First, the only “news” contained in this blog post: Your humble blogger is retiring from teaching, effective January 1, 2016.
By this point, there are nearly countless excellent, eloquent communications from public school teachers so fed up with the state of the profession that they feel no other option than to quit/retire. The sheer mass of these statements certainly paints an illustrative picture of how disturbingly altered the profession has become over the last decade or so. These well-written going away communiques also consistently point out how damaging, both academically and psychologically, the moves in educational “reform” have been not only on teachers, but, most importantly, on the kids we teach.
These earlier announcements have done this so well, I’ll just refer to them via the links sprinkled above and relate a very simple thought or two instead as my inadequate contribution to this unfortunately ever-growing literature.
I won’t bore you with the long period of metaphorical teeth-gnashing, blog ranting and outrageously irritating flip-flopping leading up to my decision, finally, to retire early. All I’ll write is that it hasn’t been pretty and has had definite impacts on my psyche and relationship with those around me. Instead, I’ll fast-forward to the exact moment I went from gnash/rant/flip-flop to “aha, time to let go.”
I was standing in the library computer lab “administering” the online portion of the “6th Grade ELA Interim Assessment” on the morning of October 20, 2015 to some incredibly eager and wonderful kids I’ve had the chance to work with since early September. I’m doing the “testing coma” walk-around, that slow crawl amidst the kids in the lab, being sure to look strangely authoritative while living up to my sworn promise to not look directly into the sun which is the test itself.
I am doing this walk, and teachers will understand best why “coma” is about the only way to describe it, when it comes to me. I will be doing this walk pretty much from now until the end of the school year. Not every day, but enough days to heavily cripple any actual teaching I might do, any academic impact I might have, any true sense that I am really hired to do anything but this coma-inducing walkaround. I considered the “Interim Assessment,” the paper version of this first one, the two sections of the next “Interim Assessment at the end of January, PARCC, EOCs…
And despite the coma, or maybe because of it, I have that “bathtub EUREKA moment,” but without the nakedness and screaming through a Greek city.
I can’t do this anymore.
I think I actually said this out-loud (I can’t precisely recall), loud enough to be heard by several students in the pin-drop quiet “testing area.” I can’t recall, because I was having one of those out-of-body experiences where I basically was Archimedes running naked through Syracuse. I wasn’t a very good “test administrator” for a few seconds while a plethora of images, a series of pre-professional death flashbacks ran through my head.
Teaching at Hayes Middle School in 1995, using nothing but a complete lack of professional ability and a 14.4k modem on one Tandy computer. Working at Amy Biehl High School in 2002 as a “science teacher” in a way that probably put science instruction back decades, if not centuries. Standing in a District Court courtroom downtown in 2009, while mock triallers I had some small part in guiding spiritedly argued against each other wearing suits, ties and power dresses. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird out loud in a Jefferson Middle School classroom year after enjoyable year to vaguely interested students in my very bad Alabama accent and even worse beat-up brown plaid arm-chair.
I came back from my coma/reverie and was able to silently look my eager and wonderful 6th Graders in the eye and say to myself:
I’ve felt really bad about the idea of leaving you eager and wonderful kids in mid-December, but I have to. I just can’t do this anymore.
Most importantly, I could look them in the eye and know it was okay, both for them and me. That the guilt I might feel in leaving was outweighed by the simple knowing that it has to be this way. I immediately went from the numbness of the test administrator’s coma to emotionally drained, yet happy soon-to-be-ex-teacher. It really was over.
Going on 23 years ago, I matriculated in the UNM/APS Special Education Intern Program, having come from Olympia, Washington with the idea of teaching on the reservation after an eye-opening experience among the indigenous people of the Guatemalan Highlands. I had no idea what the hell to do with myself, actually, but the teaching on the rez idea sounded good when I told it to people, and gave others a proper false sense of my ambition and clarity.
I won’t go so far as to say the Intern Program was a good one (has there EVER been a good K-12 teacher preparation program?), but I did get a job out of the deal, first working as an intern at West Mesa High School in 1993-94 for the princely sum of about $600 a month (that’s gross, not net, pay). I also had the great fortune to meet and attend class with other interns, a couple of whom I still “see” when I run across their name in the paper or Internet.
One of these folks is currently a very successful educator, a true leader in education administration. I won’t embarrass that person by naming them here. Anyway, I can’t recall where we had this short conversation (Was it after one of Dr. Pepe’s rather uninspiring lectures? Maybe it was at some meeting with our ill-named “mentor”), but I certainly recall we got to talking about our futures. The upshot was at some point one or both of us made the observation that…
there’s no way I will be doing this in 20 years.
The statement was actually part of an overriding ethos, one based on observation that teachers with more than 20 years of experience sure looked burnt-out to us interns and that we never, EVER wanted to end up looking like them/that.
I’ve thought about that sharing of ideas and sentiment ever since. And while I’ve come up with about 73 trillion dumb ideas over my professional life, I’ve gotta say this “ethos” that my intern colleague and I came up with still has validity. Or at least it does from my continued observation of teachers, including, frankly, myself.
Public school teachers should be eligible for retirement in 20 years. Hell yes they should be paid more, treated better and all that, but they should also be eligible to retire in 20 years with full pension, not 25. As I understand it, military folks get to retire in 20 years, and while plenty of armed forces personnel truly defend our country in ways teachers never do, a very high number of military don’t come any closer to front line duty than your typical public school teacher does. Some don’t come nearly as close, in a manner of speaking.
Of course, on a general level, this 20 years ethos may or may not be good fodder for an educational policy debate, but, on a personal level, it’s an idea which has never left me. I just wonder if 25 years of doing anything is a good idea (and yes, this wondering, at times, includes other long-term commitments, such as parenting, marriage and home mortgages). Personally, I’ve kinda shocked myself that I’ve stuck with public school teaching this long. Now, in New Mexico, newbie teachers are expected to stay even longer before being eligible for full pension. 30 years. My mind and heart reel at the thought.
Hence, in addition to the entire profession going into a toilet bowl of standardized testing addiction, there’s also been this itching to get on to something else. Yes, this itch is centered upon my on-going 20 years to retirement ethos, but it’s also just an itch, one that has gotten more and more irresistibly compelling to scratch with every added evaluation domain, test window and school “grade” report.
I just gotta scratch this thing. It’s driving me crazy.
And no, I don’t actually have any more real idea of what to do next than I did when I told people I was going to teach on the rez back in 1993. I might do a bit of this and I might well end up having to do a bit of that, but I do know that I’m not gonna work on the Maggie’s Farm of New Mexico public school teaching no more come Winter Break, 2015.
It has been an unbelievable pleasure to work with my students over this almost 23 years. I can’t express how much better my life has been for this opportunity. Thank you all.