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.

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Just another blog about another dysfunctional relationship.

I have never been in a physically abusive relationship, but I have been in some seriously fucked up interpersonal collaborations with other people. They all eventually came to an end, so I guess I did something right eventually – or if I didn’t do something right, I still got the necessary results (in spite of myself, as I like to say.) The kind of shit I generally get into falls into a sort of weird passive kind of destruction. I suspect there are a fair number of people who would say I bring it on myself, or I create the circumstances that lead to the drama, either by my consistently poor choices in men, or my tolerance of truly shitty treatment. I like to say I am an optimist. Most of my friends would say I am in denial. Either way, the point is I have a pretty solid repertoire of experiences in which I stuck around and took a lot of costly, painful, and ultimately unnecessary shit.

Lately, I have been feeling some familiar feelings along these lines. But this makes no sense because I am in a really good place right now… my life is feeling really balanced, I am doing all the things I want to be doing, I have amazing people in my life, and great adventures awaiting me. And I am totally and completely single, so, what is this niggling feeling about? Why do I constantly feel judged, criticized, pressured, put down, and taken advantage of?

Last week as I got on the train to go to work I was thinking about this precise conundrum: Why did I feel like I was in a bad relationship?

[One week ago, on the Richmond Line]

I was grading papers – as I often do because, no time. A woman sitting next to me asked, “Are you a teacher?” I looked towards her and said, “Yes.”

“It must be a tremendous amount of work,” she continued.
“Yes.”
“It is so wonderful what you do. So important.”

At this point I looked at her. Smartly dressed. Some sort of security badge attached to a lanyard (only mildly complicating her attire), and, most notably to me, she seemed to not be schlepping a metric shit ton of work back to the “office” with her. I considered this as I looked at my huge bag, which I have made a conscious New Year’s resolution to carry on my right shoulder from now on because at least I should have symmetrical lateral deltoid, trapezius, and middle back pain.

“I have the utmost respect for teachers. Honestly, so much respect,” she said as she made a move to get up and exit the train.

“Thanks,” I said.

I looked back at the papers in front of me. They were shit, frankly. After weeks of covering the topic of world exploration and completing an insanely complex simulation, my sophomores had been unable to take the time necessary to form complete sentences that could express their ideas and knowledge about what they had learned. And it had been so much work. It was still to be so much work.

The man sitting across from me said, “So you’re a teacher? Me too.”

I looked up at him. He looked nice, like we all try to, but he was tired. And not just like, ‘I could have used a couple more hours of sleep,’ tired, but wholly fatigued. Although his freshly pressed shirt and kind face belied it, I could see it behind his eyes as he looked at my heap of shit, and then his own.

“What do you teach?” He asked.
“Social studies,” I answered.
“English.” He replied.
“Ah.” I nodded.

He told me where he taught and asked me about my school. We traded some comparative details, and then he said, “It is really hard, isn’t it?”

“What, the work?” I asked.
“No, all of it.” He said.
“Yeah, I guess. Yes.” I said.
“You know there is a war on teachers,” he said. “We are at war. And we’re out there, on the front lines. But, no support.”

I looked at him.

“Think about it,” he said. “We’ve got to protect and grow the most important resource, the kids. And everyone agrees, they are so important. But they don’t give us any support. They lay down their strategies from far away – imagine someone doing that in a real war, not listening to the field general. Anyway, and there we are, taking all the hits. No flak jackets for us.”

“She liked us.” I joked about the woman who had exited the train.
“They all like us,” he said. “That doesn’t pay my rent.”

I got up to get off the train and said, “Yeah. It is a war.”

Another man standing next to me, who had been listening, said, “Well, you can always quit.”

I looked at him and got off the train.

I walked towards school and thought about the morning commute. I couldn’t decide what would be a better theme song, this one, or this one because these are the things I like to fill my head with when life seems too real. Of course, neither of those songs work because what teacher on the planet works from nine to five?

Are we at war I wondered? Is it bigger than my own dysfunctional relationship with work? I work in the most highly respected and singularly devalued (literally) profession in the world. And more and more it starts to feel like the proverbial oldest profession in the world. (Except then we would be getting paid better.)

But I worry that this will sound shrewish, or that people might misunderstand and think I hate my job and say things like the guy on the train: ‘If it is so bad why don’t you just quit?’ (Obviously those folks are unaware of the complexity of abusive relationships, but whatever.)

The thing is, I do not hate my job. In fact, most of the time, most days, there are things I absolutely, without qualification LOVE about my job. I am not sure I could find a day where there is not something, even if it is infinitesimally small, that made me think, ‘Yeah, okay, this is good.’

I also am pretty good at my job. Now here one runs the risk of sounding like a jackass, but I am a good teacher – not that you would know it from the evaluations I have received at my most recent school – but I choose to look at more holistic and empirical data from nearly 20 years and 2,000 students and their people. And I am a good enough teacher to know when I have done an excellent job, and when I have sucked. And both have happened, and both eventually make me better at what I do.

Am I in an abusive relationship with my job? The more I thought about that question the less sure I felt. I thought about the other teacher on the train. It is not *my* job… it’s education. I am in an abusive relationship with my profession.

