If You Want the Perk, Do the Work

I am now in my second week of summer vacation and only one adult has expressed to me her jealousy over my two months off. This probably has less to do with what I hope is growing appreciation for teachers and their work in the wake of walk-outs and other public awareness of our conditions, and more to do with the fact that I have rarely left the house and avoid conversation on those occasions when I do.

The comment came during one of the last days of school. I’d organized a breakfast for my class and a couple of parents asked if I needed help. Never one to turn down such an offer, I had three diligent assistants, each of whom had been in the room previously and attended class field trips.

“Looking forward to your summer off?” one of them asked me. Not so much a question as a kind of conspiratorial wink shared between adults who spend time with kids. A nicer way of saying, “Bet you’re sick of this, huh?”

I was.

But having done this a number of years now, I also knew how summer would likely play out. I’d be lazy for a week and truly enjoy having nothing to do. Then I’d grow restless. I’d start projects around the house. I’d spend money frivolously. I’d plan a vacation as an excuse to leave the house. All things better left unsaid. No one working summers wants to hear you’re planning to do a lot of nothing with yours.

“Got big plans?” she asked, by which she meant was I going to be traveling anywhere interesting.

“Not this year,” I told her, proud to avoid contributing to the idea that teachers spend their summers jet-setting around the world spending taxpayers’ money. “We’re just going to relax.”

“That must be nice.”

She didn’t say it in a mean way. Did not mean to imply that I had it easy. But like referees, teachers’ ears are finely tuned to any suggestion that we are making the wrong call. When it comes to summer, we teachers are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Spend our summers posting pictures to Facebook of all the fabulous places we visit and our non-teacher friends confirm their suspicions that teachers, for all their whining, have it pretty damn good. After all, we can afford vacations just like other middle-class people! Spend the summer doing nothing and people will wrinkle their noses at our lack of productivity. In a country where work is closely tied to identity, many can’t imagine being idle for any length of time. You’ve got two months off and you’re going to do what? Just sit around? Read? Hang out with your family? Go to the beach? Really, that’s it?

Whatever we do with our summers, those who have to work them are right to be jealous. They say “it must be nice” because it is.

It is very nice. It is, without a doubt, the best perk of the job. Public pensions are wonderful but hard to get excited about in your first decade of teaching. As incentives, they work about as well as a promised year-end pizza party for good behavior, which is to say not at all. The medical insurance is fine, too, although, having always been a teacher, I don’t honestly know how good I have it, only that people who aren’t teachers claim that I do. And high job security is also supposed to be a perk, but it’s not one any decent teacher truly values. People who claim job security is a perk must assume the teacher they’re talking to sucks. Most people who are good at their jobs don’t worry about getting fired from them.

So, yes, summer vacation is a perk and one no teacher should apologize for. Like our comparatively low pay, the day to day challenges of the job, the incessant meddling of politicians, and the public scapegoating, we knew about it going in.

We knew the perks, just as those in other fields knew theirs.

Investment bankers don’t all become investment bankers because they love banking (or whatever it is those people do all day). Not all lawyers love the law. Not every doctor dreamed of savings people’s lives. A great number of them just wanted to make a lot of money and they knew that to get the perk, they had to do the work.

And different people value different perks. A lot of them value money over time, or rather, they believe making a lot of money will provide them with other perks they value. Which would be fine, if these values were treated equally.

But when’s the last time someone said to these non-teachers:

“Must be nice working for a company that offers a 401(k) match.”

“Must be nice to take a vacation in October, when the prices are lower, you can avoid throngs of ungrateful, whiny kids and their short-tempered parents, and the weather is measurably different from the place you are escaping.”

“Must be nice getting an hour-long lunch break.”

I’m guessing not many. If non-teachers want to know why teachers are sick of having their perks pointed out to them, they might consider the perks of their own job and then imagine that every time they took advantage of them someone said, “Well, that must be nice.”

I have a friend who is a physician’s assistant. His Facebook page consists of him not working. There he is in Prague. Now he’s in Maui. Next month, he’s on a Florida beach on a random Tuesday. Here is what I never allow myself to think when viewing his photos:

It must be nice.

Because what I’m not seeing is more important than what he has chosen to share with the world. What I’m not seeing is the sacrifice. I’m not seeing the years of schooling or the unpaid internship. I’m not seeing the 14-hour days when he started out. I’m not seeing the years of dedication. I’m not seeing the unheralded hours he still puts in, and even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it. He’s doing the work, and he’s enjoying the perks.

