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.

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9 thoughts on “Breaking Up with Teaching v1

  1. Thank you for this. I actually came across this by chance on Twitter. It proves to me that the UK in this respect is just like the US.

    I trained as a PE teacher in the UK and like many others joining this trend, had dropped the teaching side of the degree before I had finished the course. And many more on my course have left teaching for much the same reasons as you have stated above…. and that is within their first year! I only graduated less than 2 years ago.
    Although personally I have stayed in teaching but in a different field. I now teach English in Lisbon, Portugal with better pay, hours, less responsibility, great lifestyle, not to mention small classes of students who actually want to learn!

    Do you know what you will go into now you have left teaching. I am sorry I have not read anything else of this blog until now. How long had you been teaching before you decided to leave out of curiousity?

  2. @Sportycb – I do know where I’m going (temporarily) which I’ll touch on in the next post. This was my 5th year as a full time teacher.

    @Dan – I’m curious, looking back 7 years, same sentiment? Different? Also, those comments got kinda crazy on your post.

  3. Man, my life got pretty weird shortly after that, which makes it hard to say. Regardless I don’t know if I would have stayed in the classroom full time. I want to say I would’ve, of course. But I have certain personality defects that keep me moving around a lot. Luckily, Education is a pretty big tent with lots of roles for lots of people and lots of different questions for those people to answer. If the questions and challenges of education still interest you, you’re lucky to be online where you have loads of examples to look at of people serving different roles in this big project.

  4. The big tent is still interesting to me, but I spent the last year trying to figure out where I could fit, and came up with nada. So for now, I’m moving away from educating others and educating myself one more time.

    • Grad school? When I left the classroom, it was for a Masters degree in a totally different area.

      The personal concerns you raise about teaching are so critical. I’m not sure how we wrestle with them in the public sphere on a policy level, so thanks for sharing them personally in this manner.

      Hope the new baby is giving you lots of joy.

  5. Pingback: Breaking Up with Teaching v2 | Right Brained Math

  6. Pingback: Three Takeaways from The Smartest Kids in the World… | Marshall Escamilla

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