High School Dropout
Why I have decided to resign from my job as a high school English teacher.
By Kiki Turrin
Monday I decided to resign from my job as a high school English teacher. I spent the following day processing the decision, trying to distinguish whether I no longer wished to teach in general, no longer wished to teach high school, or simply no longer wished to teach at my current school. I felt disillusioned to have invested tens of thousands of dollars and valuable hours pursuing a credential and masters, only to struggle to find a decent job and question whether I wanted to teach at all. Mostly, I felt disillusioned to have sacrificed so much for an ideal that does not seem to exist beyond the confines of my imagination.
And what was that ideal?
I thought I was going to spend my days reading beloved literature, engaging students in deep, meaningful conversations about life’s lessons, heartbreaks, and most puzzling enigmas. I thought I could enrich my students’ quality of living by helping them better understand themselves, their relationships, and the world they live in. I wanted to kindle within them a life-long love of learning and critical thinking; I saw myself sitting on a desk, surrounded by a circle of eager, animated faces, buzzing on the tips of their Doc Martens over the quiet heroism of Atticus Finch and tragic satire of Animal Farm. I wanted to be Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society.
I forgot Mr. Keating got fired.
I was naive.
NPR’s “Where Have All The Teachers Gone?” couldn’t have popped into my Facebook feed at a better time.
The article questioned why enrollment in teacher training programs has declined so dramatically—as much as 53 percent in California in the last five years. The author speculated upon a list of reasons for this decline, many of which I could attribute to my own decision to leave teaching at the secondary level. Clearly there is a difference between opting to leave an established teaching post and opting out of teacher training altogether; however, much of these speculations are profoundly relevant to my experiences, which I have shared with prospective teachers and doubt are unique considering 40 to 50 percent of new teachers quit within the first five years.
Here are the ones that resonated most:
“There’s a growing sense…that K-12 teachers simply have less control over their professional lives in an increasingly bitter, politicized environment.”
The most instrumental factor in my decision to leave was the politics.
Last year two highly respected teachers at my school wrote a letter requesting the executive director to resign. The letter stated—on behalf of the faculty—that he had lost sight of the values set forth in the mission when our school went charter the previous year. Many seasoned teachers believed the administrative team and the board of directors were not living up to their commitment to transparency. Some had also reported feeling personally disrespected and belittled by remarks the executive director had made both behind closed doors and in public.
The director refused to resign and the news went public. Both sides started campaigning on social media. Surveys and petitions circulated. Teachers, old and new, were urged to attend board meetings and, on limited occasion, picket. Faculty who had been outspoken in their dissent reported being harassed and coerced into resigning. Others chose to leave due to an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, despite substantial efforts to improve the situation. Some of these faculty had been at the school for decades. They had been instrumental in the writing of the charter and accreditation of the school. They had served on the board, as department chairs, and headed school staples such as leadership. Curiously, nearly all of these cases were also women whose positions were promptly filled by men. New teachers— myself included—worried participation could result in dismissal on petty, unrelated technicalities, and I’m sad to say these concerns weren’t necessarily unfounded.
The county board of education is investigating our school for potential violations of the Brown Act and some have called this a victory. We’ve become the subject of political cartoons (pictured below) in the local Times. It is truly a tragic situation, yet looking at our school from an outside perspective, one might be impressed: our school presently touts an 836 API and a 9 out of 10 statewide school ranking.
“The job also has a PR problem…with teachers too often turned into scapegoats by politicians, policymakers, foundations and the media.”
To make matters worse, when the conflict went public on a local blog, much of the blame was placed upon the heads of “a minority of disgruntled teachers.” One commentator referred to teachers as “a dime a dozen,” while an ex-city council member (who had been booted from his seat and convicted on charges of embezzlement) advised any teacher who was unhappy to leave.
Some other gems:
To answer the question posed by “Amazing,” the inconsistencies their daughter is experiencing are due to high teacher turnover, which is, in turn, due to unbearable and hostile working conditions.
Let’s look beyond my campus.
