Till the Heels Fall Off

The following is a guest article by Anthony Meals, an 8-12 grade agricultural educator from Kansas. He’s in his fifth year of teaching and blogs at ProfilesinLearning.org.  You can also find him on Twitter here: @Mr_Meals. This article was originally published on Anthony’s site. It’s republished here with permission. 

Personal fashion isn’t a strong suit of mine. Typically, I don’t buy my next pair of black dress shoes till I’ve gotten as much mileage out of them as possible. I vividly remember walking with students at a National FFA Convention a few years back beneath the bridge between Lucas Oil Stadium and the Convention Center in Indianapolis. Suddenly, on my next step and without warning, my foot dropped hard. I looked back and saw that my right shoe heel had ripped off completely. The timing couldn’t have been better, though! We were walking to the charter bus and it was our last evening in Indy…so I didn’t have to try thinking of how I’d need to patch my heel for a few more days of walking! 😉

Then there was my students’ favorite shoe incident my first year teaching. We got to work on landscaping projects around our community and I was shoveling up old landscapes in my dress shoes, competing with a group of boys to clear a section out the fastest, when my right heel got stuck on the shovel. We got some great laughs and figured out an epic story for the Payless ShoeSource salesman.

Though these shoe incidents bring back great memories and joys, the metaphor speaks to a lie…a lie that was destroying my passion for working with young people, a lie that almost destroyed my marriage, a lie being widely peddled by society.

This lie: It is a badge of honor to work yourself till the heels of life fall off. 

It earns no badges to be burned out. It earns no badges to neglect the most precious relationships of your life. Yet, what do societal pressures say? MORE. MORE. We don’t remove spinning plates. Instead, we try to find ways to balance them all and then maybe add a few more.

I won’t mislead you. I’ve been a very slow learner of this and there are times even now that I am struggling. This year has been a hard reality check; I cannot be it all for all people. Though I thrive off my current schedule, it is by no means healthy for me or my young family, notwithstanding that it is in no way sustainable. I’m wearing out the heels of my life much too fast and I’m only 27.

All of us need to be strong, healthy models for those newly entering our teaching profession. We need to be teaching them how to be strategic in saying ‘Yes.’ We need to provide opportunities for personal reflection and growth.

I’m blessed that my school administration has allowed me to come down to San Antonio this whole week for the National Association of Agricultural Educators Conference. It has recharged my battery and equipped me with tools to enhance my teaching, but above all, it’s expanded my support network in the profession. This week is shaping up to be a game-changer, but the goals I’m developing for myself look different than ever before.

I’m looking at strategically scaling back in different facets of my work life, starting this spring semester. Putting First Things First at home, so Annelle stops getting the leftover pieces of me…

The following observation will come off as harsh…please be aware it is for me not my readers…

What did I do with the shoes I wore out? Did I idolize them? Hang them on a plaque?

NO, THEY GOT THROWN IN THE DUMP…IN TATTERED PIECES! They served only a fleeting purpose…

ouch…this cannot be my life!

We must start talking about teaching differently because it is unlike any vocation. Our goal should not be to seek balancing competing silos. This compartmentalizing is wrong. We need a holistic view of an educator. Many of us find our life’s mission in this field, so how do we harmonize that with our desires and need for family and personal development?

I don’t have the answers. I’m a young pup, but I know that I need to be better. I know that I can be better! It starts with the first step in harmonizing my schedule to reflect the values of my life.

I’ll finish with a final anecdote:

My wife loves her pairs of boots. One pair in particular she has taken great care of and has taken to be resoled over the past ten years close to three times. They are still functioning like new and show little wear. Yet, she uses them constantly!

I’m not disposable. It’s not a badge to view my life as disposable, even if my time seems to be filled with worthy work…I need to be resoled. Lord give me the resolve, strength, and courage to do so!

 

Original Article: Till the Heels Fall Off

Don’t Let Them Smash Your Pumpkin

 

I stumbled across Joe Rogan’s podcast interview with Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan a while back and Corgan says something about the music industry that may sound familiar to many teachers.

