The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers

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

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

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

Dan Laird

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

Step 1: Update the Ol’ Resumé

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

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

Step 2: Finally Learn About LinkedIn

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

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

Step 3: Find Your Source for Jobs

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

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

Step 4: Cast a Wide Net

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

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

Step 5: Don’t Wait. Keep Applying.

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

Step 6: Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

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

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

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

So, to recap:

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

Good luck!


Thanks for reading the series! Dan and I both appreciate your interest and we hope this has helped those of you thinking of making a change. For those who plan on persisting in the classroom for the next five or ten or fifteen years, I have a book called Leave School At School that will help you cut back on hours without sacrificing your impact with kids. In fact, because you’ll be more focused, better-rested, and less stressed, you’ll probably be a better teacher.

Previous articles in this series:

Part 1: Why I Quit Teaching After 17 Successful Years

Part 2: I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back


If you have questions for Dan, feel free to email him at dandanlaird@gmail.com

You can also follow him on Twitter: @dandanlaird

I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back

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

Dan Laird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In part three of this series, Dan shares the lessons he learned when he quit teaching and started searching for a new job. You can read it here.

You can also follow Dan on Twitter at @DanDanLaird and if you’d like to contact him directly his email is dandanlaird@gmail.com

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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Part 2: I Quit Teaching and Won’t Go Back

Part 3: The Teacher’s Guide to Changing Careers

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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!

__________________________

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

Not Every Lesson is a Lexus

It’s the holiday season, which means you’ve no doubt been reminded about Lexus’s “December to Remember” sales event. The commercials have become as much of a holiday tradition as decorating trees, lighting menorahs, and racking up consumer debt.

I am sure it’s nice to own a Lexus. They seem like very fine automobiles. You can get one with steering assist, intelligent high-beam headlamps, a center-console app suite that allows you to check Facebook or local fuel prices, parking assist systems, ambient interior lighting, and genuine wood accents, among many other options.

Sounds nice.

But nobody really needs a Lexus.

I have a car. It is not a Lexus. It’s old, paid for, and gets decent gas mileage. Most importantly, it reliably gets me where I need to go. Sure, the other stuff would be nice, but if the car doesn’t run, none of those options are going to matter.

It reminds me of lesson planning. Teachers sometimes get the message that every lesson has to be a Lexus. Teacher preparation programs are guilty. So are professional books on the topic. If you search online for lesson plan templates, you’ll get things like this (obviously created by someone who either never taught or who dropped dead from exhaustion):

Lots of features. But none of them matter if kids don’t learn what they’re supposed to learn.

Not every lesson has to be a Lexus. Most of the time, a reliable old beast is just fine. Here’s an example:

For the past couple of years, I’ve taught force and motion. One of the standards is for students to be able to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces.

I thought tug-of-war would be perfect. So the first year I taught it, I planned out everything. I thought of the contests students would have and tried to push them into thinking of the same ones (shoes vs. socks, boys vs. girls, left hand vs. right hand, etc.). I decided on the teams ahead of time. I booked the gym and secured the rope. I typed up a list of expectations for behavior and we went over them before going to the gym. I noted what vocabulary I wanted to use with students. I created a worksheet for students to record the results, write down observations and explanations, and note any questions they still had.  I created a rubric so I could grade them on their understanding of the concept. That lesson was a Lexus, baby!

And it went fine. But man, I spent a lot of time creating it. Which, if you’ve ever read this blog before, you know how I feel about that.

Teachers sometimes forget there are trade-offs to every decision. Sure, you can spend an hour designing and preparing for a single lesson. But is that the best use of your time? Are there ways you can cut your prep time so you have more time for other things, including your personal life? Will spending an extra 30 minutes designing a lesson actually lead to more learning? How much more? Is that much worth it?

Does every lesson need to be a Lexus?

We still do the tug-of-war lesson, but these days it takes about ten minutes of planning. The lesson is more like my actual car now. Not as impressive to outsiders but it gets the job done. After all, students just needed to understand the concept of balanced and unbalanced forces. Not exactly rocket science.

