Why Teachers Should Object

There’s a good chance that if you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve been asked to do something that you knew to be educational malpractice. Either through your experience with kids or because of research you read, you knew that a decision was a bad one. How you responded to such a decision probably has a lot to do with how you feel about your current place of employment. If you’re resentful and unmotivated, there’s a good chance you went along with it. And there’s a better chance it wasn’t the only time.

When you agree to something you know to be bad for your students (or for yourself), you run into three problems:

First, you set a precedent. Agree once and you’ll likely agree again. People are remarkably consistent in their behavior. Once you see yourself as someone who “goes along to get along” or “flies under the radar,” then you’ll be unlikely to depart from that self-image and start objecting later, making it more likely that you’ll agree to increasingly noxious policies and practices in the future.

Second, you will start to lose your motivation. Follow enough bad orders and you’ll begin to wonder why you’re busting your hump for blithering idiots who don’t even read educational research. Why should you work hard when they’re obviously not working in the best interests of students? If the district is led by morons like yours, why should you strive for excellence?

Third, you’ll resent your boss, her bosses, the school board, and maybe even the community. You’ll think:

The feckless school board hired these administrators and then won’t do anything to stop them from making awful decisions. The voters, who happen to be the parents of the kids in my classroom, elected the hapless school board members and they won’t even show up to the meetings to ask what’s going on in the schools.

You’ll resent them all and end up miserable, having violated your core beliefs and sacrificed the idealism of your youth on the altar of servility, all under the mistaken belief that it’s more professional to hold your tongue.

If something makes you resentful, there are only two possibilities: you’re a whiner or you’re being pushed around. Either what you’re being asked to do is reasonable and you’re the problem, or you must act.

So assuming you’re not just a crybaby and you’re actually being told to do things that are bad for kids (or for yourself), what do you do?

You object, and you do so early. When you’re told to do something that you know is wrong, you should object at the earliest possible moment. Here’s why:

1. You might actually win.

Most people avoid conflict and back down when confronted. People are generally not courageous and will back off when challenged, especially if you present your side calmly and with facts. Win, and you won’t have to put up with the awful decision until someone better (you hope) comes along and reverses the policy (probably by asking, “Why the hell were you doing this?”).

2. By objecting, you will start to see yourself as someone who is willing to object.

Objecting will make it more likely that you’ll do so again. It will also put your bosses on notice that you will not be a teacher who agrees just because it’s easier.

3. The cost of not objecting is too high.

 

Yes, there is risk. You might be inviting retribution, especially if you’re dealing with one of the petty tyrants who inhabit too many district offices and has grown accustomed to having their orders obsequiously followed.

So you may be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But it’s better to stand tall with your shoulders back and do the right thing and risk being asked to leave then it is to choke down your core beliefs and spend the next however-many-years doing things you hate for people you don’t respect, all while wallowing in self-loathing for not having the intestinal fortitude to say something when it might have made a difference.

Stand up and say, “No, I’m not doing it.” You’re not doing it because it’s a bad idea. You’re not doing it because if you do, you’ll be more likely to do more of it. You’re not doing it because you’ll be constantly annoyed and eventually lose the motivation to do your job well. You’re not doing it because you’ll end up resentful, which is a terrible way to live.

And if your objections don’t stop the lunacy, then it’s time to leave.

And you should always be willing to leave. Because if you can’t get out, then you can never say no. And if you can’t say no, then you cannot bargain. And if you cannot bargain, then you’ll do whatever you’re told to do every single time, no matter how egregious the request. That is a dangerous place to be.

Just ask the teachers in Atlanta who were sent to jail for following orders to cheat on state tests. Do you think they ever objected? Or do you think they agreed and agreed and agreed as the policies and practices got more odious, all while telling themselves that they were being good team players. Fat lot of good that did them.

Stand up for yourself and your students. Set clear boundaries, grow a spine, bare your teeth. When people realize you’re not a pushover, that makes you powerful. Showing someone that you’re willing to inflict pain makes it less likely you’ll ever need to. Stop worrying so much about being liked. Object, and object early. Your future self will thank you for it.

