Wrong Turn?

It’s been a little over a year since I walked away from my teaching career and started freelancing full time. I decided it’s high time to reflect on my so-called wrong turn. Fair warning: it’s a bit long.

It’s a hell of a thing to wake up when you are 34 years old and still wonder what you want to be when https://www.flickr.com/photos/memoryfreak/6511834823/in/photolist-aVqRCc-5MnsCd-aUDBTz-5AN6w4-aW1nnr-5AMnn4-5c62Qb-aH9b9M-5wqPta-7EFnR6-quvGkm-nnGct2-7fNUg1-gHYFC3-dmyfCP-akHicV-5PHjgc-aSiMac-9TGd3J-akKZfS-dTAKAs-9wkRVT-qeRLQt-qeNnXN-akH9hK-akHjQR-akKXtC-akH9XT-bV6Vif-dTAKQL-5PHfun-9PSLHY-52bYaY-5PHfur-5PHfuR-7fP58U-b3Hzjc-apemzB-bqCkMm-3cjrwC-hsbFtQ-dTAKJ9-akHket-akHhmx-akL6hb-akHbtR-akHceM-akHcux-akL1id-akL9ryyou grow up. It’s an even scarier thing when you’re saddled with a gigantic mortgage, a self-employed husband, and two kids who are just now starting school with hefty tuition bills and to play organized (read: who the hell knew it would be this expensive when they’re 3 and 6?) sports. But, that’s exactly where I am. And, I’m the one who put myself – and my family – here.

I had done everything right. I worked hard, got good grades, became salutatorian, got into a great liberal arts college, got on staff at the college newspaper as a freshman, and quickly became assistant features editor. Then all hell broke loose when I decided to transfer to another great liberal arts college to continue with my English Literature degree but get my teaching certification on top of it. I blame the adorable, energetic, eager to learn inner-city kids I tutored when I tagged along to a church to profile the Black Student Union for the college newspaper. They made me fall in love with the idea of teaching, even though I had come from a family full of educators and did not in any way, shape, or form want to become one myself.

So, I continued to do everything right after transferring. I commuted to save money, I increased my credit load in order to graduate on time, I became certified as a writing tutor, I did community service, I got a fantastic cooperating teacher and placement, and I graduated near the very top of my class again. I was hired as a middle school language arts teacher before I graduated, and I was writing curriculum before I knew it. I lived at home to save more money, got engaged, bought a fixer-upper, got married, got a dog, and had a great life.

Until I realized I wasn’t so much in love with teaching as I was with the idea of teaching. The bureaucracy and politics were one thing, the outrageous behaviors of some of the students were another thing, and I was loving my job a whole lot less than I thought I should have been. The bright spots were the kids who loved to read, who wanted to learn from their quirky teacher, and who appreciated my structured and fast-paced classes. I had never failed at anything that I had worked so hard to achieve, and I was struggling with accepting the fact that even though I was excelling at teaching I didn’t love it. I had all of the mugs and shirts about changing lives and not knowing where my influence ended, but I just wasn’t feeling it like I thought I should have been.

So, I decided to try again. I was hired by another school district and felt a new energy in a new building (even though I missed my original colleagues dearly and still do to this day). I had a much better first year. I had kids whom I loved and who loved me, and it was a good feeling to be teaching sixteen year olds to appreciate Shakespeare and Poe. So, I thought maybe it was the switch to high school from middle school that I needed. And then the years went by and the faces changed and I kept looking at myself in the mirror, thinking that I could not do this for another 30 years.

I wasn’t miserable. I loved my new colleagues. I loved my new school. I just didn’t love teaching. And, once again, I felt like a failure. My students were doing well and we had a great rapport and I was looked upon as a teacher leader, and yet, something didn’t feel quite right. Teaching is the hardest job in the world for so many reasons, and when you’re not sure it’s what you want to do for the rest of your life, you can’t do it justice.

I changed roles in my school district, becoming a coach to fellow teachers, and loved it. I didn’t realize how much teaching had strapped me down. You live by the bell, you pee when you can, and you don’t speak to someone your own age for hours at a time. In my new role, I was treated more as a professional, I was asked questions about my teaching philosophy and instructional delivery, and I put my brand new Master’s degree to good use. I attended conferences and mingled and learned and grew professionally more than I ever had in seven years of teaching. But, I was seeing a stronger emphasis on testing and creating a set of skills students should learn rather than a robust curriculum that allowed them to explore and read and discuss freely. I was uncomfortable with pushing teachers to standardize so much. At the end of the year, the funding dried up, and I was back in the classroom. That was when I knew the end was near.

