A Lie All Teachers Should Believe

What is the most empowering belief a teacher can have? 

That’s a question I was recently asked. A few answers came quickly to mind:

All students can learn.

I make a difference.

The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I believe the most empowering belief a teacher can have is a lie.

How, you might wonder, can teachers be expected to believe a lie when they know it’s a lie?

The same way we walk around believing all sorts of lies in spite of knowing the truth.

For example, we believe we’re better than others in all sorts of ways, even though our logical brains know how unlikely that is. Researchers have found that we rate ourselves above average on everything from our driving ability to our academic performance to the quality of our personal relationships.

We persist in the belief that more money will make us happier, even though increased happiness has not followed previous pay raises and despite the fact that we’re aware of the research showing the happiest people on the planet do not live in the richest nations and that after about $75,000 per year, money doesn’t increase happiness. 

Many of us still believe in the American Dream, that if you work hard enough you can be anything you want, even though we’re also aware that opportunities aren’t equal and the data show that fewer than 8 out of every 100 kids born into the lowest economic quintile will ever earn enough to place them in the uppermost quintile.

We believe that having children makes us happy. But when Nobel-prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman asked working women in Texas to reconstruct their days and rank each of the activities on a happiness scale, they ranked spending time with their kids about the same as vacuuming. (Source) And then there’s the below graph, which shows how happy we are throughout our lives. It speaks for itself.

So there’s a pretty good precedent when it comes to believing stuff that just isn’t true.

Why do we do it?

I believe it’s because we have a choice between internalizing the truth or the lie, and internalizing the lie is often more likely to improve our circumstances.

There’s research to back up such a belief. Research by Carol Graham (and subsequently confirmed by others) found that individuals who were optimistic about their futures tended to have better health and employment outcomes. Graham writes:

“Those who believe in their futures tend to invest in those futures, while those who are consumed with stress, daily struggles, and a lack of hope, not only have less means to make such investments, but also have much less confidence that they will pay off.”

Read more here: Is The American Dream Really Dead?

The American Dream might be a fantasy, but believing in it makes it more likely you’ll achieve it.

Consider a child who dreams of becoming the next Tom Brady. For that matter, consider a six-year-old Tom Brady. Young Tom, as he was growing up, surely became aware, somewhere along the line, of the long odds of becoming an NFL player. The odds of him becoming an NFL quarterback were even slimmer. The odds of becoming the greatest quarterback of all time were so infinitesimally small that they could legitimately be considered impossible. Had Brady internalized those odds, he would have quit. None of us would know his name. Instead, Brady chose to believe the fantasy that a relatively unathletic mop-headed California kid could grow up to be the greatest signal caller in history.

We believe those lies that have the potential to benefit us. We lie to ourselves to protect our egos, to provide us with a sense of volition, to enable the illusion of control and self-determination.

Which is why the most empowering belief any teacher can have is this:

Everything that happens in my classroom is my responsibility.

Teachers who believe that lie believe that when things go poorly, it’s their fault.

When their students don’t get along, it’s because of the culture they’ve built.

When a routine isn’t followed, it’s on them.

When students don’t learn, it’s because they didn’t teach well enough.

Everything that happens in their classroom is their responsibility.

It’s a lie, as easily disproven as the American Dream.

In truth, things go poorly for many reasons outside the control of the teacher. Students sometimes act like jerks because all people sometimes act like jerks. Routines don’t get followed because humans are forgetful and easily distracted. Sometimes a student doesn’t learn because she hasn’t eaten, or he broke up with his boyfriend the night before, or she didn’t get any sleep because her baby sister cried all night, or because he just doesn’t give a damn about the Reconstruction Era (and really, can you blame him?).

But just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe it. Like the American Dream, you’ll do better if you buy the lie.

Believing that everything that happens in your room is your responsibility makes you a better teacher, just like equating more money with greater happiness makes you a better American (can you imagine what would happen to our economy if everyone actually acted on the fact that more money doesn’t make us happier?)

Believing the lie makes you a better teacher because it compels you to try to solve problems. By attempting to solve problems, you might actually solve some of them. Things will improve for the simple reason that you believe you can improve things.

The Other Side of the Coin

The problem, of course, is the same as the lies about wealth, parenthood, and the American Dream. The lie, while it benefits each of us to believe it and act accordingly, can be used by others to harm us.

If the American Dream is possible, then people born into challenging circumstances have no one to blame but themselves for not making it.

If we believe that wealth ought to make us happier, then we assume there’s something wrong with wealthy people who are miserable.

If we believe that parenthood is the best thing that can happen to a person, then postpartum depression becomes an existential threat rather than a rational response.

