Let’s retire the “why I’m leaving teaching” posts forever

As my former pastor used to say, “I’m an equal opportunity offender.” Get ready, because it’s about to be a bumpy ride as I set out not to offend, but to plead with my fellow teachers to please, please get off the “life sucks being a teacher” bandwagon.

It’s everywhere. I see it on Facebook almost daily. On Twitter. Forwarded in emails. Diatribe after bullet point after screaming headline that bemoans the state of education, lists the many ways in which teachers are fighting a losing battle, and worst of all, tells young adults who are considering teaching to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. Don’t think I don’t get it. After almost two decades in education, I know all about it. But I’m not going to scream it from the rooftops, and I’m about to tell you why. All I ask is that after you get mad at me, you take a breath and just think about this.

You’re not frustrated because of low pay, unruly kids, uninformed government decisions, and discursive meetings. Okay, you are, but that’s not what really gets under your skin. What bothers you is that you love what you do, and other people keep making it harder to do what you love doing. Period. Now that we’ve identified the problem, allow me to make some humble suggestions. As someone who’s been a happy teacher my entire career, let me tell you how you’re hurting yourself and making your job harder than it has to be.

1. When you share angry teacher letters, highlights about the myriad problems in education, and yet another blog on why a great teacher has decided to leave the classroom, you merely perpetuate the problem. You feed into the talk about town that teaching sucks. You agree with it, publicly, to everyone who knows you. You spread the word that teaching is a horrible career and those who are considering it must be deluded. You keep promising college students from following their calling by sounding the trumpets that their calling is garbage.

2. This demeans our profession and you as a teacher. You create the very problem you are fighting. If you want to be treated like a professional, act like a professional, not a petulant child. Furthermore, you are announcing to the world that you don’t like your job. And seeing as your clients are innocent kids and parents who are entrusting their prized possessions to your care, that’s not such a great message to send out into the universe. If you want everyone to respect you, have enough respect for yourself to stand up for your profession.

3. You make yourself a victim of bureaucracy and idiocy. There is plenty of that in education, and to a certain extent, you must play along. But you have a certain amount of autonomy in your classroom. You are free to love your kids and teach them to love learning. Your hands aren’t tied. Regardless of what test kids need to pass or what new math methods come around the corner, you still get to teach and watch light dawn on growing minds. You get to be responsible for that and take some credit for it. You are not a victim.

4. Anyone can point out what is wrong, but if you really care, do something about it. Get involved in your community and in local politics, vote for the right people, lobby, speak out. Take on a leadership position that allows you to effect change. Do any of the things you are free to do as American citizens, whatever might be in your comfort zone, but do something. It’s hard to respect someone who moans and groans their way through their career. You have a choice to embrace it or to denigrate it. Your call. Your consequences.

5. If you are really, truly unhappy being a teacher, please, for the love of all things holy, quit. No child deserves to have a teacher who doesn’t want to be there. Children should not be surrounded by bitterness and frustration when all they want to do is learn. If you’re unhappy with your current situation, change it. You owe it to yourself and to all of your students.

If you know me, you know I’m not some “pie in the sky” teacher who is naive to the problems in education. But as far as my students know, I love coming to school every day, I’m excited about what I teach, and I have a passion for my subject. It’s not put on, not fake, not a big show. I just happen to believe that teachers should be proud to be teachers, that they should laugh with their students every day, they should care enough about them to give them everything they have, and  they should leave school knowing that no one, anywhere, kept them from teaching their kids.

When my daughter graduated from college and got her first teaching job, it was one of my most proud moments as a parent and a teacher. But it doesn’t hold a candle to seeing her face as she tells me stories about her students, falls into bed after an insanely busy day, and exuberantly reads her kids’ test scores (from the very standardized test she is opposed to) as she discovers that she taught them, really taught them. Ask my daughter’s students if she was deluded for going into education. For that matter, teachers, ask your own students. Their answers may get you to drop the negativity once and for all.

Senior retreat 4

Know your students, teach them, love them. What happens next in education is up to you.

Teach your kids that learning should always trump grades

I am increasingly concerned about the emphasis being placed on letter grades, both by parents and teenagers. I can’t tell you how many times a week a student asks “Does this count?” when I introduce an activity or a parent emails to ask about grades. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the weight that grades carry when it comes to college admissions and scholarships. But the idealist in me continues to wish that everyone could re-train their thinking by thinking about their thinking.

One day, a student approached me with the following question: “Dr. D, can you help me with my grade?” I waited for an explanation, and when he stopped there, I prodded, “Do you mean can I help you to improve your grade? Sure, I can certainly do that. What do you need help with?” He fumbled around for a reply and then went on to say that he couldn’t have a D or F in my class, so he needed help. I asked him if he had read the latest assigned novel, because his test grade had been quite poor. He replied that he had read some of it. I asked him what he expected to have in a class in which he didn’t read the required novels. He just stared at me, and then returned to his original question, “So can you help me with my grade?”

After several more questions and a few minutes more of discussion, I ascertained that he was basically asking me to gift him with a bump in his grade. He had readily admitted that he put very little effort into the class, but he didn’t think that should matter. After 13 years in school, he still didn’t understand that grades are earned and that one has to work hard to earn a good grade. How does this happen?

I firmly believe that it begins at home. If all parents emphasize is grades, that’s all kids are going to care about. Not the love of learning, not the sense of accomplishment of doing better in a class, not the discussions and the reading that would open their minds and widen their world. When we focus on nothing but the destination of an A, we miss out on the journey, which is the part that matters. Critical thinkers don’t get that way from grade grubbing. They get that way from studying, considering options, weighing possibilities, trying different methods, and ultimately making informed decisions. This process and these skills are infinitely more important than any letter on a grade report. 