Good for him.

So the next time someone tells you it must be nice to have your summers off, tell them that it is. And gently remind them that you knew it would be all along and that they could join you.  An enthusiastic, “You should become a teacher!” is usually enough. Most people immediately recoil and claim they could do no such thing. Which is exactly the point. Because while I would like the new cars and exotic vacations that my wealthier friends enjoy, I also know that I have never wanted their jobs. Just as I have no desire to argue the law in a courtroom or examine elderly patients’ mysterious growths, I am equally convinced that most people who wish they had their summers off have no stomach for the work that would allow them to.

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Like me, most of you are likely enjoying your summer break. It’s not too early to start thinking about next year. If you ended the previous year exhausted and don’t want to make the same mistakes again next year, allow me to recommend three resources:

My book, Exhausted, explains what makes teachers so tired and what they can do about it.

My book, Leave School At School, details the strategies you can employ to work less while still being effective. It’s about optimizing your teaching practice and focusing on what’s essential.

Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club is a proven year-long course that thousands of teachers have used to cut hours from their workweek and regain their personal lives.

If you’d like more articles like the one above, subscribe to Teacher Habits and receive them in your email inbox. Thanks for reading!

Getting Schooled, by Garret Keizer

 

I’m attempting to read 100 books from June of 2018 to June of 2019 (you can follow along on the 100 in 1 page). I won’t bore you by reviewing every single education-related book I read, but when I stumble across one as good as Getting Schooled, by Garret Keizer, I feel obligated to spread the word, not only because as a writer of books myself I know the value of good press, but also because this book deserves to be read.

Within the first few pages, we learn a lot about the author. He taught for 16 years previously and he was good at it. He left to pursue a writing career. After a 14-year hiatus, he’s returning to the same Vermont high school to fill in for a teacher taking a one-year leave of absence.

The implications are obvious to any teacher who fears repercussions for speaking out. Keizer doesn’t disappoint. He writes with the freedom of a teacher who knows he won’t be returning to the classroom. Starting on page two, Keizer admits to something hardly any teacher will:

“There was a never a time during the sixteen years that I taught that I didn’t imagine doing something else…I can’t recall a single year of teaching that didn’t begin with a burst of enthusiasm accompanied by the fervent hope that come June I’d be done with teaching for good.”

But in spite of this, he’s a dedicated and effective teacher, as evidenced by the care he puts into preparing lessons, the patience he shows his students, the willingness to learn new things, and the restraint he exercises in the face of misguided priorities and absurd realities all teachers know and despise. He’s a team player when he needn’t be. Keizer lives by a moral code, fighting for what is right, but careful to never complain to his colleagues. He admirably wages an active war on his own cynicism, sparing colleagues and students his most vitriolic objections. Thankfully, the reader is treated with less consideration. Keizer tells it how he sees it, a refreshing deviation from what one reads in most education circles, where feel-good platitudes and self-serving positivity have spread like a plague among the go-along-to-get-along crowd.

An astute observer of the humans around him, deftly comprehending his students’ motives and his co-workers’ likely reactions should he speak what’s on his mind, Keizer models what it is to be a professional educator. New teachers could do far worse than he for a mentor.

While I could go on about Keizer’s sparkling prose and impressive ability to cut directly to the marrow of a matter, I’ll let his words speak for themselves. Here are three of my favorite passages from the book. They serve here not as highlights, but as representative of the entire work. It was a rare page that didn’t contain some polished gem of truth, some elegant turn of phrase I had to savor again, some deliciously searing critique to which I nodded in agreement, some poignant moment that we sometimes take for granted in the hustle and bustle of our teaching days.

On planning:

“Any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that there are gains to be had by laying the plan aside and going with the flow of a class’s sudden inspiration, but show me a teacher who sees this as the norm, and I’ll show you a teacher living in a pipe dream of delusional serendipity. In a word, I’ll you show you a slacker.”

Responding to the book Raising the Bar and Closing the Gap:

“I’m also troubled by the repeated, snide, and almost sinister references to those recalcitrant teachers who insist on acting as “lone wolves” and on treating their classrooms as “personal kingdoms.” Admittedly, these are fair descriptors of one of the worst kinds of teacher: the self-described maverick whose primary aims are to amuse himself and do as little work as possible. Not for him a plan book or comprehensive exam; such trivialities are at odds with this “style,” his “philosophy,” his plans for the weekend. At the same time, the authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my formation. Those teachers were never lazy but they were indeed lone wolves, sleek-furred beauties who preferred howling at the moon of their own lunatic inspirations to sniffing hindquarters among the faulty pack. One of their type, a foreign language teacher still going strong after my last stint at the school, still whisking kids away to France on a wing and a bake sale, even as she brings France to them by the vivaciousness of her instruction, will say to me, “I’m afraid the day of the teacher as artist is dead.”

