I teach, therefore I am employed in education. Again.

You almost had a job in tech…

Just over a year ago, I took a pretty big chance and walked away from the stability and reliability that a permanent teaching position offers. The pay was/is crap, but the benefits and calendar are reliable, although the day-to-day is always unpredictable (most of us who go into teaching and stay there are a bit addicted to that if you ask me.) Like a growing number of people in San Francisco and the surrounding area, I was getting tired of being poor (relatively) and with two decades of professional experience I realistically thought I was armed with a skill set that would make me valuable in a host of different jobs/careers/opportunities (what are people calling them now?) I looked (accurately, I thought) at the emerging professional pathways (that sounds like something people around here would call them) and considered how my skills matched up:

  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Cultural literacy
  • Leadership experience
  • Creative thinker
  • Organized
  • Detail oriented and goal oriented
  • Excellent time management skills
  • Commitment to excellence
  • Well read
  • Trivia master
  • Some other skills that are hard to explain if you are not down with Bloom’s Taxonomy, but let’s just say I reside at steps 5 and 6 
  • I can recall a movie reference for nearly every life experience that arises
  • Ridiculous memory for sports data (and for most things in general)
  • What-the-fuck-I-have-worked-with-kids-and-their-families-and-public-sector-bureacracy-for-decades-don’t-try-to-tell-me-what-it-means-to-have-a-growth-mindset-and-an-ability-to-pivot-and-assume-positive-intent-the-fact-that-I-am-still-standing-and-working-underscores-those-abilities-to-a-degree-you-cannot-possibly-understand

Seriously, when I read job descriptions I was interested in, I feel like I would be a quality candidate for the majority of them. Apparently this does not always translate. And, it turns out, people don’t really like other people to change – they really like to keep everyone in the compartment that makes sense to them.

“But you’re a teacher…”
“You don’t really have the specific experience we are looking for…”
“Don’t you teach?”
“I’m curious why someone at your point in their career is looking to pivot…”
“This is not really the same as teaching, I mean I know it has the same name, instructional designer, designing instruction, but it is not really designing instruction per say…”
“Is there a reason you do not want to teach anymore?”

The fact is, as my neighbor succinctly expressed, I was looking for a job in tech – but I was not being honest about why. So, why was I? Well, philosophically I am pretty convinced that the problems we are seeing across the “tech industry” have a lot to do with the diminishing role of humanities education, or at least the innate interest and ability to think abstractly. This is not surprising to  people who enjoy thinking, and the general consensus is that “while software developers are skilled engineering solutions, their focus is not asking what problems need to be solved, or asking what the consequences are of solving a problem in a particular way,” and this is having logical consequences that suck [too many examples to note, but Uber, Facebook, Cambridge Analytics, and the general disgustingness of the scene make the point effectively.]

I also firmly believe that we are in a position to do amazing things by merging our technological capabilities with our humanity. In education, agriculture, economic growth and sustainability, the potential is really amazing. Not withstanding, people are beginning to realize that to effectively tackle today’s biggest social and technological challenges, we need to think critically about their human context—something humanities graduates happen to be well-trained to do. Call it the revenge of the film, history, and philosophy nerds. I felt hopeful about all of this. And empowered (as somewhat of a film, history, and philosophy nerd.)

Also, I liked the idea of what outsiders hear about working in tech: lots of money, unlimited vacation if you get your work done, lots of money, free gym membership, free gourmet meals, beer bashes, perks, lots of money… Just think for a moment how those kinds of benefits look to a teacher who works 70-hour weeks during the school year, pays for everything they need in their personal and professional lives, and is generally too tired to bother making a single meal all day long. I got emotional considering it. It all seemed so lively, dynamic, and inspiring to be working with people who were super into the work they were doing and brought their best everyday.

Uh, yeah. It is awful…

At a dinner party recently when the Warriors decided to turn it around and actually win the Houston series, I was telling two of my friends (who work in tech) as we stood in their stunningly remodeled home, “God, you know, it was really bad – the whole start-up vibe, it was just… bad. I had no idea.” They both looked at me, only surprised by my surprise. I was unsure who would respond – one definitely does not work at a start up but the other has been bouncing around more than he would like amidst the culture. He spoke, “Uh, yeah. It is awful.” My confusion prompted a more elaborate explanation. “Yeah, they don’t care. About anything. They don’t have to. He didn’t even get paid by his last company – it was ridiculous.” I still don’t understand how this fly-by-night charlatan-esque behavior is okay, but I hold on to my naïveté where I can.