Corgan:

“Even if you were successful, it was set up to make you feel like you weren’t successful…that was the manipulation. I once said to somebody who is a very famous name in the business, ‘It’s like you guys find the needle in the haystack and then you spend the next 20 years telling them they’re not a needle in a haystack.’ You would think you’d be surrounded by people who are telling you you’re talented, you’re special, we want to help you because the more you succeed, we’ll succeed and we’ll all succeed together.  It was the exact opposite.”

I’m not going to pretend that every teacher is a rock star. Very few of us are needles in haystacks in the way Corgan describes. Most of us aren’t headed to the Teachers’ Hall of Fame (that exists, right?).

But teachers, even those who aren’t exceptional, are doing a job that is increasingly unattractive.

Today’s young people do not want to be teachers. A 2016 national survey of college freshmen found that the number of students who said they would major in education had reached its lowest point in the past 45 years, with just 4.2 percent intending to major in education compared to 11 percent in 2000; 10 percent in 1990; and 11 percent in 1971.

In my state of Michigan, the total number of college students studying to become a teacher is down more than 50 percent since 2008. My alma mater, Michigan State University, whose College of Education’s elementary and secondary graduate programs have been ranked #1  in the nation for 23 consecutive years by  U.S. News & World Report, saw its teacher-prep enrollment fall 45 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Parents don’t want their kids to become teachers, either. For the first time since they started polling the public in 1969, PDK found that a majority of parents do not want their children to teach. Two-thirds of those polled said that teachers were underpaid.

Even teachers don’t think other people should become teachers. In a survey of 53,000 educators from the state of Georgia, nearly 70% said they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to encourage graduates to enter the profession.

Source

So when school districts are fortunate enough to get someone who not only wants to do the job but also shows some talent for it, you would think the leaders of such districts would, at the very least, make those teachers feel appreciated, just as you would think an executive at a record label who was lucky enough to sign a Hall of Fame band* would do everything he could to make sure the band was successful.

Instead, too many teachers get 20 years of being told they’re not good enough. They’re forced to attend professional development sessions that imply the way they’re doing things is wrong. They’re subjected to checklists documenting their every shortcoming. They’re forced to teach unproven programs with “fidelity” because administrators trust corporate publishers more than their teachers. When test scores are analyzed, it’s rarely the successes that district leaders want to talk about. The unrelenting message many teachers receive is that they lack.

Related: The Most Offensive F-Word in Education

So it appears there’s at least one thing that education has in common with the music industry: Even when a teacher is successful, the system is set up to make them feel like they’re not.

It’s baffling.

Record companies make more money when their musicians do well. And musicians are more likely to do well when they’re told they’re special, they’re talented, and that they’ll be supported because when they succeed, everybody succeeds.

School districts enhance their reputations when their students do well. And students do well when teachers feel appreciated and supported. Everybody wins.

Since there’s no good reason for record company executives and school administrators to treat people they hired this way, there must be a bad one. I suspect it’s power. Implying that you’re not good enough is, as Corgan states, a form of manipulation. Those at the top of a hierarchy like it there and they don’t like thinking too much about the substructure propping them up. If they can get you to doubt yourself, they can control you. And if they can’t, they’ll find other ways to put you in your place. 

Just ask Rafe Esquith.

So what do you do about it? For starters, don’t believe the criticism. Ignore the insinuations that you don’t know what you’re doing. As for feedback, decide whether it’s given in the genuine interest of helping you improve or if it’s just a form a manipulation.  If the latter, then nod your head, agree to agree, then go back to your room and do what you know works. Exercise your teacher’s veto.

The Smashing Pumpkins didn’t succeed because they listened to the advice of people who could never do what they did. They succeeded in spite of those people. Teachers should do the same. Ignore the naysayers. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Don’t let them smash your pumpkin.

 

* The Smashing Pumpkins are not actually in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but neither is Motley Crue, so the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clearly has no clue what it’s doing.

 

Autocomplete, Buffets, and How Schools Are Set Up to Fail

There are all sorts of fun things you can do with Google’s autocomplete function. You can start typing strings of words and see what pops up. (I just tried “what do people” and Google suggested “see in Birdbox?”) You can play Google Feud, which is more fun than you might expect.  You can also read this or watch this:

But if you hate fun and would rather be frustrated, then start a query with the words, “Schools should teach” and be prepared to be blown away by the sheer number of problems people think schools should attempt to fix (which is weird, considering how many of those same people seem to have little faith in schools’ ability to teach anything).