 

Note: The above was inspired by (okay, stolen from) this video by professor Jordan B. Peterson, which you should watch. It’s not specifically for teachers, but it should be.

The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers

At the end of Dan’s last article, “I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back,” he wrote:

When I made my departure official and announced it to the world, I was humbled by the response of kind words and expressions of sadness for losing what I had to offer the classroom. But I was also alarmed by the number of responses I received from teachers asking how I managed to do it. I received texts, emails, and phone calls from teachers all over the national network I had been a part of declaring that they wanted out, too…I began receiving messages from friends of friends and even a few strangers. I had somehow become the exodus guru. I still receive these messages with the most recent just last week from a woman I once met at a conference who found me on LinkedIn and wondered if I could give her friend some advice.

This article, the third and final part in this series, is Dan’s advice.

Dan Laird

Since I was employed by the same district where I completed my internship, I never really experienced the whole job search process. I earned my place, but I certainly was lucky to be interning in a school with an opening. I now found myself looking for a job with no experience looking for a job. Obviously, I knew the basics, but I was now swimming in unfamiliar waters, waters that had expanded thanks to the internet.

Step 1: Update the Ol’ Resumé

Since the last entry on my most recent résumé from 1999 was for being a delivery driver for Pizza Hut, I had some work to do. And since that résumé was stored on a 5 ¼” floppy disk, I found it best to simply start over rather than see if the Smithsonian offered computer time. Because I was keeping my options open, I realized that I would be tweaking my résumé and cover letter again and again to match the job for which I was applying. After all, I highly doubt that the folks hiring for the copywriting position I pursued were interested in my proficiency with Google Classroom. To handle the task of juggling multiple résumés, I paid for a monthly subscription to the résumé building site, MyPerfectRésumé. It allowed me to save multiple drafts and focus on the content without the hassle of the formatting. (Helpful hint: I also discovered that if you pay for a month or two then attempt to cancel, the site will offer you a full year for the price of one month.)

Every time I applied for a job, I made a folder on my computer for that application, résumé, and cover letter. In the modern tech age, it is easy to apply for jobs at a rapid-fire pace. Despite that, some companies will respond as if it is the only job you pursued, and, believe it or not, their initial correspondence may offer very little indication as to which job posting they are referring. If you are casting a wide net, it can be very easy to lose track of your applications and nothing is more of a turn off for potential employers than confusing one opening for another. Also, by keeping a file for each application, I could easily find the closest résumé version for adaptation that best fit the next job posting.

Step 2: Finally Learn About LinkedIn

Despite being the butt of jokes for years, LinkedIn proved to have a place in the job search world. It turns out that employers may want to do their homework on you and this gives them a social media source to learn more about your professional accomplishments without having to sort through New Year’s Eve photos, your angry comments about being a cursed Detroit Lions fan, or hilarious cat memes. (Sidenote: You might want to check the privacy settings on your Facebook account). Since I was determined to go all out on this venture, I  paid for the premium subscription during my job hunt which allowed me to see who was reviewing my profile. I was pleasantly surprised to find views from companies to which I was applying.

In addition, many job search sites allow you to attach your LinkedIn profile to applications. Some even convert your LinkedIn profile information into the application itself. Since the résumé needs to be short, sweet, and right to the point, the LinkedIn profile allows you to really draw attention to work you want to emphasize.

Step 3: Find Your Source for Jobs

Job search sites seem like a dime a dozen. It’s important that you do your homework and monitor your success rate so you know what works best for you. Check to see if the site allows you to apply on its page or if it redirects you to other sites. Remember that companies pay to post their jobs on these sites. If the site you picked isn’t taking the application directly, it probably isn’t being used by the company who posted the job, which means your application may be dead in the water and lost to the internet.

Most of my success came from Indeed.com. In fact, that is where I found my current job. Indeed provides a very quick application process. If you have your résumé and cover letter ready to go, you can send it with the click of a button. A nice way to tell if a company has invested its money with Indeed is to see if it has added on to the application process. Companies can use a default application or they can add their own questions to the process. If you see these extra questions, you know that the company has prioritized this hiring source in its budget. If you do see short response questions on an application, always save your responses in a separate document so you don’t lose them once you submit your application. If you apply for another similar position, you may find a similar question.

