No, We Didn’t Sign Up For This

sign up

We teachers sure like to complain a lot. At least, that’s what I’m told by people who don’t teach. Here’s one comment left on an article I wrote:

“Quit complaining. Everybody has things they don’t like about the professions they chose but teachers are the biggest whiners.”

Here’s another:

“I know about a dozen teachers. Every single one of them knew going in how much education they’d have to invest and the amount of effort expected.”

One of the most common refrains complaining teachers hear from non-educators is that we knew what we signed up for.

“Hey,” they say, “You knew the score going in, so no bitching about it now.” It’s an argument that, on its face, makes some sense. It’s true that teachers knew at the outset we weren’t going to get rich. We knew the job would be challenging. We understood that no matter how good we were, no one was going to build a monument to us.

But the truth is, the job of a teacher has changed a lot in a very short amount of time.

I started teaching in 2000. I thought I knew what to expect. I doubt I’m alone. Since many big changes to education have happened in the last 10 years, there are likely millions of teachers who are currently doing a job for which they did not sign up. So when our critics tire of hearing us complain and tell us that we knew the deal going in, they are often wrong. There is a lot of stuff we didn’t sign up for.

We didn’t sign up for a Department of Education that doesn’t actually believe in public education.

We didn’t sign up for wage gaps and the “teacher pay penalty.” In 1996, while I was in college deciding to “sign up” to be a teacher, the average weekly wage of public-sector teachers was $1,122 (in 2015 dollars). In 2015, it had fallen to $1,092. (SOURCE) Weekly pay for all college graduates rose by $124 dollars per week over the same period. I might have signed on knowing I wouldn’t get rich, but I sure as hell didn’t sign on expecting to be paid less after 17 years on the job.

Part of that declining pay may have something to do with diminished political clout. Because when I signed up to be a teacher, teachers’ unions still had power. In the intervening years, Republican-controlled legislatures have done everything they can to erode the unions’ influence. My state, Michigan, became right-to-work in 2012. State legislatures around the country have also removed tenure protections, curtailed collective bargaining rights, abolished last in, first out policies that protected veteran (read, more expensive) teachers, and attacked pensions.

We also didn’t sign up for fewer resources. But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 31 states provided less per-pupil funding in 2014 than they did before the recession in 2008. In 15 states, those cuts exceeded 10%.

We didn’t sign up for increasing federal intrusion. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2001. Its goal of having all students proficient by the year 2014 was mocked by anyone who knew anything, but that didn’t stop the feds from doubling down with a piss-poor rollout of the Common Core State Standards and a bribery scheme called Race to the Top to get states to adopt those standards.

We didn’t sign up for high-stakes teacher evaluation systems that rely on crummy data and the opinions of administrators whose motives may not always be pure.

We didn’t sign up to give students an ever-increasing number of flawed standardized tests that spit out unreliable data used to determine a meaningless teacher rating.

We didn’t sign up for value-added modeling, a statistical method used to evaluate teachers that the American Statistical Society says, “typically measures correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”

We didn’t sign up to be scapegoated by politicians. The staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island sure didn’t sign up expecting the President of the United States and the Secretary of Education to endorse their collective firing. While we may have expected to be treated like dirt by Republicans, we didn’t sign up knowing the Democratic party would abandon us in such a publicly humiliating way.

We didn’t sign up for longer school years or balanced calendars.

We didn’t sign up for substitute teacher shortages.

We didn’t sign up for active shooter drills.

We didn’t sign up for higher poverty rates and needier students. In my state, there are 15% more kids in poverty today than there were in 2008.

We didn’t sign up for increased funding for charter and virtual schools. The same politicians who claim they can’t spend more on education manage to find billions of dollars for charter schools every year, in spite of their lackluster performance. Virtual schools are even worse, but legislators seem to love them anyway.

We didn’t sign up for declining autonomy in the classroom. We didn’t sign up to have our hands held — mistrusted, second-guessed, and told to toe the line, to teach this content at this time in this way. We didn’t sign up for pacing guides, scripted lessons, or strict fidelity to unproven programs.