 

Teachers should believe the lie that everything that happens in their classrooms is their responsibility. Such a belief will make them better teachers.

But the rest of us should show more understanding and recognize the truth: There are a number of things teachers can’t control, and failures in their classroom are as likely a result as those things as they are anything the teacher has or hasn’t done.

 

How to Pursue Your WHY

Last week, I wrote an article called, Teachers Don’t Need to Find Their WHY. Its main point was that the vast majority of teachers don’t struggle to find meaning in their work; they know why they became a teacher. What’s frustrating and at times demoralizing is their feeling that they cannot pursue their WHY. The article generated a lot of interest and some discussion, but it was not optimistic and failed to provide any solutions to the problem. Fortunately, some readers offered advice.

One of those readers was Bill Cecil, who taught for more than thirty years. Bill was the 2003-2004 Michigan Teacher of the Year, and he spent much of his career inspiring teachers to be effective leaders through high-energy presentations and his book, Best Year Ever. His website includes 100 short videos that can help any teacher improve his/her practice. Bill is endlessly positive, which is why I’m sharing his response to my article below. If you’re looking for a way to reengage with your WHY, then follow Bill’s advice.

Bill:

“I hope you are right about most teachers already knowing their WHY. If so, with all the many distractions and challenges going on in education right now pulling teachers in many different directions, maybe there are some teachers who can use your article to reconnect with their purpose. I will say, I do disagree with you that teachers aren’t being allowed to pursue their purpose. Maybe this is their perception, but it does not have to be their reality! Please let me explain.

Throughout my 30+ years teaching, I used my teaching and time in my classroom each day to pursue my purpose by trying to uplift, elevate, and empower my students to believe in themselves, adopt and/or maintain a growth mindset, always give their best effort, and try to approach each day looking for things to get excited and happy about.

I NEVER once asked anyone or waited for anyone to give me permission to do that–or waited for the conditions to be just right for me to be able to pursue my purpose! Instead,  I just learned to filter all the WHATS (what I was being told to teach), WHENS (when to teach my lessons), and HOWS (being told how to teach my lessons) and anything else I was being mandated to do through my WHY(my purpose) each day.

I would always try to keep my focus on my bigger mission while going about all the other business, which seemed to cut down on my students’ and my stress, help create a more positive, productive learning environment, and to be able to drive home each day still feeling tired as all hell but satisfied and fulfilled knowing that I was making a difference in my classroom!

Over my long career, I saw many, many WHATS, WHENS, HOWS, and other challenges come and go…But my WHY never changed! I used it like my North Star to keep me on the path I entered this profession to pursue. I would encourage those of you still teaching to do the same thing!!

There are many things teachers don’t have a lot of control over, but I STILL BELIEVE no one can ever take away your ability to teach with purpose (and to positively impact your students) each and every day!! I wish all of you still teaching the very best and the courage to always pursue your purpose for teaching with passion!”


So, what do you think?

Are you able to pursue your WHY in your school? 

What makes doing so harder than it should be?

Knowing what you now know, what is something you would tell your younger self?

Sound off in the comments and share this post to amplify the discussion.

Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY

find their why

Every couple of years or so, a Big New Idea sweeps across the business world and ends up being adopted by (or forced on) education leaders. Fish! Philosophy, SMART goals, strategic planning, data-driven decision-making, and choosing your One Word have all found their ways into central offices and welcome back PD days. One of the latest of these fads is finding your WHY. This one is brought to us by Simon Sinek, who you probably know from this video:

Finding your WHY (he’s the one who capitalizes it) is about identifying the reason you do what you do. It’s your passion, your reason for existing. Sinek describes it as, “why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”

Because we revere business in this country, schools love hopping on the bandwagon when these fads emerge from the ether. When a business management expert sells a few million copies of his new book and racks up a few million views on YouTube, you can bet there will be plenty of school administrators champing at the bit to shoehorn their ideas into their organizations. “How can this apply to teaching?” they’ll ask.

The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that rarely dampens people’s enthusiasm for it.  I’m willing to bet there are thousands of teachers across the country who have been asked to find their WHY in the last few years. Administrators who push this question have good intentions, but they’re focused on the wrong problem.