Step 4: Cast a Wide Net

One of the biggest misconceptions teachers have is that their qualifications lock them into a teaching role for life. It’s certainly what I thought. What else can you do with a history major and English minor? Curate a museum? Write the great American novel? Finding an open position with the former is about as likely as becoming a rock star and the latter isn’t exactly a financially sound decision for a 40-year-old with two children and a mortgage.

I learned to stop searching for jobs for which I thought I was qualified and instead to start searching for my qualifications. First, I searched for ALL jobs in my city and state. For years I had been telling my students that they may very well end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Here was my chance to see what had been invented since I joined the workforce. Of course, there were jobs that sounded great for which I was nowhere near qualified. Still, those are options if you have a long-term plan that involves going back to school. So if you want out and can bear it a few more years, target one of these jobs and start taking classes now. But there were also opportunities for people like me looking to make an immediate evacuation. From there, I started looking for more jobs like the ones I stumbled upon. It was a domino effect of discovery. As it turns out, the world needs teachers in every corner of the workforce and not just for teaching STEAM.

Step 5: Don’t Wait. Keep Applying.

Just because a position is posted, it doesn’t mean that anyone is in any hurry to fill that position. Nothing proves this point more than positions for the state. When you check your state government website for job postings, you will most likely find more postings than you have time to look through. After applying for a few state positions, I started to get the feeling that even the state didn’t want to look through all of them. Rarely did I ever hear back from one of these applications. A few times I was told a position was filled. Once I was told that the state changed its mind and eliminated the position. Most of the time, I heard nothing. The downside to fast and furious job application technology is that most companies now have to sort through applications from people who only applied because they had nothing to lose.

Step 6: Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

It’s a very exciting feeling to get called for an interview. While the interview is a great chance for the employer to get to know you, remember that it is also a good opportunity to learn more about the job for which you applied, sometimes without even asking a single question.

Not all job postings are specific. They may give you enough information to pique your interest, and hold back information that may cause you to look elsewhere. In addition, some job sites allow you to leave your résumé posted on a general “bulletin board” for any employer to see. This may lead to calls for interviews you didn’t expect, especially from insurance companies. Because I was keeping my options open, I attended some of these. A few of these interviews were located in bare offices that looked like they had been rented for the day. One interviewer mistakenly thought, ¨How would you like to live in Indiana?” was an enticing sales pitch. And one scheduled interview turned out to be a group interview with a dozen other candidates. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when asked what we were all looking for from this position, one applicant responded, “I want time to do my karate.” No offense to the karate kid, but I felt like I had a bit more to offer and was surprised we were up for the same position. It was clear that I was not invited there for my extensive résumé. Lower level employees were clearly mass-hired, disposable commodities.

Don’t be embarrassed about getting tricked by these “opportunities.” This process took me almost a year to get the hang of. As long as you’re not sacrificing something more important, you have nothing to lose by going to these interviews. Use the opportunity to brush up on your interview skills, learn to anticipate some typical questions, and, at the very least, give yourself an interesting story to tell. You never know when something might surprise you. In fact, before I took my current job, I was in the process of accepting a position with a financial company that happened to specialize in teacher 403b retirement funds. It was an unanticipated natural fit and the company was excited to have an actual former teacher on the team. I would probably be working there if my current job hadn’t made an offer right before I was to take my exams.

So, to recap:

  • You have value outside of the classroom.
  • Your qualifications do not lock you into a teaching job for life.
  • Learn about expectations for résumés outside of education. They’re different. Then update your résumé. I recommend subscribing to a résumé building website.
  • Set up or update your Linkedin account. Learn about best practices that will help attract interest from employers.
  • Investigate different job search sites and determine which works best for you.
  • Search for all jobs in your geographical area. You’ll learn about jobs you didn’t know existed. The discovery process will help you figure out which jobs fit your qualifications.
  • Don’t wait to hear back because many times you won’t. Just keep applying.
  • Keep your options open. Attend interviews. You’ll become more comfortable with them, become better prepared to answer common questions, and learn what companies are looking for.
  • Be patient but persistent. Keep looking, applying, and interviewing.
  • Forgive yourself. I made lots of mistakes, but this was a new experience. Recognize that it’s going to take you a while to get the hang of it.

