an excellent school that pays well and offers housing for faculty and families? Or will you get work in Union City as another friend did, commuting by jalopy from Manteca because it is too expensive to live where he works?[1] Which of these friends do you think has a hope of paying back his student loan? Of course, you could be a Finn in Finland, where university education up to the master’s level is both compulsory for teachers and tuition-free. In that case the bet will be smaller to start, but since Finnish teachers earn salaries competitive with engineers’ and other professionals’, they stand a better chance, if chance it can be called, to find themselves solvent five years into their career.

Which brings us to the second spin of the wheel: will you be a teacher in five years’ time? The odds are nearly even that you will not, but as usual the raw odds do not really tell the tale. They are far higher if you are spun into some Ed Biz Horror Show. Consider Pryzbylewski, or Prez, as he is called in season 4 of The Wire. Now, he goes to education because he is a failed policeman, but let us pass over the unpleasant truth that some people in the U.S. choose teaching faute de mieux. Prez finds himself having to teach a very difficult group of students how to perform well on the standardized tests they must pass so the school is not closed for failing the provisions of NCLB.[2]

I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen The Wire; instead I’ll move on to the next turn of the wheel: what kind of administrator will you work under? Much is made of poor teachers, but little about poor principals. Will he or she be a competent educational leader, a Marshal Stalin, or a Captain Bligh? The unfortunate truth is that many administrators run their schools ineffectively. That is partly because they have not been very well educated in administration and do not have the instincts of leadership. It is also due to the deficiency of governing principles for them to run things by. They might do worse, with good will and competence, than to follow Edwards Deming’s 14 principles, which have been successfully applied in business[3], and could be adapted to education administration too. Instead, all too often the principle of administration in a U.S. school is “My way or the highway.” This even though “my way” often runs counter to good sense or is supported by only the flimsiest trash “research.” Teachers who don’t adopt “my way” often lose on this spin of the wheel. “No man, no problem,” as the Marshal said of the Cossacks. But no sooner does this kind of “educational leader” get one “problem” solved than he is often off on another scheme, and thus the wheel spins again.

As for Captain Bligh: He can be found everywhere from Atlanta to your own home town. An example from my own experience was that of a colleague at a school where I used to teach. The veteran of nearly thirty years of teaching, she was highly successful with her I.B. and non-I.B. students and took pride in being able to motivate the brighter and lesser luminaries in her classes. Though her colleagues sometimes wished that she was less loquacious, all respected her professionally and many counted her as a friend. But not the new principal, who took an immediate and strong dislike to her. For the next few years we had to watch him repeatedly and publicly browbeat and humiliate her. The last straw came when her husband, a distinguished scientist, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. My colleague asked for a long weekend off to attend his investiture, but the principal refused permission.  Shortly afterwards she announced her retirement at the end of the academic year. I saw her two years later, and she was a changed woman, but not at our own little roulette table. I hear now from a friend who has been in teaching for over twenty-five years. Among those who passed through his classroom was a future Senior Wranger of Cambridge, and he had the reputation of being particularly good at engaging his brightest students, though he claimed no credit for the success of the future Senior Wrangler. But starting a couple of years ago he came under the baleful eye of a new principal, who would call him in for “meetings” that included shouting, name-calling, and threats. He wrote me recently to say he is burnt out. In both cases, a bad roll of the wheel.

The RAT roll, occasioned by the RAce to the Top program, is the chance a teacher has of being rated “ineffective” by “value”-“added” “metrics”[4] imposed on schools by the Department of Education. The relationship between these “metrics” and actual teaching is thoroughly debunked, but the crazy spin continues.  Now we have a Federal lawsuit brought against the State of Florida by a number of its teachers. Florida evaluates its teachers using VAMs of students who are not in their classes. In what kind of world do teachers literally need to make a Federal case of an absurd educational practice in order to end it? The alternative is to be spun out of teaching by a bad and arbitrary turn of the VAM wheel.

