Education Reformers’ Alternate Reality

I sometimes wonder how long it’s been since education reformers have been in an actual high-needs school.  Perhaps they visit occasionally, but it’s hard to imagine them sticking around long enough to see how their theories actually play out in the real world. Reformers’ ideas, based on a number of incorrect assumptions, have been so damaging to high-poverty schools that it’s almost as if their proponents are blind to the realities. It’s like reformers live in an alternate universe.

This alternate reality is one in which a bunch of ineffective teachers managed to infiltrate our neediest communities and hoodwinked district officials into hiring them to teach the kids there. That they are awful teachers is obvious. One need only to look at test scores for proof. The kids don’t know diddly and it’s the schools’ job to teach the kids diddly and the individuals whose job it is to teach the various forms of diddly are the teachers. Ergo, if the test scores suck, it’s because the teachers do too.

The reformers want this fixed. And who could argue with that? They want poor kids to receive just as good of an education as middle-class kids and rich kids.

How best to do it?

Well, in their alternate reality (which seems suspiciously like the business world, even though business and education don’t share the same goals or incentives) the solution is to force districts to evaluate these cruddy teachers and remove barriers like tenure, unions, and due process so the districts can more easily fire these uncaring heels and replace them with better teachers. Oh, and if the schools have low test scores for too many years in a row, then reformers would like someone else to take the schools over, tear up whatever contract teachers have, take a cleaver to the budget, starting issuing educational decrees like Professor Umbridge, and close some buildings.

Because that ought to attract better teachers.

In the real world, where real students actually attend real schools and are taught by real teachers in real communities, reformers’ ideas have zero chance of improving teacher quality and therefore have no chance of raising student achievement.  In fact, their ideas have and will continue to do the exact opposite.

Here’s how things work in the real world:

A community is made of individuals and some of those individuals have kids. In some communities, many of those kids are growing up in poverty. They’re missing a bunch of stuff that other kids growing up in different circumstances have that make it easier for those kids to behave, pay attention, and ultimately learn. Nevertheless, we send them to underfunded schools and pretend they’re playing on an even field.

Teachers, who have college degrees and have passed certification tests and who are some of the few people in society who are actually willing to spend large chunks of time with children, apply to schools in these poor communities, even though they know full well that the job is going to be damn hard. Some apply despite the fact that they could work in other districts where the challenges will not be so great because other schools are located in other communities where parents aren’t so poor and are able to provide more of those things that help students behave and learn.

They do this for lots of reasons, none of which is money, fame, political aspirations, perks, or any other self-serving motive.

It’s hard to figure out why these people do what they do. It’s almost as if they’re acting altruistically, volunteering to work in the most difficult educational environments out of a sense of idealism. These are people who choose to work with the kids who are hardest to work with.  They’re like those doctors who go to war-torn nations to administer care to those with the greatest need. They’re like the lawyers who do pro bono work in the most downtrodden communities.

In the real world, we are extremely lucky people like this exist.

But instead of being grateful and thanking them every day for taking on such a monumental task, reformers force these teachers’ employers to evaluate them using their students’ test scores.

And now these teachers, who have already sacrificed and who are working in a district that can’t even fill all their open positions, and whose friends have gone off to teach in well-funded suburban schools where they don’t really have to worry about their kids passing the state test or being laid off due to budget cuts, get to teach kids who have a harder time learning while worrying about whether they’ll be able to keep their jobs.

Jobs that most people won’t even apply for.

And if they do in fact come up short on whatever silly tests the district decides to use for their evaluations, or if their principals, who call themselves leaders even though the truth is many of them couldn’t hack it in the classroom, decide they don’t like a teacher’s classroom management, or the phrasing of the learning goals on the board, or the occasional deviation from the junky canned reading program that the district purchased with money it should be spending elsewhere, or any number of other things that probably won’t make a difference one way or the other, then that teacher gets rated poorly and has the pleasure of fearing for her job.

A job most teachers don’t want in the first place. 

And if the district, blindly marching to the beat of the reformers’ drum instead of recognizing the damage such reforms have already caused and figuring out ways around them, decides to fire that teacher, they will soon be searching for another young idealist they ought to be grateful to find, but to whom they will subject the same shoddy and illogical treatment the following year.

If they can find anyone to take the job, that is.

And one has to marvel at the fact that they just might.



Drawing Lines in the Sand

The beginning of the year can be a dangerous time for teachers, especially those starting their careers or starting over in a new building or district. You’re refreshed from summer and raring to go. The positivity among your colleagues is contagious, and everyone wants to put their best foot forward.  You want to be a team player. You want to impress the people you work with and for. You want to do whatever it takes. In such an environment, it’s easy to agree to things that you will later regret.