This truth was something I guess I had to arrive at in my own damn time, but it is the truth, no matter how you look at it. The ethos (and ethics) of the start-up culture are a concentrated milieu of the extremes of our American entrepreneurial spirit: ingenuous, aspirational, fantastic – for sure. But cutthroat, greed centered, myopic, and socially Darwinist to Lord of the Flies levels.

It was certainly a departure from public education.

At what cost greatness?

road_full

For me, the cost of my decision was relatively lightweight: the unpredicted outcome that can come with taking a risk, a temporary float in the River of Failure (which is better than some of the other destinations imagined above… but the ego says: ouch.) I left a sure thing that I was unsure I could sustain for the promise of shiny new things. But I did not pay attention to how close the Gate of Ideals is to the Tower of Weak Morals and the sewage pipe of Fakery. One only hopes I climbed out of the River of Failure headed to True Knowledge and not the Hotel Know It All, the Right System Railway station, or other parts unknown in Oblivion or The System.

This past year I saw first hand what it looks like when good intentions are superseded by gross profits and – more importantly – I realized that what I do for a living is not something anyone can just do (contrary to popular belief!) Professional licensure (in any field I would suggest) is important and does make a difference… I would no sooner want a child to work with an unlicensed teacher as I would want to visit an unlicensed doctor or lawyer. I also saw what it looks like when promises made are not kept and the subsequent impact on morale among those to whom the promises were made. I saw how the resilience of these innovators had less to do with resilience and much more to do with insulation from consequence. I saw that fancy semantics (oh-the-grammar-is-so-bad-when-y’all-are-trying-to-be-clever-by-renaming-the-wheel) and slick slide decks do not lead to quality professional products – those outcomes are achieved by professional quality people.

I work in education.

Someone once said that the way we answer the question, “What do you do?” says more about us than most inquiries. An obviously open-ended question, I think most of us would assume (in the US version of Western Culture anyhow) that it is trying to get at how you make money.

“What do you do?”
“I enjoy – ”
“No, but what do you do?”
“Oh, for work…”
“Yes, obviously, what do you do?”

What do you do means, simultaneously, how do you make money, how much money do you make, and how respectable are you. That is one loaded question.

The answers, when you are done being cheeky, generally have a limited range.

“I…”
“I am a…”
“I work in…”

Try those out with a variety of jobs. See how the semantics change and the meaning is altered.

“I teach.” Okay, that works. But “I tech?” “I doctor?” “I engineer?”

“I am a teacher.” More latitude here (although the implications of identity through profession underscore much of the weirdness I am trying to get at here), “I am a doctor,” “I am an engineer,” I am tech?” Scary.

I like, “I work in education,” because I do a whole lot more than just teach (which is a whole lot more than most people do in a lifetime but that is a polemic for another place) and it eliminates the very annoying and widely accepted idea in my field that what I do to earn income is me in my entirety. It is worth noting that most of the jobs in which people who perform them are typically described as being them are the jobs that elicit the most extreme positive and negative reactions – police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians).

I wanted a chance to attach myself to a professional descriptor that suggested power, savvy, ingenuity, wealth, and social currency. I thought working in the start-up culture would bring that, and in some ways it may have. But it also brought with it a sense of being disposable, disingenuous, and necessarily superficial – don’t get attached to ideas they say, always be ready to let go and move on to the next thing. I lost the good parts that come with being a teacher: being respected by people (even if it is only out of habit and not actual), and having a job that did not take two paragraphs to explain. For the record, an EdTech company and an Education + Technology are the same thing no matter how much you want the extra letters to carry extra weight and in both – as in society – the teachers (even if you insist on calling them educators), remain second class personnel: under paid, under appreciated, and under valued. In spite of the fact that in many ways teachers are the most prepared for the dynamic, think on your feet, constantly pivot, nature of the start-up world, their skills are still mistaken as useless, archaic – even quaint – by the private sector.

I was promised too much when I took the chance to jump into what I thought was the tech world. I see that now, and I should have been aware of this. Had I talked to my peers immersed in the start-up industry they would have alerted me to this. I also, as I am prone to do when I have my sights set on something, did not acknowledge the myriad red flags: the immediate reversal of promises; the professional practices I knew were questionable after two decades of experience; a place that normalized inappropriate behavior; the allowances given for having a “fail forward” attitude that really just allows bad practice to perpetuate and grow. I still fully believe in the benefits of technology, and beyond that, the potential for merging it with education. Beyond believing in it, I am committed to it in a variety of ways. But one thing I can say with confidence now is that the successful merger of the two will need to be led by true visionary educators who have willing technologists in tow. It will not be the other way around.