We didn’t sign up for less planning time.

We didn’t sign up to implement policies we know are bad for kids. We didn’t sign up for less recess, less gym class, less art, less music, and less fun.

We sure as hell didn’t sign up to give eight-year-olds reading tests that could result in their retention.

We elementary teachers didn’t sign up to stress out nine-year-olds over their “college and career readiness” or to take the play out of kindergarten.

There’s an awful lot about teaching today we didn’t sign up for.

In spite of this, most teachers will continue to do the job. Most will do their best. I’m not naive enough to expect those who call teachers whiners to join us in fighting for change. I have no illusions about any of the things I didn’t sign up for going away anytime soon. I won’t challenge our critics to get in the ring and become teachers themselves. After all, they now know what they’d be signing up for. But I will ask them to believe teachers when they tell them what needs fixing. And if they won’t do that, then I will kindly ask them to shut up, and quit telling teachers that they knew what they signed up for.

What do you think, teachers? What else didn’t you sign up for? What’s changed since you decided to become a teacher?

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Don’t Let the Last Hour Spoil the Whole Day

end of day

Here is a list of nonsense words:

lurst, nifkin, bluck, pansate, wazzle, morky, wolire, chagg, fonticule, kittop, glope, tercopular, moobin

Fun, aren’t they?

In 1964, a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments using words like those above. He wanted to determine whether the position of a word on a list affected how easily it could be recalled. To accomplish this, Ebbinghaus prerecorded lists of nonsense syllables, then played them to himself and tried to recall them. He found that the words near the beginning and end of the list were more readily recalled than those in the middle. He called this the “serial position effect” and postulated that the words at the end of the list were more easily recalled because they were still in his short-term memory, a phenomenon he called “recency effect.”

The recency effect is a recognized cognitive bias nowadays, and you see it everywhere. Your favorite sports team (and its coach) is judged by what they have done lately, regardless of how successful they’ve been in the past.  Investors make decisions based on how the stock market has done recently, instead of paying attention to historical trends. Companies use the recency effect in their marketing by making sure the product is as attractive as possible at the point of purchase. You get angry with your spouse over some trivial matter and forget all about the wonderful things they did just last week. Recency matters, and the classroom is no exception.

The recency effect explains why the last hour of school has the potential to ruin your (and your students’) perception of an entire day.

Earlier this year, my class was really struggling during the last 45 minutes of most days. I’d shoehorned science into this time slot and was attempting to include a lot of hands-on group work into my units. Students were not handling it well. Many were off-task. Patience was thin. Kids argued and fought over everything from who got to use what, to how long they used it, to whose idea was good and whose wasn’t. There were more than a few blowups from students whose frustrations reached the boiling point. And of course, my own willpower was at its nadir. I had little tolerance for nonsense and that just made the whole thing even more volatile. It wasn’t a good situation.

When I got home and my wife asked me how my day had gone, I told her it was horrible. I replayed what had happened at the end of the day and lamented how poorly I’d taught procedures and expectations. I complained that I wouldn’t be able to do hands-on, fun science experiments because the kids just couldn’t handle it. I was mentally drained, physically exhausted, and I didn’t even want to think about going back the next day.

This was the recency effect at work. But the truth was quite different.

For most of the day, my class was great. Mornings almost always went well. The students listened, worked hard, got along, and had positive attitudes. Most of the afternoon was productive, too. More students were on-task during independent reading than I’d had in years. They worked well with partners. Even recess was good. We had very few behavior problems on the playground.

When I really thought about it, the only time my students had trouble was during the last 45 minutes of the day. The problem was that when I went home for the day, it was this 45 minutes that I remembered. It left a terrible taste in my mouth, and since the recency effect also works on children, it was a horrible way for students to end the day, too. I imagine that after those chaotic science lessons, many students went home with few good feelings about being in my class. They likely shared those opinions with their parents, just as I had with my wife.