If you follow “Schools should teach” with every letter of the alphabet, you will soon understand exactly how schools are set up to fail and why teachers feel like pulling their hair out trying to keep up with the expectations.

To save you the trouble, here is what Google “suggests” schools teach:

cursive writing skills

etiquette

life skills

taxes

entrepreneurship

sex education

character education

home economics

religious education

reading with only digital materials (I didn’t make that up)

students how to fail

students to protect the environment

classes on friendship

you how to be happy

intelligent design

emotional intelligence

practical skills

world religions

abstinence-only education

a second language

art

sign language

self-defense

foreign languages

financial skills

good behavior

gun safety

handwriting

keyboarding

Latin

how to cook

values

conflict resolution

morals

manners

mental health

meditation

media literacy

 

At least there’s nothing that starts with ‘q’ or ‘z’.

Yet.

More is not better

You may have noticed that reading, writing, math, social studies, spelling, and science do not appear. I didn’t omit them. Google did. Which says something, though I’m not sure what.

You may have also noticed that a lot of what people want schools to teach are important things. In fact, you may have agreed with many of the items on the list above. If so, you can understand why legislators, school board members, and superintendents eagerly accept responsibility for so many subjects and skills. It’s hard to be against teaching kids manners, or conflict resolution, or handwriting.

The problem isn’t any one thing on the list. The problem is the list in its entirety. It’s like my diet. No one food is making me fat, but when you put them altogether … well, let’s just say I need to reread my own book.

While most schools don’t try to teach everything, they also don’t do a very good job of drawing some firm lines about what they will and will not teach. My guess is that most schools take a stab at about 80% of the items above and many others that aren’t included (it doesn’t take much effort to come up with things not suggested by Google).

Schools suffer from the same fallacy that buffets and genre-mashing movies do: They believe that more is better. Click To Tweet

A larger variety of food will appeal to more diners. Offering crab legs, lasagna, and sirloin steak pretty much covers everyone, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t love a buffet?

Mixing genres will attract more moviegoers. Because if you like buddy movies,  comedies, and mysteries, then why wouldn’t you want to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Will Ferrell and that other guy?

Offering more to students will make more of them (and their parents) happy. We’ve got something for everyone! Latin, cooking classes, mental health screening, boater’s safety, and AP Chemistry!

The problem with that kind of thinking is that when you do more things you invariably sacrifice quality.

If you want a good steak (or good crab legs or lasagna), you don’t go to a buffet. Buffets offer a lot of food, but none of it’s the kind of thing that’s going to impress a date.

If you want a good movie, you don’t watch Netflix’s genre-mashing Brightwhich Rotten Tomatoes said, “tries to blend fantasy, hard-hitting cop drama, and social commentary — and ends up failing painfully on all three fronts.”

One can easily imagine a similar review for the many public schools that make the same mistake of trying to please too many people:

“The school tries to blend rigorous academics with conflict resolution and proper etiquette, along with a focus on life skills such as tax preparation and gun safety — and ends up failing painfully short of the mark on all six hundred fronts. Three thumbs down.”

Critic Brian Lowry called the movie a “bloated, expensive mess.” The New York Times called it “a loud, ungainly hybrid that does not serve police procedurals or fantasy spectaculars very well.”

Our public school system might aptly be described as a “bloated, expensive mess” that doesn’t serve its students, their parents, or the people working inside of it very well.

When you try to do too much, you end up doing very little well.

We should stop asking schools to solve every societal problem. Until we do, we shouldn’t expect any more from them than we do from a buffet dinner or the latest Hollywood mash-up. Schools won’t get much better until Google completes the phrase “Schools should teach” with the word “less.”


Related:

Schools Should Do Less

 

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“Is It Paid?”