Teaching is pregnant with meaning. Teachers do not need to find their WHY. I know very few teachers who don’t recognize their purpose. All of us know our work is meaningful. That’s why most of us chose it instead of fields that paid more but offered less meaningful work. Teaching is a mission-driven profession entered into by largely selfless people for noble reasons. Most teachers are idealists at heart. You have to be, considering the challenges of the job and the modest tangible rewards for doing it.  No teacher enters the profession confused about its importance. In fact, one survey of 30,000 teachers found that 100% of them (that’s all 30,000!) were enthusiastic about the profession when they started. That’s because they were 100% sure of their WHY. Even veteran teachers haven’t forgotten why they’re there. Since finding meaning in one’s work is a major contributor to personal happiness, it’s not surprising that teachers rate their lives better than all other occupation groups except doctors. 

But teachers are far less happy when they’re actually at work. 61% say their jobs are always or often stressful, and they rank their work environment lower than farmers, construction workers, and miners do. How can this be? If teaching is so meaningful — if teachers know their WHY — how can they be so unhappy at school?

Simple. Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. 

Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. Click To Tweet

The unanimous enthusiasm young teachers feel when they start quickly wilts under the crushing reality found inside today’s schools. While every teacher starts off believing in the promise of their jobs, just 53% said they were still enthusiastic about teaching at the point they took the above-mentioned survey. Those who “strongly agreed” had dropped from 89% to 15%. The most dangerous year for a teacher is her first. More teachers quit after year one than any other year. The job didn’t suddenly become devoid of meaning for these young idealists. They quit because of the disconnect between what they want to do (their WHY) and what they believe they can do.

Say I start a food pantry because my WHY is to eradicate hunger in my community. My job will certainly not lack meaning. I will be motivated to seek out donations. I’ll research neighborhoods and identify potential clients. I’ll use traditional and digital media to get the word out. I’ll work with schools and businesses to organize food drives. I’ll move heaven and earth to fulfill my mission.

Now say that upon starting my food pantry, the health department tells me I can’t accept certain types of foods. Then I discover that it’s hard to find and keep reliable volunteers. Then I run into capacity problems; I need more space! Then some of my clients start showing up too often and taking more than their fair share. I have to make new rules. Some clients hate my new rules. I regularly run out of popular items and have to purchase them with very limited funds. Some complain about the food I do provide. Then somebody gets sick and sues me. Now I’m paying a lawyer. At some point, I might decide that having a WHY isn’t enough. There are simply too many impediments.

That’s what too many teachers decide.

If a lack of purpose was a real problem for teachers, then we’d expect greater turnover in affluent schools than in high-poverty ones. Teachers might rightly question the meaning of their job if they’re teaching in a wealthy district where kids are going to go to college regardless of their teachers’ efforts. Teachers unquestionably have a better chance at improving the lives of those who come from less. Finding meaning in their work isn’t the issue. The fact that far more teachers leave high-needs schools than affluent ones suggests that it’s not the meaning of the job that makes the difference in whether teachers stick it out, but the likelihood that such meaning can be effectively pursued.

It’s the barriers that are the problem. The lack of resources needed to do the job. The outside factors that influence students’ motivation and abilities. The insufficient training. The absence of mentors. The lack of parent knowledge or support. These are the things that make it hard to remain passionate about a mission that grows increasingly unlikely to be realized.

Even worse is the bureaucratic buffoonery that tends to be especially egregious in high-poverty districts. It’s exhausting to fight for what should be basic needs and rational policies. Teachers are too often forced to do things that conflict with their sense of purpose. No teacher went into the job to focus on test scores and compliance. They shouldn’t have to give a weekly reading test to a kid they know can’t read the test. They shouldn’t be prohibited from reading a math test to a student who’s excellent at math but can’t decode the words in the problem. They shouldn’t be forced to use this grading scale and enter this many grades by such-and-such a date. The decision to assign homework or not shouldn’t be made for them. They shouldn’t be precluded from taking lethargic students outside for a break or discouraged from providing students time to read whatever they want because they have to teach from a canned program that the kids despise and that doesn’t even work.

Those teachers find their WHY, but the why they find is, “WHY did I become a teacher again?”

Teachers already have a WHY. They don’t need soul-searching and deep introspection. Those who are burned out haven’t mailed it in because they believe teaching lacks meaning. They’re demoralized because the meaning inherent in the job has been stripped away in service to some other less meaningful goals.

Teachers do not need to find their WHY. They simply need to be allowed to pursue it.