Ending your day poorly is a really good way to destroy your classroom culture, as well as your own enthusiasm for the job.

I had to find a way to combat the recency effect. So here is what I did. Try these strategies if you are finding that your last hour is spoiling the whole day.

Awareness

First, be aware of this cognitive bias we all have and give the end of the day the same weight you give the rest of it. At the end of my difficult days, I took a few minutes to just sit at my desk and replay each subject in my head. This way, I could remember how students had done during different periods of the day and remember that although we might have ended on a sour note, most of the day was actually pretty productive. Acknowledge the recency effect, and don’t judge your whole day based on how it ended.

Focus on the Majority

We teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative outliers, and I’m no different. 20 students can be doing their jobs, but if three are arguing and one of them throws a fit and goes storming out of the room, the whole lesson feels like a debacle, I feel like a failure, and I worry what students think about my classroom management. Instead of focusing on the problematic few, I try to force myself to think about the majority. I’ve written more about this in my article, How to Feel Like Less of a Failure.

Understand Why It Happens

While doing research for my book Exhausted, I learned a lot about willpower. We start each day with a given amount. As the day goes on, we use it up. By the end of the day, our stores of willpower are exhausted and we have a much harder time regulating our emotions. Glucose is the fuel we need for self-control. By 3:00, we’re pretty low on it, so students have a harder time using willpower to do the right thing. It takes energy to resist temptation and have patience with others, and by the end of the day, many students, especially those who have to use the most willpower to do the right thing the rest of the day, just don’t have any left. I explained all of this to my students, but while understanding helps, it doesn’t make it any less infuriating when you feel like the class is going off the rails.

Teach Expected Behaviors

Since I knew the last hour was going to be a challenge, I committed to being much more intentional and detailed about expectations. Before we got out the science materials and split off into groups, I taught and modeled exactly what students needed to do. We also made If/Then plans for handling predictable obstacles. “If Tony isn’t sharing the magnet, then I will remind him that everyone needs a turn before time is up.”

Prevent

Frankly, all the modeling and careful attention to detail annoyed me. I’d spend 15 minutes going over all this stuff, which meant students were pinched for time to perform the science activity, which led to some of the problems I was trying to prevent. In my book Exhausted, I write about how researchers have discovered that people with the most self-control actually use very little of it in the way we normally think about exercising willpower. They don’t will themselves to do the right thing by staring temptation in the face. Instead, people with a lot of self-control use it preemptively to avoid temptations and distractions. College students with exceptional self-control use it to sit in the front row instead of using it to avoid daydreaming or playing on their laptops in the back of the lecture hall. Dieters don’t use willpower to stop themselves from eating a bowl of ice cream at night. They use it to not buy the ice cream in the first place. Knowing this, I finally figured out that the best way to set my class up to be more successful — and the best way to go home feeling good about my days — were to rearrange my schedule so that students wouldn’t have to use so much willpower at a time of day when they had very little of it. I moved science class to the morning and put writing–a much quieter, more independent subject–at the end of the day. That solved more problems than anything.

Flip the Script

The recency effect doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be used to your and your students’ advantage by ending every day with something positive. Brainstorm a list of things you could do with the last ten minutes that will linger in your and your students’ memories. You might have students share something good that happened to them, either aloud or in writing. You could end the day with music and dancing. You can end with a game that builds the classroom culture. You could have your class meeting at the end of the day and share positives and goals for the next day. At the very least, you could do as Michael Linsin recommends in this post and end each day with calm, predictable procedures and high-fives all around. Send them home smiling and excited to come back tomorrow. Send yourself home the same way.

And now, since you’re at the end of this article, do you remember any of the nonsense words at the start of it?

Wait, let me guess….

Moobin?

 

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What Jesus Can Teach Teachers About Priorities

jesus.

