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Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions

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

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19 thoughts on “Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions”

  1. Amen.

    If nothing else, anyone who becomes a professional educator in the public schools (maybe in any school) should have their student loan debt erased to zero. Take a brutally challenging, under-resourced job that pays relatively poorly, all the while struggling to pay off student loans? Its amazing to me that such altruistic people exist…

  2. Yep! When I left my 14 year stint, I headed for an almost identical charter school to the one you described. I made it through the year and can’t go back to teaching until it includes autonomy, creaTivity, and realistic expectations.

  3. I wonder if you might comment sometime about the differences in working conditions you see from your time as a writer to a teacher. So many non-teachers don’t get what teaching is like from my experience. They have this idea of Dead Poets Society.

    I came from the private sector also, and here are my thoughts:

    – “work 60 or more hours a week at maximum velocity” I think this is the main difference from my time in a high stress private sector job to teaching. There were times I did work 60 hours a week in the private sector, but the difference was with the intensity of those hours. In teaching, especially if the students are high poverty (which not all my students are), it’s just so intense dealing with so many students and needs that relate to physical, mental, and emotional health. I was going 100% the entire school day, from the moment I walked on campus to the moment I left. In the private sector, I had down time – going to the bathroom when I wanted!, checking ESPN, chatting with a colleague about anything random, time to think. In teaching, hardly any of that. It’s need after need. No down time. It’s gotten somewhat better. As I’ve become more experienced I’m forcing myself during lunch to…eat lunch…and now I try to eat with another teacher. But I’ve also not volunteered anymore to be a club or class adviser.

    – In the private sector, there was down time between major events. I could prepare for the next meeting and presentation with a client. I could plan and adjust my schedule. I could get help easily. I could call in and say I was getting in late, or leave early. Sometimes boss would take us to lunch and we’d shoot the breeze for two or three hours. In teaching, 170+ students show up every day, and there’s very little time to reflect and adjust, because you’re bogged down with grading, e-mails, phone calls, lesson prep, and then in only another 15 hours or so the students return. So it gets to be more survival mode to get by rather than innovating, reflecting, improving. In the private sector I also didn’t have 170 clients.

    – The private sector mission was clear – to serve clients was the public message, but the private message was profits. Which manager was most profitable? Easily measured. With teaching, it’s more unclear. Just read this blog devoted to answering “What’s an effective teacher? What’s the purpose of public education?” So am I to devote my attention to helping 1 student who, due to having been abused for years, has a hard time learning how to solve a two step algebraic equation? This might take several dozen hours over the course of a school year of intense one on one tutoring. But what about the other 169 students? The answer seems to be all of the above. And you start feeling guilty when instead of doing as much tutoring during lunch or being a club adviser you choose to eat lunch.

    Prior to teaching if I read a blog response like the one I just wrote now I’d say “Oh so sorry so sad….stop making excuses get your job done.” But now it’s oh so different.

    1. Love your reply! When my current partner and I started dating, I was telling him about the day and he stops me to say, “How many people did you interact with today?”
      I thought for a moment and said over 100 people. In return I asked him the same question and he replied “Five. Including the girl I got coffee from.”

      I think this amount of engagement on such a consistent basis is incredibly underestimated. Private sector is many hours and work, but rarely will you be required to “dance” in conversation with so many people.

  4. I work in higher ed, where one of the slogans of the adjunct professor advocacy group New Faculty Majority is “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.” This argument should be obvious, but it is one that unfortunately has not resulted in real, progressive change. Thanks for making the argument so well here.

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  6. Thank you for your blog. I just discovered it today, and I’m envious because it’s the kind of blog I’ve always wanted to write but have never had time to do since I’m always teaching and schools often frown upon you writing publicly about your experiences while you’re still employed there.

    This comment stood out to me, “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’m not a saint either, but you just described what I did for the better part of 17 years in public schools in Indiana until I couldn’t take it anymore. During the middle part of those years, I advised the nationally-award-winning newspaper at a big, urban high school with quite a bit of diversity in terms of both ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The students published 8-16 pages every two weeks. Every other week, I spent from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight at least three days in a row while they were on deadline. I took students to conferences and conventions and helped them plan college visits. I also taught theater and directed one main stage production a year while assisting on all the others. Sometimes when I got home at night, I was too tired to make it to my bed and fell asleep in my clothes on my couch, only to be forced to wake up six hours later and start the cycle all over again.