Teachers don't need to find their WHY. They need to be allowed to pursue it. Click To Tweet

 

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The Best Parent-Teacher Conference Advice

I don’t remember much from the year I spent as a student teacher. It was in a fifth-grade classroom. The kids were mostly well behaved. When I took over lead teaching, I had the idea that I would run a classroom where students didn’t need to raise their hands. My mentor teacher looked at me askance, but to her credit allowed me to fail on my own. Most of the time, I was trying to keep my head above water. I learned most by failing, but there were a few things my mentor teacher did that I took with me to my first job. Some of the most enduring lessons were on how to conduct parent-teacher conferences. After 18 years in the classroom and an estimated 450 conferences, here are my five best pieces of advice:

Let the Parent Go First

Here’s how my mentor teacher put it before the very first parent walked in on our first night of conferences: “Always start by asking the parent if they have anything they’d like to talk about.” Most parents will come in and be content to hear what you have to say. But there will usually be a couple who have a burning issue they’ve been waiting to address with you. If you start in with your prepared remarks, or student artifacts, or the progress report, these parents will not be listening. They’ll be thinking about what they want to say, just like you do when you’re pissed off in a staff meeting and can’t wait to vent while your principal blathers on about something you care not a whit about.

If a parent walks in with student work in her hand, you can bet that’s what she wants to talk about. Start your conference with these words: “Hi, thanks for coming! Now, before I get into what I’m going to say, is there anything you’d like to discuss?” Then shut up and listen.

Show That You Understand Their Kid

You spend seven hours every day with your students. Their parents spend less. More than wanting to know how their child is doing in school (they usually know) and whether or not they behave during class (they have a pretty good idea about that, too), parents want to know if you get their kid. They want to know if you respect their child enough to get to know them and accept them for their differences. They want to know if you see the children in front of you as individuals.

Say at least one non-judgmental thing that shows you understand each child.  Even if your observation is a less-than-desirable characteristic, the fact that you’ve noticed their kid is important to parents.

Be Honest 

A former colleague interviewed for a teaching job with another district but didn’t get it, even though she thought it went well. During the call where she learned she wasn’t getting the job, she asked what she could have done differently. She was told she was a “model candidate” and received no constructive feedback. She asked what she could do to improve and was basically told nothing.

People crave feedback. We don’t mind being told hard truths if it will help us get what we want. Parents want their children to succeed, and to do so they need to know what their children can do to make that happen. Telling parents that their child “lacks motivation” when in reality they don’t do any work in the room at all is a disservice. Reporting that a child creates a lot of “interpersonal conflict” is hiding behind jargon. Just say they don’t play well with others and that in most of the cases, you’ve observed their child to be the instigator.

Don’t be a jerk, but do be honest.

If Jimmy doesn’t focus on his work and gets little done in class, say so. If Susan acts without thinking and her impulsivity regularly interferes with others’ learning, let the parents know. If Quentin is reading behind grade level and you’ve witnessed him on many occasions doing everything he can to avoid reading, explain to his mom and dad that he’s not going to improve unless he actually reads.

Parents can’t help their kids get better if they don’t know what to work on and you’re in the best position to know what they need to work on, so tell them.

Describe, Don’t Diagnose

Teachers aren’t doctors and shouldn’t pretend they are. We don’t know the causes of what we’re seeing and even if we’ve seen it ten times before, we should stay in our lane. If pushed by parents — I sometimes have parents who come right out and ask if I think their child has ADHD–stick to what you have observed.

“He has a very hard time focusing. He rarely finishes assignments. Yesterday, he completed the first three problems in three minutes, but then completed only one more over the next fifteen minutes.”

“He doesn’t get work done and he bothers others during work time.”

“Whenever he doesn’t get his way, he throws a fit. Other students have noticed and they avoid him.”

Telling parents what you’ve seen puts you in the position of simply being a reporter. If pressed, stick to that role. You can even add, “I’m just telling you that this is what I’ve witnessed in the classroom.”

Let There Be No Surprises

A good way to have a disastrous conference night is to never tell parents anything until they’re sitting right in front of you and then unload all the bad news at once. They feel ambushed, and you come across as unprofessional. You have all the knowledge, you’ve kept it to yourself, and then you’ve sprung it on an unsuspecting victim in a public place where they can’t just get up and storm out without looking like horrible parents. Save yourself a lot of trouble by letting the parents know, at the earliest date, about any problems their child is having at school. If a parent is surprised at any point during the conference, then you haven’t been communicating enough. If you’ve dropped the ball in this regard (and I have), admit it.

Say: “I’m sorry. I should have called,” or  “I should have sent home more student work.” Ask them how frequently they would like to be updated going forward. Then promise to do better.

A good conference is about the teacher first listening to any concerns the parents may have and then communicating the information parents need to know so they can help their children succeed. Do the above, and your conferences will be productive.