Good luck!


Thanks for reading the series! Dan and I both appreciate your interest and we hope this has helped those of you thinking of making a change. For those who plan on persisting in the classroom for the next five or ten or fifteen years, I have a book coming out in March called Leave School At School: The Effective Teacher’s Guide to a 40-Hour Workweek. It will help you cut back on hours without sacrificing your impact with kids. In fact, because you’ll be more focused, better-rested, and less stressed, you’ll probably be a better teacher. If you don’t want to miss the release date for that one, subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you when it becomes available and you’ll be able to take advantage of a first week discount.


If you have questions for Dan, feel free to email him at [email protected]

You can also follow him on Twitter: @dandanlaird

I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back

“I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back” is the second of a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who left education to work in private industry. Part one, “Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years” can be read here. Part three, “The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers” will be published in the coming days. 

Dan Laird

It has been almost ten months since I started my new career giving me a chance to see the world from a set of non-teacher eyes. Each day, I’m happier I left. Each day, I want to lead everyone I left in the classroom on a revolt. The grass on the other side is greener. I’ve seen it.

Let’s “yada yada yada” our way through the obvious reasons why: the pay is better, the benefits are better, my retirement savings now grow three times as fast, I have an hour for lunch which gives me enough time to eat at home if I’d like, I can use the bathroom at any time without needing to find someone to sit at my desk while I’m gone, and my office building is modern and doesn’t smell like a gym locker. But you already expected that.

The real reason I will never go back to education is the culture. I discovered that teachers have been conditioned to believe that everything must be harder than it actually has to be. We are trained to think that the reasonable is unreasonable, that anything we are afforded should be considered a favor, that guilt should accompany permission for the most basic accommodations.

As it turns out, the professional world does not operate like it does inside the walls of a school. In the first month of my new job, three events solidified my departure from education as one of the best events that ever happened to me:

1.  Part of my job description includes the creation of digital interactive tutorials and the monitoring of the company’s learning management system. As if being paid to be creative every day isn’t monumental enough, that isn’t the most incredible part. When I asked my manager if I would have access to the designing software at home to continue working when needed, her response was, “The short answer is ‘yes,’ but we don’t expect you to take work home.” She went on to tell me that the company feels family is important and that an employee shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other. Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t have deadlines or that I still haven’t brought my laptop home from time to time. But I find that I accomplish more at work because I’m allowed to do my job uninterrupted, unlike teaching, where classroom instruction is the least respected part of the job.

As teachers, there is an expectation that large parts of your required duties are to be performed on your own personal time. Not only are you expected to teach during classroom hours, you are expected to give up your lunch and planning hour if a student requests it. The request never seems unreasonable to anyone other than the teacher. Saying “no” is a guaranteed PR nightmare because, once again, not being willing to sacrifice on command clearly means you don’t care about kids.

As teachers lose their planning time, their 25 minutes to shovel down a microwave meal, and their early mornings and afternoons in order to spend more time working with students, the other half of the job awaits them during their personal time, their time with family, their time to unwind. There is no such thing as “off duty” when you are a teacher. What you do to go above and beyond as a teacher quickly becomes the norm, which means you then have to figure out a new way to go above and beyond.

First, it was important to have your grades prepared for report cards at the end of the trimester, then it was important to have your grades prepared for progress reports in the middle of the trimester, then we were required to send grade notices home to give parents a heads up regarding what they will be seeing on the progress report. Now all of a sudden, you’re unable to work on long-term projects because you won’t have a grade in time for the next update and we all know that if you don’t have grades, then clearly it’s because you’re lazy.

The same thing happens with parent communication. You update a website regularly with daily class information and downloadable materials? How am I supposed to know when it’s updated each day? Oh, you’ve added a class Twitter account to announce updates to the website? But I prefer text messages. Oh, you have a website, a Twitter account, and a Remind texting account? Well, we didn’t have time to check it. Can you just send home everything my child is missing?