I work in education.

And you need me along with my professional peers, to affect positive change in our field… and probably yours.

The Change Chronicles: Part 1

It is Sunday and I spent the morning reading. The morning began bright and sunny and became cold and dark. In some ways, so too this post.

The first article I read this morning was about how Teller (the quiet, or rather silent half of Penn & Teller) approached teaching when he taught Latin at Lawrence High School in New Jersey before going on to, well, frankly as our society would have it, much greater tings. I enjoyed the article for a variety of reasons – some of which will come up in a later version of The Change Chronicles dealing with whether or not one remains a teacher…

The primary take away from the article for many, I assume, is that for education to be successful it must be performative – entertaining! – and that the “first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject.” Although in myriad ways I disagree with this take, I continued reading. I am glad I did, it was an engaging and thought-provoking article. My second favorite line was the reference to Alfred North Whitehead‘s premise that learning occurs in three stages: romance, precision, generalization. This articulation of what I like to believe has been the way I teach, made me feel validated and inspired. Yes! Impress them with the potential, the drama, the pathos-laden aspects of the subject. Then wow them with specifics – oh, how those superlatives, extremes, and data points resonate with the developing human brain! Finally, demonstrate how the knowledge of a specific allows for the understanding of all those things beyond one’s immediate ken.

Way back when I was trained to teach we called this activating and/or creating schema: what prior information is in that head of yours – ours – that we can connect to in order to makes sense out of this unknown situation/material/question? I love thinking about things like this and it always takes me back to one of my favorite articles that I have been using in my classroom – at every grade level – for a decade, The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. I do not explicitly teach science, although it’s unavoidable the social sciences, but this article forms a basis for how I teach… the part where kids, and really everyone in the world these days, must get comfortable with the not knowing. Which Teller poetically gets to in his recollection of teaching, and is my favorite line in the article, and most significant takeaway from the piece:

When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.

Sadly, I fear the aspect of the article that will be the one people hold fast to is the emphasis on the teacher to engender love of the subject in the student. This depresses me for various reasons, but my fundamental problem with it is that it is not love of the subject that matters – it is the love of learning – figuring things out, seeing connections, and understanding nuance and context that matters more.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

After more than 20 years of sharing history, literature, civics, geography, and economic theory in more classrooms than I can count, it is not a love of the specific subject I have ever sought from my students (though, admittedly a tremendous added bonus) but it has been the possibility of showing kids that thinking about things – any things, though perhaps especially the things they do not see as valuable (after all they will pursue that which holds value to them on their own), gives them power. I am not so audacious to use that age old expression of teaching someone how to think (thank you DFW for indelibly imprinting the silliness of that expression) but certainly have aspired to show kids how cool it is to be able to think, and to direct that thinking, and then – like having your own super power – to make meaning from it.

I sat with the disappointment of the lead to the Atlantic piece for a bit, and was then came across this  article, reviewing Sara Zaske’s book Achtung Baby. Because I have a very good friend raising two amazing daughters in Germany, and I know a fair number of American parents, I read on. I laughed at the anecdotes and even without children of my own thought this might be a great read. At the end, I sat and said aloud (apparently to my cats): Huh. Growing up in Germany sounds like being raised Northern California in the 1970s.

Contemporary German parents give their children a great deal of freedom—to do dangerous stuff; to go places alone; to make their own mistakes, most of which involve nudity, fire, or both. This freedom makes those kids better, happier, and ultimately less prone to turn into miserable sociopaths. “The biggest lesson I learned in Germany,” she writes, “is that my children are not really mine. They belong first and foremost to themselves. I already knew this intellectually, but when I saw parents in Germany put this value into practice, I saw how differently I was acting.”

Granted, I am (now) acutely aware of the fuckery of the 70s (and even more so the 80s), one thing I have noticed about the kids who grew up the way I did in the 70s – broken homes, bad television, inappropriate exposure to adult themes, an absence of hand sanitizer, limited parental surveillance, bouncing in the back of pick-ups, and all the rest: we are largely functional, healthy (robust even), adults. Yeah, some of us have weird (okay, completely messed up) attitudes about relationships, politics, and economics… our general attitude seems alright: Just 4 percent [of us] reported a “great deal of unhappiness” with their lives as they approached middle age. I think this comes from the reality that we are the last Americans to have the old-time childhood. It was coherent, hands-on, dirty, and fun.

So true.

