Monday, June 3, 2013

Teacher resignations: Cries in the dark. Is there anybody listening?

"Is there anybody listening?
Is there anyone that sees what's going on?
Read between the lines,
criticize the words they're selling.
Think for yourself and feel the walls...
become sand beneath your feet. "
                             (Queensryche, "Anybody Listening")

I may have misspoken.

“First” came Gerald Conti, I wrote.  Not quite.  Oh, to be sure, Mr. Conti’s eloquent viral resignation letter may have touched off the current jag of public awareness and outcry, but he was not the first.  Not even recently.

I stand eloquently corrected, courtesy of a message from Mr. Stephen Round himself.  Who is he?  Well, if you don't know, then read on.  I did not know either, and I cannot believe, now, that I didn't.

On September 5, 2012, Boston-area teacher Adam Kirk Edgerton’s resignation essay was picked up by The Huffington Post, drawing nearly 5,000 Facebook “shares” and hundreds of comments.  Edgerton wrote that he was “tired of feeling powerless,” and that schools had an unacceptable “standardized test fixation,” comments that predated by the better part of a year those penned, posted and uttered by those public resignees about whom I have erstwhile written: Conti, Rubenstein, Knauth, Brissette.

Select excerpts:
“I quit because the system is demeaning. It's a structure that consumes everyone in it, from the top to the bottom. I didn't quit because of a single school -- I quit because of the pattern of inanity that is replicated throughout the whole country.”
 “No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendants [sic], more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.”
I should be clear that I do not agree with, nor do I necessarily endorse, all of the specific details, claims and suggestions in Mr. Edgerton’s essay, nor do I even necessarily embrace what I perceive to be his general ethos. Since, however, my purpose is to trace historical antecedents to the current Teacher Rebellion, those disagreements are not germane to the issue at hand. Edgerton, like others, including myself, is celebrating teachers finally finding their voice (and, more specifically, not letting unions fight our battles for us):
So what is the answer? Unions? Hardly. We can't allow union leaders to absorb teachers, to use them as a platform on which to stand. Our union leaders have failed us. Union politics have contributed to us getting to this point by forcing administrators to deal with them rather than teachers directly. They teach us that we cannot speak for ourselves; they teach us powerlessness. Union leaders are too often mere mouthpieces skimming off teachers' paychecks.
A few months later, in December 2012, a Rhode Island teacher named Stephen Round posted a six-minute Youtube resignation video: “I would rather leave my secure, $70,000 job, with benefits, and tutor in Connecticut for free than be part of a system that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe education should be,” Round intones. His video has been viewed close to half a million times, just short of the number of views that Ellie Rubenstein’s video has racked up, thus far, anyway.

The Huffington Post picked up Round’s resignation as well (HuffPo is considerably more on the ball than I am, it seems), and it drew over 17,000 Facebook “likes,” 1,100 Facebook “shares” and over six hundred comments.

I never knew. Lesson learned: Research your sh*t, mate.

The softspoken Mr. Round (who looks not unlike a cross between Ian Holm and Kevin Spacey) was a second-grade teacher, so his concerns were very K-5 specific. As a parent with two children in that grade range, I listened attentively. Again, I cannot say that I agree with or support with every minute detail of what he said, but this is not about the minutiae. This is about daring to speak out, be heard, and to place principle before pragmatics, despite the possible personal cost.

On January 1st, 2013, motivational/inspirational speaker (she calls herself an “educator/author/student advocate”)  Terry Preuss, NBCT, posted the first installment of a 12-part video response to Stephen Round’s video on Youtube. I will admit right now that I’ve only watched part(s), and read synopses of the rest. I will say that for the record, I’m not a huge fan of, nor am I inclined to trust, evangelistic, Anthony Robbins/Donald Trump-esque personality brands in education. I find them off-putting, and I tend to associate them with people “selling something” (in Preuss’s case, perhaps, her book(s) and her consultant/speaking fees).

I’m also not a huge fan of using NBCT as an honorary title. It’s not – it’s a title that is bought, at great expense and inconvenience, but bought nonetheless. Perhaps I will blog about my scorn for National Board Certification for teachers some other time.

I say this to assure my readers that I do not hold up the subjects of my essays as idols for worship. I recognize their flaws (I have some myself) and I do not necessarily agree with every word out of their mouths. To require one to do so before showing any kind of support would be the grossest form of perfectionist fallacy. And still I say that despite those personally discomfiting superficial indicators, I am appreciative of Ms. Preuss's efforts, all of their efforts, to publicize the plight of both students and teachers in the factories that our schools are becoming.

