Monday, September 03, 2012

Why I Left The Classroom: Part 2

This is a Teaching Post. It is likely to be my last, since I have left the classroom after - well, after a good long while. I was good at my job, but I left.

Part One was about why I became a teacher in the first place.

And here are the reasons why I decided to call it quits:

1) Writing is my first love, and I came to California to write screenplays. Teaching was always temporary. I felt like this next year could be huge for me and I don't want to have to quit in the middle of the school year and leave the kids with a string of subs, which is just about the worst thing that can happen to a class.

But that alone wouldn't have been enough, because that's really risky and there was a lot about teaching I loved.

2) I was displaced this year. See, most school systems operate on a "last hired, first fired basis" they call "seniority". The newest teachers get fired first. The less-new teachers don't get fired, but they get moved to another school. They call that "displacement." When the economic crisis started, I was smack in the middle at my school as far as seniority. About three years ago they started to lay off and displace teachers, and eventually I dropped to dead last. Think about that. That means HALF of our English department was removed from our school. This was going to be my year, and that means that after several years working to build a school that, quite frankly, was a disaster when it opened my first year here, I was forced to go elsewhere. I don't want to go elsewhere. I love my little ghetto school. I love that student population. Not every teacher can handle a school like that, but for me, it was the perfect place. I would have died in Malibu, not that those schools had openings. It's the poor schools that lose all their teachers.

Why do the poor schools lose their teachers more? Because those are the schools that got the newest teachers. I was more experienced than most other teachers when I came to this school, but I was out of state, so I had no seniority, and that meant I got placed at a school nobody wanted. So the teachers who stick it out, who work hard in those less desirable schools, they get kicked to the curb while the older teachers stay with the rich kids. We also lost almost all of our arts programs because once our band/choral/dance/art teachers get laid off or displaced, they don't usually get replaced. So once again, rich kids get the arts programs and the poor kids get... I don't know. I know they still have the yearbook because my replacement adviser was willing to give up a planning period to teach it.

3) I don't like the direction we're headed. My methods are a little unconventional. I do what I want most of the year, and then two weeks before the state test, I cram the kids with test taking skills, and show them how to answer multiple choice questions. This is something I'm exceptionally good at - figuring out what sounds like the best answer when I have no idea what it is - so I spend two weeks showing the kids how to do that. If you check my test scores, you'll see that my kids fare as well on the test as most kids who spend all year prepping. But my kids also know how to think for themselves and didn't die from boredom.

It's obvious to me, however, that I won't be able to get away with that anymore. The district brought in this guy last year -  I'll call him Data Guy. Data Guy spent ONE YEAR as a math teacher, so naturally he knows all about our jobs. For some reason he was put in charge of the English department, where his job became fixing our test scores. His idea? Get rid of novels completely and replace them with short pieces followed by multiple choice questions. No more abstract thought.  What purpose do novels serve if you can't easily break them down to A-E answers? You can't quantify a novel, so we don't want to waste our time on them.

Right before the state tests, we were all given a series of lessons to give. As in, Data Guy guy sent us our lesson plan for the day and we were supposed to follow it, then test the kids, then send him the tests so he could see how we did. I didn't follow his lessons. I did the test the first two weeks, and when my kids did better than most of the other classes, I decided this was stupid. I threw the rest of the lessons and tests in the recycling.

But that's where we're headed. The end game is for every single teacher to teach the exact same lesson on the exact same day so that a kid can go from one class to the other and not experience anything different.

Data Guy explained it to me this way: If one teacher is better than the other, then the kid with the bad teacher has an unfair disadvantage. If every teacher covers the exact same material the exact same way, the kids are all on equal footing.

I am not kidding you right now. This is his reason for making us all follow the same lesson plans day after day.

I can't do that. I refuse to do that, and if I had stayed in the classroom I would have been fired. I might have punched someone in the face by the end of the year. But there was no way in hell I was going to follow an English lesson plan designed by a Data Guy who spent one year teaching math in some other school. He, of course, told us we'd all come up with our ideas together. He said this right before he came up with all the ideas.

I still remember what he said when I asked him if he was serious about ditching novels, because that would mean a kid could get to college without ever having read one. "I had never read a novel when I got to UCLA," he said. Then he thought for a minute and added, "Although I did have a lot of trouble in English that first year."


  1. I really appreciate outside the box teachers. I'm "twice exceptional" ie real smart and real dumb all at once.

    So I did well in classes where I got to be creative and learn at my own pace and badly at anything else.

    Though none of my teachers seemed to mind as I think the staff-room thought I was going to be a writer or creative something.

    Data guy sounds :/. I read thousands of books during high school.

  2. I moved across the country to teach in a gang infested neighborhood in Phoenix, AZ, one of the bottom states for education. I was discharged after 5 years. Fired. Granted, I don't have the skills for crowd control. But my love for those 6th graders was obvious to everyone. I could talk to a gangbanger as well as I could talk to the overachieving go-getter. One or a few at a time, not so much 35+ as a time.

    Those poor kids have no thinking skills and we, like you had to teach to the blasted Test. I could get a novel in about once a year and I always had a read aloud going, maybe a book an upcoming movie was based on. A favorite was Buried Onions by Gary Soto. I would love to make that movie.