I was giving higher-stakes tests to kids with each passing year. I was sitting in IEP meetings looking at sobbing fifteen-year-old students who weren’t going to be able to take a welding class if they didn’t pass the standardized state test. I was listening to administrators talk about data and results instead of kids and their needs. And, I was being told that we needed to be positive and not put out anything negative to the community while cheering on those blasted tests and their results. The tests were one thing; putting on a happy face and shoving them at kids who needed something else was quite another.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/maduixaaaa/2567638237/in/photolist-4UTPoM-8pdi7D-4YEiod-AGAuv-qw3yq-5KDKgX-6VGpG7-8LWNy-es6do-4BHuFz-cXnQnS-NGu9r-HFzM8-6Qsm5S-aQUzkH-5uYFsX-qFSrEb-8HaxTp-9qZzSr-y5QQo-eEEUtL-5FDb6x-m69ai-r4AkuU-4fjrQ3-6nh2Nf-cAUanG-qhxiz-qF8GP-9TbbpY-4kELbG-9dx56x-6ayisx-8N1kAe-ahHEgA-7vMPcL-rZ2oCr-4AQq9Z-SVozu-7NwdQ-6BWLsL-iSWAj-iS5Ef-yxXYH-6kySLQ-aSFFYK-fn5Sv7-7bsCdk-qERwNJ-6NRXzsI knew I had to get out. I knew I could not continue to teach to a test not only in which I did not believe but which harms students. I had sleepless nights, panic attacks, and endless lists of pros and cons. How could I leave a salaried union job, a tiny yearly raise, benefits, and health insurance? How could I start a job that doesn’t guarantee work, which in turn doesn’t guarantee pay? How could I ask my husband to pay for our new health insurance plan? How could I throw away a Master of Education plus 60 additional credits? How could I walk away from 12 years of teaching?

The girl who never veered from the straight and narrow, the college kid who tutored in the writing center while carrying an overloaded course schedule, the student teacher who taught on her own for weeks while her cooperating teacher was out with pneumonia, the teacher who always did as she was told and whose students excelled, was going to do the unthinkable. I walked away. I took a leave of absence, started blogging and working as a freelance writer, and within two months had written a viral blog post in response to Campbell Brown’s attacks on public school teachers and unions. I was loving my new job, my new creative outlet, and the fact that I would not have to go back to school in August.

There truly was no looking back when my newfound courage led me to write very openly and candidly about some local education issues. I was very honest and had some strong opinions. Teachers were supporting me. Parents were supporting me. My district did not. And, being censored by my district was the last straw. I always taught my students to speak the truth respectfully and to support their opinions with truth, facts, and solid evidence. I would have been a hypocrite if I didn’t do that myself. I resigned.

Now, I am a freelance writer who barely has time to blog. I mostly write web content for various companies, but if you Google my name, you’ll only find my three blogs. I don’t have a by-line for my day job, but it pays the bills and I get to be home with our boys while I work. The problem is, my current position isn’t quite feeding my soul enough yet, either. I’m not naïve. I know most people don’t spring out of bed, bound out the door, and sing happily on their way to work, but writing about electrical engineering and Big Data isn’t quite what I was looking for, either.

So, why reflect on my sordid tale of being a lost 34 year old? (If you’re still reading, you’re a saint.) I know I’m not alone. Just in my small circle of friends, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count everyone who wishes they had chosen a different professional life. So many of my college friends are not working in a field even remotely related to their degree. Tons of them aren’t working the jobs any of us had imagined: one is a veterinarian tech, one helps at a homeless shelter, one gives music lessons to teenagers, one works as a librarian in a small public library, and the list goes on and on.

These are the brave ones who left their well paying professional jobs that match their degrees to do something else. They took a leap of faith before I did and served as my inspiration, but they’re almost all struggling to make ends meet because they chose to do the work that makes them happy rather than the work that makes them money. A noble cause, for sure, but we’ve still got undergraduate school loans and graduate school loans and rent and mortgages and life weighing us down.