A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I received an email from our principal asking who would like to join a new committee that central office had created. It seemed they wanted someone from each grade level. There are three third grade teachers in my building. None of us wanted to do it. One was pursuing a doctoral degree. I was already piloting a new science program and, being the new guy, had taken one for the team and signed on to attend bi-monthly leadership team meetings. That left the third teacher — let’s call her Joyce — as next man up and she knew it.

I sometimes wonder if anything would ever get done in a school if it weren't for guilt. Click To Tweet

I sometimes wonder if anything would ever get done in a school if it weren’t for guilt. Because guilt was the only reason Joyce even considered accepting this request. She wasn’t interested in the committee’s work and she’d served on district committees in the past whose recommendations had been ignored. Joyce can be a bit disagreeable, though, so she wasn’t just going to roll over. Instead, she replied to the principal with one question.

It’s a question I suspect few professionals are ever forced to ask or even wonder.

“Is it paid?”

A hush fell over the crowd.

For some reason, this question is considered impertinent in education. They’re the words of a sassy six-year-old talking back to her mother. How dare teachers ask such a thing? Shouldn’t the opportunity to do good by the students of our communities be enough? What are we, greedy opportunists who operate transactionally, only volunteering our time if we can personally benefit? Aren’t we team players? Don’t we want what’s best for kids?

Joyce knew all this. She relayed the story to us with the unmistakable glee of a rebel who’s just defiantly thumbed his nose at Authority and the undercurrent of fear as she waited to see how Authority would fight back.

Authority replied via email: “I’ll look into it.”

Which meant it wasn’t paid.

In a just world, the question should never need to be asked. Professionals should be paid for their time. Employers should offer to do so. It should be the expectation, not a favor. There should be no need to “look into it” because the answer should be, “Of course it’s paid! Why would you even ask such an outlandish thing?”

The education world is not just. Because if anything, teachers are more entitled to extra pay than other professionals when you consider the fact that teachers’ extra work will never personally benefit them unless they are paid.

Lawyers work crazy hours in the hopes of making partner.

Small business owners burn the midnight oil because they’re building something they hope will pay off in the end.

New hires slave away to impress their boss enough to receive a promotion.

There are no promotions in education. Every extra minute of unpaid work that a teacher performs beyond their contract is done solely for the benefit of others. They will personally receive nothing, ever. There is no brighter tomorrow because you sacrificed today. Teachers just start over every fall.

Which is why “Is it paid?” should be only a first step. The real question ought to be, “How much does it pay?” And the answer to that question should determine whether or not you’ll take on the additional responsibilities. Because there is a cost to doing so. There are no free lunches. Give here and you’ll have less to give over there. Every decision is a trade-off, so the question really becomes, “What are you willing to give up to take on this new task and how much should you be compensated in order to do so?”

The answer should never be nothing.

We all place a value on our time, but districts force us to place their value on our time. Most offer an hourly stipend that can’t be negotiated by individual teachers asked to do more work. When we’re lucky enough to be offered extra duty pay, it’s a Hobson’s choice — take it or leave it. Most of us take it because we’ve been conditioned to be grateful for anything, even an amount well below what we think our time is worth (and also typically well below the “hourly rate” we earn teaching).

Teachers should demand more. We can’t expect our employers to value our time when we give it away so cheaply.

Districts should pay more. They have in their employ a group of professionals who regularly tell us they are stressed, overworked, and exhausted. People are fleeing the profession and fewer replacements are joining the ranks. It’s exploitative to ask people who are telling you they are overwhelmed to do more and not offer to pay them fairly for it.

Since teachers already have too much to do, district leaders should not ask them to do more unless the time they are asking them to spend on the new work will be of greater value than the time they would have spent on their own work. And if you can’t afford to pay teachers to join your new committee, then you can’t afford to have a new committee.

If the work is important, pay people to do it. If the work is really important, pay them more. And if it's not that important, then why are you asking your teachers to do it? They already have enough to do. Click To Tweet

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Related:

Teachers’ Extra Hours Are Different

How Teachers Can Give Themselves a Raise

American Teachers Should Work Less

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

The Best Gift Teachers Can Give Themselves

Teachers across the country have started their holiday breaks and the feeling among most of them is one of giddy anticipation (and relief). Teachers I talked to this past week can’t wait to sleep in. They’re looking forward to spending time with family, Netflix bingeing, or taking a relaxing vacation somewhere warm and sandy.  Few spoke of material goods they hoped to get for Christmas. They were already getting what they wanted, time.