Consider the November, 2014 cover of Time, which likened public school educators to bad apples. I can’t necessarily disagree with the notion that there are some tenured teachers out there who leave lasting negative impressions on their students and the communities within which they teach; I’ve met such teachers myself. However, I do take issue, as have others, with derogatory sweeping generalizations about educators based on little more than standardized test scores, especially when—thanks to No Child Left Behind—teachers are held to a standard unrivaled by any other profession: a 100 percent success rate.
Let’s also consider Obama’s Race to the Top, which has encouraged merit pay and teacher evaluation based on test scores, while having little to say about socioeconomic influences, such as poverty, which plague student learning and subsequent performance on standardized tests. Instead, there’s an increased emphasis on “best teaching practices” and pedagogies.
Another implication of this federal mandate has been an increasing emphasis on privatization, which has ushered in a host of other concerns. As Diane Ravitch stated in a conversation on NPR’s Fresh Air:
“What has happened … is that [charter schools have] become an enormous entrepreneurial activity and the private sector has moved in,” she says. “So there are now charter chains where the heads are paying themselves $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 a year. They compete with regular public schools. They do not see themselves as collaborators with public schools but business competitors and in some cases, they actually want to take away the public school space and take away the public school business.”
I believe this entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of the political conflict currently marring my high school. In fact, in November—in the immediate wake of a vote of no confidence by 27 out of 40 permanent faculty—the board voted on a nearly 20 percent raise for the director, hiking his salary to roughly $204,000, with added perks raising the total to an estimated compensation of $248, 000. In addition, our executive director has persisted in a relentless pursuit to expand our charter despite public outcry and protests from the community.
Going back to the subject of standardized tests, I’d like to get to my third point:
“The list of potential headaches for new teachers is long, starting with the ongoing, ideological fisticuffs over the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing and efforts to link test results to teacher evaluations.”
While in my experience evaluation has not been directly tied to test scores, it has been based on the extent to which I set and assess objectives that are directly tied to Common Core standards. So, as a probationary teacher (first two years), while I may not be outright dismissed for poor student performance on a benchmark (they could, but as far as I can tell they wouldn’t say so), I can be dismissed if an administrator believes I have not made the standard and its subsequent assessment explicit enough. And in my case, my administrator wants to see the standard on everything. He wants it on the board and on every assignment and test. He wants me to tell the students at the beginning of class, remind them in the middle, and ask them to rehearse it back to me at the end. This, in my humble opinion, is overkill, and feels like a drastic underestimation of my students’ deductive reasoning skills.
Beyond this, the onslaught of Common Core has provoked a few concerns, including but not limited to the following:
National dependence of public education on computer software and technology.
Accessibility of said technology to rural and underprivileged schools.
Training of teachers and students on how to navigate said technology.
Accessibility for students who have linguistic, cognitive, or physical impairments. While it appears there will be a built-in set of tools, one of my biggest concerns is the disparity between understanding what is being asked and displaying a particular skill. How can a student do the latter if they don’t have the resources to fully grasp the former?
Growing doubt that every iota of learning can be measured. Still, it seems any skill that can’t be quantified on a scale of emerging to advanced has little value to the administrators at my school.
The glaring contradiction between what teachers are taught (truthfully, nearly indoctrinated to believe) in teacher education programs and the reality of how we assess the value of public school education. Let me clarify. Teachers are drilled on diversity. Diversity, diversity, diversity. How will we accommodate the needs of increasingly diverse student populations? How will we nurture students’ varied intelligences and strengths? Added emphasis is placed on IEP’s, 504’s, and specialized learning plans. Why are we moving toward an increasingly homogenized mode of assessment?
I see the value in standardized assessments. I really do. I’m just not so sure I’m comfortable with the increased emphasis on them. This emphasis has pervaded and hampered nearly every potential opportunity for useful professional development. Rather than collaborating with my brilliant and experienced colleagues on the development of meaningful curriculum that has been proven effective through years of trial and error (which is what every new teacher desperately needs more than anything else), we spend nearly all of our meeting time talking about benchmarks. We have spent three of our last four department meetings hopelessly attempting to patch together a persuasive essay benchmark without a proper pacing guide or rubric. What was the fourth meeting, you ask? A book pitch, because, if nothing else, Common Core is evidently a cash cow.
