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 book, Leave School at School: Work Less, Live More, Teach Better, available from Amazon.

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 Pay a Great Teacher When You Can Hire a Cheap One?

Let’s say you have just been named your state’s teacher of the year. You have three years worth of data showing that students learn more in your class than in your colleagues’ classes. You might even have data showing that your students typically gain 1.5 years of growth in their ten months with you. Students love you. Parents love you. Hell, even your principal loves you. By any measure, you are an all-star. Congratulations.

Now what?

I can tell you what won’t happen. You will not be headhunted. You won’t be poached. Wealthy districts won’t engage in a bidding war to land you. You will not be taking your talents to South Beach.

There are only two explanations for this:

Despite what nearly everyone in education says — including every administrator I’ve ever met — district decision-makers don’t actually believe teachers make much of an impact.

Or:

District leaders know teachers make an impact, but they’re not willing to pay for it.

I think both are true. Most teachers don’t interact with every student in a building, much less a district. Superintendents may not be able to justify paying more for great teachers because such teachers will only impact a small percentage of their overall student population. Still, most district leaders probably realize that while such teachers’ direct influence might be limited, they can serve as mentors and role models for other teachers. Their high performance can enhance the reputation of an entire building. Hire more than a few and new families might even be attracted to the district.

No, I think most district leaders would love to have great teachers in their buildings, which means they’re unwilling to pay for them. They’re cheap. Regrettably, they’re right to be. These leaders recognize an ugly truth about pubic education in America:

There is a much greater incentive to control costs than there is to produce great students.

When it comes right down to it and a choice must be made, money matters more than kids.

At the state legislative level, education costs a lot of money. Legislators are reluctant to part with it. Republican legislators are especially unwilling because that would make it harder to lower taxes and balance budgets (something they used to claim they cared about). And they really don’t want to give schools more money because a lot of that money will end up in the hands of teachers, who will then turn over a portion of that money to their unions, who will then fight to get them out of office.

The amount of money a district gets is fixed. It can’t spend more than it has. School boards do what they can to keep from harming students, but they’re constrained. In the case of public schools, mismanagement of funds is much more likely to result in harsh consequences than poor academic outcomes. There is therefore a stronger incentive to keep costs under control than there is to increase achievement.

Let’s consider a hypothetical. A school district commits itself to producing better students. It decides it’s going to go out and hire the best teachers it can find (how they would identify these teachers is another matter). Nothing prevents them from offering a signing bonus to these teachers, so they cut elsewhere to come up with extra money that they will use to attract great teachers to work in their schools.

Let’s say it works. Scores rise. Kids learn more. Test scores increase. More kids go to college. The reputation of the school is burnished. Parents are fighting to get their kids in the door.

Where does that leave our district? They’d feel proud of their work. They might even use their success in marketing efforts to attract a few more students and receive a few more state dollars in return. But it’s eventually going to lead to money problems. The state isn’t going to reward the district with more cash for having greater success. So the district will be forced to cut costs down the road, and pretty soon they won’t be able to pay those great teachers what they were paying them before. And they won’t be able to lure more outstanding educators to their district. They’ll end up back where they started.

Critics of education often want schools to be run more like businesses. But when businesses succeed, there’s more money for everyone. Successful employees are rewarded. Companies go out and hire the best they can find. Money is invested back in the business. Success begets success in a virtuous cycle.

But in education, where funds are limited by state governments and better performance doesn’t result in more money, schools have a much greater incentive to watch their bottom lines. And if improving education outcomes raises costs, then you can be pretty sure those improvements won’t last. So to answer the title question, Why should you pay a great teacher when you can hire a cheap one?

As things stand right now, you shouldn’t.

 

 

Why Schools Shouldn’t Reward Attendance

I saw something on Twitter the other day. Somebody had created a nifty bulletin board. It listed the names of all the kids with outstanding attendance for each grade level in the school. The board’s creator had obviously spent a lot of time on it. On its face, it seemed like an awesome idea. Lots of Twitter people hit the heart. I commented, but sort of lied because I don’t like criticizing teachers on social media. Teaching is hard, and most of the things I now disagree with I used to do. I said I struggled with the idea of publicly acknowledging kids for attendance. In reality, there’s no struggle.