The choices you make in the first few weeks of the new school year will affect how stressed out and exhausted you will be later in the year. No matter if you’re starting at a new school or just starting a new year in an old one, the beginning of the year is the time to draw lines in the sand that will protect yourself for the remainder of the year. These lines are for you, but they’re also for the people with whom you will interact from September to June.

I recommend drawing four lines, one for each group of people who have the potential to dampen your enthusiasm, stress you out, and drain your energy.

Draw Lines for Administrators

Nothing will frustrate and exhaust you faster than committing to a bunch of extra work that won’t make a difference for your students. How you respond to early requests of your time will set the tone for the rest of the year and beyond. It’s not enough to say no to an early request, although showing that you’re willing to do so will go along way toward earning your supervisor’s respect.

The problem with a single no is that it’s easily defeated. Come up with an excuse to not sign up for the science committee and you invite negotiation. Your principal may offer to send a sub in your place for those two dates you claimed had a conflict. Or he may return with the offer to join a different team, at which point, having already turned him down once, you’ll feel obligated to join.

Claim you can’t make it to math night and your principal will attempt to guilt you into attending a different after-school event, using your colleagues’ willingness to volunteer against you.

Instead of saying no, draw a line in the sand at working for free. Instead of “no,” say “I don’t.” It’s more powerful and leaves you less open to arguments and follow-up requests.

Read more about saying “I don’t.”

If you’re worried how this line in the sand will be received, then you may need to elaborate. Say something like this: “I’m fully committed to being the best teacher I can for the kids in my room and I vigilantly protect against stretching myself too thin because that will harm my teaching. That’s why I don’t do unpaid committee work.”

Read: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Draw Lines for Colleagues

If you want to get home at a reasonable hour (and you should, read this and this) then you are going to have to take full advantage of every minute you spend at school. This means coming in a little early and it means maximizing whatever planning time you have. It also means not squandering that time by chatting with colleagues.

Draw a line in the sand with colleagues by closing and locking your classroom door when you’re inside working. Hang a Do Not Disturb, Planning in Session sign on your door so they’re sure to get the message.

That may seem anti-social, but it beats the alternatives, which are being annoyed that you’re being interrupted and not fully participating in conversations, while hoping to bring them to a quick close, or being perpetually waylaid and consequently having to spend more time on work after school, which will eventually lead to a whole host of other problems.

It’s important to socialize and build relationships with your colleagues. Teachers who make connections with other adults are generally happier at work. Use lunch for that, not your planning time.

Read More: Optimize Planning Time

Draw Lines for Parents

Give some parents an inch and they’ll take a mile. Decide right now when and how you’d like to be contacted. Tell parents up front what they can expect in response. Just as you do with students, set expectations early, explain them clearly, and then do what you say.

If you’re sharing your cell phone number, be clear about how you would prefer parents get in touch. Let them know if you’d rather be texted or called. Tell them if you won’t respond over the weekend. Draw a line at how late you’re willing to reply.

If you’re not sharing your cell number, then be clear about the best way to get a hold of you and how quickly they can expect a response. We live in a world where everyone is immediately available. But teachers can’t just stop teaching to answer a call. Unlike many professionals, most of us spend very little time at our desks. Explain the reality, that you will likely not see their emails for hours, and tell them to call the office is their message is time-sensitive. Don’t assume parents understand how busy teachers are; tell them up front what to expect when it comes to communication.

Draw Lines for Students

While teachers like to say that the things that really frustrate them are factors outside of the classroom walls, the reality is that the kids can ruin your school year. Behavior can drive teachers from the classroom, so you’ll want a good handle on classroom management. But you also don’t want to be the only one in the room doing the work. In his book The First Days of School, Harry Wong describes an all too familiar situation:

“The reason teachers are so tired at the end of the school day is that they have been working.  If I worked as hard as many teachers do, I’d be as tired too.  But have you ever noticed what happens at 3 o‘clock when the students leave? “Yea, yea, yea!’  Why are they so full of energy?  Because they have been sitting in school all day doing nothing while the teacher does all the work.  The person who does all the work is the only one doing any learning!”

The kids are there to work, so draw a line in the sand with students early: You will not help them the second they ask for it. Let them struggle a little. That’s when learning happens.

It’s important to send this message early. This past week, a number of my students wanted help on a math assignment and raised their hands. When I went to check on them, they hadn’t even attempted the problem yet. So a rule was instituted: You cannot ask me for help unless you can show me how you tried to solve the problem. Kids are smart. They can figure stuff out if we aren’t there to bail them out the second they encounter a snag.