The last turn of the wheel  is the danger of being victimized by “reforms” that cut your job or your pay.  One example: being replaced by an on-line “learning” “facilitator” as schools move to replace better, more expensive teaching by cheaper, lousier teaching. There are other kinds of budgetary danger too—in this case, your budget. What if, after thirty years of teaching, you find yourself paid not according to the usual formula (seniority plus degrees) but according to your VAM rating? The chance that your pay could be cut by this arbitrary process is a real, looming danger.

Someone carefully considering a teaching career must consider all these possibilities. In the right circumstances, teaching is an incomparable pleasure, but do you want to enter a profession where finding yourself able to continue to retirement is a matter of luck?

[1] Manteca is Spanish for fat, but teachers don’t live there because it is Fat City. And if you are going to live on the margins, you will probably have to depend occasionally on the kindness of strangers. Black South Africans call a jalopy a skorokoro, but their having to use one is eased by the exigencies of ubuntu. When you need a push, who will give it?

[2] That Prez’s job is not just fiction is proved by the New York City Schools, which buy more copies of test prep books than any other “trade book.” But for those who want “hard facts,” real teachers also leave the profession in alarming numbers.

[4] VAM for short. A friend suggests their use in dismissing “ineffective” teachers should be summarized as “Wham, VAM, thank you Ma’am.” But to be fair to men, the VAM garbage-disposal could go “VAM, Whirr, thank you Sir.”


Gone Marking

A perfect storm of marking: my senior IB English students wrote a practice exam paper, and my junior IB English students wrote a commentary on something they are reading. The Theory of Knowledge students submitted paragraphs on historiography. I am marking ToK papers for the I. B. Organization. In spite of good will and a butt of iron tempered by twenty-five years’ sitting at the desk after class, I was behind. I thought of the sign the father of a boyhood friend of mine had on the desk in his study: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”

Time for triage, since I will be working, as Barzun says, like a dog, but with triage; otherwise, I will sink without a trace. The seniors need affirmation and general words of encouragement, which are easier to write quickly than are proofreading and detailed comments, which the juniors need. The ToK classes revisited the material discussed in the paragraphs. Clearly the juniors “win” the attention of my red pen.

All this happens when I am not in the classroom teaching my students, but something has happened in my conditions of work to make it easier to manage than it was during my first or second year of teaching. I mean more than just experience. At my current school I have about half the classroom contact hours I had at that first school, and 55% as many students.

Even so, I am not done. Enjoy your week. Next week, I will enjoy mine.


Buzz of the Month Club

The educationist Buzz-of-the-Month Club has many items in its lineup at any one time because each of them takes months, or sometimes years, to run its course and then decay from cutting edge to trailing edge in footnotes and storage rooms.  Like the dark rooms in the Tower of London where the Rack, the Iron Maiden, and Skeffington’s Daughter are stored, we can find books, reports, and other relics of Open Classrooms, New Math, and Whole Language for our horrified incredulity. Did people really think that converting a school into Grand Central would improve learning? Did people really think that grade-school boys and girls would count better by learning set theory? Did people really think that students would learn good English by reading bad English, or that their hunger of imagination would be satisfied by trying to digest “pieces” whose hero does community service as a “consequence” of “inappropriate behavior”?

Yet all these things had the sanction of “research” when the Buzz-of-the-Month Club first offered them. Obviously “research” is not enough warrant. I do not mean to offer a blanket condemnation of research as a tool of education but to say that sometimes it is misguided, and that when it is, it should be rejected. We do this using the remedy Jacques Barzun calls the “judicial temper,” operating under the guidance of what Richard Hofstadter calls “the collective experience of the human race.” To the argument that it is not scientific, I would answer that science gave us Open Classrooms and New Math, and rest my case.

But the move to on-line “schools” is proceeding with no precautions at all: little or no research, and no respect for collective experience or the judicial temper, which weighs and judges, letting experience and common sense operate on evidence and testimony. The Temper tells us to treat certain evidence and testimony with caution. In another context we are warned against McScience, that is, tendentious “science” that is funded by private corporations or the foundations associated with those corporations. When we finally get “the research on” on-line “schools,” as we certainly will, the Temper will have to weigh the possibility of its being of this corrupt kind.