Instead of thinking of the experiments and trying to guide students to them, I just let the kids think of them to start with. This past year, they came up with one-arm vs two-arms and facing forward vs. facing backward, two ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.

Instead of creating a worksheet, they just take a notebook to the gym and write down the answers to my prompts and questions after each experiment.

Instead of a list of expectations, I basically have one: Stop on the whistle and then follow directions. If you can’t do that, I won’t pick you to participate in the rope tugging.

Instead of choosing teams ahead of time, I just pick them right there in the gym.

The fancy options aren’t important. The learning is what matters. And asking students to do more while I do less is a good way to increase learning while saving my own time and energy for other things.

Lexus’s slogan is “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” Sounds good. But it’s exhausting. Your lessons can always be better. You can always do more. There are always more features you can add. But sometimes, you just need the thing to get you where you’re going.

No, We Didn’t Sign Up For This

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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Engagement Isn’t Everything

The contrarian in me bristles whenever any idea achieves such widespread acceptance that those who dare question it are subjected to reflexive condemnation. One idea that has gained such universal popularity in recent years is the power of engagement. Spend any time among educators, whether in person or in digital form, and you will surely hear the following sentiments passionately expressed:

  • Kids are bored because teachers’ lessons aren’t engaging.
  • Kids act out when they’re not engaged.
  • Kids cheat because the work isn’t engaging.
  • An engaged student will never give you any problems.
  • Kids hate school because they’re not engaged.

So at the risk of being ridiculed by the Engagement-is-Everything crowd, let me say that I’m skeptical.

We’re asking engagement to pull an awful lot of weight.

It’s the Wrong Word

First, let’s clear up some terminology. People who talk about engagement are often not talking about engagement. Engagement means that a student cares, that she gives a damn. Engagement ultimately comes from the learner, not the teacher. I don’t care a whit about needlepoint, and it won’t matter how much choice I’m given, how much technology gets incorporated, whether or not I get to work with my friends, how enthusiastic my needlepoint teacher is, or how much relevance she attempts to convince me needlepoint has to my life, I’m just not going to be engaged.

When some people talk about engagement, what they’re really talking about is involvement. Anita Archer, the Guru of Engagement, uses all kinds of involvement techniques that have been mislabeled engagement strategies. She keeps a brisk pace and requires a high rate of response from every student in the room. She expects attention and participation. She keeps kids on their toes. But none of those things ensure that students care about what she’s teaching; only that they’re involved. Anita Archer doesn’t do engagement. She does involvement.

The Student Owns the Learning

Perhaps that’s because Ms. Archer understands that true engagement cannot come from her. She can get students to actively participate in her vocabulary lessons, but she can’t make them care about learning the words. She can lead the horse to the very edge of the creek, but she can’t make it dip its head to drink.

The problem I have with engagement — at least, how it’s used today — is that it conveys the message that a student’s failure is his teacher’s fault.

  • It’s not a student’s fault for failing to do his job; it’s his teacher’s fault for failing to engage him.
  • It’s not a student’s fault for skipping class; it’s her professor’s fault for not making her lectures more engaging.
  • It’s not the salesman’s fault he didn’t sell anything; he just didn’t find the act of selling very engaging.
  • It’s not the teacher’s fault for showing videos all day; she just doesn’t feel engaged at work.

It’s bull.

There’s also this problem: What’s engaging for one student isn’t for another. I often see teachers on Twitter bragging about how hip they are because they incorporated fidget spinners or Pokemon Go or [insert current trendy item] into their lesson plans. But for every student who thinks a particular toy, game, or song is the greatest, there’s another who’s turned off by it.

For every student who thinks a particular toy, game, or song is the greatest, there’s another who’s turned off by it.

The Real Secret to Success

Here’s an unfortunate truth about life:

There are things we must all do even though they are not engaging. Those of us who do these things have more success in life than those who do not.

People who create and adhere to budgets have more money. Making and sticking to budgets requires self-control. Few would argue it’s engaging.

Buying groceries is almost always an awful experience, but if you don’t do it, you end up at McDonald’s, wasting money and getting fat.

Sitting through meetings requires self-discipline, and your boss may or may not care to make those meetings engaging. You better pay attention anyway.