On graduation:

“As in the past, I view commencement exercises as an act of penance for the sins of the teaching year. Not a full expiation, for sure, but at least an act of contrition. The lengthy monotony of the proceedings, the stifling heat of a gymnasium in mid-June, the oxygen deprivation that comes from sitting with hundreds of spectators in a scarcely ventilated space — what else besides a guilty conscience could keep a person coming year after year? Add to these the inevitable if unintended insult that comes from being publicly “thanked” for an education whole quality is thrown into doubt by every other sentence accompanying the thanks, the self-congratulatory tone and smug insider jokes of the valedictory speakers, and the steady deflation of making the rounds afterward to congratulate students in whose eyes it’s clear that anything you might have meant to them or they to you is dissolving like a mirage. Most of all, the oppressive loneliness that is relieved only by remembering that any number of the students up on the dais are feeling lonelier still. At the conclusion of what many of them have repeatedly been assured are the best years of their lives — which in some cases will prove sadly true, the relative crappiness of those years notwithstandings — small wonder that more than a few of them will be stone drunk by nightfall.”

Lazy students, imperious administrators, absurd regulations,  frequent galling interruptions, the new religion of technology, the short-sighted focus on standardized tests. It’s all in there. But so is the human side. The unexpected death of a colleague, the harsh realities of students’ home lives as revealed in their essays, the surprising kindness of 16-year-olds, the earnest dedication of teachers who should by all rights have thrown in the towel long ago. Getting Schooled is no different than getting to school. Once inside the book, you will experience the highs and lows to which you’ve become so familiar as a teacher. The book is a reminder that while there’s plenty to loathe in education today, there are also moments that make life worth living and teaching worth doing.

 

 

 

 

 

There Will Be No Beanstalk

What will it be next year? Which book or program will capture the imagination of America’s school administrators? Which teacher turned thought leader will have her fortunes changed over night? Which consultant, too opportunistic and cowardly to remain in the arena and teach actual students, will be charging thousands of dollars to tell teachers how to do their jobs? Which business concept will weasel its way into America’s schools? What new elixir will I be forced to choke down, as impotent to resist as a baby whose mother airplanes a spoonful of unappetizing gruel toward his pinched mouth?

I do not know, but experience suggests it will be something. Likely, it will be something I’ve sampled before, under new management and packaged in a more attractive box. Something tasted by teachers who, after masticating for a while and maybe even swallowing, eventually spit it back up, only to chase it with something equally specious and unfulfilling.

We teachers are willing converts, regardless of how many times we’ve enthusiastically purchased the snake oil in the past. Sent off to a conference on the latest educational wonder drug, our initial skepticism is quickly replaced with reluctant acceptance by some and acolytic zeal by others. Our principals stand in front us with a tenuous grasp of the panacea they offer and virtually no understanding of the underlying science, but they assure us that it’s “research-based.” They point to a district where it supposedly worked, neglecting to mention that said district bears no resemblance to our own.

Still, we nod our heads. We sit in staff meetings where we are told that this, yes this, is our salvation! The magic bullet that will finally, finally raise those test scores, send more kids off to college, and make our schools the place everyone wants to be. Stick a Ph.D. on the end of a name and watch us assent under the assumption that someone smarter than us has the answer.

The remaining skeptics among us won’t dare say anything for fear of being labeled negative, or difficult, or not a team player, or not in it for the kids. No reason to place a target on our backs, not when we’ve been here before and know that this too shall pass.

And maybe in the back of our minds we think — having been told in so many ways over so many years that we’ve never measured up, never given these kids what they deserve — that, why not? Why not try this new thing? After all, what we’ve been doing hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.

Teachers, I think, often feel like Jack’s mother in the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk. At our wit’s end, on the verge of giving up, and as a last-ditch effort, we decide to trade in the family cow. We’ve barely been getting by as it is. Nothing is working and it never will. Desperate, we hope for deliverance. After all, anything is better than a useless cow.

And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a peddler offering just the thing. Magic beans! The answer to all our troubles! Consultants, books, new programs, repackaged ideas, all sold by slick traffickers who, unlike us, were savvy enough to make a living in education outside of the classroom.