That just might make it a war.

According to someone on the web who thinks they are an expert here are some signs you might be in an abusive relationship:

  • A sense that you have to fit into someone else’s perception of what is right or wrong in order to be loved. √ Well, this certainly speaks to the enforcement of current education policy and of course the teacher evaluation process….
  • You feel confined. √ Let’s face it, people who go into teaching are probably relatively okay with structure, but the limits placed on teachers recently regarding movement, salaries, or even day-to-day things like extra duty certainly feel confining.
  • There is always something to fix in the relationship. √ Never good enough. And everyone let’s you know this. Daily. Just read the newspaper or turn on the news.
  • Your needs are not met in one way or another. √ I know it sounds redundant, but how are we supposed to get by on these salaries? Or even if we get by, how can you feel good about the hours and hours you put in such a “respected” profession when you make pennies on the dollar to all the private sector professionals around you?
  • You’re never going to be good enough. √ Never. “Those who can’t do, teach.” “Teachers are lazy.” “Teachers are brainwashing our kids with their liberal agenda.” (I am always curious how it can be both.) We give too much work. We don’t give enough work. We do not grade fast enough, or give enough feedback, or are too critical. *Sigh*
  • You feel trapped. √ This is an issue, but not because of fear, because if you change districts or states, you lose all your retirement and years – yes, in my profession you actually can lose years of experience. That is the weirdest thing I have ever contemplated, in a professional context anyhow.
  • You find other ways to satisfy yourself to keep your mind off how unhappy you are in the situation. √ Most teachers I know struggle to find the time to do anything for themselves. Until they hit the wall then it becomes necessary to ensure this reality. I am not sure this is bad… unless it is just to avoid reality. It certainly has been.
  • When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad it’s horrible. √ Truer words have not been written about my profession.

According to Psychology Today these are the signs you are in a dysfunctional relationship:

  • Assignment of Blame √ The problems in education are systemic – even a cursory look would tell you this. Regardless of this, all the players in the game look to point the finger. Usually at the teachers.
  • Threats of exile or abandonment √ It is the pink slip way of life.
  • Dominance/Submission √ The system’s way or the highway.
  • Grudges √ Yep.
  • Ownership √ Yep.
  • Disloyalty √ Yep.
  • Winner or Loser Arguments √ When people believe it is a zero sum game, this is what happens.
  • Snapshots versus moving pictures √ Did I already mention the teacher evaluation process?

Well, that certainly looks dysfunctional. I recalled the train conversation again. We are at war. And it is not me against my school, or my administration or my kids or their parents. We are at war against a society that has intentionally devalued education (insert conspiracy theory of choice here). We are at war against a system that disparages anyone who wants anything for free, but expects teachers to provide their services thusly.

This is not a dysfunctional relationship because it is not a pas-de-deux. It is a war because the participants on both sides of the equation are legion. It is a war. We are at war by choice or circumstance.

We are at war. Without a defense budget, without support, and we are fighting an overwhelming and ironic adversary: ourselves.

Unapproachable…? Maybe it’s a filter, maybe it’s a scientific limitation. Maybe it’s BRF.

So, when I came back from Asia and took an emergency position at an East Bay high school, I thought I fell right back into the swing of things. Seriously. I made friends with my coworkers (at least with the ones I was drawn to) and got back into the American-style of chit chattiness that is somehow required whenever more than one adult human is in the proximity of another. I remember when I first got to Hong Kong being really surprised at the absence of said chit-chat. In shops, restaurants, any sort of service… the chit-chat was absent. I thought it was weird.

But apparently I really got on board.

This became apparent when my vertically challenged, middle-aged principle told me one of the reasons that he would not be renewing my contract was that I just didn’t seem to make a good enough effort to get along with my coworkers. [An aside: no fewer than a dozen of my non-friend-coworkers were shocked to hear this… many of whom are still very much in my social circle today.]

Huh. Well, that’s odd, I thought.

And then today in a conversation with a new colleague at my current school, he said he thought I sometimes give off an unapproachable vibe.

Weird.

I thought back on this. Unapproachable? My life seems ridiculously full of amazing people. I wonder if they find me unapproachable. I suddenly recalled a friend I worked with at Incline High School for years who said she was always surprised how stand-offish I was, why don’t you want to make friends? she had asked. At the time I answered that I thought my persona was a great filter… anyone who felt like fighting through it was worth my time.

But I didn’t really mean that . What I would have said if I had been being honest was that there are only so many people who I am actually interested in. Seriously. But one can’t say that because that is just “rude.”

If being friendly and approachable means that you have to chit-chat all the time, I am realizing that I am just way more Hong Kong than I ever knew. Life is busy and full, and my brain is even more busy and full. If I am giving you time in my brain, you can be sure that I really want you to be occupying that time and space.

And time and space in our dimension is limited. That is a fact.

A while back I wrote about Dunbar’s Number. I had been thinking about it a lot in the context of social networking and the reality that having like 1,437 friends on Facebook just could not serve anyone. Basically the premise is that, scientifically, there is a limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable relationships. And really, would you want any other kind of relationship? And rereading that blog post (it is a good one!) I still stand firmly behind all of the sentiments therein.