Other reasons I have decided to leave high school:
The more we adopt business models for our schools (which Race to the Top and the advent of charters have encouraged), the more teachers and students are treated like numbers, as opposed to individuals. I believe adopting a customer service approach in public schools is potentially dangerous and attribute much of the failure of administrative staff at my school to adequately support faculty to this mentality.
I do not believe “Fail Free” policies benefit anyone, other than administrators.
I do not believe K-12 teachers are given adequate time to prepare the caliber of lessons they are expected to deliver.
I am not convinced pushing students who lack the skills necessary to perform at a particular grade level into said grade level based solely on age is the most beneficial option for all students, yet this happens frequently.
I do not feel comfortable pressuring all of my students to go to college.
Before you raise your pitchfork, hear me out. I believe in education. I believe college is absolutely the best route for some. However, I don’t believe academia is for everyone. I have had so many students who have struggled in school despite their best efforts, but have had other valuable skills that I wished I were more equipped to nurture. I’ve had students who can build houses, cars, and hack the school’s WiFi (though I’m not sure how hard that actually is and I’m sure I’m forgetting all kinds of other cool skills that have graced my classroom). I’ve lost sleep over the possibility that these kids could be made to feel stupid, inadequate, or lose opportunities to become great at things they love because they lack the particular je ne sais quoi necessary to thrive in our public schools. In this regard I believe we are falling short. We need to offer more options.
Furthermore, there’s increasing evidence that college doesn’t always pay off. Consider findings by the Pew Research Center that although millennials are the most educated generation in U.S. history, they also have the highest share who are unemployed in nearly four decades. Consider the fact that nearly half of all college grads from four-year colleges are working jobs that don’t require four-year degrees. Finally, consider Gallup Poll findings that only one in ten business leaders strongly believe college grads possess the skills and competencies their businesses need.
We continue to sell our kids on the traditional model despite evidence that our system is faltering. We promise material gains for pursuing STEM and say little of the arts and other vocations. I’d like to believe a good education can offer more than a lucrative salary and benefits.
As an educator I can’t help but feel complicit in the advancement of these issues, yet powerless to correct them.
The choice to leave is my own and I understand it is not a choice everyone would come to under the same circumstances. Everyone must weigh matters according to their own priorities and principles. Though my brief time as a secondary school educator has been trying, it has also been a formidable learning experience. In a way I exceeded my expectations.
I didn’t just discuss the dangers of corruption in Animal Farm; I met the pigs and saw them walk on twos in their suits. I watched them violate the most sacred commandments of our school, slaughter their most loyal allies, and flush them out for newer, more ignorant and impressionable animals. I was one of those animals.
I didn’t just read about the quiet heroism of Atticus Finch, I witnessed it first-hand in a colleague who I attended the credential program with years ago and had the pleasure to get re-acquainted with at my current school. This colleague quoted Atticus over lunch as we discussed her decision to speak in a board meeting, despite valid concerns that the administration would retaliate. It was the voice of Atticus that compelled her to do what she believed to be right, despite her fear:
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
I heard the voice of Dante Alighieri in another colleague who’d taught friends of mine in high school and mentored me through the credential program. On her decision to speak up against the actions of the administration and the board she quoted Inferno:
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
I encountered John Steinbeck in a woman who is arguably the most resilient person I have ever had the honor to meet. She has persevered through personal attacks and the systematic dismantling of the aspects of her job which she treasures most. She continues to fight ceaselessly for what she believes to be best for our community, of which she has invested her life’s work, and by many accounts has become a pillar of near-mythical status. When asked how she persists, despite what feels at times like a feat rivaling the curse of Sisyphus, she referenced this quote from Grapes of Wrath:
“This you may say of man — when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back….for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken.”
I could only wish to possess the courage and conviction of these teachers and feel privileged for the sliver of time I got to spend among them.
Perhaps I was never Mr. Keating.
Perhaps I have always been Todd Anderson. And now, it is with utmost gratitude that I stand on a tiny desk in the sincerest chamber of my heart and salute:
O Captain! My Captain!
Published in Human Parts by Kiki Turrin, March 6, 2015