Teachers, like all other working stiffs, value time off because it gives them the one thing they don’t have enough of most of the year, and that one thing happens to be the most precious commodity on the planet. Time off from work means time away from schedules dictated down to the minute by someone else. It means time away from mindless meetings and baffling policies. It means time spent with loved ones instead of co-workers, nice people though they may be. And, if we’re being honest, it means time away from kids who aren’t yours to spend more time with the ones who are.

Time, long stretches of it, hour upon hour, where we can mostly do whatever we want, is the one gift everyone appreciates. And it’s a gift teachers can give themselves.

It’s strange that many of the same teachers who so value their time off around the holidays think nothing of wasting it once school is back in session. They devote hours of their weekends to checking papers and planning lessons. They go to school on Saturdays to run copies or put up new bulletin boards. Some voluntarily give their time to committees they don’t even care about.

Help is Available

Many of these teachers simply don’t know how to do things any differently. They realize that they’re exhausted, but aren’t sure how to break the cycle.

If you are one of these teachers, there is help available. There is a way for you to get yourself the best present any teacher can ever receive. Small investments now can chop hours off your weeks so that next Christmas you aren’t as overwhelmed.

You can read some previous posts on this blog. Start with these:

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

Be a Better Teacher By Doing Less

10 Things Overworked Teachers Can Stop Doing Tomorrow

 

You might also check out my 10-part series on preventing teacher burnout, which starts here or read my books, Leave School At School and Exhausted, which go into more detail. If you have trouble telling people no, then you’ll want to subscribe to Teacher Habits so you can purchase my upcoming book, The Teacher’s Guide to Saying No, at a low, members-only price.

And you should give the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club a look as well. To date, 45 Teacher Habits readers have joined the club and are now benefiting from increased efficiency, lower stress, and shorter workweeks. You can read some of their stories here

85% of members who joined the club last January trimmed at least three hours off their workweeks. If you cut just three hours off each workweek, you will have given yourself an additional 108 hours each year to do whatever you want with.  That’s almost five days, the length of spring break. Wouldn’t you like to give yourself a second spring break?

And you get to use the knowledge you gain from the club the rest of your career. Over ten years, you will have gained 45 full days. Over 20 years, you will have given yourself half a school year.

Is the Club Worth the Money?

How much is your time worth? If you don’t know, consider the question this way: How much would your district have to pay you to attend a one-hour voluntary professional development opportunity after school every Friday that offered you nothing except the chance to earn a little extra spending money?

Would $20 get you there?

Would you need closer to $30?

Would no amount be worth it to you?

Even if you value your personal time at a measly $10/hour, by saving 108 hours each year you’ll realize a value of over one-thousand dollars in the first year alone and that’s if you only save 3 hours per week and only value your time like my local McDonald’s values its teenage employees’ time.

So how much would you pay to save three hours every week and have those hours to yourself? The math is simple. Right now, the cost to join is $129 (it goes up January 1). Almost everyone who joins gains at least three hours per week, which works out to about a dollar an hour. Isn’t your time worth more than a dollar an hour?

There are only four reasons to not consider the club:

You don’t think it will work for you.

You don’t value your time.

You’re not good at math.

You don’t think you have the time to read the club materials.

You should know the following:

Only 2 out of every 100 teachers who join utilize the money-back guarantee and ask for a refund. The club does what it promises. It works. And one reason it works is that you can work through the material at your own pace and you don’t need to do everything to derive huge benefits. You can pick and choose and still save hours. The club’s content is also available in audio form, so if you don’t have time to read it, you can listen in the car.

And of course, if you don’t have time to learn how to give yourself the gift of more time, then I’d suggest that you need the club more than most.

Give yourself more of the best gift any teacher can ever receive. Give yourself more time to do the things you want.

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Links to the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club are of the affiliate variety. That means I get paid a commission if you join. It’s a great way to support yourself and Teacher Habits!