For two months, I’ve been painting this as a “movement.” Well, the movement’s roots go run a little deeper than I thought. Gerald Conti was not the first hot iron to strike, but when one reads articles, news stories and blog posts about him (even my own) the sense one distinctly comes away with is that he was the trailblazer.

How is it that as a people so collectively in a tizzy over the pathetic state of our education system that no one bothered to place his gesture into a larger context (myself included -- I'm rather embarrassed, actually)? Did people not even remember? Has the current culture of rapid fire news-reporting made us so myopic and attention-deficit-disordered as a thinking people that we can no longer connect the dots? I read a lot on Mr. Conti, before, during and after the first piece I wrote on him. In none of the pieces I read are the names Adam Kirk Edgerton, Stephen Round or Terry Preuss mentioned.  Not once.

This suggests that the media, the news programs, and the blogosphere all continue to see these incidents as anomalies, unrelated, unworthy of connection, not part of any pattern or trend.  I hope they're wrong.

But, maybe they’re right. Maybe there is no movement. Maybe our interest was piqued just long enough to comment on the situation before moving on to who’s leaving American Idol, or what soda pop Beyonce is peddling. (On a side note, it gives me a strange little spark of glee that my spell-checker rejects the name “Beyonce.”) Maybe, like a biological organism, our society is building up a tolerance, a resistance, and eventually, an immunity to news of teacher unrest. And soon, it won’t bother us at all.

I should point out that while the first installment of Terry Preuss’s Ken Burns-esque 12-video opus has been seen 1,000 times (a trifling figure compared to Stephen Round’s and Ellie Rubenstein’s combined 1,000,000 views) her subsequent videos have been viewed only 112, 73, 77, 41, 154, 41, 31, 33, 44, 25, and 35 times. Two recent (May 2013) videos on teacher empowerment have fewer than 10 views each. To be truthful, even I couldn’t quite motivate myself to watch the whole thing, and if you've read my recent posts, you know I'm fairly mercenary when it comes to this topic. Maybe it was her presentation; maybe it was the overall length. Maybe I’m just sick of it all.

Maybe we all are. Oh, that's not good...

So what is it that draws and holds the public’s interest? What spurs them on to action? I’m not entirely sure I understand completely. What is the key to viral success? (No, seriously, I want to know… 10,000 views is nice, and thank you for that, Dear Readers, but I want that next order of magnitude…)

And is viral success only virus-deep? Is it better for 100 people who really care to view something, or for 100,000 people to view it from the bandwagon out of a collective-frenzy of prurient interest that is quickly sated by the viewing and then cast off like a molt?

Does anybody have any thoughts on how to get the message across in a way that will actually do some good? I still believe that massive public resignations, protests, strikes, etc… will send the message, but with Teacher Education programs and TFA spitting out young, hungry, progressive-hearted teachers by the thousands (who cost much less than the people who would be resigning) who are ready and willing to drink the Kool-Aid,  I’m not sure anymore that that’s sufficient motivation.

By the way, for some excellent reasons why TFA (Teach For America) is NOT the savior of public education, take some time and read Julián Vásquez Heilig’s blog, “Cloaking Inequity.”

If not, then consider these sage words by Adam Kirk Edgerton:
Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, suggest that education schools are empty, facile and meaningless, at least for the classroom teacher. I don't begrudge TFA, since it helps many children escape poverty, but its existence magnifies a view of teachers as interchangeable parts, as cogs in our machine. I have no moral high ground on the issue of turnover, since I quit after three years, but policy-makers are increasingly devaluing graduate school programs that train teachers to teach -- to innovate. After all, why spend money on training teachers for a whole year, for a career, when we can pump in a stream of idealistic young people for much less money? Why teach teachers to question the machinery whirling around them?
Well, what does it matter if teachers “question the machinery whirling around them” if, when they resign in noble, principled protest, no one really notices?

I’m more than just… I really want to know.


  1. Well, you a.s.k.ed, so here's the problem I see. Today's ADHD culture (great qualifier) is a different culture from that of the industrial world. Our information society is more sensitive to obsolescence and tangibly less responsive to calls for action in society. That isn't a criticism, just an observation.

    When teachers fall on their sword, resign in protest, and publicly distribute their message, I don't think they realize the time when this could actually change something has really passed. There's very little advantage to doing it, except maybe the satisfactory comments of support and empathy that might comfort one in such a circumstance.