Nobody, not even the Son of God, can do it all. In the Gospel According to Mark, we learn about a trip Jesus takes to the bustling and sin-filled city of Capernaum. Jesus heads into the synagogue there and starts teaching. The people are left slack-jawed by his awesomeness and one guy, possessed by an evil spirit, wants to know if Jesus has come to destroy them. With a handful of words, Jesus exorcises the demon and everyone is even more amazed. (Mark 1: 21-28)

After preaching, Jesus takes his pals James and John over to the home of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So Jesus goes in there and cures her. By night, word of the exorcism and the fever healing has spread and the whole damn town gathers outside and starts screaming like a crowd calling for an encore at a Stones concert. Jesus obliges them. The gospel says, “Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons.” (Mark 1: 29-33)

The next morning, before the sun rises, Jesus gets up, leaves the house, and wanders off to a solitary place, where he prays.  His buddies eventually find him and are all, “Hey, man, everyone is looking for you!” I imagine that by this point, anyone with a runny nose or blisters on their feet were looking for some free health care. (Mark 1: 35-37)

Jesus, perhaps growing weary of his celebrity, says, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1: 38)

It happens again a bit later. After healing a loquacious leper who, in defiance of Jesus’s instructions, blabs to anybody wearing sandals about his miracle, we learn that, “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.” (Mark 1: 40-45)

There are a number of lessons here for busy teachers. First, it’s important to notice that the gospel doesn’t say that Jesus healed all who came. It says he healed many and drove out many demons. Jesus got tired, and he called it quits. Second, Jesus was wise to get away from it all and pray. He took time for himself. Third, Jesus recognized that he couldn’t accomplish his main goal of teaching if he spent all his time healing people, so he decided to get out of the city and go to nearby villages where he could teach, because that is what he was there to do.

As teachers, we have many opportunities to do good. We are offered chances to join committees that do important work. We are encouraged to attend before- and after-school activities that benefit our school, students, and parents. We could coach, run an after-hours club, write grants, be a class sponsor, or volunteer to help our principal with state-mandated reporting. Our time and efforts are requested for a lot of worthy endeavors that will help others. But we have limits. We have to remember to take time for ourselves. And we shouldn’t forget what our purpose is. Like Jesus, we need to focus on what we’re there to do.

Our main goal is to be the best teacher to our students. And while taking on extra work to help our colleagues, our administrators, or students in other classrooms is good work, it’s not our main work. We need to recognize that we can’t do it all. Even Jesus couldn’t add more hours to the day. Even he couldn’t escape the hard reality of trade-offs. When Jesus spent his time healing people, he couldn’t preach. And when teachers spend their time doing important work that isn’t teaching, they too have less time to focus on their greatest contribution.

So be like Jesus. Be careful how you use your time. Take care of yourself. Keep the main thing the main thing. Remember why you’re there. And when things start getting in the way of your teaching, stop doing those things.


Related Content:

A More Effective Way For Teachers To Say No

When Teachers Should Be Selfish

American Teachers Should Work Less


I write a lot about how teachers can do a better job taking care of themselves. That’s because you can’t help your students if you’re overworked, stressed out, and exhausted. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to Teacher Habits and receive new articles in your inbox.

 

 

The Best and Worst Lie Teachers Tell Themselves

lie

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I used to dread notes from substitute teachers. Upon arriving at school following an absence, I would see a note on my desk and delay reading it as long as possible. I’d make copies. I’d fine-tune lesson plans. I’d check some papers, answer some emails. Eventually, curiosity would get the best of me and I’d read the note. Invariably, I’d learn about the awful decisions made by the usual suspects. My blood pressure would rise. I would rehearse the cutting words I was itching to hurl at them. Didn’t they know how to behave? How dare they be so disrespectful! It was a horrible way to start the day.

An Epiphany

After a while, I came to realize that the way my students behaved for a sub usually had far less to do with my students and far more to do with the substitute. So instead of getting mad at my students, I would toss the note, unread, into the trash, and tell myself that whatever happened the day before was mostly a reflection on the adult at the front of the room. That led to an epiphany. If I blamed substitute teachers for how my students behaved, why should I not blame myself for what went on in my classroom on a daily basis?