Most of us are between the ages of 30 and 50. Most of us don’t regret any choices we’ve made because they’ve led us to where we are now. I am a much better mother and writer because I was a teacher. I am a much better friend because of my teacher friends. But, when I scan LinkedIn profiles to do my day job, I’m shocked to see that people in this age group have had what seems to be an average of at least eight different jobs. Where I come from, you go to college, get hired in your field, and hold that job until you retire. My parents still freak out about the choice I made more than a year ago. Where I come from, you just don’t do what I did.

Maybe this is what we need to be talking about more often. Maybe we need to figure out a way to help people struggling to make the decision to leave a profession or stick with it so they don’t put themselves through the wringer like I did. Maybe we need to help high school and college students with internships and job shadowing and work experiences before pushing them to make life decisions at the tender age of 18 (instead of shoving standardized tests at them that don’t mean a damn thing). Maybe we just need to share our stories so that other people who feel stuck in their profession don’t think they are just miserable people and that there is something wrong with them for not loving their jobs.

I’m still working it out, but maybe my wrong turn wasn’t such a wrong turn after all.

Images via Flickr by familytreasures and … marta … maduixaaaa

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An Open Letter to Campbell Brown from a Teacher on Leave

Dear Ms. Brown,

I saw your interview with Stephen Colbert. I wish I could have been one of those protesters outside the studio. You see, I don’t support people who are not educational experts attempting to reform or really even discuss education in such a public forum. That may be because I am a teacher.

I am certified by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to teach Secondary English for 99 years; in other words, I have earned my permanent certification. I have a Master of Education plus sixty additional graduate credits. I have been in the trenches for eleven years. In those eleven years, I taught English and reading and remedial reading to students in grades seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven. I also tutored students who were performing below grade level and who were not proficient on our standardized state assessments. I was considered a teacher leader in my building, and I was hired to be an Instructional Coach (i.e. a teacher who coaches teachers on strategies in the classroom) for one school year. That position lasted only a year because the grant that funded the positions expired and the Instructional Coaching positions were dissolved. During my eleven years – yes, I earned my tenure during those years – I received satisfactory ratings. My students also scored some of the highest marks on their standardized writing tests of any students across the state, and I was recognized this past school year by the head principal because my students achieved academic growth above the predicted levels. Despite all of my success as an educator, I am taking a leave of absence for this upcoming school year to pursue freelance writing because I disagree with the idea that “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” THIS is transparency in education.

Unlike you, I am not funded by any political backers. Well, to be fair, you wouldn’t reveal who is funding your group, lest they be subjected to harassment. If only teachers had such a luxury! I do not have legal counsel. I do not have anyone doing pro bono work to find the latest statistics and jargon to use in a marketing (well, let’s be honest here – smearing) campaign against teacher unions. And, in the name of TRANSPARENCY, let’s be honest again: you and your group are against public educators and unions, but you are hiding behind the issue of teacher tenure.

You see, if you had done your homework, you would have found that teacher tenure is not a guarantee to never receive a pink slip. I know you alluded to that fact during your face-to-face, but your spin may have confused some people. So, in the name of TRANSPARENCY, let’s make it clear: teacher tenure does not guarantee that teachers can teach until they die. This is not the United States Supreme Court, after all. If you really want to attack tenure, let’s attack the system that can allow you to work until the day you die; you still retain your black robe, even if you decide to put religious and corporate rights above individual rights. Their effectiveness rating is not very high at the moment, and their approval ratings are very low. Maybe you should find a group to go after those Justices, in the name of that “equality” you keep mentioning. I mean, if we’re going after tenure that seems outrageous, let’s go after the most unjust tenure system in this country.

But, I digress. Yes, you pointed out that teachers receive due process and that it still can take hundreds of days to get a teacher fired. You also pointed out that it’s often the policy of last-one-in-first-one-out when school districts need to cut professional staff positions. And, you recognized the fact that it can take three years to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. So, you don’t agree with the least senior teachers being let go, even though they have not had the adequate amount of time to prove their effectiveness? This is starting to smell like a double standard.

