Breaking Up with Teaching v2

This is an attempt for me to understand my own motivations of leaving the field of teaching. For an explanation, see part one here.

Suspect 4: Opportunities

“The difference between an escape and an exit is really just context.” – Andy Greenwald, author who does awesome recaps of Game of Thrones

I think about motives a lot. My M.O. is to make decisions and then try to understand them after the fact. So I’ve made a decision and now I’m thinking: am I running away or am I running towards? I think the latter more than the former, even though the tone might not seem like it.

I’ve been working as a teacher for five years. As I began to entertain the idea of trying something else, I realize how pigeon-holed I had become. This is my fault, I work at a private school that doesn’t put any emphasis on student performance on standardized tests, the lifeblood of funding for other schools. I’ve spent five years trying to build up my skills in the techniques of holding mathematical discussions (namely the “Modified Moore Method”).  I became so specialized that it’s hard for others to see how my skill set would fit into various jobs I’ve applied for.

I experienced a moment (read: months) of claustrophobia. I never intended to teach my whole life. Again, I’m accepting total accountability here. Teachers basically have one-year contracts, and until I started looking for something else, I couldn’t see further than that one year.

When I discussed leaving the profession, friends of mine reacted strangely. Forgive the strawmen here, but when someone decides to sell real estate after working as a corporate salesman, no one really blinks an eye. If a truck driver settles down and decides to get an office job, who objects? When a teacher decides to leave teaching, there’s genuine shock. It’s part guilt and part where’s-your-sense-of-duty. There’s “Oh but the kids will miss you”, “We’re losing a good one.” and my personal favorite, “But you get summmmmmmmmers offfffff.”

People will say these things if you’re the worst teacher in the world and students throw a party as you walk out the door. Why? Because they’re merely pleasantries and people are nice. In reality, most people think that teachers are pretty interchangeable (or even totally replaceable).

Seen from I-35 Highways

What does that ad tell you? That with a couple of weeks of training you can be as good as the other teachers. That perception matches up with reality because your pay is pretty much the same.

The first step as I thought about exiting was: ok, what else is there? I tried to gain some traction with some of the bigger education agencies out there as a teacher trainer or working in policy, but couldn’t really get my foot in the door. I am convinced that my skill set just wasn’t marketable enough. I needed to improve in some area in order to create opportunities for myself.

Suspect 5: Value and Advancement

Most of our strengths and weaknesses as a nation – our ingenuity and our industriousness, our arrogance and our impatience – stem from our unshakeable belief in the idea that we choose our own course. – Nate silver

This suspect is really an accomplice (so to speak) of time and pay. What value do teachers actually create? Will the movement towards automation of learning continue? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t see the valuation of teachers increasing very quickly over time. There’s a supply problem – too many people going into teaching (with merit or not).

Last year I read Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. I was genuinely moved. I hadn’t read a book that had the holy triumvirate of good story-telling, super clear mathematical analysis, and new approaches old problems. I wanted to be more like Nate.

Let me digress a bit. When I was a kid, I had numbers on the brain all the time. When I learned about factoring integers, I played this really cool game by myself called “factor all the license plates.” My mom’s license plate started with 403. I still remember the day that I figured out it 403 = 31 x 13. (I walked home by myself a lot obviously). As I continued through middle school, my math classes got pretty dull.

I enrolled in college as a Physics major because Physics problems were much more enjoyable to analyze. The bulk of my math classes during freshmen and sophomore year were super tedious Calculus classes – symbol manipulation, memorization of esoteric proofs, and bland instruction. Then I took a class that was inquiry-based, and I was back forever. No Physics class on earth can stand up to the pure joy that radiates through my soul when I tackle interesting mathematical problems.

Flash forward, and over the last four years I regularly attended Math Teacher’s Circle meetings. MTC’s are professional development meet-ups for math teachers where we hear from speakers who show us what kinds of Mathematics they use. Usually they bring us problems to solve that are clever and novel and have nothing to do with state standards; they’re just fun. It was a way for me to continue taking psuedo-math classes while being fed (!!!) for free.

One speaker described what he did at the Department of Transportation. Admittedly, I would not have predicted many interesting math problems living in that space. He told us the story of creating a good system to determine when to replace DoT vehicles. The main constraints were that new cars cost a lot, and repairs of older vehicles cost a lot. But the best system anyone had come up with at that point was to replace the whole fleet every ten years. No analysis, just someone’s best guess. Based on some assumptions and after a few quick calculations, we had come up with an entirely new system for replacing the vehicles that saved millions of dollars for the state

I was completely smitten. I asked the presenter to lunch and he described other tools that I had never seen in my abstract mathematics classes: optimization, linear programming, risk analysis, forecasting, multi-criteria decision making, and spreadsheet engineering.