My work hours are a little longer now. Instead of 8 to 3, I work 8 to 5. But I wouldn’t say that my work day is longer. As a teacher, 8 am was the time work started but it wasn’t the time I started working. I was usually at school by 7 am at the latest (earlier if I didn’t have to take my kids to school or daycare) in order to get everything ready. And when 3 pm rolled around, I was packing multiple hours worth of work into my bag to take to my other office, also known as my dining room table.

At my new job, an 8 am start means I leave my house at 7:40. And at 5 pm, my bag returns home as light as it left. Again, this doesn’t mean that my new colleagues and I aren’t working hard, or that we don’t bust our asses to go above and beyond expectations, or that we don’t still take work home with us. In fact, right now my work hours are a blur because of the extra time being put in to plan the company’s annual national conference in Orlando. (Did I mention my job includes an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida?) But in the world outside education, we sacrifice our time when needed as opposed to being expected to sacrifice our time as a matter of course.

2.  In the year before I left teaching, my daughter started pre-school, so I enrolled her in the district where I taught. Of course, this meant that I dropped her off and picked her up from school. This created a problem when I had a staff meeting after school. The problem wasn’t picking her up. It was where to take her during my meeting. I asked if she could just sit at my desk since the meeting was in my room fully expecting a “no problem.” Instead, I was made to feel like the request was unreasonable, that an institution for teaching children was no place for a child. Instead, I had to find a student to babysit her in another room. Perhaps it was for the best. Who knows what could have happened had my 4-year-old daughter been privy to Homecoming planning details and SAT data.

When I started my new job, I was faced with a similarly difficult situation when our after-school care provider called in sick. My now five-year-old daughter couldn’t just stay at school for another two hours and she certainly wasn’t going to walk home by herself. I expected an awkward conversation with my manager. Instead, my manager and my team were practically giddy with excitement. They told me that I could work from home for the rest of the afternoon but that they would love it if I brought my daughter back to work with me.

“Are you serious?” I asked cautiously, as if this were a setup for being so gullible. I assumed the answer was “yes” since they immediately began planning activities for her. When I returned with my daughter, she was greeted by everyone with coloring pages, candy, and even a toy car with the company logo on it from the president of the company. Now my daughter always wants to know when she can come back to work with me. In that moment, I learned that respect for people’s lives outside of work exists. Way too often in teaching, teachers are treated as if caring for their own families means they are neglecting their students and that their job is putting everyone else’s children ahead of their own. It doesn’t have to be like that.

3.  I’m not going to lie and tell you that a part of me doesn’t feel guilty about leaving. Public education is currently waging a huge battle for its survival and I walked away. Despite the way teachers are perceived and disrespected in a social context, it’s a little bit easier to stand up tall and declare you are a teacher when someone asks what you do for a living than it is with a job title that requires explaining. However, I don’t regret leaving for a single moment and I have the rest of my teaching colleagues to thank for it.

When I made my departure official and announced it to the world, I was humbled by the response of kind words and expressions of sadness for losing what I had to offer the classroom. But I was also alarmed by the number of responses I received from teachers asking how I managed to do it. I received texts, emails, and phone calls from teachers all over the national network I had been a part of declaring that they wanted out, too. These messages weren’t coming from young teachers who decided they couldn’t hack it for the long haul. These were established teachers, leaders in their field, authors of respected educational research. Many, like me, could even see the finish line of a retirement from education within the next decade but decided that it wasn’t worth it. The requests for information started spreading. I began receiving messages from friends of friends and even a few strangers. I had somehow become the exodus guru. I still receive these messages, with the most recent just last week from a woman I once met at a conference who found me on LinkedIn and wondered if I could give her friend some advice.

With so many wanting out, my guilty feelings quickly subsided. However, I’m left with a fear for our education system. In my state of Michigan alone, enrollment in college teacher programs has declined drastically to the point where schools are hard pressed to find someone who will even be a substitute. For the last decade, teachers in my state have seen repeated attacks on their paychecks, their credibility, their voice, and the profession in general. We’ve reached an era where parents don’t have to dissuade their children from becoming teachers. Their kids no longer see any appeal. Pretty soon, the fight for public education might have to come from the outside because there will be no one left to throw punches on the inside.