Today as I revisited the ideas around Dunbar, it dawned on me, as a teacher in a huge comprehensive public high school where I deal with no fewer than 100 teenagers every single day of my life, and as a truly fortunate member of a really dynamic and far-reaching family (and extended family), and a person who feels blessed every single day of my life for the fascinating tapestry of friends I have from 1972 to now, from Petaluma to Guadalajara to Hong Kong to London to NYC to Dubai to Bali to LA… there’s only so much people juice I have left to share with people in my day-to-day.

It may seem bitchy (would certainly not be the first time that has been said about me) but I’m just being real. It is easy to be kind to people you come across in your day-to-day – and in fact I think it is kind of an imperative – but I fundamentally disagree that there is some sort of requirement that being in the same time/place/profession as someone else somehow creates a requirement of friendship. Professionalism? You bet. Support? Abso-freaking-lutely. But friendship? A willingness to share precious time and often fragile feelings or sensitive opinions? Nope, that is not a free for all in my reality.

If I am rude (and I certainly have been), call me on it. If I am unprofessional (sadly, this too has happened once or twice), let me know. If I break a rule, disregard protocol, or am straight up cruel (far less likely, though I would not rule it out), get in my face.

But tell me I need to be friends with everyone? That I need to share my time and life energy with people just because?

No.

I cannot agree to that condition.

If I have a far away look on my face it is because I am probably somewhere far away – thinking of the millions of things I want/have/need to do. And that is okay. If it looks like I don’t see you – ask yourself, is she wearing her glasses? If the answer is no, then I do not see you. I am a good judge of people – and I know – often very early on – if I will be friends with people (and FYI, I am a really good friend, references on request) and if we are not friends, it is not you, it is not me, it just is.

Blame Dunbar.

Or my bitchy resting face.

So I hear you are not supposed to, like, talk about your job on social media…

“The… whole notion of reforming education has created an environment where creativity is unable to thrive and multiply.”

This is prudent advice, I know. In all professions: ‘Don’t talk about your co-workers on Facebook.’ ‘Don’t Tweet about your boss.’ ‘Don’t discuss your professional circumstances on social media.’ And in my “profession”, where there is supposed to be some semblance of compassion, dignity, and never, ever, ever any sort of conversation that could suggest less than a full throttle, over-drive obsession with caring and support of our clientele, the situation is even more punctuated. [I may get to why I think this is so in this post – but it may deserve its own discussion, mostly explaining that there is a huge, percentage of people in my profession (primarily at the “top”) who simply lack any real understanding of the world of social media and even the internet in general… Remember when that one principal called me into his office because he was stalking my personal – now private – Twitter account, and accused me of talking shit about a pregnant coworker because he did not know how Twitter worked and was unable to understand that he was reading one side of a conversation I was having with a friend who taught kindergarten in Hong Kong? Yeah, well this same principle sent out a letter to the entire school telling them they could now address him as “Doctor” rather than “Mister” on finishing his EdD.] Recently, there was even an article in the freaking Atlantic for goodness sakes, talking about how teachers shouldn’t talk about their students on Facebook… because they could get “hurt.” Forget about the Tumblr site, Shit My Students Write. Or hilarious collections of absurd and delightfully clever “test answers” – apparently the posting of which could crush a student’s self-esteem to the point of total academic humiliation and shut-down. Sadly, much of this kid-gloves approach towards students showing up on social media demonstrates the most fundamental misunderstanding of both the students and our modern culture in which any attention is good attention. Not that I am condoning this, but I understand its reality and therefore when I see friendly and humorous ways to point out student successes and slip-ups, I think it is a great way to get to educate them… But as usual, I digress. The point of considering the wisdom in writing about one’s profession – or perhaps specific job – on line is simply because I really want to talk about my job. In public. Out loud. And honestly. And frankly, it might get me in a lot of trouble.

I am just not sure I care anymore.

I work in a huge (really, HUGE) comprehensive high school in the East Bay. That should be about enough for anyone with a clue to work out exactly what school I am taking about. And if it is not, there is enough of an internet footprint linking me and my work together already – my students complete their weekly current events via KQED, using Twitter, and their major senior project is produced on-line, this year, even using WordPress. So, anonymity and secrecy are both out of the question. Therefore, in speaking about my professional opinions and such, it seems important to explicitly state that “these views are mine” and are most certainly not approved of or sanctioned by my employer – though I hold out hope that there could be some agreement in ideology…. And anyhow, I am thinking, right this minute, about much more global issues than site-specific issues (though there are many.) And so it begins. I want to talk about my “profession” – my job that somehow turned into a 20-year career, and I want to talk about what seems wrong with it and what might be salvageable. I want to talk about working in public education, providing a service that we all (to some degree) believe is a basic human right, and working in a system absent any sort of direct personal incentive, and fighting to prove to a society that long ago began to decry, diminish, devalue, and defame intellectual activity that education for the precise purpose of being educated is important… And to have a chance to suggest that we might not be totally screwed.

Though it sure feels like that a lot of the time.

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