Doing your taxes sucks. The government makes no attempt to make the process engaging. And if you decide to not file your taxes, you won’t be able to blame the government for failing to sufficiently inspire you. Sometimes, you just have to do things.

In fact,

Much of life — pretty much everything between all the awesome, engaging parts — is about self-discipline, the ability to stick with or do something well enough even though we dislike the task or find it boring.

Not Everything Needs to Engage

I’ve got nothing against making your lessons more fun or finding ways to involve your students more. There is no question that an involved student will usually learn more than an uninvolved one. Use whatever tricks you can. You can do a whole lot worse than Anita Archer when it comes to involvement.

Nor will I try to dissuade you from creating experiences for students that give them warm fuzzies, create indelible memories, and make you the kind of teacher students remember for the rest of their lives. Go for it. That’s what makes teaching and learning fun.

But let’s stop putting so many eggs in the engagement basket. Students who learn to do what needs to be done, regardless of how they feel about it, grow up to be adults who have the self-discipline to balance their checkbooks, do the laundry, get out of bed early enough to make it to work on time, get the oil in their car changed, shop for khaki pants (just me?), and clean everything from their teeth to their dishes to their toilets.

Instead of focusing so much on engagement — an endeavor that is, at best, a crap shoot — why not teach students what self-control looks like in different situations? Why not teach students that people with self-control lead more successful lives? Why not show them how to exercise self-control through talk-alouds and modeling? Why not even intentionally teach something that’s not engaging at all and explain to kids that successful people must sometimes will themselves to complete uninspiring tasks?

We don’t do students any favors when we send the message that they must always be entertained. And we’re sending our teachers the wrong message when we imply that every problem in their classroom comes back to their inability to engage their students.

We don’t do students any favors when we send the message that they must always be entertained.

8 Best Language Learning Apps for Teaching ESL Students

Today we have a guest post by Ethan Miller. Ethan is a private ESL tutor who has taught over a dozen classes. It’s an area I know absolutely nothing about, so I’m thankful to Ethan for providing the recommendations below. 

English is known as a universal language of communication and many non-native students in the United States are learning it today. If you are one of them, or if you teach ESL students, then this post is for you.

Ever tried learning a new language? It’s undeniably hard. If you too have sailed those waters, what I’m saying will make sense.

There was a time when teachers were burdened with the task of coming up with interactive ways to make learning English simple for their students. Today, the pressure on teachers has eased as there are many online tools that aid teachers to do their jobs more effectively.

While there are many tools that you can use, which ones are right for you? How much will they cost? Are they easy to use? Do they have good exercises?

To answer these questions, I have compiled a list of eight English language learning tools that are easy to use, interactive, and free to download on both Android and iOS.

Here we go!

Memrise

Memrise is a free language learning tool that offers courses that are user-generated, i.e., by teachers who are experts in teaching the language. The app is visually appealing and students can select whichever language they are comfortable interacting in (French, Spanish, German, etc.) and enroll for the courses that they want to learn.

Memrise provides many mnemonic methods to learn and remember new words, the best of them being the Elaborative Encoding technique. You can even submit your own methods in order to keep the content fresh and share your ideas with other learners.

You get to review each lesson multiple times after completion through a feature called spaced repetition testing. As an incentive to motivate learners, points are awarded for learning new words and completing each level.

Busuu

Busuu is primarily a free language app and users can access the lessons, vocabulary, and practice sections by creating an account. The lessons are designed for beginners, elementary, and intermediate level learners.

Busuu provides highly interactive resources as a mixture of text, audio assistance, and images to help you learn and remember the lessons. You can listen to the words and sentences again and again and switch between lessons whenever you want.

There is a practice section where learners can connect and interact with millions of other native speakers during the lessons and correct their mistakes.

After every lesson, you’ll earn Busuu berries, which are points you can use to upgrade to the paid version and unlock premium lessons. However, even the free lessons are quite comprehensive.

Cram (Free)

Cram is a free flashcards app that is being used by millions of students and teachers as an aid for learning a new language and memorizing difficult concepts and subjects. It’s very popular because of its easy-to-use interface, vast collection of flashcards, and the Leitner’s system of memorization.