I will continue to be one of those fighters on the outside, but I will also enjoy a well-deserved life outside of the trenches. Instead of phone calls to parents or stacks of papers to grade, my evenings are filled with time to play with my daughters. I use some of my new extra income to pay for those subscription home meal delivery kits and I’m learning to cook. I take a Florida vacation in the middle of winter at a time of my own choosing. I go to bed at a decent hour and have time to read a book before I go to sleep. It truly is amazing how stress-free my life has become. Part of me is pretty sure that my grey hair is getting its color back. While that might be a slight exaggeration, I do truly believe that I have drastically increased my odds of seeing my future grandkids grow up.

Whatever you decide to do with your future, whether it is holding strong in the trenches or seeking a more peaceful life, remember the most important point that I’ve gathered through this whole experience: You have worth outside of the classroom. In my case, I found a job that respects my professional accomplishments as a teacher more than those who employed me as one. You have not locked yourself into a career you can’t get out of. There are options. You just have to discover what they are. You may use this discovery to begin planning your exit. Or you may use this discovery to strengthen your resolve to fight for what is right in your school because now you know your school needs you more than you need it. For the sake of my children, one of which started kindergarten this year, I hope there are enough of you that choose the latter. But if you choose the former, I seriously doubt you’ll regret it.

_________________

In part three of this series, Dan will share the lessons he learned when he quit teaching and started searching for a new job. If you’re considering getting out of the classroom, you’ll want to learn from his experience. Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss it. The article, as well as future ones, will be emailed to you.

You can also follow Dan on Twitter at @DanDanLaird and if you’d like to contact him directly his email is [email protected]

 

 

Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

This article is the first in a three-part series written by Dan Laird, a teacher of 17 years who quit at the top of his game and found success in private industry. In part one, Dan explains what led to his decision to give up on teaching. In part two, you will read why Dan will never go back now that’s he seen “the other side.” In part three, Dan will offer hard-won advice to any teacher who is looking for a job outside of education. 

Dan Laird

When I first decided to become a teacher back in the 20th century, my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t because they looked down on the profession. My mom is a retired teacher. My sister is a teacher. And some of my cousins are teachers. It’s in the genes. While I will also certainly make an attempt to talk my children out of becoming teachers, my parents’ reasoning was simple: There were more opportunities for success elsewhere.

Today, however, the reasons for avoiding the teaching profession are more serious. The pay has become a stagnant system of scratching and clawing for an occasional measly half-percent off-schedule “raise.” In many years, not taking a pay cut is considered a success. But there is a bigger issue. Teaching is demoralizing. The strain of unrealistic demands has made it even more exhausting than it already was. Sacrifice is now the expectation and that expectation is typically rewarded with criticism and a demand for more.

The Beatings Will Continue

When Detroit teachers walked out of their classrooms in 2016 to protest the atrocious working conditions that included everything from overcrowded classrooms to mold and mushrooms growing on the walls and floor, I read comments on social media demanding that these teachers be fired and that they “knew what they were getting into when they took the job.” Of course, there were also comments criticizing teachers for hurting kids by denying them an education and arguing that these teachers needed to go through the proper channels to effect change. These conditions were not new in 2016. Where were the commendations for using the “proper channels” in previous years?

The crisis in Detroit and subsequent ones like the lack of heat in Baltimore this winter demonstrate two things: Drastic measures are sometimes needed to draw attention to the most basic of educational needs and drastic measures make it uncomfortably difficult for others to ignore the problem. Education professionals suffer when they don’t advocate for their students, but they suffer even more when they do. A friend of mine has a toy plaque with a pirate skull that says, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I can’t think of a more appropriate motto for the teaching profession.

The Height of My Career

I resigned from my teaching position in 2017 after 17 years. To provide some perspective, I spent all 17 years (plus an additional full year as an intern) in the same district. I was invested in the school. I put down roots. Leaving the teaching profession meant leaving much more than just a job. My colleagues were my family. An entire generation of parents in the community sent every one of their children to my classroom at some point. I was even starting to see the children of students from my internship year.