Protect Yourself

Every year, teachers burn out. Some walk out the door, never to return to education. Others press on, subjecting students to uninspired teaching for years. Teachers must get better at protecting themselves and it starts with being clear about what you will and won’t do.

Draw lines in the sand that you refuse to cross and that send clear messages to others that you are in control of your career, and that you will do what it takes to ensure you remain effective the whole year and for many years to come.

Paying Teachers to Play

One of the more indelible characters from my childhood was a bear of a woman we knew only as Mrs. Selby. Mrs. Selby existed in one place only, on the school playground. To my eight-year-old mind, she simply appeared on the blacktop, as if emerging from an underground lair at the sound of happy children. Mrs. Selby was tall and broad-shouldered. Although her spring attire must have differed, I can only recall her wearing a long maroon coat and black boots. I never saw her without sunglasses; they were as much a part of her as her scolding voice and shrill whistle. Large and dark, those glasses totally obscured her eyes and half her face. A turn of her head and half of the playground had the feeling that they were being watched like a bug under a microscope. She seemingly saw every infraction. My brother and his friends nicknamed those sunglasses “Selby Sensors.”

Mrs. Selby never ran. She strolled, wearing out a path of about 50 yards on the blacktop that divided the equipment from the elevated field where the more athletic boys played kickball and football. I played on that field and never was a game commenced without first naming a lookout, invariably a less popular boy whom we had allowed in our presence in return for the thankless but vital task of providing a warning should Mrs. Selby stray from her route and threaten to derail our obscenity-laced game of two-hand touch shove.

Like all villains, Mrs. Selby had minions. They were always girls, usually three or four of them, who, without friends of their own, mistook Mrs. Selby’s tolerance of their presence as something more than it was. They were her Crabbe and Goyle, willing to do anything, including rat out their classmates, to remain in her good favor. This retinue turned Mrs. Selby into an ant, giving her a compound eye that could scan the entire playground at once.

As a child, we feared Mrs. Selby. As a teacher, I’m wondering where the Mrs. Selbys of the world went.

I don’t remember anyone else monitoring the playgrounds of my youth. Certainly, I never saw any of the school’s teachers out there. Maybe they were lucky, but I think it’s more likely that my experience was typical. Teachers didn’t do recess duty back then, but I know of very schools where they don’t do it now. I’m not sure when the transition occurred, but I’ve been teaching for 19 years and I’ve had recess duty every year. Early in my career, it was one day a week. Then it became two. Eventually, we traded days and covered every other Friday. Now, an afternoon recess doesn’t go by when I’m not expected to share the playground with the kids.

It’s not the worst thing in the world. Breaks are important, and this short video by Daniel Pink shows that an outdoor recess might be just what a teacher needs to recharge. Recess can also give teachers a chance to connect with students we might not have had a chance to visit with in class. We have the opportunity to witness our students in a different environment. Many students who struggle in the classroom thrive on the playground. We can learn about their talents and interests. We can also meet students from other classrooms and build relationships with those who might be in our rooms in coming years. We can swing, shoot hoops, or impress nine-year-olds with prodigious punts of soccer balls (not that I would ever do such a thing).

There’s a lot to recommend about recess for teachers, and teachers should take the opportunity for a break when they need it.  But it doesn’t make sense for districts to require teachers to be on the playground. It’s dumb to pay teachers to play. Consider:

  • Teachers are the number one in-school factor for student achievement.
  • The job of a teacher is overwhelming. There is never enough time to do everything we must do, and certainly not enough time to do those things well.
  • Relative to other developed nations, the United States provides little paid planning time to its teachers.
  • It’s generally believed that more planning leads to better execution. For teachers, more planning means better lessons.
  • Teachers are expensive.
  • Watching kids play is unskilled labor that can be done by almost anyone (no offense, Mrs. Selby).

It just doesn’t make sense for school districts to require their teachers to stand around on a playground every day, especially when the solution is simple and cheap. That they do is yet another indication that schools care more about money than they do about achievement. If we agree that better-prepared teachers do a more effective job of teaching, then why are we forcing them to waste 15-30 minutes standing around? That’s time that would be used to plan more engaging lessons,  provide quicker feedback to students, and communicate more promptly with parents. It’s time that would allow teachers to recapture some of their after-school hours, which would help them detach each day and come to school more refreshed the following morning. It might even help lengthen their careers in the classroom.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening in other fields. No industry takes its most highly skilled employees and requires them to waste 20 minutes every day.

There is a simple way school districts can provide elementary and middle school teachers (and yes, middle school kids need recess, too) more time to do their jobs — which is something everyone in education recognizes as a need — and that is to find their own Mrs. Selbys.