    People have to realize that with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the power of our speech has been dramatically undermined. Money has replaced our power to effect change through the electoral process. Candidates pander to the top of the economic ladder, and their platforms are practically meaningless. From the debates on television to election coverage... all of it is ceremonial. None of it is representative of what our country should be.

    These teachers, who I deeply empathize with and wish the best for, have chosen the course of professional martyrdom in a day when no one can do a thing to change it at a political level. We can only look on as another teacher bites the dust, and after a while it just chips away at our hope.

    We need these teachers. We need them collaborating with us, their fellow teachers. We need to organize, and we need these folks to help us with their profound level of experience in education. We need a PROFESSION, an organization that is legislatively vested and funded through teachers and government. Bureaucrats are running and ruining our profession, and the more teachers with legitimate experience who leave, the less likely change will ever happen.

    So, my message to those teachers considering professional martyrdom: If you must retire, please consider helping teachers organize. This is a new age where our voices are silenced by money, and our only recourse is connecting, organizing, and collaborating on all the ways we can strengthen the profession we love. It is up to us.

    1. "These teachers, who I deeply empathize with and wish the best for, have chosen the course of professional martyrdom in a day when no one can do a thing to change it at a political level. We can only look on as another teacher bites the dust..." I think that’s true in small numbers, but it’s a trend catching people's attention in a meaningful way. I see it as Gandhiesque, rather than narcissistic. Consider the paradox: a great teacher that stays, facilitates inadvertently (just a little) the perpetuation of a larger evil. It's a bit of a Catch-22. It is on the backs of the great teachers that the real villains are able to do their deeds. The rebels leave, so they're gone, out of the system, no longer a problem. The ones who stay, if they're that good, only serve to prove (since all anyone cares about is data) that the "system" works, which of course it doesn't; it only appears to because of the good teachers who stayed!

      I have said before that some can probably work within the system, compartmentalize their sensibilities. Some may well be in areas where there are no standardized tests, and therefore escape much of the madness. But many will cling nobly to the remnants of their former lives as teachers, and in their fight to remain employed, they will have to align themselves by fiat with the monstrous plot against them. It's not a solution for everyone [resigning/retiring], to be sure, but if NO ONE did it, then the de facto assumption would be that everything is fine on the course that it's on -- and it's not. I guess my main point would be: don't be the kind of teacher who curses the system behind closed doors, says "someone should really do something," always seems to take an adversarial position when no one in power is listening, but snaps into line when the heat is on. That person is working against his or her own conscience and is serving no one well. If your conscience tells you to stay in the game, by all means stay in; it just means your tipping point hasn't been reached yet. But don't act against your own conscience. After a while, even the teachers who "hang in there" have to decide how much they can "play the game" .... For those that can carve out a niche and be happy and successful double agents, good for them. But there are some school districts, hell, some entire states, where this is becoming increasingly more impossible.

    2. It's not all black and white. I am a fan of your last two paragraphs. "We need to organize, and we need these folks to help us..." and you're not talking about so-called Teachers' Unions, I gather, who often are little help to teachers. But when you say "the more teachers with legitimate experience who leave, the less likely change will ever happen," I think maybe you disregard the possibility that those who leave will not remain in some way active in the field. I think most do -- even the most embittered veteran who has been burned badly feels compelled to do the great things that drew him or her to education in the first place, and will likely continue to do so.

      "If you must retire, please consider helping teachers organize." And this means multiple things... organize together, organize their own thoughts, prioritize, sort it all out, take it all in... I'm not interested in an "Occupy Wall Street" type of teacher activism; I think O.W.S. was all superficial mouthing off with very little substance or principle (IMO), and their ethos and aesthetic was both juvenile, unfocused and bordering hedonistically self-congratulatory. Teachers can do better for themsleves/ourselves. I blog. Others work with non-profits. Some will lobby or run for office. I actually worry that if we ever do become a focused "Movement," with mission statements, action plans, T-shirts, elected officials and official spokespeople, we would collapse under the weight of our own bureaucracy in a cruelly ironic self-parody. There's a fantastic episode of the 60s TV show The Prisoner where "Prisoner" Number 6 tries to organize the fellow prisoners in rebellion against the "warders," but his personality is so forceful and his rhetoric so slick and his plans so organized that ultimately the other prisoners reject him as a would-be rebel leader because they think him to be a plant of the authorities.

      Maybe this just needs to be a simmering, percolating, grassroots thing? Do you really believe it is NOT solvable through politics? Local elections? School boards? Mayoral, city council and state legislature races? Just thinking out loud here. I appreciate your comment. Just not sure I agree with it all.