My connection to the community wasn’t the only reason it was difficult. I was at the height of my career. I had just co-authored the book Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay with Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. I was presenting my work at national conferences in cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. And I was collaborating on educational initiatives with teachers across the country through my work with the National Writing Project. I even earned my administration endorsement the year before I left. I was invested in advancing in my profession all the way to the end.

This isn’t a story about one man hating his job for years until he finally had enough. There was no gradual decline. Quite the contrary. I loved teaching and spent countless hours advocating for it. I spent over half of my career as a building representative, vice-president, or president of my local education association. I marched. I picketed. I protested. I voted!

The Least Trusted Source

While I did love my time in the classroom — the connections, the light bulb moments of discovery — my workplace was becoming a constant reminder of what was happening to the teaching profession. New restrictions, meritless legislation, evaluation tools that hadn’t been properly evaluated themselves, mandated standardized tests that were thrown away or redesigned year after year while their results were nevertheless used to compare one year’s performance to the next, a demand from politicians and parents to “make our kids better, but don’t you dare tell them what to do.”

Somehow, the professional became the least trusted source, and the growing trend for outsiders in showing they cared about education had become to point a finger. I think it’s fair to say that the emotional drain had surpassed the physical one. Something had to change. My change was to become selfish and walk away. I quit.

A New Job

I dipped my toes in the waters of a career outside of teaching when I created my own professional development consulting business. I formed an LLC, created a website, ordered business cards, and even hired a former student to create the logo for me. I sent promotional materials to just about every school in Michigan. It seemed like a logical fit. I’d get to continue in the world of education using all of the knowledge and experience I had gained in almost two decades of teaching. More importantly, I could enjoy focusing on instruction. No more grading papers past midnight, no more parent/teacher conferences, no more battles about sound educational practices with school board members who’d barely earned their high school diplomas, no more spineless administrators who pretended to be uninformed so they could avoid making difficult decisions. The thought of it was exhilarating.

But since making this my primary source of income wasn’t exactly the soundest financial decision, I started looking at job postings that could supplement the venture. Unfortunately for the business, it wasn’t long after all of the momentum started to build that I was offered a job as a Training and Development Specialist for a privately operated company that had nothing to do with education.

I accepted and within one month I discovered every reason why I will never return to teaching again.

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I’ll be publishing Part 2 of this series, Why I Left Teaching and Will Never Go Back, in the coming days and part 3, The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers shortly after that.  If you want to be sure not to miss those, the best thing to do is subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you new articles (check your promotions tab, Google hides them there). You can also follow me on Facebook or Twitter, where I link to my articles.

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Have you also walked away from teaching?

Or maybe you left the corporate world to become a teacher?

I’d love to hear from you. Comment on this or subsequent articles in this series and I may get in touch with you for a book I’m writing. Thanks!

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 3: Say No

teacher burnout

In part one of this series, I discussed why it is that teachers fail to protect themselves from burnout, even though high numbers of teachers report being stressed, exhausted, and disengaged at work.

In part two, I previewed the strategies I use to work 40 hours per week. I also talked about the importance of having a plan if you’re serious about cutting your own hours back.

Today, I’ll share my number one strategy for working fewer hours. Like many solutions, it’s simple but powerful.

Say no.

Many people have a hard time saying no. They have good reasons. We’re social creatures who are wired to cooperate. Society reinforces this biological urge to get along. No feels negative. Saying it disappoints other people. Pop culture contributes with messages about having no regrets, being a doer, and squeezing every drop out of life. For a lot of people, just the thought of telling someone no makes them uncomfortable. They agree to every request and then wonder why they’re stressed out and tired all the time.

Teaching is hard. Putting more on your plate makes it harder. The easiest way to lower your stress, which will make it less likely you will burn out somewhere down the line, is to do less work in such a stressful environment.

First, you have to give yourself permission to say no.  That requires a shift in mindset. No feels bad. It’s by definition a negative word. It means letting others down. It’s these negative thoughts and associated fears that lead people to say yes when they don’t want to.

Instead, think of it this way: When you say no, you are also saying yes.