But teaching isn’t a fairy tale and there will be no beanstalk that teachers will climb to heretofore unattained heights. There is no magic. No riches. No geese who lay golden eggs. No magic harp. Not even an enraged giant or his concerned wife. They may be different sizes and colors than the beans we’ve planted before, but they’re still just beans.

Still, there will be hope. The newly acquired beans planted, we’ll look out the window, expecting that any day now we’ll wake up and see a beanstalk. We’re sure of it.

This is the curse of being a teacher. We will forever be hoping the beans will sprout. No matter how many times they fail to germinate, we will always trade away the cow in the hope of something transformational. And instead of scolding us for our foolishness, as the mother does Jack in the story, our leaders will present to us new beans with promises that this time we will surely be able to climb to the clouds.

Undeterred by broken promises, we will believe again. We’ll return to the window and stare at the soil, positive that this time there will be growth.

The eagerness to drink the Kool-Aid is our curse.  It is also our blessing.

For what is teaching if not blind hope? Why keep showing up if you don’t carry within you an implausible faith in miracles? If teachers believe that they, through nothing more than their dedication and efforts, can turn a kid around who has everything going against him, then is it at all surprising that when a man offers to trade magic beans for our tired cow we jump at the opportunity?

We believe in miracles because we believe in the biggest miracle of all: That we, set against apathy and neglect, hunger and abuse, poverty and hopelessness, can make a difference. Against all odds, we believe in the future of every single student. It’s an absurd belief, one that no rational person would hold, one that the data have never supported, yet we believe it with every fiber of our being, just as we believe that this time, there will be a beanstalk.

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6 Ways Principals Can Show Teachers They Care

care

In March of 2017, Education Post published an article by teacher Tom Rademacher titled, “Hey, Principals, When You Lose Good Teachers, That’s On You.” The whole thing is worth a read, but this paragraph sums it up well:

“Principals (and just like I use “teachers” to mean everyone who works with kids, I’ll use “principals” here to mean everyone who is supposed to be supporting teachers), the number of teachers you keep year to year says something about you. I know you’d like not to believe that, I know your job is easier if you ignore it, but teachers matter, and keeping them around is your job. When you lose good teachers, it’s on you.”

Well, it’s that time of year again. Teachers are right now deciding whether to polish up their résumés in search of greener pastures or to return to their buildings and, maybe more accurately, their bosses. Because for many of them, it’s not the pay, the kids, the parents, the curricular materials, their colleagues, the amount of technology, or the physical condition of the schools in which they work that will drive this decision. It’s their principal.

There are a number of reasons why principals should want to keep their teachers (or at least, the vast majority of them):

  • Teachers who leave take with them all their expertise and the training their districts have paid for and provided.
  • The search for replacements is time-consuming.
  • New teachers need to be trained.
  • There’s no guarantee (especially in these days of teacher shortages and lower enrollment in teacher education programs) that you will find anyone better.
  • Frequent turnover is unattractive and can harm the reputation of a school.
  • A lack of stability is a continuation of the fragmented lives our neediest students already experience outside of school.
  • New relationships must be built.
  • Staff morale may suffer as teachers lose valued colleagues and friends.

Nothing good comes from losing good teachers.

So it’s odd when some principals act as though they could not care less if their teachers return. Some don’t even take the simple step of saying, “Hey, I really hope you’ll come back next year. We need you. You’re important.”

Perhaps that’s because, as Rademacher suggests, they don’t believe teacher attrition is their fault. When you’re the boss, it’s easier to blame other factors than it is to accept that most people quit because of you.

But if we’re going to give principals the benefit of the doubt — and I’m inclined to, if for no other reason than they have a REALLY difficult job — maybe it’s because they just don’t know how to show teachers they care.

So here are six easy ways principals can show their teachers that they care about them.

1. Focus on Their Happiness

Most people believe that to be happy you must first find success. They have it backward. Research from the field of positive psychology clearly shows that happiness comes first. Success doesn’t lead to happiness (just ask Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, or any number of other successful people whom you can’t actually ask). Happiness makes success more likely.

Richard Branson, who knows a few things about running successful organizations, puts it this way:

If you focus on your teachers’ happiness, you’ll not only get happier teachers who will treat students the way you want them treated and will come back year after year, but you’ll also get more effective teaching. Don’t give your teachers more PD, or hand them another program, or offer instructional advice. None of that will help if they’re miserable. Focus instead on creating an environment where your teachers are happy.