The grade will come, naturally, when kids learn to love learning. If you haven’t already, shift your focus and don’t miss the forest for the trees. Parent your kids into true learning and they will become adults who are lifelong learners.

Today, I prayed with my students

I never thought that the above statement would come out of my mouth, and I certainly never imagined that it would be the title of a blog post. As a long-time public school teacher, I spent 17 years painstakingly avoiding any discussion of my personal beliefs with my students. I sat quietly while they freely shared religious and ethical ideas, facilitating only, trying never to impose my own thoughts on impressionable ears.

I thought I was done with teaching for a while, set on a course to focus solely on my writing, publishing my next book, writing this blog, and freelancing for a growing client base. But life has a way of throwing us for a loop every now and again. You know what they say about best laid plans. I’m still writing, but I’ve been pulled back into teaching once again.

The difference is that now I find myself not in my standard, large public high school, but in a small Christian school, the proverbial fish out of water. Except that somehow, I’m not. Somehow I went from one extreme to the other in any number of ways without a major struggle. The biggest change, indubitably, is that after 17 years of never bringing up God’s name, I am including Him or allowing my students to include Him in any conversation that might arise. I thought it would be weirdly uncomfortable. Instead, it’s profoundly liberating.

Then today happened. Thursday is Chapel Day, usually just 15 minutes of listening to a message or praise music, and then it’s back to class. But today, the facilitator called all of the teachers onto the gym floor and invited the students to find a teacher and form a prayer circle. A group circled around me, and we joined hands and prepared to pray. I told the kids that I would get the group started, and then anyone could jump in with their own prayers as they saw fit.

Confession – other than with my family, I’ve never formed an original prayer out loud, in front of other people, before. I’m pretty sure I’m not very good at it. So it’s a bit intimidating to pray in front of kids who respect you and think that you have something to offer. I didn’t want to let them down, and I felt a tremendous responsibility to do a good job by saying something worthwhile.

Somehow, I found my voice. As much as I wanted it to be, my prayer wasn’t profound or deep or resonating with spiritual insights. I just thanked God for bringing me to the school and introducing me to all of the wonderful kids there. I told him how grateful I was to have them in my life. It was probably 30 seconds, in total. Then I stopped and waited for my teenagers to fill in the blanks.

No one said a word.

After about a minute and the start of some nervous chuckling, I initiated a new prayer: “Please God, let someone else join in on this prayer,” and the circle erupted in laughter, and the ice was broken. At that point, students began to pray, sometimes joking around a little, most of the time quite serious, and it was… how can I describe it? … inspiring, refreshing, heart-warming. It was slightly awkward and a little bit weird, and at the same time, it might have been one of the most important things I’ve ever done with my students.

It’s amazing how you can look back on your career and assume that you’ve seen and done it all and that this is as good as it’s going to get. Sometimes, you’re right, but sometimes, it gets better.

The Christian school environment isn’t for everyone, but for me? Well, it has taken me and shaken me, and it has made me think. And for a long-time teacher who had thought she had done it all, that’s a beautiful thing.


Is ADHD an excuse?

Just the title of this post will raise people’s ire, I’m sure. I heard it over and over again as a teacher, I heard it as a parent, and I’m reading about it in newspapers and magazines.

Yesterday’s New York Times posted an article that began, “Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

One in five. One in five???

Full disclosure: My son was diagnosed with ADD years ago (he is now a college student). He exhibits all the signs that my husband – an adult who has been diagnosed ADD – exhibits. It’s blatantly obvious with my husband, not so much with my son, but the signs are there, and I don’t dispute them. There is no doubt that both focus better, are more organized, and more on-task when they take prescribed medication,but my husband never takes his and my son only takes his when he has a huge study session or test ahead of him. My husband chooses to deal with the extra struggle without any help. My son accepts help from medication sparingly. Both probably do so because they don’t like the stigma of having to take medication to concentrate.

But according to the NY Times, there should be no stigma, since so many kids (boys) are diagnosed. What do you make of this? Is this a real, legitimate problem treatable with meds, or have we lost patience with children and become unwilling to deal with those who don’t fit into the traditional mold?

Do teenagers deserve the Apathy label?

For as long as I can remember, teenagers have been called apathetic. Supposedly, they don’t care about much.. well, except maybe themselves.

When I was a rising ninth grader touring my soon-to-be new high school, I was wide-eyed with wonder. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the biology lab and how my head spun with the possibilities of dissections and other smelly scientific pursuits. I remember my excitement over finally having my own locker. I remember the smell of the dirt, grass, and sweat when I tried out for the high school field hockey team. I remember my first Friday night dance, the first time I got into trouble in school, the first friends I made, and the first people I decided to avoid.

Outside of school, I was still a Girl Scout working towards the highest honors. I rode horses, read voraciously, went on dates, volunteered at nursing homes, attended church every Sunday. I think I had a full, well-rounded life as a teenager, and I actually cared deeply about all of the above.

Some argue that a busy life like the one I had can actually lead to apathy. According to recent statistics, 3 out of 5 seniors and approximately 50% of sophomores work a job outside of school. The argument is that students are too tired from their jobs and extra-curriculars to focus on their academics. If so, is this really apathy, or just misplaced priorities?

If teenagers are busy and engaged, why do we keep hearing that they don’t care or seem completely unmotivated to do anything? What is the truth behind supposed teenage apathy?