  2. I resigned after loving my job as a middle school teacher and administrator of 19 years because I was tired. I was tired of being blamed for everything, tired of parenting kids who weren't mine, and tired of being lambasted in the media. While I miss my students greatly, I do not miss all of the other garbage that went along with it. I'm not sure what it will take for the "system" to realize what it's losing, particularly when universities keep churning out replacement teachers in droves. I honestly do not believe it is solvable at any level until parents are willing to take a good hard look at themselves, and until politics looks at what it has created.

    I'd go back to teaching in a heartbeat if my profession was valued. If kids were parented. If parents were supportive. If the silent majority would rise up. Until then, I'm perfectly happy to leave it to those who don't know any better. :)

    1. I feel your pain, and I agree with the last sentence of your first paragraph in particular.

      With regard to "I'd go back to teaching in a heartbeat if my profession was valued," I would only qualify that a little. Valued by whom? There will always be that segment of the general public who think education is a crock, and there will always be that segment of the political spectrum who thinks that public schools are "government schools" used for mass inculcation to some liberal agenda (actually, there is a minim of truth to that, but it's not so dire as the extremists will claim). There will always be parents who themselves are uneducated and so don't get what education is really about; don't count on them to support you. And there will always be that segment of parents who sees school as just another babysitter. You'll never, as a teacher, have an impact on the way parents parent (or don't parent). I don't care if I am valued (or not) by these populations, since they are beyond my reach, my control, and my sphere of influence.

      I would, however, like to be valued by my government and my administration, and this is best demonstrated by being supported. The axiom works both ways too: Lack of support translated to a de facto lack of respect. A cranky parent couldn't keep me from doing my job the way I want or need to. A cranky administrator or legislator could.

      That said, I agree with you that in general, the "sanctity" of our schools has been violated in a gross and grotesque way, and the overall respect afforded education (and educated individuals) is at an all-time low. And I am most troubled by the top-down model of governance that reduces all assessment of pedagogical efficacy to a few numbers of data out of expediency. This fails to respect both the humanity of the education process and the diversity of our population.

      And of course, you KNOW I agree with "[i]f the silent majority would rise up..." -- If you haven't read this post yet, read it now:

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. I won't go back to the U.S. to teach. I'm a teacher. That's what I do. But, I won't do it in the U.S. Sorry.

    1. Sometimes I feel I'd like to do a year elsewhere for some perspective, but I should have done it when I was much younger. Not feasible in my current life situation. I don't know that I could just up and leave. I'd switch careers first, and stay in the U.S. That's just me, personally, though.

  4. I've spent the last two years processing the impact leaving the classroom has had on my psyche. I worked so hard to be a good educator, and for what? I didn't want to be a teacher with a martyr complex who "does it all for the children" when doing so equals putting in 65-hour work weeks, receiving relatively low-pay despite having a master's degree, and basically burning the candle at both in ends while basically having so semblance of a personal life. If more teachers (including myself) would speak out about why they resigned, maybe the public (parents in particular) would start to give a damn about the cluster known as the public education really is. Teachers are so heavily criticized, it's a wonder education programs continue to attract so many potential teachers. If I could do it all over again, I would get a Ph.D. and become a professor. Our society devalues education so much, and it's time to start asking why and what can be done to make design a school system that really works for the 21st century, and not just jump on the latest school improvement bandwagon that will be quickly abandoned. Not to mention, I am not writing, and if I had published my stories while still a teacher, I'm sure I would come under scrutiny or disciplined for writing literature containing sex, drugs, and violence. I loved to teach. I was good at it. I was creative. I gave it everything I had, but it's a system that sucks a person's soul dry. I'm slowly moving on and hope to channel my expertise into other avenues.

    1. It's kind of funny (in a nit-so-funny way)... when it comes to "martyrdom." A teacher who stays in the game despite the "psychic" cost, a teacher who fights or speaks out and is retaliated against, a teacher who resigns or retires on principle: Each is a martyr in his or her own way.

      I'm glad you said it was the "system" that sucks the soul dry, and not teaching itself. I often used to say: "I love teaching, but I don't always love being a teacher."

      And I totally salute: "If more teachers (including myself) would speak out about why they resigned, maybe the public (parents in particular) would start to give a damn..."

  5. Basically some of the over experienced poor experiences. Around my 3rd calendar year just as one Assistant Brain - I nonetheless love the position in addition to think influenced to help cause my very own university. I ended up being a really productive tutor leader for 8years.

  6. Thanks for picking this up! I love the discussion - glad it's still going on.

    1. Adam, thanks for the kind words. Hope all is well with you.