It was the single most productive question I’ve asked as a teacher. It forced me to view every problem in my classroom as the result of something I had or hadn’t done. It led me to realize that every issue in my room was something I could work to resolve. Through research, collaboration, and trial and error, I could improve my craft and enjoy the fruits of my growing competency. I could influence student behavior, effort, and motivation.

  • When students didn’t learn, it was my fault.
  • When a student misbehaved, it was because of my classroom management, or my lame lesson, or my failure to build a positive relationship.
  • When students were bored, it was because I was not making things interesting enough.
  • When transitions were sloppy, it was because I hadn’t taught them clearly enough or didn’t have high enough expectations.

There’s no question that I started to improve as a teacher when I stopped looking for excuses. Instead of labeling students as lazy, disrespectful, or selfish, instead of blaming their parents, or lamenting the effects of generational poverty, the ugly side of capitalism, or other outside circumstances for what happened in my room, I looked in the mirror.

My mantra was, “I am responsible for everything that happens in my room.”

It’s the best lie I ever told myself.

The Best Lie

It’s an empowering lie. We can’t do anything about our students’ home lives. We have little control over district policies. We can’t alter the standards. But we can control what happens in our classrooms. This is the way teachers who want to get better have to think. It’s what we must believe. It forces us to evaluate our practice. It compels reflection. It leads us to seek out solutions, which means we’re observing others, seeking information from multiple sources, and trying new approaches, all in the interest of improving our craft.

What’s great about believing this lie is it forces you to do something about the only thing you can control: you.

But it’s still a lie.

The Truth

The truth is that you are not responsible for everything that happens in your room. Sometimes, a child’s poor decision has absolutely nothing to do with you.

The truth is that some kids are lazy. They were lazy last year, and they’ll be lazy this year. They’ll grow up to be lazy adults. Look around. They’re everywhere. They didn’t start becoming lazy because of a teacher.

The truth is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t reach a kid.

The truth is that some students have very little self-control, and no matter how much you try, they still won’t have much self-control when they leave you.

The truth is that some kids know damn well what they’re supposed to do and they don’t do it for reasons that have nothing to do with you.

The truth is that no matter what you do, some students will find it boring.

The truth is that some students don’t want to accept responsibility for their learning, and so it’s easier for everyone — the student, their parents, your boss, politicians, people who don’t know jack diddly about teaching — to blame you.

The truth is that sometimes, it’s the kid’s fault. Sometimes, their failures are on them. In fact, we rob something important from a student when we accept blame for their failures, just as we would rob them by taking credit for their successes.

The truth is that your impact isn’t nearly as great as you have been led to believe.

When you believe the lie that everything that happens in your classroom is because of you, then you will improve as a teacher. You will constantly problem solve. You will try new things, read more, and connect with other teachers. You will experiment, fail, tweak, start over, fail again, and try anew. You will learn. You will grow. You will get better.

The Worst Lie

But lying has consequences. The more you put on yourself, the greater frustration you’ll feel when things don’t go well. The more accountability you accept for others’ choices, the more stress you’ll feel when those choices are poor ones. The more stress you feel, the more exhausted you’ll be. And the more exhausted you are, the more likely it is that you’ll burn out.

I know teachers who go home in tears over their students’ poor choices. They expect to make a difference, and when it seems as if their efforts are going to waste, they feel incredibly disheartened. When it seems like we’re not having an impact on our most challenging students, we feel like failures. We lose sleep. We stress over how the behavior of a few students affects our classroom cultures and how the learning of the other students is harmed. We become anxious over even the thought of anyone peering into our rooms, seeing our struggles, and judging us because we have already judged ourselves so harshly. When we put everything on our shoulders, it’s hard to stand tall. Our knees buckle. Some of us collapse.