Cram is useful in a multi-user classroom environment for teachers to create and share flashcard sets with their students. Teachers can add images and record their audio on each flashcard to teach proper pronunciation and improve the vocabulary of language learners.

Flashcards help students remember what they learn. Cram has a feature called the ‘Cram Mode’ where students pass through five levels of questioning for each set of flashcards.

To make learning fun, Cram also has two pre-installed games – ‘Stellar Speller’ and ‘Jewels of Wisdom’ – for every flashcard set.

Babbel

Babbel has become one of the biggest online language learning apps due to its interesting features and affordable pricing. It uses the quiz style learning method and has courses designed for both beginners and advanced users.

Babbel has a good variety of courses divided into bite-sized lessons of 10 – 15 minutes each to give you just the right quantity at a time without overloading you with excess content. The courses are developed by linguistic experts and contain interesting exercises for reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar, punctuations, and vocabulary skills.

Babbel makes learning English fun and easy with its intuitive course design. Other features like the intelligent review manager and integrated speech recognition help embed the lessons in your memory and bring accuracy in your pronunciation.

Duolingo (Free)

If you want to learn English for free, Duolingo is one of the best and easiest tools to do that. It’s a tool for both the beginners starting from scratch and for someone simply looking to brush off the ring rust.

Start by browsing through the list of languages on the course page and select English to begin taking the lessons. The lessons are divided into ‘skills’ that are arranged in a tree format. You need to clear each skill to move on to the next level.

The skills start with Basics and expand into different categories like Food, Family, Numbers, Questions, Colors, Grammar, etc. It’s very important for the beginners to understand these skills to move into the advanced sections.

Each skill has different types of questions to help you understand and remember the words and sentences. There is a unique option called ‘test out’ where learners can take a single test for all the basic sections and move directly to the advanced lessons.

Another unique feature of Duolingo is the ‘Immersion section’ where you get to translate real-world articles from the web. You can speak out words into a microphone to check your pronunciation. Points are awarded after completing each level.

MosaLingua

If you are short on time and want to learn a language quickly (for business travelers), give Mosalingua a try. With this app, you can learn English anywhere – while traveling, waiting at a coffee shop, or simply when you’re taking a walk.

The lessons are short and designed keeping in mind the time constraints of language learners. The best part of Mosalingua is the 20 – 80 approach, called the Pareto principle. The app first focuses on the 20% of vocabulary that we use in almost 80% of our everyday life. This way, you understand the basics and bring fluency in your conversations.

The app has around 3000 words and, interestingly, there are 100 common words that are used regularly in half of the world’s writings and conversations. The vocabulary lessons are divided into 6 different levels with each level having small sentences and phrases comprising commonly used words.

MosaLingua has trademarked its learning method that they developed using the spaced repetition and active recall memory techniques.

Talk English (Free)

The most difficult part of learning a new language is to be able to speak comfortably in that language. The English Conversation Practice app (ECP) by TalkEnglish helps you do that by holding conversations with you in English.

ECP is a free app that helps improve vocabulary, correct pronunciation, and aid in forming grammatically correct sentences. It has 200 different conversation lessons for developing your listening and speaking skills.

The conversation topics are divided into categories of regular events like taking a vacation, eating dinner, playing football, talking about children, etc. The lessons are made up of listening exercises, recording your own voice, and speaking exercises for conversation practice.

Fun English

The Fun English app, as the name implies, is a fun way to teach English to your children using games and activities. It is currently rated as the best English learning app for kids aged 3 – 10 years. What makes it best is the fun factor. Kids have fun with their parents while learning.

Fun English is released by StudyCat and has garnered a lot of attention from parents and ESL teachers. The course is divided into 12 lessons to teach you about Colors, Animals, Numbers, Human body, Fruits, Food, clothes, etc., and over 80 learning games divided into these 12 lessons.

The free version comes with 2 lessons on Colors and Animals and 14 games. You need to upgrade to the premium version to unlock all the remaining lessons.