If teachers want to use recess time as a break, then they should be allowed to do so. But districts ought to stop wasting their teachers’ most precious commodity. They should end mandatory recess duty for teachers.

5 Productivity Tips For Every Busy Teacher

Guest post by Emily Watts

Teaching is a demanding and at times downright exhausting job. It is certainly one of the most important occupations as teachers shape young minds and open them to the exciting world of knowledge, science, and arts. However, in order to stay inspired, energetic and avoid professional burnout, teachers have to maintain a healthy balance and stay productive. So in this article, I will share some useful techniques that will help teachers to stay active and keep enjoying their much-appreciated work.

Embrace your creativity

To escape the mundane routine in your teachings try to diversify your lesson plans and implement creative and interactive elements. Of course, the specifics of these novelties would depend on the subject you are teaching. But nevertheless, try using various video materials and creative assignments. Use worksheets from the Internet, implement homework based on popular culture materials like music and viral videos. Also, survey students to find what would be interesting to them. It is nice to find out what they actually want and get some useful tips for the improvement of the learning process and your personal productivity

Managing your work time

The key to productive work is managing your spare time. With all the homework and extracurricular activities, it is hard to take a break sometimes. But eventually, keeping your work life and rest time in balance is essential to increase productivity. Do not pressure yourself too much, for instance, if you need to do any kind of written assignment, use this essay writing service. The time spent on rest will serve to reboot your systems and allow to work with a fresh and enthusiastic feeling.

Expand your professional environment   

Who else will be able to give you the best advice but another fellow teacher? The network expansion is one of the main things you can do to achieve productivity improvement. Share your experiences and find out some new information from your colleagues. In addition, it is good to search for new sources of help from the Internet. There are numerous courses and podcasts dedicated solely to the art of teaching, and you will surely find a lot of practical tips and tricks there. Teaching is not only about counting on your own experience and resources; it is also very much about sharing and getting to know new ideas and techniques from other specialists. And the Internet made this sharing into a very convenient tool that you can use from your own house.

Use online tools   

With the development of Internet technologies, the arts and crafts assignments turned into a rather easy task. Search for the websites that offer you numerous printable materials for teaching, ideas for gaming that you can easily download, print, and assemble. Spice up the learning process with bright colors and smart riddles. There are numerous websites dedicated specifically to cater to this issue, you will have no trouble finding dozens of them. And trust us, they are able to boost teacher’s productivity significantly.

Use smartphones and gaming

While these things might be perceived as the bitter enemies of the modern education system, you can definitely win them over and use for the student’s benefit. There are numerous apps that are aimed at learning some particular topic; you can also find apps for creating customized flashcards and interactive tests. The new generation of learners are very accustomed to the digital world, so it might even be more productive and usual for them. You can even start playing some particular educational games; they are really thought after and usually produced by such giants as BBC, National Geographic, and other similar companies.


The main message we want to send about teaching in the contemporary reality and staying sane and productive is all about experiments and flexibility. Do not be afraid of using unconventional way to reach students, changing the discourse of the formal educational process. Use digital technologies that usually distract students for your own teaching purposes. Play around with creativity and make the process of learning fun and enjoyable not only for the schoolers but also for yourself.   


Tie Yourself To a Tree

Every year, I read the Shiloh series to my third graders. It’s the story of a boy and his dog. Marty Preston, an eleven-year-old living in rural West Virginia finds a mistreated beagle, discovers the owner is an abusive lout of a man named Judd Travers, and makes it his mission to make the dog his own. By the third book of the series, Shiloh belongs to Marty and Judd has made some steps toward becoming a better human being.

There’s a scene near the end of that third book that holds a valuable lesson for teachers.

The Preston parents have been called away, and the kids — Marty, his best friend, and his two younger sisters — have been left home. After receiving what turns out to be a prank phone call about a body floating down Middle Island Creek, the kids rush to the bridge to see for themselves. Disappointed by the truth, Marty turns to leave. His sister Dara Lynn has, however, climbed atop the bridge’s railing and is leaning out over the water, watching it rush beneath her, the rapids wild from a recent flood. As Marty yells at her to get down, she falls in.

Panic ensues. Neighbors arrive, alerted by the kids’ shouting. Dara Lynn manages to grab a tree branch and pull herself to the bank, but in all the hubbub Marty hadn’t noticed that Shiloh, the dog he worked so hard to rescue from his abusive owner, has jumped into the water to save his sister. Marty steps into the water to go after his dog but is pulled back by a neighbor. He watches as the current carries Shiloh farther away. The dog is just too small to save himself.

