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!

Keep Your Hands Off My Planning Time

The following is excerpted from my upcoming book, Leave School at School: The Effective Teacher’s Guide to a 40-Hour Workweek, available from Amazon in March.

If you work for a district or a principal that regularly takes away your planning time — either through contractual language, mandatory meetings or other obligations, or because substitute teacher shortages require you to cover other teachers’ classes — then you should either fight for your right to plan or you should quit.

Taking away teacher planning time is exploitative and borderline abusive. Teachers cannot prepare effective lessons and provide useful feedback to students without prep time. If your district doesn’t provide it, or if they regularly take it away, then they are telling you one of two things:

We don’t care how effective you are.

Or, more likely:

We expect you to be effective, but we don’t want to provide you the time you need. Therefore, we expect you to use your personal, unpaid time to ensure effectiveness.

If you work for a district that has taken away your planning time, you either work for people who have no clue what it takes to do your job well, or who do and don’t care what it does to your well-being. They see you as an interchangeable part instead of a human being. This kind of mindset is poison and it’s not going to change overnight.

Fight or quit.

Those are your only options.

In his book, Originals, Adam Grant explains that disgruntled employees  have four choices: Neglect, Persistence, Voice, and Exit.

Neglect means you show up and go through the motions. Most teachers take neglect off the table because it means being a shitty teacher and that’s not fair to the kids.

Many persist, which Grant describes as grinning and bearing it. They hang in there. They keep their mouth shut, put a lid on their frustrations, and tell themselves that they’ve only got to gut it out until the administration changes or they can retire.

A fair number realize that things won’t get better unless they quit. They set off for greener pastures and more understanding administrators.

But I think even fewer speak up and try to change things, which is too bad.

Think of it like this: If you’re willing to quit, why shouldn’t you be willing to risk being let go by fighting for better working conditions? If you’ve reached the point where you’re willing to go through the hassle of changing jobs, why not adopt a “what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen?” mindset? It seems way more fun to topple some furniture on the way out the door than to gracefully exit.*

With neglect and persistence, nothing changes. Things are not going to get better unless you fight or quit.

Without planning time, you’ll quickly end up exhausted and demoralized. You’ll struggle in the classroom and at home. Your professional and personal life will suffer. Eventually, the stress will cause you to quit or be fired anyway, so why put off the inevitable?

Fight for better treatment or get out.

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* Teachers tell me they worry about the repercussions of being let go. They’d rather leave on their own than risk having to explain an inglorious exit to future employers. They likely fear too much. Teacher shortages aren’t going anywhere. I know of one teacher who was let go, had her former principal actively try to sabotage her hiring by another district, and still wound up with a full time job. The one good thing about this job becoming progressively less attractive is that those of us who stick around ought to find ourselves with greater leverage to affect change. It’s getting to the point where districts will need us more than we need them.

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Why Protecting Your Time is Unselfish

I just finished publishing a 10-part series on how teachers can prevent burnout by vigilantly protecting their time.  Over the course of it, I recommended not grading homework, not creating new content, not taking student writing home, and saying no a lot more often.

One might read those articles and get the impression that I’m advocating for teachers to be selfish. To only look out for number one. To not do anything that doesn’t benefit them.

Clearly, a school can’t function if every teacher acts only in her own best interest. Compromise is essential. Many hands make light work. No organization can succeed unless it’s composed of more givers than takers.

But schools also don’t function very well if they’re full of burned out teachers. And the data suggests that lots of teachers are burned out or well on their way.

It’s hard to find research on how many teachers experience burnout. But we do know that six in ten teachers describe their job as always or often stressful. Only 30% say they are engaged at work. Just 15% “strongly agree” that they’re enthusiastic about the profession.

We also know that the great majority of teachers don’t stick with the job long enough to collect their full pensions. According to pension expert Chad Aldeman, only one in five teachers reach retirement age (Check your state’s numbers here). In spite of a financial incentive to remain in the classroom, only 20% do so. And one has to wonder how many of those are merely hanging on, teaching because it’s all they’ve known or because they’re old dogs who don’t want to learn new tricks. It seems likely that a lot of teachers burn out before they’ve spent 30 years on the job.

Protecting your own hours is important for career longevity, but it’s about more than you. It’s also about helping others. Just as people who have taken intentional steps to accumulate wealth have more money to give to others,  teachers who proactively protect their time and energy have a greater capacity to give at school. Who do you feel less guilty about asking for assistance, the overwhelmed rookie or the veteran who always seems to be two steps ahead?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing — that teachers can do for their coworkers and their students is to protect their time and energy. They should go home shortly after the kids have left, and find ways to reduce the amount of work they take with them. They should detach from work and eat an early dinner, followed by exercise, relaxation, fun, or time with people they care about. They should get at least seven hours of sleep. Happy, well-rested teachers, like every other professional, are better at their jobs. They’re also in a better position to help others.