    Later, I spent six years at a more rural school in the same county that had less ethnic diversity but a higher poverty level. By the time I left there two years ago, I taught the following classes on a block schedule over the course of two days: Theater 1, advanced theater, Journalism 1, yearbook, English 10, dance performance and an instructional resource period. Every other day I only got 45 minutes of planning/preparation time. I directed three plays and advised two year-long student publications. I did all the PR for my principal and my school district for no additional pay. I had to prepare English 10 students to pass the state’s high-stakes end of course assessment that also served as a graduation exam, despite the fact that I got all the special education students in the grade in my one section of the course since I “was better with them,” according to my principal and the special education teachers. I spent more than $1,000 a year out of my own pocket on books and classroom supplies. I have bachelor’s degrees in my subject areas and a master of liberal arts degree with emphasis in English literature and journalism, yet I’ve never made more than $60,000 a year in 19 years in the classroom. My “I’ve had it” moment came at the end of that school year when my principal informed me that the district refused to hire a much-needed additional language arts teacher for my school, which meant I would have to pick up a second English 10 class the following year and combine my advanced and beginning theater classes into one class of 40+ students.

    I moved out west to live near my sister and took a job at an independent school, something I thought I’d never do. I now have multiple hours of planning time during the week and small class sizes. I regularly collaborate with colleagues and am expected to do research and contribute to the discussion of how to best expedite our educational mission. I have technology that works and nearly cried when the front office manager said, “Put together a P.O. for all the supplies you need for your class. Please don’t spend your own money on supplies.” While I have a dream situation now, it’s sad that not every school can be like this. It is possible for public schools to operate under the same model if politicians would quit serving the corporate reform special interest groups and businesses and start doing what is actually best for kids.

    I’ve stayed in it all this time because of the things you’ve mentioned in your blog posts – when you see how you make a difference in a kid’s life, it’s all worth it. The daily interactions with students are so rewarding. It’s all the other stuff (including never having time to go to the bathroom – that IS a reality all those in the private sector never think about) that wears teachers down. However, I’ve stayed in teaching to the great detriment of my personal and financial life. I’ve never been married, I’ve never owned a home, and I’m still paying off grad school debt. Until the powers that be truly understand that teachers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions, nothing will change and burnout and teacher turnover will continue to accelerate at a rapid pace.

    1. Jolie, thanks for letting us know there really is hope out there. I’m still raw with anger and heartbreak after 2 years since my departure from teaching. It was my life’s dream that turned slowly into a nightmare for 23 years. It’s SO good to know there are schools out there that get it. In the meantime, my homeschooled child and I will continue as we are for as long as we financially can (my husband is still teaching though insurance for us is $800 a month). Please start a blog so those of us who are able to speak can speak for those who have no voice (due to fear or exhaustion).

      1. I’ll think about it! Yes, it is great to be an educational environment where a school runs how it should, but it still doesn’t make my financial or personal life any better. I work a longer day and a longer contract year at this school, and we have a lot of meetings and committees. Plus, I don’t get paid anymore than I did when I left public schools. It’s a great job, but it’s still as emotionally and physically exhausting as it was for me in other situations too.

  7. Love your blog, just found it. I’ve taught in urban schools for 9 years, in Kansas City and New York City, charter and public.

    I think part of the craziness of a lot of urban schools is our culture’s obsession with youth. The kids can do no wrong, adults don’t matter, should do whatever it takes for kids. There’s also the whole angle of experience not mattering, and a great disrespect for endurance and consistency. What’s crazy is these are some of the things kids in poverty miss out on, and crave, the most.

    I have been lucky, though, I taught at a charter school that had a lot of its culture left from a previous life as a pretty mellow Catholic school. I had some great, very experienced mentors there– experienced both as teachers and human beings. At both my schools, I’ve taught with colleagues who were thoughtful and funny and threw a great happy hour. I have written a lot about education, but that is the story that I really want to tell. Without loving coworkers to tell funny and horrible stories with, there’s no way I’d still be teaching.

    Thanks for your work here, it’s great.

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