2. Show Appreciation

79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving. According to a recent survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. 65% of North Americans report that they weren’t recognized even once last year.

Appreciation is the number one thing employees say their boss could do that would inspire them to produce great work. O.C Tanner, a recognition and rewards company, surveyed 2,363 office workers and found that 89% of those who felt appreciated by their supervisors were satisfied with their jobs.

Principals who show gratitude experience a win-win because their teachers will feel more appreciated and the principals themselves will he happier at work.  Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the “father of positive psychology,” tested the impact of different interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked, participants immediately reported a huge increase in happiness. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

Principals who want to make everyone in their schools happier should take the simple step of showing appreciation for others’ efforts. Take 30 seconds to write a thank-you card.  One survey found that 76 percent of people save them.

3. Tell Them To Have a Life

Most teachers are agreeable and conscientious. The job attracts these personality types. As a principal, you can use those traits for good or evil. If you ask teachers to stay after school to help out with family math night, or to attend the PTO meeting, or to chaperone a dance, most of them will because they won’t want to disappoint you and because they will worry about the success of the event if they don’t show up.

Asking too often is a good way to burn out your teachers, but you can also use teachers’ agreeableness for good. Tell them to go home. Direct them to not check their email over the weekend. Order them to not even think about school over Christmas break. Tell them to do things that will help them be happier, better rested, and ultimately more effective. Most teachers, if you tell them what to do, will do it. Telling them to take care of themselves and detach from work will be a refreshing message because teachers are rarely told to put themselves first, and it will show you care about their well-being.

4. Take Things Off Their Plates

School districts love to load teachers with an ever-growing heap of responsibilities without removing anything. Just last week, teachers in my school were told that next year we will be implementing a new social skills program. We are to teach these lessons once per week. But guess what we weren’t told? What not to teach.

Keep teaching everything you’ve always taught, just add this one more thing on top of it. Sound familiar?

I can count on a whole lot of hands how many teachers complain that their principals, mostly former teachers, have forgotten what the job is like. Ensconced in their offices with the freedom to choose what to work on and how much time to devote to it, they seem amnesic about how overwhelming and hectic teachers’ days are. A principal who explicitly takes things off teachers’ plates shows understanding and empathy. Give your teachers less to do. They’ll be grateful for it, and they’ll be more likely to do the most important things well.

5. Encourage Socializing

Some principals see off-task chatting as a problem, a deviation from their meeting agenda. But social connectedness is a major cause of happiness and good health. Don’t merely abide teachers’ socializing, encourage it. Instead of promptly starting your staff meeting at 7:30, require attendance at that time but don’t actually start on the agenda until 7:40. Send the message that you value your teachers enough to know that they need time to just talk with each other. Teachers spend most of their work hours isolated from other adults. They crave connectedness. Give it to them.

6. Spend Money on Their Well-Being

We spend money on those things that are important to us. I buy expensive beer because I like to drink it. I don’t spend money on new clothes because I don’t care about clothes. A district that spends thousands on a reading program but provides their librarians (if they still have them) with a $100 annual budget for books sends a clear message about what matters.

Most principals have a discretionary budget. How they spend that money matters.

A cottage industry has grown up around teacher stress and burnout. You can now find many resources that aim to improve teachers’ well-being. I’ve written three books on the topic: Exhausted, Happy Teacher, and Leave School At School.

The master class for teacher well-being is Angela Watson’s 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Teachers get weekly materials for an entire calendar year on topics such as Grading and Assessment, Sustainable Systems, Maximizing Your Summer, and Work/Life Balance. They get weekly emails, audio files, printables, planning forms, and an abundance of great advice on how to optimize their classroom practices so they can still have a life when they get home at night. If you want your teachers to know you care about them, consider signing a few up for the club.

Read reviews from club members here.

Instead of spending money on PD, which, according to research, doesn’t help your teachers, spend it on something that will show you care and will be of practical use to them. Order them some books on managing stress. Purchase a few subscriptions to the 40-Hour Workweek Club for those teachers who seem overwhelmed, or go all in and get a school license so all of your teachers can benefit.

Good principals take care of their teachers. They know that teachers impact student achievement more than any other in-school factor. Smart principals focus more on their teachers’ well-being than they do on student discipline, instructional practices, or meeting agendas. Take some simple steps to show your teachers that you care, and they will return year after year, contribute to a more positive environment, and be more effective in the classroom.

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Links to the 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club are of the affiliate variety.