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.”

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