There’s a tweet I read a couple days ago that sums it up perfectly:

Amen.

If you’re struggling with this mindset or you just need practical tips for how to effectively cut back on the hours you work, you’ve got just one more day to sign up for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make for yourself. It’s also a great choice if you want to have the time and energy to give more at work. Enrollment ends tomorrow, January 9. Act now!

 

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 10: Use Class Time

teacher burnout

I don’t know any teacher who thinks she has enough time during the school day to get done everything she needs to get done. That’s because most teachers split the time they have at work into two distinct categories. There is time with students and time without students. While we’re with students we are constantly interacting with them. We’re teaching, leading discussions, reteaching, modeling, helping, chatting, conferencing, and problem-solving. This constitutes the great majority of our workday. Time without students is used for all other aspects of the job: planning, grading, email, phone calls, making copies, locating resources, meetings, creating, and lots of other things.

Given that most teachers have a small amount of time without students, we struggle to accomplish all that needs to be done without taking work home or staying late after school.

But what if instead of dividing our time this way, we thought of our time at school as time to do the job of a teacher? 

Doing the job of a teacher involves interacting with students, but it also involves all that other stuff. Why should we limit those responsibilities to a small part of our day, thereby guaranteeing that we’ll have to work more hours before or after school and making the likelihood that we will burn out even greater? Why not structure your day so you can use your full eight hours to do all aspects of the job?

The first step to looking at your time differently is to let go of guilt. Guilt is the reason you feel “caught” when your principal walks in and sees you grading papers at your desk while students work independently. Guilt is why you walk around looking over students’ shoulders as they take a test instead of using that time productively. Guilt is what makes you reluctant to sit with your computer and provide students feedback on their writing instead of meeting with them in individual conferences.

Teachers have been conditioned to think that the only thing they should be doing when their students are in the room is physically interacting with them, even when doing so is detrimental.

It’s that way of thinking that creates the feeling that we never have enough time. If you want more time, create it. Carve time out of your time with students to do the things you used to reserve for time without students. Here are a few ways:

Give Breaks

Breaks are good for everyone. Everyone needs them. Give students occasional breaks and use the time to catch up on some of your other work. Read the whole article about this: One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

Use Student Mentors

I turned to students mentors our of desperation. The first year we implemented our math program, I’d have eight students needing help at the same time. I’d dart around the room trying to get to them all. Tired of waiting for me and unable to do the work, students would start talking. I’d have to stop and refocus the class. It was frustrating and exhausting. But while those eight students needed constant help, there were eight others who breezed through the assignments. Why was I spinning like a dervish when I could enlist their help?

You have students who can help other students. It doesn’t have to be you. You might not be all that great anyway. You “help” Johnny every day, but there he is again today with his hand up every five minutes. Send the message to your students that you expect them to do the work, and that if they are stuck, a classmate will help them. Then use the time such an expectation creates to reply to emails, sketch out plans for next week, or leave feedback on some student writing, only helping when your student mentors are unable to.

Test Time

Use student test time to get other work done. Quit watching students like a hawk. You can’t help them anyway and you’re sending them the message that you don’t trust them. Walking around the room while students are taking a test is a waste of your most valuable resource.

Independent Student Reading

I defended independent reading in another article, so I won’t repeat all of that here, but let me address one frequent criticism.

Research indicates that independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers. It doesn’t work for the lowest readers because the lowest readers don’t read.  It comes down to what you think the role of a teacher is. If you believe teachers must ensure students learn, then you’ll constantly guilt yourself into doing more. But if you believe that it’s your job to do your best to establish an environment where learning can take place and that ultimately, it’s up to your students to take advantage of opportunities, then you’ll have no trouble providing students with time to read, explaining your expectations for this time, teaching students why it matters that they read, making reading as appealing as possible, and then getting out of their way and letting them own their learning. If this is your philosophy, then you won’t feel guilty about working on other things while students have the chance to engage in an activity that will make them better readers, should they only choose to do it.

Video Lessons

In part 8 of this series, I wrote about leveraging technology. By making video lessons, you free up time for other things. Having successfully cloned yourself, the video version of you can do the teaching while the human version can do the parts of your job you complain you don’t have time for. Check some papers, reply to professional emails, enter test scores into your online grading system. These are all professional responsibilities. They are part of your job. You shouldn’t feel guilty about doing them, especially when you created that time without harming students in any way.

Finding time during the day to accomplish those tasks you normally take home isn’t abdicating your responsibilities as a teacher. It’s doing your job during the hours you’ve been given to do your job. Look at your whole day. Where are some other places you can carve out time so you can go home at a reasonable hour, keep burnout at bay, and extend your teaching career?