    It was a mess of contradictions. We had data guy, too, in many forms. They were experienced educators who, for whatever reason, believed or could pretend The Test was important. Something never clicked for me. Maybe because I started my teaching career later in life I couldn't wrap my mind around the box thinking. But then again, I never was a box thinker. I had entered education with the misguided notion that developing creativity is the key to unlocking the mind. Some assholes who didn't want to leave any child behind--an honorable notion--decided they all should stay in the same place. The site leadership was poor, the district leadership worse and the state has no bloody idea what it's doing.

    I never would have won a teacher of the year award, but that's okay. All I can hope is that I lit a spark for those kids who like to write, or I left a kid with the notion he's not a fuck-up for life and that reading is exciting.

    It's a shame that you and other passionate people like you, Emily, leave because of the politics that do nothing but harm kids, all of whom need what you can give them.

    Best wishes for the writing career of your dreams!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Ahem, apologies for the deleted comment. I am fighting with Blogger and losing.

    I hate hearing about the tragedy of California schools, mostly because my kids are in one. It's not a poor school by any stretch, but we have still had a fresh round of pink slips and a major class size increase every year for the last 5 years.

    No novels? No NOVELS??

  5. DUGGY, seems like you turned out okay. I always thought our individuality as teachers was a great thing, because some kids love firm structure and some can't handle it.

    Any kid who was really into structure - I had a hard time figuring out how best to get through to them, but the creative types were right at home in my room. I wish we could sort kids according to the way they learn.

  6. Theresa, that's such a familiar tale. The saddest part is that teachers like you who get booted from the classroom will probably never go back. This is going to hurt our education system again and again over the next few years. Sounds like you made a difference when you could.

    Sarah, true, even the top schools are feeling the pinch. It's always good when parental support keeps a school afloat, and thanks to programs like Donors Choose everybody can get help. But I'm sad to see how public school has deteriorated through all these people trying to "help."

    Maybe some day soon, when we all agree this isn't working, we'll swing back in the other direction.

  7. This really resonates with me. From the time I was tiny, I adored music classes, so I thought I wanted to teach music in a school. By the time I was 20, most schools no longer hired people to teach the kind of course that had captured my interest (old-fashioned Music Appreciation, basically). And I loved singing in choirs, but had no interest in conducting one. Or, you know, five, plus band classes (I don't play any instruments except piano) plus overseeing study halls and gym classes and whatever else arts teachers get dragooned into doing.

    So I said, okay, I'll be a classroom teacher who does a lot of music with my students. There was a desperate need for teachers who were trained to handle elementary school mainstream classrooms into which special-ed students were being mainstreamed, and there was an accelerated grad program at a highly regarded college in my city which trained people to be that kind of teacher. And I said, okay, I was in the special-ed system myself and I'm passionate about helping kids find a way to succeed in their educational environment. I can totally do this.

    I lasted less than six months. Special-ed teaching in a large urban public school, even a good one, is the equivalent of hard time. There were so many rules and yet so little structure, so many roadblocks and so few useful benchmarks, that I said okay, this is not what I want to do with my life, and I walked away.

    (I still work in education. College financial aid, specifically. My students come from the handholding environment of high school/helicopter parenting to the you-are-an-adult-make-your-own-arrangements setting of a college. They are very happy when they find out that one of the people who handles their money is passionate about helping them find ways to succeed at arrangement-making.)

    Oh, and Duggy, all my teachers thought I was going to be a writer too! :)

  8. Oh and for all the teachers out there. I wasn't diagnosed with "twice exceptional-ism" during high school. People just thought I was smart but didn't try.

    Still I think my teachers did really well considering.

    Ie. They'd mention famous poets (wordsworth etc) to me, bring up philosophy etc. And students who were friends with teachers told me I'd be a writer someday. I also convinced a teacher to let me not do maths in my senior years so I could "study" for other classes(guess I'm good in a room). Oh and the two books I was given by teachers to read (not for class, just to read) were "Perfume" and "Fear and loathing in Las Vegas".

    ps:- I'm voting for not teaching to the test. However, ironically. I do really well on tests. ie. I got one of the lowest overall grades in my high school (failed). And I got top 1% of the past 10 years for my uni entrance exams.

  9. This makes me angry, sad, and then angry again. I daytime-job at a local college, so I see the after effects of forced standardized education. Majority the kids that were taught "the exact same material the exact same way", are coming in unable to pass English/Math proficiency courses.

    You can't standardize creativity, innovation and knowledge. Why does California think they can?

    I wonder if decision-makers will try and quantify... "VIVA LA REVOLUCION!!" when that comes.

  10. Now there's a nice title for a future screenplay:



    I hope you, someday, devote some time to tutoring. This seems to be a way to teach YOUR WAY...without politics or odd teaching theories getting in the way. :)

  11. I feel your pain. I taught the last two years. Last year, at a low socio economic school with terrible test scores. They were in 8th year school improvement and the state was breathing down our necks. They had someone there every week, walking through our classes and so on. And I taught math which is obviously tested.

    It was the most exhausting 9 months of my life. I just now feel like I've recovered. But I made up my mind a year ago after the school year was over I was moving to LA. And here I am, not doing anything teaching related.

    I loved the act of teaching but there is so much more behind the scenes. They don't get half the credit they deserve. I respect anyone who can make that their life long profession.


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