Are there teachers who deserve to be fired? Yes, just as there are individuals in any number of professions who deserve to be fired. If teachers are harming students or violating their contracts, they should be fired. I’m not sure that you’ll find many teachers who disagree. But, if you are simply using the statistics you flaunted during the interview to determine teacher effectiveness, you are playing a very dangerous game. You see, I analyze language. That’s part of my job description. You came armed and ready with what you thought was your silver bullet: 31% of NY students are reading on grade level. That’s the point you were sure to emphasize. But, those of us who are in the business of educating realize you stopped a little short of yourself. Typically, when we discuss reading ability, we talk about students who are reading below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level. You merely pointed out the average students. How many are above grade level, Ms. Brown? I have a feeling that statistic of yours may change a bit. You may want to alert your spin machine to this one. Trust the lady with the teaching degree.

Also, I cheered a little when Mr. Colbert questioned you about making the resources students receive – specifically money – equal, since you are doing this in the name of educational equality. I was disappointed, however, when he did not push this issue any further. You see, to be fair and truly TRANSPARENT, we need to know how many of those students were reading on grade level when they entered their particular grades. You see, we don’t get to pick and choose who walks into our classrooms. We have students entering kindergarten who have never seen a book, who have never held a crayon, and who don’t even know that words, much less letters, exist in written form. We have ESL and ELL students who cannot speak English, yet the state testing system (at least ours in PA) requires they take the standardized tests in English. I am not complaining. And, I certainly am not blaming the children as Mr. Colbert so facetiously suggested. Rather, I am living in reality. All public educators are.

And, if you really want to talk educational statistics, we don’t just need to know how many students started the year reading on grade level. We need to know how many of those students are living in poverty. Countless studies have shown the direct correlation between students’ socioeconomic status and educational achievement. If 31% of students who are living in poverty are reading on grade level, we need to stand up and applaud those NY educators your group essentially is attacking. Even more important, according to some experts in education, is the percentage of students who have an IEP. Because if their written IEP goal is to read with a particular percentage at their actual reading level, not their grade level, and their teachers helped them to achieve that goal, that is another statistic we need to know and applaud.

Look at it this way: If a dentist from a rural community offers to work pro bono at the dental clinic and 10 patients walk in, all with nearly every one of their teeth rotting out of their mouths, we are not going to measure that dentist’s effectiveness by how many healthy teeth his patients have when they leave the clinic. We are going to rate his effectiveness by how many teeth he was able to save, and his patients’ oral health over time. It’s the same with teachers. We can’t control how much knowledge and prior learning and life experience our students possess their first day in our classrooms. We have to work with what they arrive with and then “grow” them from there. If none of the dentists’ patients have to have another tooth pulled after the initial visit, he’s effective. And, if all of the teachers’ students leave their rooms having achieved one year’s worth of growth, they’ve been effective teachers.

I am sure that legal team of yours will take issue with some of my points. And, I’m sure some researchers and “educational reformists” will attack every fiber of my literary being. But, in this year off, I feel a little more free to speak for the teachers who are unable to speak for themselves because of the culture that is being perpetuated by groups such as yours. In this age of undermining the profession – yes, teaching still is a profession despite efforts of groups like yours – educators are hesitant to speak up for themselves. Is it any wonder, when they are under attack at every turn from people who don’t hold teaching certificates, who never have taken an education class, and who have no more stake in “educational reform” than a politician?

It’s a shame that teachers cannot defend themselves because of the political backlash and push to weaken teacher unions. It’s a bigger shame that instead of using your public standing and credentials to help teachers to have a voice, you are using it to cut us down. Maybe if people listened to the educators, the true experts who actually deserve to have a stake in the discussion, we could fix this “crisis.”

In the meantime, those teachers who are dedicated to educational equality will continue to prepare to go back to the classroom in a few short weeks. They will face uncertainty and more stress in an already stressful profession because of your group. But, because they are professionals, those NY educators will approach those students, even those whose parents are filing the suit, with the intent to help them learn and achieve and grow. Who knows? They may even be effective teachers this year, despite all of the attacks from those who are not experts in their field.

With as much respect as I can muster,

Bailey Shawley
Teacher on Leave

***April 3, 2015 UPDATE***

The events of the past week in New York State are dealing devastating blows to public education and teachers. Campbell Brown is not stopping her attacks, even after the new evaluation measures have passed as part of Governor Cuomo’s budget. She and her Partnership for Educational Justice are pursuing her lawsuit to challenge tenure and job protection statutes. For more, follow me @TruthInTeaching, visit TRUTH In Teaching online, and Like TRUTH In Teaching on Facebook.