What teachers need isn’t more accountability for things over which they have little control. I know very few teachers who don’t already feel tremendously accountable for what happens in their classrooms. Teachers need to know that they can’t solve every problem in their rooms because they can’t solve every problem in their students’ homes, in their communities, and in society. Yes, teachers should always try to improve. They should look at themselves first. But they should also admit that they’re not miracle workers. And just because parents, administrators, policymakers, reformers, and even teachers themselves believe they can do it all, doesn’t make it true.

When Teachers Should Be Selfish

selfish

Selfishness can destroy a school. We’ve all sat in meetings where a teacher complains how a new plan will negatively impact her, without giving any thought to how that plan may benefit the school and its students as a whole. We’ve seen selfish teachers hijack meetings with their own problems, step on egos, and take their metaphorical balls and go home when they don’t get their way. There are teachers who give not a single thought to how a schedule will affect others if that schedule inconveniences them. Most of the time, selfish teachers are malignant lesions that should be excised with prejudice.

But there is one thing that all teachers should be selfish about.

Teachers should be aggressively selfish about taking care of themselves.

A Crisis

We have a crisis in education. Eight percent of teachers leave every year, while across the border in Ontario, Canada, the rate is five points lower (Source). 17 percent of new teachers quit within five years, and the numbers are higher in high-poverty schools, where students are in desperate need of experienced educators (Source). Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen 35 percent over the last five years (Source). One of the major causes of teachers running for the exits (or never considering the profession in the first place) is stress, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to burnout. Teachers report some of the highest stress levels of all professions in the U.S. (Source)

In some ways, teachers do this to themselves. Most teachers don’t want others to view them as selfish. They don’t want to think of themselves that way, either. We would rather be called ineffective than self-interested. We chose a profession that is all about giving and helping others. It’s one of the major reasons why our employers so easily take advantage of us, and why if districts want a teacher to attend an unpaid after-school event, show up for the school Relay for Life team on a Friday night, or do unpaid committee work, they need only to deploy the weapon of guilt. Teachers give and give and give in service to their students and their schools. They believe that doing so makes them better at their jobs.

When Selfishness is Generous

But these teachers have it backward. Vigilantly protecting your personal life by limiting the number of hours you work under what are regularly stressful conditions doesn’t make you selfish. It’s the exact opposite. Only when you take care of yourself are you able to give generously to others.

Teachers can’t help their students if they’re not at their best. It’s hard to be patient and kind when you’re stressed. It’s difficult to be observant when you’re not getting enough sleep. It’s a challenge to be energetic and on top of your game when you’re tired. When you exhaust yourself because you’re trying to do everything you can to help your students succeed, you’re actually sabotaging your own efforts.

Tired runners run slower times.
Tired spouses are cranky and short-tempered.
Tired drivers are almost as dangerous as drunk ones.
Tired engineers make disastrous mistakes.
Tired cops are more likely to use excessive force.
Tired doctors are more prone to errors.

Tired people perform worse in every area of life. Why should teachers be any different?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing–that teachers can do for their students is achieve a healthy work-life balance that doesn’t leave them stressed out and exhausted. 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.

Give Yourself Permission to Be Selfish

You, the teacher, are the most important person in your classroom. It’s your presence that makes a difference. It’s your effectiveness that impacts student achievement more than any other in-school factor. You are the reason kids are either excited to come to school or feigning illness to stay home. Parents trust you with their children. Your district will, over the course of your career, invest millions of dollars in you. It’s your obligation to be at your best, and you can’t do that if you don’t take care of yourself.

So be selfish.

Stop killing yourself under the mistaken impression that working more, giving until there’s nothing left to give, and being constantly stressed and exhausted will make you a better teacher. Give yourself permission to relax, knowing that looking out for your health and happiness doesn’t just benefit you. It helps your students, your colleagues, your family, and your friends. It’s easier to help others when you have first helped yourself.

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Note: Many sleep-deprived people don’t realize they’re sleep-deprived. Here are 8 Unexpected Signs You’re Sleep-Deprived

You can read more about this topic in my book, Happy Teacher, and in my upcoming book, Exhausted, available in mid-October on Amazon.