I love solving problems. I love using creative means to solve them. I’m not a salesman, I’m not a manager. I’m a problem solver at heart. But teaching is like middle management without the incentives like hitting sales goals. Teaching allowed me to build up interpersonal skills more than anything else, which is great but hard to communicate. I’m itching to do math again. I decided to see if I could hop on this analysis train.

Suspect 6: Comfort

Rocky: He took his best shot at becoming champ. What shot did you ever take? Bartender: Hey, Rocky, if you’re not happy with your life, that’s nice. But I got a business goin’. I don’t have to take no shots. Rocky: (gives stink eye to bartender, throws down crumpled bills) Stick that up your business. Bartender: You want me to take a shot? All right, I’ll take a shot! (drinks) – Rocky (1977)

I’m at a point now where continuing being a teacher is not really an option.

Staying means comfort. It means I’ve taught this class before and I know everything.

Comfort means stagnation. Why make new stuff, I’ve got all this old stuff, let’s just run that back – it worked last time, right? (And there’s not really an incentive to do new stuff other than avoiding boredom).

Stagnation means misery. Some people love doing the same thing day after day, but I need new problems. I need mathematical problems to solve, not managerial ones.

It’s time for me to get uncomfortable, because that’s where growth comes from. Here’s my shot.

I found a graduate school program that offers the kinds of skills I would like to have, and it’s right down the street from me. It’s terrifying to be a novice again. It’s exhilarating because who gets to do this at 30 years old? It’s oh-my-god-I’m-not-going-to-get-a-paycheck for a year. It’s heart-wrenching because saying goodbye to kids and my support group (colleagues) is hard (most of the time). It’s ego-checking because I’m going to school again as all my friends continue their normal jobs, and why can’t I just be happy at work?

Like I said in the beginning, I think I’m running towards something that’s new and fresh and better suited for me now. I loved that I taught. I don’t think of it like a military service where everyone does their part, but I think it’s what I needed at the time. Now I have to see what other adventures lie beyond the immediacy before me.


Breaking Up with Teaching v1

Note: The timeline below gets a little wonky. I’ve been writing this off and on for the last month, with a newborn baby occupying most of my mental space. Also, I teach in a private school. There are different perks and costs to doing business there. I doubt I would have even made it the five years I did if it wasn’t for my wonderful colleagues at the Khabele School. At times, I overstated my case, because that’s what you have to do when you break up.

Recently, the question “Why do you blog?” made its rounds through the math-twitter-blogosphere. When I thought about my own reasons, I couldn’t come up with a complete answer. It was some parts self-promotion, reflection, and connecting with brilliant people. Today, I have a very clear reason to post. I would like to use this space to reflect on why I’m leaving teaching.

After a brilliant class yesterday, I’m stuck in the silence of my room, prepping for tomorrow. It’s deafening. I’m not crying, but tears are coming down my face. I don’t really know what the difference is, but I’m slowly disconnecting from this profession.

When I began telling my brilliant colleagues and students about my decision, I really struggled. It’s no easy feat to say “I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I want to move on.” The first part of that sentence, the running away, isn’t really true, but it feels like it.

In the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car”, the directors helped us understand which factors were at play behind the first electric cars being essentially outlawed. With Tesla, Leafs, and hybrids dominating new car sales it seems strange to think about. But, the narrative stayed with me. It was driven by putting seven or so “suspects” on trial. A similar structure might help me understand for myself why I’m moving on, so I employed it below. This first post deals with the movement away from teaching, and the second part deals with what I’m moving towards.

Suspect 1A: Pay

“If people aren’t paying you for what you do, they don’t value you.” – Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics

Every time I’ve talked to colleagues, parents or friends about moving on from teaching, salary is the first thing to come up. Let’s face it, the only way for a teacher to advance and get paid is to stop teaching. Whether it’s running PD conferences, or becoming an administrator or any other occupation tangentially related to being in the classroom, this is a top heavy environment.

Teachers obviously know what they’re getting in to. Payscales are completely transparent. Here’s what pay raises looks like for a teacher in Austin ISD during their first ten years.

–, 0.00%, 0.00%, 0.00%, 0.24%, 0.24%, 0.24%, 0.24%, 0.47%, 0.00%, 0.70%,

Well, that’s ok, right? I’ve heard before the teachers in their latter years make BANK. Let’s check out raises from years 11-20.

0.70%, 0.69%, 1.38%, 1.36%, 1.34%, 1.32%, 1.31%, 1.29%, 1.27%, 1.26%

Not one time in twenty years of service will a teacher at AISD get a raise of 2%. Typical cost of living increases is estimated around 3% per year, probably higher in bigger cities. When we talk about the average tenure of K-12 teachers, we should start with those numbers.