 

If you’d like more productivity tips, check out Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. She’ll help you find even more ways to do less while being a more effective teacher. The sign-up period ends Tuesday, January 9, so don’t delay!

 

Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology

Part 9: On Writing

 

 

 

Preventing Teacher Burnout – Part 9: On Writing

teacher burnout

Let’s say that in the name of avoiding burnout you decide you’re never again going to take student work home. You stop assigning homework. You move paper assessments over to computer-scored ones. You grade in-class work as students finish it. But what do you do about student writing? How can you read 30 or 60 or 120 student essays without taking them home?

So much of cutting the hours you work is simply actually wanting to cut the number of hours you work and doing what’s necessary to make it happen. It requires you to challenge the way you’ve done things and maybe the way it’s “always been done.” You need new mindsets.

If you have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend, it’s because you chose to have 120 student essays to grade over a weekend. Choose differently.

Let’s start with the end in mind. You want each student to get better at writing. What actions can you take to achieve that goal? Or, another way to think of it, how do writers improve? 

Thinking of my own writing, the things that have helped me get better are:

  1. Reading
  2. Lessons (usually in the form of books or articles on how to write effectively)
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback

That’s it. You’ll notice the omission of the word “grades.” Grades do nothing to improve creative work. I have three books on Amazon that have “grades” in the form of little stars. Those stars don’t tell me anything about what I did well or what I need to do to get better. In the same vein, think of movie ratings. You might see a low rating and decide not to watch that particular movie. But if you’re the director of that movie, a 2-star rating doesn’t tell you anything. If you wanted to know what people actually thought about your movie, you’d have to read the reviews. In other words, creators value feedback, not grades.

So the first mindset change is: Grades don’t matter. Feedback does.

But whose feedback? Is all feedback the same? Can students become better writers by getting feedback from students or parents, or does all feedback have to come from the teacher?

Again, thinking of my own writing, I would benefit more from feedback from an expert. That’s why the master-apprentice relationship works. I have little doubt that I’d be a better writer today if Phillip Roth reviewed everything I wrote and offered pointers before I published. But that doesn’t mean others’ feedback is worthless. Every book I write gets sent to a handful of readers. Their feedback always results in a better final product.

The same is true for your students. They need your expert feedback, but that doesn’t mean peer feedback won’t also help them improve. Having students share their work with peers and requiring that they comment on others’ writing is a way for students to see how their work is received by readers. That’s the second mindset shift:

Not all feedback has to come from the teacher.

Alice Keeler says, “The longer a student goes without feedback, the less they care about the feedback when they get it.” Technology allows for faster feedback. I have my students do their writing in Google Docs so I can jump into their document at any time and provide suggestions and so that they can share their writing with classmates. It’s a recursive process of them writing, receiving feedback, and them improving their writing based on that feedback. It’s immediate and the feedback actually gets put to use. So that’s the third mindset shift:

Provide feedback on students’ writing while students are writing.

If you spend class time doing that, you won’t have to take their work home. You’ll also know where every student is in the writing process and you’ll use what you observe in their writing to decide which lessons to teach next. For an excellent article on how a teacher does this, read Catlin Tucker’s article “Stop Taking Grading Home.” 

But what about the grade? First, delay it as long as possible. Grades tell students that the work is over. If you want students to ever go back and improve it, then giving them a grade is a way to ensure that they won’t. If permissible, never give a grade on a student’s writing. They don’t help them improve.

If you can’t go that far,  grade as few of their writing assignments as possible. Provide targeted feedback. Require them to consider that feedback. Have them highlight areas where they revised to demonstrate how they used that feedback. But grade as a little as possible.

In those instances where there’s just no getting around it, grade the writing using a single-point rubric. It will save you tons of time and provide just as useful information to students as more complicated rubrics do (probably more, since students might actually read these less wordy versions). Limit the number of writing traits you score. Grading ten elements is too much. Pick three or four for each piece and focus your feedback on those. This will save you time and also help your students get better.

As with everything in the classroom, it’s not what you do but how you do it. De-emphasize the grade and stress their growth. Encourage them to go back and look at old papers they wrote. And if you were able to refrain from grading those earlier pieces, you might be surprised to see them returning to them and making them better.

 

The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club is designed to help you regain hours of your life without sacrificing effectiveness in the classroom. In fact, like the article above, it provides new ways of thinking that will save you time and help you be a better teacher.

 

Other Articles in this Series:

Part 1: Why Teachers Fail to Protect Themselves From Burnout

Part 2: Make a Plan

Part 3: Say No

Part 4: Slash Your To-Do List

Part 5: Optimize Planning Time

Part 6: Ditch Homework

Part 7: The Common Core Advantage

Part 8: Leverage Technology