There are some impediments to the success of the judicial temper in keeping on-line education at bay. One is a massive retreat from the old vision of education as a public good, which resulted in the commitment to education by California’s late governor, the father of its current governor, and the heyday of the University of California and California’s public schools, from one of which I was graduated the valedictorian. Now some schools graduate them in litters, and not because budget-cutting has made them lean, mean and efficient.

Another impediment is the pressure within education circles constantly being applied by educationists wielding their brooms and wrecking-balls in the service of Transformation. The most alarming thing about the transformationists is their airborne certainty and absolutism. One of them recently said, “When observed from the 20,000-foot level, the basic building blocks of higher education—its priorities, governance, instructional design, and cost structure—have hardly budged.” This is meant to be an indictment, but a moment’s thought will tell us that some of this supposedly antediluvian higher education is eminently successful, and the world is beating a path to its door, while some is producing “graduates” who cannot make correct change[1] at work. That difference can hardly be attributable to a systemic breakdown. But more troubling is the writer’s metaphorical perspective of great height. Who does she think she is? And with what transformation will she be satisfied? There is no way from reading the article to tell. And anyone who has looked down from 20,000 feet in an airplane knows how little we actually see from that height.

China’s First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, the noted education transformationist, started the Burn Books Bury Scholars[2] (fénshūkēngrú) movement to root out the past. It might have been a bit too non-metaphorical for the taste of today’s transformationists, and it was not successful in supplanting old values (Confucian) with new (Legalist). Some years after the First Emperor himself had been buried, a (Confucian) school was established whose story Jung Chang relates in her book Wild Swans.

Before relating what happened to that school I must mention Edgar Snow’s biographical chapters on Mao Zedong in his book Red Star over China. Young Mao was constantly falling for and then rejecting schemes of education for himself. His radical dissatisfaction with education remained in him, the child being father of the man, till in the 1960s he was able to start the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, also designed to sweep away old education. It did, too, for ten years, as the universities closed down and teachers were sent to the country to dig turnips and wear dunce caps. (I know one of them.) That two-thousand-year-old school Jung Chan wrote about was destroyed, its basic building blocks transformed into rubble. Propaganda posters from the time of the Revolution, when they showed Mao, usually depicted him as detached from humanity, rising above the horizon like a twenty-thousand-foot mountain. God save us from these airborne personages!

That detachment from humanity is the last impediment I want to treat. What kind of inhumanity are we readying in our schools when we move towards online “schools” that focus narrowly and relentlessly on the curriculum map, instructional delivery, and “value”-“added” “metrics”? A lot of the planning seems to forget that it is for people, not parts. Real teaching no less than “scripted teaching” is being replaced by “blended learning,” but where do the students fit in as human beings? Let us listen to one of them, an American, from whose essay this is taken:

Before school starts, all students receive their schedule for the year, and the first thing my friends and I always did was compare classes and teachers. The teacher, even more than the subject itself, was the most important detail of the class. How the teacher acted, how the teacher looked, how the teacher was personality-wise—these were all essential to us. The way one acted around a teacher could make or break a year. Should I act formally? Should I be sassy? How much trouble would I be in if I turned in a late assignment? Before even meeting these people, I have created a set of possibilities for them using my imagination.

I am not being in the least facetious when I wonder what hopes and images students will cultivate as they confront their blended learning screens, and how they will use them to feed their hunger of imagination. Instead, I will contrast these sorry and defective visions with my colleague the math teacher Mr. P. When I was at a summer workshop one year, I saw a video of a math class being conducted at the Phillips Exeter Academy by a gifted teacher. On this particular day the students were working in small groups on their separate problems, coming to the teacher when they had questions or needed help. It had an effect on my teaching, but I bet no one would have watched it to learn math. I have seen Mr. P. likewise getting his students to work on the whiteboards, as he chaffs and joshes and explains them into an understanding, much as the Exeter teacher did. He also gives traditional chalk talks. Regardless, at the end of class he is usually surrounded by a knot of students with questions. Most students admire him, and work as much to please him as because they dote on differentiation. One of these students was giving his ToK Presentation in my class, and opened it with two quotations on a PowerPoint slide: one by Immanuel Kant and one by Mr. P.  What inhumanity are we proposing in an alternative system in which students do not have such anchors to humanity in their screen-filled education?