I’ve evolved from a teacher who used to create fancy certificates to present to those with two or fewer absences during an award ceremony on the last day of school to one who hardly mentions attendance to his students at all. Here’s why my thinking changed, and why I think bulletin boards like the one I saw on Twitter are well-intentioned but ultimately misguided.

It’s Not The Kids

If you want to get on your high school students about dragging themselves into your class ten minutes late on a regular basis, then go for it (although you may want to consider that your school’s start time and adolescents’ circadian rhythms are unaligned). But I teach third graders and the bulletin board referenced above was for a K-5 elementary school. Third graders don’t decide to stay home from school. They don’t drive to McDonald’s five minutes before the day starts. They don’t roll in late because they hit the snooze bar too many times.

I have a student this year who is almost always late. I know why. It’s not her fault. It does no good for me to get on her case about it. There’s nothing she can do.

There are lots of reasons a student might be absent or late. Some of those reasons are good ones, like they’re sick or had a dental appointment. Some are bad, like they pretended to be sick or they stayed up too late playing Minecraft. No matter the reason, it’s almost always on the parents.

I was a kid. I pretended to be sick because I didn’t want to go to school. My mom wouldn’t let me get away with it. If I wanted to sleep in– and believe me, I did–my mom got me out of bed. That’s what parents do.  That’s their job, and when they don’t do it, it isn’t their kid’s fault.

When elementary students are absent or late, it’s almost always either for a good reason or a parent fail. And for that reason, students shouldn’t be awarded or criticized. They’ve done nothing to deserve either.

Sometimes, Kids Should Stay Home

I used to offer a class party when we hit attendance milestones. For every 20 days of perfect class attendance, I’d throw a party. I hoped it would encourage kids to show up. If they weren’t feeling 100% before school, I thought the incentive would make them think twice before asking to stay home. If they got a stomachache after lunch, I wanted them to gut it out for the team.

That was dumb. Sometimes, kids should stay home or leave school early.

I don’t want them in class if they’re sick. Not only will they not learn much if they’re genuinely ill, but they’ll tell me about it all day, which is really annoying. There’s also a decent chance they’ll make other kids (or worse, me) sick. With the flu being what it is this winter, I pray every day when I send my child out the door that her classmates’ parents are keeping their sick kids home.

One year, I had a student who lost his father in a terrible accident. In May of that year, I was scrolling through the attendance numbers of my class. I congratulated a couple of kids on how few days they had missed. A lot of them wanted to know their number of absences. So I told them. When this boy asked me and I told him ten, he was shocked. I gave him a few seconds to figure it out. When he didn’t, I said, “You missed a week in March.” Thankfully, he remembered and I didn’t have to say anymore.

But I felt like a jerk for even talking about attendance. What you reward, you get. And if you reward attendance, you’ll get it. That might not be a good thing. If they’re sick, I want students at home. If there is a tragedy in their family, I want them with their family. They shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re letting people down about either.

There’s More to Life

School is often referred to as kids’ jobs. It’s a crappy comparison, but even if we go along with it, do we really want to be responsible for perpetuating Americans’ obsession with work? I’ve never understood people’s pride in never missing a day on the job. It’s like bragging that you prioritized working for others over your family and yourself. There’s so much more to life.

I never have a problem with students missing a week to go on a family vacation. I’m cool with Take Your Child To Work day. If a parent wants to pull their kid out of school for the first day of deer season, or to celebrate the child’s birthday, or to sign them out early for gymnastics class, or to get down to the stadium early so they can watch batting practice with dad, I’m fine with it. Learning happens outside of school, too. And we should send the message that school, like work, shouldn’t take priority over our families or our passions.