  • When you say no to joining a committee, you are saying yes to having more time to prepare high-quality lessons or provide students with valuable feedback.
  • When you say no to attending an after-school night, you’re saying yes to your own family, your own interests, and your own energy levels, which will, over time, lengthen your career.
  • When you say no to solving another teacher’s problem for them, you’re saying yes to empowering that teacher to solve the problem herself.
  • When you say no to things that don’t impact your students, you are saying yes to things that do.

When you say no, you say yes to the opportunity to say yes to other things.

That’s because every decision you make has trade-offs. Saying no simply means you’re acknowledging this fact.  You can’t do everything and you shouldn’t try. Do a few important things, and do them well. If you do, you’ll be in excellent company.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Steve Jobs: People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.”

Seth Godin: “Just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

Paulo Coelho: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.”

Meghan Trainor: “Nah to the ah to the no, no, no.”

Even Jesus said no. 

Many teachers will claim that they don’t have a choice. They have mandatory meetings to attend. They are contractually obligated to chaperone a dance, or three sporting events, or attend graduation. Some claim that even though certain work isn’t technically mandatory, it’s strongly encouraged.

All of that may be true. I, too, have meetings I must attend, parent-teacher conferences to run after school hours, and an open house every fall.

But there are a number of opportunities that teachers accept when they shouldn’t. When teachers say they “have to,” they often mean that the repercussions of not saying yes are uncomfortable. Or, more likely, the fear of such repercussions is uncomfortable. Elaine St. James, in her book, Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More, says:

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”

And simplifying your job will help you cut hours off it.

An entire book could be written on why and how teachers should say no (in fact, I’m writing one), so for this article, I’ll stick to knowing when to say yes and when to say no. It’s actually very easy.

Say yes to opportunities that:

  1. Excite you
  2. Further your goals

Tim Ferriss goes so far as to say, “If it’s not a hell, yeah, it’s a no.” Saying yes to only those things that excite you or that further your goals is a way of prioritizing, and all teachers must do more of it. We simply can’t do everything, so we must choose.

Let’s practice:

Would you like to join the March is Reading Month Committee?

Say yes if the idea of meeting with others to design fun activities around reading is exciting to you or if you think that joining such a committee will further one of your goals. If you feel like you should, or if you’re worried what others will think if you don’t, or if you haven’t joined a committee this year but you know Joyce is on three so you probably ought to and this one doesn’t sound so bad …say no.

I’ve really been impressed with how you use technology in your classroom. Would you mind sharing some of those ideas with the staff?

Your body does this thing when it’s presented with an offer. It is either immediately excited or it wants to get the hell out of there as fast as it can. Listen to your body. If the very mention of an opportunity gets you excited, then say yes. If you love technology and like sharing ideas with others, then this one is a no-brainer. If you love technology but the thought of presenting to your colleagues creates a pit in your stomach, say no (and maybe offer to make a video or send out links to the stuff you do). If the idea of spending time on any of it makes you instantly resentful — if you immediately start figuring out when in the world you’ll find time to pull it all together — then say no. It’s not a priority right now and other stuff is.

Remember, saying no means saying yes. What could you do with the time you would have spent on this committee or doing that presentation or attending that event? The reverse is also true: Saying yes is saying no. So if you’re a teacher who just can’t stomach the thought of telling people no, consider this: every time you say yes to something, you are also saying no to lots of other things. Saying yes to donating your time over here means you don’t get to use that time over there.

If you’re a teacher who always says yes, then when you return to work after the break, say no to something. Say no to anything. Don’t apologize. Don’t give excuses. As Susan Gregg says, “No is a complete sentence and so often we forget that.” No is empowering. Try it. You might like it.

If you want more ideas on how to prioritize, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Over the course of a calendar year, she’ll give you tips in the areas of lesson planning, grading papers, communicating with parents, establishing routines, and many others, all with the aim of helping you cut hours from your typical workweek. It’s great stuff, which is why Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner and all links to the club are affiliate links.

If you want to read more about prioritizing, acknowledging trade-offs, and the importance of saying no so you can focus on your greatest contribution, check out Greg McKeown’s excellent book, Essentialism. It will change how you think about no.

The rest of the series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Making a Plan

 

If you’re interested in keeping up with this series, the easiest thing to do is subscribe to the blog. I’ll email you each new article as it’s published.