 

New Teachers Are Getting Screwed

screw

The most recent data show that 10% of new teachers quit rather than return for a second year of teaching. Over their first five years, 17% of new teachers leave. It’s a miracle that number is so low. It’s a testament to young teachers’ idealism, optimism, and dedication. America is extremely fortunate that most of them stick it out. It’s often said that teachers don’t go into education for the money. That teaching is about the outcome, not the income. It’s a damn good thing. Because our new teachers are getting screwed.

I started teaching in the fall of 2000. I couldn’t locate any pay stubs from that year, but I did find my 2001 W-2, which was the first fiscal year that I earned a full salary. As you can see, my gross pay was $30,358.

Below you will find the current salary schedule for the district where I started my career. This year, a first-year teacher is earning $32,981.

That’s an eight percent increase over 18 years.

Eight percent.

In 18 years.

Let’s put that in context.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inflation rose at a rate of 2.09% per year from 2000 to 2017. Prices this year are 42.2% higher than they were in 2000.  If new teacher pay in my old district had kept up with inflation, a first-year teacher would, in 2017, be making $43,108. They’d have 10,000 extra dollars in their pockets. But to make that much, a teacher in that district would need a master’s degree and five years of experience.

While new teacher pay has gone up a paltry eight percent,

Milk has risen 30% in the same span.

College costs are 148% more now than in 2000, which means that our new teachers are having to pay off college loans that are much larger than those teachers who started 18 years ago, but they have just 8% more dollars to do so.

Admission to sporting events is 87% higher.

Airfare is 16% more.

And if reading this makes you want to drown your sorrows, alcohol will cost you 40% more today than it did in 2000.

When young teachers say they have to work a second job, they’re not exaggerating or being dramatic. They aren’t looking for pity. They’re telling the truth. New teachers have been given a raw deal.

But It’s Worse Than That

If we can’t or won’t pay new teachers a reasonable income, we could at least make their sacrifice worth it. We could tell them, “Look, we know this sucks right now, but it’s going to get a lot better. If you stick it out for three years, you’ll see a significant bump in pay.” But if my former district is at all representative of other districts — and I have no reason to think it isn’t — then that’s not the case. After three years in that district, a teacher who has not earned a master’s degree will earn just $36,496.

We could offer them more security. We could tell them, “Hey, prove you can do the job for five years, and after that, we’ll mostly leave you alone. We’ll check in every once in a while to make sure you haven’t thrown in the towel, but if you have enough dedication to struggle through five extremely challenging and poorly compensated years, we’re going to trust that your heart is in the right place and that you know what you’re doing. No formal evaluation, no stupid effectiveness ratings. More trust and autonomy. That’s the prize at the end of the tunnel.”

But we don’t do that, either.

Instead, we subject new teachers to unfair evaluations that only exist because of the presumption of suckiness that pervades all of education. Never mind that these evaluations are based on cruddy data and subjective observations with no evidence of validity. Even if we had wonderful tools with which to measure teachers, we’d still be screwing our newest ones. Almost no teacher is adequately prepared to step into the classroom. You learn how to do this job on the job. But teacher evaluation systems don’t recognize this. They expect new teachers to be just as effective as ten-year veterans. They’re judged on the exact same criteria with the exact same scales. And if they’re not as good as someone who’s had ten or twenty years to hone their craft, well, too bad, so sad, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

And Then We Make It Worse

The job is extremely hard, and it’s harder for new teachers. Nearly everything is foreign. In addition to the challenges of leading their own classroom, they’re deluged with district policies, laws they never studied in college but with which they must comply, new technology they’re expected to use with little or no training, a curriculum they’ve never seen, abstruse health insurance plans, and the unwritten norms that are part of every organization.

On top of that, new teachers often feel or are made to feel like they have to prove themselves. In spite of the fact that they knowingly took an extremely demanding job for little pay, some administrators have the audacity to question their commitment. New teachers are encouraged to start before or after school clubs, to join committees, and to attend extra-curricular events, in order to demonstrate their dedication to a job that fewer and fewer college graduates even want.

We ought to be taking every step possible to keep these teachers in the classroom. Instead, we’re doing very little to prevent them from bolting. We take bright, enthusiastic young people who chose a career that pays them peanuts compared to what their college roommates will earn and we frustrate them, exhaust them, and exploit them.

If we don’t want to inject the public school system with more money so new teachers can earn a respectable salary that, at a minimum, keeps up with inflation, we can at least show some gratitude to the people who go into teaching and stick around long enough to make an impact, and eventually, a living. If you work with a young teacher, thank them for hanging in there.

And maybe buy them a drink. Lord knows they can’t afford to buy their own.

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Other articles:

What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best for Kids”

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

Why You Shouldn’t Care About Your Teacher Evaluation

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