[1] I watched the cashier at a hotel in Anaheim come to grief when asked to make change for a $100 bill.

[2] alive


Look Behind the Numbers

This week’s material will at first seem disparate, but the theme connecting all of it is that we must look behind the numbers.

The lesson of the first story is that such stories may leave out important material, and that sometimes this material runs counter to what has been included. We read  that teachers are second highest in well-being of all jobholders, exceeded only by physicians. Those who have read Diane Ravitch’s claim[1] that the average teacher lasts under five years and that the modal year[2] of the profession is the end of year 1 must wonder why members of a profession so blessed run away from it in such numbers that the steam-shovels of Teach for America are barely sufficient to fill the breach. It turns out that the very survey that supplied this “information” has more, rather more, to say. As against “well-being,” teachers surveyed turned out to be dead last in ratings given their working environment and in particular their relationship with their supervisors: it seems that an all-too-common figure in the School Office is the Beast from the East. That may explain why teachers’ stress levels are the second highest of any profession, according to this same survey. The obvious question one has of such seemingly contradictory data is how a group of people who are treated badly and stressfully can also have well-being. The answer appears to be in teachers’ capacity for protective detachment from their work environment: less than a third of all teachers are “engaged” with their work, the rest evidently being highly detached. The news story incompletely reporting this survey seemed to find it a proof that teachers are not the suffering masses of legend, but a more complete look at the numbers tells a rather different story: To protect their personal well-being from the depredations of the workplace, a majority of teachers cultivate detachment and disengagement from a dysfunctional professional environment.

The survey actually portrays a dire situation because the strongest correlate of student engagement is teacher engagement. Students can tell if their teachers are on auto-pilot, and they respond by disengaging themselves from what is to be learned. If teachers are protecting the well-being of some “core self” that they see as different from or outside their professional lives, it is no recommendation of the quality of those professional lives. On-line lessons will end up producing the same results, their mechanism mimicking human disengagement. No one will be fooled when a screen says “Way to Go!” after a right answer.

Unfortunately, when a screen says “6/6 for your writing,” some people will be fooled into thinking that the software behind the screen has actually graded the writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Software for grading writing is made with a shovel-load of questionable proxy values in place of actual understanding. This is how Les Perelman of MIT could have produced the famous baloney-feast that received a perfect score from a program for grading writing.  Behind the number lies a vacancy of understanding. It may be appealing to a professor to think that he can have a break from grading, but the professor must not be fooled, or go along with foolery. By contrast, Professor Barzun, with his grim “news” that teachers must “work like dogs,” has the right of it. And it is subtle, non-machinable work. Sorry, Professor: please roll up you sleeves, fill your red pen, and get down to it.

The last case for looking behind the numbers takes us to Ralph J. Bunche High School in West Oakland, 90% of whose students have had trouble with the juvenile justice system or lived in foster homes. The program reported in this story teaches the students at Bunche High how to build or restore right-minded human relationships and to instill a sense of justice behind what they do. One adjunct professor of law notes that this will be a “multiyear endeavor.” In that she speaks a truth at odds with baloney betterment programs like RAT and VAM (RAce to the Top and Value Added Metrics) and their annualized nonsense. Many of the students at Bunche have some very basic things to learn—things not captured in the numbers of “Value”-“Added” “Learning.” If Jameelah Garry has learned not to slug her classmates when she dislikes their clothing, and if she has learned to confide her griefs in others rather than acting them out in anger, then she has learned something very important. If her teachers have been there for her but were to receive “ineffective” ratings because girls like her are not academic fireballs, a grave injustice would be done.


[1] Reported in The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

[2] The year of experience at which the number of those with more experience equals the number with less