I realize that merit pay is a really uncomfortable proposition. But in the salary schedule above, the only variable that controls a salary is how long you didn’t get fired. I don’t even want to link to it, but look at google “curriculum specialist”, “high school basketball coach”, or any administrative role and compare them to teachers’ salaries. Clearly, we value the two quite differently. It sucks.

For me, there’s this secondary biological component. When I found out my wife and I were going to have a child, it began changing how I view my own role. I’m perfectly fine with my salary now; I agreed to the terms. But looking forward, after all the obsession with getting better, with advancing my craft, after giving so much of myself, it becomes more disheartening to realize that the only way to get paid as a good teacher is to stop teaching. I realize that education doesn’t fit nicely in the capitalist mindset, but it wrecks me to think that the value I’m creating is not honored in a monetary way.

Suspect 1B: Time Commitment

“To me, there are only five real jobs in America: police officers, teachers, firefighters, doctors, and those in the military service” – Charles Barkley, former NBA player

Time goes hand in hand with pay. There’s two sides to thinking about how much time teachers work. The first is both very primitive and totally legitimate: teachers get summers and major holidays off. The second is that teachers rarely leave their work at work. A colleague of mine once said that he actively avoided calculating his hourly salary rate – the idea is that it would be too damning a number.

Over the last two years, I’ve tried to get a handle on my time commitments at the school. I stopped coaching basketball, I took over the math department and taught one less class, and I made myself available for office hours on a more limited basis. I didn’t do a great job, I wound up taking over NHS and teaching four different types of classes (preps). I’m not great at saying no to taking on extra work.

I had a moment where I was confronted with hours and my commitment. It went something like, “As math team lead, work on this project. Since it counts as one of your accountabilities, this should be worked on about 3 hours per week.” This is one of the fucked up assumptions of non-teachers, even (especially?) those who work near them – that the amount of time spent on each class is predictable and linear.

Because each class is a performance, I see the breakdown as something like this:

Class time + Preparation = Total time spent on class

Preparation eases a little bit if I have two sections of Geometry, and not every class has the same workload. Our classes are either 1 or 1.5 hours long, two or three times per week. I usually put about 1 – 1.5 hours outside of the classroom, whether that’s giving kids feedback or finding cool stuff for them to do, making copies, etc. So for the five class periods I taught, let’s say I was directly involved 7 hours each. I’m already at 35 hours.

This doesn’t include communicating with parents via email and phone, office hours, school assemblies, filling out paperwork, going to meetings, going to special events, answering more emails, eating food fit for human beings or general health maintenance. All of that time will vary, but if I stayed on a super strict schedule and never looked at my phone, chatted with colleagues or did things like “go to the dentist”, I’m hitting around 40 hours minimum. That’s normal, but it doesn’t include the huge swings in time from week to week. I tried my damndest to avoid taking work home with me this year, and the pull is just too strong – especially in an environment with outstanding other teachers where I feel the need to compete. This leads directly to the grind, but before that…

Suspect 2: The False Environment

“Don’t let school get in the way of your education” – Mark Twain

After my few years as a teacher, my philosophy is that knowledge is socially constructed. Knowledge is not linear, it’s not value-neutral. So how do I balance those basic tenets with a state-mandated curriculum or standards? How am I supposed to say “You should learn Geometry because _______”?

I find myself in the middle of a statistics class thinking, “All this p-value stuff is crap, there are huge incentives for researchers to keep sampling until they find results they want.” But that doesn’t come up on the AP test. And even though my kids were trained assassins as far as skepticism, they’re trying to show they have this knowledge of inference or bias or whatever while trying to keep in their head the inherent flaws of statistical methods.  And the kids have huge incentives and pressures to do well on that AP test, so where does that lead us?

There’s too many inner conflicts I find myself battling. And the longer I do this, the more and more I feel like a charlatan.

Suspect 3: The Grind

“You pay me for Monday through Saturday, but Sundays, you get for free” – Ray Lewis, NFL linebacker

The biggest hindrance to individuals staying in the profession is the grind. I love working hard. I think I inspire my kids to really do the same. Being in a classroom is easy for me (now that is), the hardest thing in the world is not being in the classroom when my kids are.

Before this year, I hadn’t taken more than two days off in an entire year, not because I’m awesome, it’s because subs are death. Being a classroom is a performance; it’s a result of tons of preparation and practice. It’s anticipatory, it’s carefully crafted. What would Cirque du Solei look like if they tried to find an acrobat the night before?

