I recently interviewed for a teaching position at a really good charter school in a low-income community. The principal was smart, idealistic and dedicated; so were the other teachers I met. They spoke fondly of the students, who seemed to love the school, which was clean, safe and welcoming to parents.
When I drove away, I almost had to pull over because I could hardly breathe.
I was having a panic attack.
Yes, the school was terrific. But I would not have my own classroom—they were overcrowded, so I’d be sharing space with another teacher. Most classes had around 38 kids, with a very large percentage in Special Ed and another hefty chunk highly proficient, all in the same room; I’d be required to develop a 3-tier curriculum to target each of these populations individually. A lot of the students were English Language Learners so their skills were low; with Common Core tests coming up, the pressure would be on to boost their skills more than one grade level per year. I’d also be required to teach at least one after-school class.
To do a halfway decent job, I knew from previous experience that I’d be doing a minimum of about 60 hours of work at maximum capacity, full-on sprint—10 hours a day during the week at least including lesson prep after school, with 3 tiers of curriculum, probably more than that…probably 10 hours or more of grading on the weekend.
When I closed my eyes, I saw Van Gogh’s last painting, “Wheat Field With Crows.” Under an ominous black-blue sky, a road leads into a field of dead wheat and ends abruptly under a swarm of circling crows.
But the school was so good…and the kids were so terrific…and the work was so meaningful…
Hyperventilating, I called my brother Bill.
“Are you crazy?” he nearly yelled. “Why would you do that to yourself again?”
I didn’t really have an answer to that one.
I didn’t take the job. In the end, I didn’t take any job at any school; that particular school was unusually stringent in its working demands, but it was also unusually good. The thing is, as much as I hated to admit it to myself, I realized that in my year of visiting schools in very low-income communities, the teachers I saw who were doing an excellent job were working in unsustainable conditions.
What’s unsustainable? Working more than 60 hours a week in relentlessly stressful conditions without adequate supplies, mentoring, peer support or time to collaborate, learn or think. Working in a state of continual crisis, with students who are often in crisis, without resources to help or even time to listen. Being continually told that you are “ineffective” because your 11th grade students came in reading at 5th grade level, their self-esteem in the toilet, a negative history in school, low attention span due to possible trauma and instability at home, and over the last few months you have not succeeded in ratcheting up their reading levels so that they can go to college after next year. Being presented every year with a whole new way to teach everything, to replace last year’s whole new way to teach everything.
Conditions are unsustainable at charter schools and district schools in very low-income communities, though the flavor of unsustainability varies from school to school. Charter schools tend to be more rigid; district schools tend to be more chaotic; the flavor of unsustainability is not the core problem. The core problem is that we are not giving teachers the resources they need to deal with the fallout of poverty. And the reason that we aren’t giving teachers the resources they need is that we, as a country, are unwilling to look at the conditions in which children in poverty in this country are growing up.
A recent study by Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford shows that U.S. teachers work longer hours and spend far more time in front of a classroom with only about 2/3rds of the time for collaboration and planning that teachers in other countries have. U.S. teachers have more top-down evaluation and far less mentoring and peer support than elsewhere in the world. No other country has anything like our insane regime of standardized testing. And at the same time, we teach by far the highest number of children in poverty. In other words, we fight a much harder battle with a smaller army and far less weapons.
As Principal Nat Pickering told me when he reflected on why he was leaving his job after three years, “the education crisis is a medical crisis, is a mental health crisis, is a political crisis.” Burned out, working unsustainable hours, he quit (to go back to teaching, which seemed easier to him. I guess everybody has their threshold.)
I miss teaching every day. I know there are (there must be, right?) teachers who last for a decade or more doing a great job in a high-poverty community, who love to work 60 or more hours a week at maximum velocity with inadequate resources, whose families and friends accept that they are often exhausted and depleted or flat-out absent. Those teachers are better people than I am. I am, it turns out, not a saint. I wish I were. Instead, I’m a statistic; turnover at urban charters in Los Angeles is 50% a year, slightly lower at district schools.
Right now, when we demand an effective teacher in every classroom but fail to provide sustainable professional working conditions for teachers, let’s be honest: we’re not really serious. Let’s stop fetishizing this unsustainability by presenting it as an athletic challenge to be mastered by “champions” when in reality these are burnout conditions that do not benefit our students. Let’s scrap this convenient and highly profitable (for Pearson) bullshit about test-based accountability and have an honest conversation about the profound and growing inequality in this country and the stunning institutionalized segregation that persists 60 years after Brown v. the Board of Education.
And then, if we really care about equal opportunity for all children, let’s look at what teachers really need to make that dream a reality—and to make teaching a sustainable career.
This is the fourth in a series of lessons I learned during my year of visiting schools across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A. For Lesson 1, click here. For Lesson 2, click here. For Lesson 3, click here.