That’s when Judd Travers arrives in his pickup. From the book:

“You want to get yourself killed?” he calls, right angry. And then, “What’s the matter, Marty?” Sees Mr. Ellison comin’ up the road behind me, thinks he’s chasin’ me maybe. He gets out of the truck.

I’m gasping. Point to the creek. “Shiloh! He’s in the water and we can’t reach him!”

“Marty, that dog will have to get himself out!” Mrs. Ellison calls from far behind us. “Don’t you try to go after him now.”

But Judd crashes through the trees and brush, half sliding down the muddy bank, and I point to the head of my beagle back upstream, out there bobbing around in the current. Once, it looks like he goes under. Judd don’t say a word. He’s scramblin’ up the bank again and grabs that rope in his pickup. Hobbles down the road, fast as his two bum legs will carry him, goin’ even farther downstream, me and David at his heels. Then he ties one end of that rope to a tree at the edge of the water, the other end around his waist, taking his time to make a proper square knot, and I’m thinkin’, Don’t worry about knots, Judd — just go!

Judd pulls Shiloh from the water, redeeming himself in the process.

As teachers, we have students in our class who are like Shiloh. They’re in danger, struggling to stay afloat as the rushing waters carry them away. Like Marty, we instinctively want to help. We want to throw ourselves into the current and pull those students to shore.

So we do everything we can. We build relationships with these students, investing extra time and energy on those we know need us most. We keep in close contact with their parents. We encourage and cajole, inspire and counsel. Some of us go so far as to attend their after-school events, even their birthday parties. Recognizing their need, we might buy them snacks, or books we hope they’ll love, or backpacks full of the school supplies their parents can’t afford. We give our all to help those unable to help themselves from getting carried away by the floodwaters of their lives.

And we exhaust ourselves in the process. We put ourselves in danger. We make it more likely that we too will be carried away.

Had Marty rushed into the water to save his dog, it’s likely they would have both drowned.

Shiloh was saved only because Judd took a minute to tie himself to a tree.

That is what teachers should do. Tie yourself to a tree. Protect yourself first. You can’t be any good to your students — and that includes the ones who need you the most — if you’re exhausted and in danger of burning out.

As the start of the year approaches (or has already started), put yourself in the best position possible to help others. Do these five things:


The beginning of any year is a heady time and the enthusiasm can be intoxicating. It’s easy to rush in without thinking. Signing up for five committees might not seem like a terrible idea now, but you can be sure you’ll regret it in November. Start by not signing up for any and only join once you can gauge how demanding your teaching job is going to be. Most committee work doesn’t make much of an impact on your students, and your main job is to impact your students.

Read more: Do Not Join That Unpaid Committee

Make a Plan

Decide now when you will commit extra hours to the job and stick to it right out of the gate. If you’re coming in an hour early, don’t also stay an hour late. Draw some lines in the sand for yourself and don’t cross them. Build in time now to detach. Pick at least one weekend day when you will nothing related to your job.

Read More: Make a Plan

Say No Early

Saying yes is habit-forming. The more you agree to take on extra work, the more likely you’ll be asked again in the future and the harder it will be for you to say no. Humans are remarkably consistent and salespeople regularly take advantage of it. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “yes ladder” sales technique, then you know how hard it can be to say no after you’ve said yes to five other questions. At the earliest opportunity, say no to your boss. Your future self will thank you.

Related: Why Teachers Should Object

Focus On What Matters

Your job is to teach the kids in front of you to the best of your ability. There are 100 things you can do as a teacher that have very little to do with student learning. The hour you spent on that pretty bulletin board just so parents would be impressed (maybe) for six seconds at open house could have been spent in better ways. Same goes for a number of tasks that could be done by students. Don’t peel the cellophane off 25 workbooks, neatly write student numbers on the covers with a Sharpie, and place the books into student desks when students of any age can do those things themselves. Think hard about how you use your time and save it for the things that matter the most.

Read more: Slash Your To-Do List


I write about all the above and much more in my books Exhausted (which will explain why you’re so tired after teaching and will offer the solutions you want) and Leave School At School (which could also be called “Optimizing Your Teaching”). I’d also recommend Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which will help you understand why you keep doing things that you later regret, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which will get you thinking hard about what you’re focusing on and how you’re using your time, and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which will help you decide what to care about (and it’s funny).


Wanting to help others is noble. No one can question Marty’s intent to rush into the water to save his dog. But good intentions can lead to horrible outcomes if we don’t think through the likely consequences. You aren’t much use to someone who’s drowning if you are drowning right next to them. Protect yourself first. Time yourself to a tree.


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