Subs are like the worst babysitter in the world – they’ll give kid whatever sugary substance is available as long as they just stop making noise. That’s why every time I see sub lesson plans they begin with “Put the movie into the dvd player….” Even on days where I have to go to a wedding or NBA games went on too late or (looking forward) I might have to take care of a child, the prospect of calling nine people just to find someone who can go to youtube and find something valuable for the class to do is the worst.

Just as damaging as finding subs is email. I don’t think there has been a worse creation for teachers than email. Email’s role ideally would be a non-intrusive way for people to schedule times to speak with one another. In reality, email counterproductively gives a forum for people to give contextless feedback; gives other people work to do; or is sent to an ungodly amount of people who have no actual interest in the content of the message, thus wasting precious seconds of the recipient by actually opening them.

At our school where we had a policy that email was not a mode of instant communication. But it’s just too close, because it’s delivered pretty close to instantly. And because new work was given through email, it gave me an incentive to check it all the time. And checking work email sucks.

Also, there’s meetings. I don’t have a lot to say except fuck regularly scheduled meetings. They’re like an opportunity to fill up someone else’s time by making shit up as you go…

Ok, let’s pump the brakes. Seems like I’m getting derailed in the details. It really comes down to my premise that teaching is a crafted performance. Over the last two years, I lost sight of why I should improve my craft, which magnifies all the other flaws of being in a school. I don’t hate schools, I’m just ground up. So I’m leaving. In the next post, I will reflect on where I’m going, rather than why I’m leaving.

Talking Circles and Math

Strange things happen when you go into a classroom and talk about something of which you’re very passionate. Sometimes, people take away something you had no intention of discussing. The same principle applies when giving a talk at a convention apparently.

When I was at NCTM talking about what I tried in my stats class, one of the slides I showed became an instant hit. It was posted on Twitter I think 5 times, making it one of the most popular tweets of all time.

So Geoff at Emergent Math asked me for a follow up explanation of tracking conversations. He flattered me, and I’ll oblige.

Last year around this time, I began to read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. As I read, I became more and more convinced that the narrative behind the book could drive my AP Statistics class. I set an intention to integrate the learning objectives of the stats class by reading parts of the the Signal and the Noise. For example, instead of introducing confidence intervals with a definition or an example, I really wanted to take the story of a flood plain in North Dakota to introduce the idea. This idea is what I presented at NCTM.

When I decided that I would assign actual reading to my class, I had an idea of how it would go. I would assign a reading, then at the next class I would begin a class with a simple question, “What did you LEARRRRNNNNN?” all mystical like, as if I was in one of those hoity-toity movies about … reading or whatever.

It turns out that when I framed the discussion this way, I didn’t exactly get the result that I was looking for. But, hey, this is coming from the guy who invented General Mutant Pancake Theory – no problem. I’ll just walk down the hall to my friends in the English and History departments and steal all of their ideas. One idea they had for me was tracking conversations.

The basic structure is this: Before class starts, I have students read and I give them some leading questions. Questions like:

  • What are the differences between an observation and an experiment?
  • How were correlation and causation discussed?
  • What is a lurking variable that came up?
  • How do we “prove” causation?

During class, students sit in a circle. We put up all the names on the board. Either a student or I are in charge of “tracking the conversation”. My job is to listen and ask questions. Their job is to make the conversation awesome.

In the diagram below, A(dam) makes a point about how causation can be confused with correlation, then D(enise) follows up with something she heard on NPR that relates to the pregnancy study. F(reddie) asks how one can prove causation and then A(dam) reminds him of a problem in which we talked about proving causation. C(eara) asks another questions about how this relates to confidence intervals, and the conversation continues.


We don’t really need arrow heads for any of these lines, we just need to see who’s involved and to what degree. G(reg), E(than) and B(etsy) haven’t chimed in yet, but everyone sees that, and at times I might direct the conversation at one of them if they still have no lines connecting them to the rest of the conversation. But usually, another student will call them out, which I think is super empowering.

What makes this work? First, no matter how advanced the students are, they are still amateurs in the subject area. Even though they may be great symbol manipulators or really understand what we’ve done so far, I intentionally gave them material that is new and just outside of their knowledge base.

Second, by taking myself out of the circle and being a guide, it takes the sense of agency away from me and gives it to them – again, then idea that I’m trying to empower them. I rarely correct any incorrect interpretation, but if it seems to pervade the conversation, I might ask some clarifying questions.

Caveat: this system probably isn’t working if you have a class of 30. I have only tried it with ~15. However, it’s totally possible to break the kids into smaller subgroups and do the same kind of thing.

I’ve been interested in Socratic-seminar-like conversations in math class for a long period of time. All knowledge is socially constructed, so when I see students being active agents in that process, it models what learning outside of the false environment of school looks like. Not to get all Vygotsky on you, but constructing a situation like this makes different neurons fire in young brains than just having them work independently.