Kids who are in school every day haven’t done anything to deserve our praise. And they certainly haven’t done anything to earn a reward. They’re lucky. They’ve won lotteries. They have responsible parents who value education (maybe too much?), and they were fortunate to not get sick or have life happen to them for ten months out of the year.

Those kids have already won.

The Dumbest Argument Against Independent Reading

I’m in my eighteenth year of teaching and I’ve set aside time for student self-selected reading every day for every one of those years. It is the most sacred item on my agenda. On one of those days where we have an assembly and a fire drill and a bee gets in the room and blows a ten-minute hole in my science lesson and I have to cut something, I never cut independent reading.

As a student teacher, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a mentor teacher who valued independent reading time as much as I do. But even back then, her principal looked at this 30 minutes as wasteful. When the administration adopted a new program and my mentor teacher was wondering where she would fit it in, the principal suggested she just get rid of that student reading time.

It’s been that way ever since. I have never had an administrator who offered a full-throated endorsement of independent reading. More often, it’s the opposite. I’ve sat in meetings where principals presented research showing independent reading wasn’t effective. (Not true, by the way. Read more here.) I’ve known teachers who were flat out told to end the practice. I’ve sat in meetings where an administrator’s minion (a “coach,” she was rather hilariously called) questioned its efficacy.

An aside: My sneaking suspicion is that administrators don’t like independent reading because teachers aren’t doing enough. This is where the criticism of Drop Everything And Read came from. Teachers, those valuable professionals who eat up the lion’s share of district budgets, shouldn’t be getting paid to sit around reading with their students when they could be teaching. It’s a belief that permeates the entire day. Although providing students feedback is a critical part of the learning process, most teachers I know wouldn’t be caught dead grading student work while students are in the room. Teachers are supposed to teach, every second of every day. And they’re supposed to do all that other teachery stuff during their prep time (good luck with that).

In fairness, some data does suggest that independent reading isn’t effective for our lowest readers. The reason independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers, the research has concluded, is because those students — wait for it — don’t use the time to read (or they attempt to read stuff that’s too hard, which is just another way of saying they don’t read). Those students, we are told, should be engaged with the teacher in direct instruction.

This is quite possibly the dumbest reason to stop doing something I have ever heard. I can think of no other thing we do inside the classroom or out of it where we would apply the same logic.

–Students who don’t pay attention to our lessons don’t learn as much, so we should stop teaching lessons.

— Students who don’t do their math assignments don’t learn as much math, so we should stop assigning math.

— Basketball players who refuse to try hard in practice don’t get any better, so we should pull them off to the side and coach them separately.

— Your daughter refuses to practice piano when you ask her to, so you should stop giving her time to practice.

Of course the kids who don’t read during independent reading time don’t get better at reading. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. It means we should figure out how to get kids to do it, just like we would for anything else we believe is beneficial.

–We don’t stop making our kids take baths because they don’t like them.

–We don’t tell our daughters, “Ah, the hell with it, just leave your room filthy,” because they don’t want to clean it.

–We don’t allow our sons to eat pancakes and pizza for dinner every night because they don’t like fruits and vegetables.

And we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders when students don’t want to read. Nor should we pull them back and make them read to us. Reading to oneself is a life skill that has the potential to change futures.

Yes, we should teach reading lessons. We should intervene with kids who struggle. But we should also provide the time for kids to read whatever they want to themselves. We shouldn’t give up just because a handful would rather not.

–My mom got me to eat celery by slathering it with peanut butter.

–My dad got me to clean my room by threatening consequences if I didn’t.

–My third grade teacher got me to turn in my homework by announcing to the class which kids didn’t turn theirs in.

Get creative. Pull out all the stops. Get kids to read to themselves.

For some, that might mean helping them find books they’re interested in or guiding them toward books they can actually read. It might mean establishing a culture where kids don’t feel self-conscious about reading books at a lower level than their peers. It could even mean —gasp — consequences for not reading, just as there would be for kids who refuse to do their math, try hard at basketball practice, or clean their rooms. Experiment. Get creative. But don’t just give up. Independent reading is too important.