education philosopher

Why I Left the Public Schools (a post hoc reflection)

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on June 24, 2009

Now that I have left my teaching career – brief at two years – I am better in a position to reflect on the good and the bad. A post I wrote not too long ago focused on the good (that is often only seen in hindsight as the dizzying schooldays don’t leave much time to the luxury of being satisfied). Now, I suppose, it is time to spill the beans on some of the bad. I want to write about why I left the public schools.

Long story short: towards the end of my first year and beginning of my second, I stopped believing in the product that we were selling. I began to mistrust much of what the administration and professional development speakers were telling me I was supposed to do. I began feeling like the things I was being paid to do actively undermined ever being able to help students. On my worst days, I would explain to my wife that I “felt like the Nazi who was paid to pick off Jews because it was supposedly in someone’s self interest,”  or to say it bluntly, I thought the things I was being paid to do were dead-nuts wrong.

What were some of those things? Grade inflation was one. Many an argument was had with supervisors telling me not to fail a student who, according to the grade book, should be failed. They told me that the student would become discouraged if I faied him (or, less likely, her). I retorted that a possible reason for their discouragement in the face of failing grades is that folks have made it so that students never have to get failing grades, and that possibly, the best motivator for a student was to be held accountable for their level or workmanship. (I often did fail these students, but over very constant objection.)

Another area where I felt I was paid to stand in the way of, rather than promote, student success was in the amount of “hand holding” expected of me as a special educator. Several students come to mind here. One, who had ADHD, apparently needed homeworks written down for him, delivered into the hands of his father, a reduced workload, a reduced percentage of tests/quizzes as part of the overall grade, and a reader. When he was still getting poor grades despite these accommodations, the immediate blame (from his parents and my supervisors) was on the educators. It was never asked what the student could do to remedy these grades, but what more we could offer by way of accommodations. When, I thought, will this student realize any accountability and self-reliance? Hopefully, it will happen before high school ends and special ed is no longer there as a “bailout.”

And there were countless other students who, instead of being taught self-reliance and how to overcome deficits, were taught that when a deficit was “discovered” (whether really a deficit or not), such obstacles would be removed from our expectations of that student. When a student does poorly on reading, we would read everything to her. When a student had trouble writing, we would reduce the amount of required writing, give her “sentence starters” for paragraphs, etc. Thus, instead of working with a student on her math or writing difficulties by practicing with her, we would provide the type of band-aid solution that ensured that the disability would never have to be exercised or worked on. (This, conveniently, would ensure that the student would be “special ed” for the rest of her school career, and guarantee the school the extra funding that comes with it.)

As my second year went futher and further along, the worse I felt about what I was doing. I began the most unsatisfying journey of seperating myself emotionally from my job just so that I could do things I disagreed with but was paid for. As my friend Ben Hayek has written, in an essay about the this type of personal/professional separation in the arena of law,  “personal morality, and its objective manifestation, professionalism, come part-and-parcel with job-satisfaction.” The minute one is paid to do what one feels is immoral and detrimental to the goal of their job  (whether to administer justice or educate students), one becomes unhappy. And unhappy I was, exactly for that reason.

I made it through most of the year able to keep my professional obligations and my personal opinions seperate (or at least appear to). Three quarters of the way through the year, I became involved in an incident which let me know that I couldn’t keep this going.

One day, I was approached by our school social worker about a student in danger of failing Algebra II for attendance reasons (which led to issues of work completion). She wanted to broker a deal with him, the algebra teacher, and myself to the effect that the student would agree to attend all remaining Algebra II classes, my “Study Skills” class for extra help every other day, and we would work it to where he could pass. I agreed to do it, on the condition that if the deal were broken, he would recieve an automatic failing grade from me (which he was getting anyway by that time).

The very next class, the student broke the deal. But when I came back the next day, I’d found that the social worker re-brokered the same deal to the student (without consulting me). The deal ended up re-brokered 2 more times before the social worker realized that the student would not keep his end of the bargain. When I saw the principal to complain about this, and the fact that we might be “giving a diploma to a kid who hasn’t done the work to deserve the diploma,” the principal said to me something like this: “Kevin, do you realize how many kids we give diplomas to who don’t deserve them? We give them to them so that we can get them out of here. If we held back every kid who didn’t deserve a diploma, we woudn’t be able to do our job. In a while, this will not bother you. You’ll see where I’m coming from.”

From that day on, I did my job in something of an “existence mode.” I could no longer truly care about what I was doing. Caring was too painful, as it would mean acknowleging that all I was doing was, as the principal suggested, a sham. It is no exaggeration to say that I felt that there was little seperating me from a con-artist (conning kids into thinking that I was helping them, and the school into thinking that I was on board with them.)

In some way, I feel guilty for leaving and going on to “greener pastures” as a PhD student. A small part of me feels like I gave up. At these moments, though, a larger part of me tells myself that I only gave up a battle that seemed quite unwinnable. I could not go on doing things I felt hurt, rather than helped, kids.

Such were my trevails, and I’m quite sure those of many other teachers.

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