I thought about how the way American kids are being raised now with all of these tangible fears – fear of dirt, of bugs, of foods, of people, of independence, of doing – and then thought about how it manifests in my profession, where kids have become absolutely terrified. They are so afraid to fail at anything that they are afraid to try anything: afraid that a wrong answer might lead to a bad grade, which of course means they are, and will always be, a failure at life. Which is super strange considering these are the same kids who are getting rewards and trophies for all the things, are feted with celebrations – formal graduations from preschool on up, and are told that any of their failings are because they have bad coaches, bad teachers, or because they are not appreciated for who they are. Being perfect has become more important than ever for a group of people who are more afraid than ever to try to be their best selves.

What a freaking conundrum.

Full disclosure – I was not a kid (adult?) who enjoyed being new at things or not knowing how to do things. I was not comfortable in my own space of the unknown. What was different for me is that I was surrounded by people, a veritable – literal – village who constantly reminded me I was so much more than my personal successes and failures. People who were not afraid I would wilt if they told me I did something wrong (some in fact seemed to take great pleasure in reminding me of my screw ups as a way to show me my growth – I am looking right at you Coach Johnson.) People who showed me that they were still going to be there if I made choices they disagreed with or knew (how did they always know?) were going to end badly. People who made me sit in the discomfort. It was (is!) a life’s work to get comfortable with the ambiguous, the unknown… The Change.

Because it is always there. Lurking.

I am grateful Amy has her girls in Germany. I am grateful I grew up with dirty hands – no TV – super weird parents. I am grateful I did not fall in love with subjects because of teachers, or teachers because of subjects (the agenda of another in either case) but that I can explicitly remember the moments I learned things that would forever change my life (that respecting the opinions of others did not mean I had to agree, Mr. Cefalu, ca. 1977; that boasting would rarely lead to actuality and often to embarrassment, Mr Fore, ca. 1980; that algebra was possible and awesome even if I got it wrong the first time and regardless of a hideous 8th grade math teacher, Terry, ca. 1981-4; that I didn’t need to know how to play basketball to try out for the team – that was sort of the point of joining the team, mom, ca. 1984; that knowing what mattered to me was more important than what mattered to my friends, Coach J, ca. 1984-8; that my choice to teach was not going to make my life easy, but it would make it something special, Dr. Bloom, ca. 1994; that there was beauty, reality, and meaning in the patterns we see around us, Dr. Starrs, ca. 2000). All these people have seen me flounder and fail repeatedly, while showing me those were the precise spaces in which I would learn and grow the most.

Then this news item came across my screen somehow. A couple of weeks ago, a 16 year old boy, seemingly with all the advantages in the world, took his own life as a response to the pressures he felt.

 

 

In the letters he left behind he speaks to his school experience specifically. Directly stating that his parents put no pressure on him and that his coaches were amazing, still this young man felt neither of those things were enough in the face of the academic pressures and mean/bad teachers he had to face. I sat with this one for a while. Lots of it made little sense to me – but then suicide rarely does and that hardly renders it a nonissue. There are aspects of these letters that make me want to roll my eyes or say, “snap out of it!” which is wholly inappropriate considering the context. This student did not feel inspired by teachers, he felt afraid. He did not feel challenged by hard material, he felt un-taught. He did not think that the support he received from parents, coaches, and friends would be enough to buoy what must have been academic shortcomings (in his mind). I love that he still included a reminder to be kind.

A principal from a neighboring school responded to the news of the suicide (I hear that CDMHS was silent on the matter for 10 days) and his entire response bears repeating, but I will call out this excerpt:

A very intuitive parent gave an analogy recently that hit home: “Our kids are not teacups; they are meant to be bumped around from time to time.”

It is during these bumpy times that we can applaud a “C”, applaud a student going to the military or junior college, properly support failure with introspection not blame, take an 89.5% as a B+ in stride, or applaud a student in one of our CTE pathways. My British father would always quip, “it is the sum of our experiences that should always outweigh the sum of our bank accounts.”

We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

These three articles from my Sunday morning are deeply connected in my mind; all speaking to the lack of clarity over who holds responsibility for our successes and failures, our adventures and discoveries, our disappointments and inspirations… as children/students/parents/people. This year I found myself repeating – on a loop that seemed infinite – in parent teacher conferences that the students needed to have some faith – trust that they could take the uncomfortable intellectual risks that are necessary for learning, for growth, for everything in the great beyond, and if it didn’t work out, so be it. We go from there. It is obviously a joint effort, perhaps more than that because it might really take much more than a village to get this all right, for the kids – and for us.