Besides teaching English, the app teaches other important skills like developing concentration and hand-eye coordination. It’s again a fun way to get your children engaged and comfortable with technology at an early age.

Conclusion

Technology has made learning easy and fun. These were some of the popular language learning apps to help you learn English without actually burning a hole in your pocket.

Although, if you don’t mind spending more, there are a couple of extremely popular apps, such as Rosetta Stone and Voxy, that you can try.

Have you used any other English apps that you would like to share with us? Leave us a comment. Happy learning!

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Ethan Miller is a private ESL tutor and apart from his passion for teaching, he loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or writing his book, Miller loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. Follow Ethan on Twitter and his blog.

Every Student An Athlete (ESAA)

We have a crisis in America. Our kids are fat. To combat this epidemic, Congress has decided to make exercise compulsory. They’re prepared to spend billions of other people’s money. It’s a simple plan. They’re going to cut one hour off the end of the school day and students will be bused to their local gym. If no gym exists, one will be built. Students — check that — “athletes” will be assigned a personal trainer.  Some trainers will be responsible for 25 kids, others more like 150. It’s called, “Every Student An Athlete,” and the goal is simple: no more fat kids by 2025. I spoke to the plan’s architect, Tara Bullidea, and dug deeper into the details:

MURPH: Hi, Tara. So every kid, starting when they’re five, will be required to work out for one hour after school each day. How will you enforce it?

TARA: This is just like school. Athletes have to attend. It’s mandatory. I mean, I guess their parents could pick them up from school and take them home, but we really don’t want them to. We’ll threaten stuff and, oh… you know what, I just thought of this — we’ll hold the gyms accountable for athletes’ attendance! That ought to do it.

MURPH: So the gym will be punished if too many of their athletes don’t show up to exercise?

TARA: You got it!

MURPH: Okay. What if the athletes come but don’t want to participate? What if they refuse to follow their trainers’ instructions? Or what if they actively interfere with the workouts of other athletes?

TARA: Those athletes will be in big trouble. They’ll have to sit out or even be sent home.

MURPH: But wouldn’t that sort of defeat the whole purpose? They may want to sit out, and if they’re sent home, they’re not getting the exercise they need.

TARA: True. Trainers shouldn’t do that. They should do everything they can to get those students to work out. I guess maybe they should make it more fun. They should, um, build relationships so athletes will want to work out! You know, now that I think about it, if a trainer has some athletes with bad attitudes, it’s really the trainers’ fault, isn’t it? Such poor athlete attitudes should be reflected on the trainers’ year-end ratings.

MURPH: The trainers are going to be rated? How will that work?

TARA: That’s my favorite part. Look, we don’t want any consequences for the athletes. I mean, if they fail to lose weight, they’re only hurting themselves, right? But the trainers? We’re paying the trainers! The taxpayers will expect a decent return on investment. So we will hold the trainers accountable for their athletes’ weight loss.

MURPH: Oh, I see. So will there be bonuses for really good trainers? Some way to reward excellence?

TARA: No, silly. Nothing like that. We can’t afford bonuses. No, what we’re going to do is punish the gyms that don’t get their athletes’ to shed the pounds. If a gym is really bad — like if only a few kids achieve expected yearly weight loss (EYWL, pronounced “I-will”) — we may even close the gym. Or at least fire all the trainers. Also, each trainer will be rated at the end of the year, and we would expect gyms to fire the trainers with the lowest ratings. As for the best trainers, we’ll  give them the laziest, most overweight kids.

MURPH: How will you figure out which trainers deserve low ratings?

TARA: We’ll just go in and weigh all the athletes at the start of the year and weigh them again at the end of the year. If they haven’t lost enough weight, that trainer will get a bad rating.

MURPH: How much weight should each kid lose? What’s going to be the cut-off?

TARA: Oh, I don’t know. Let’s just say 10% of their original weight. Actually, on second thought, we’ll change the target every year and not tell the trainers what the new goal is. I know. We’ll come up with a really complicated formula to assess the trainers. That way, if someone starts to question it, we’ll just explain to them that they’re not smart enough to figure it out. In reality, I won’t be smart enough to figure it out either. Hardly anyone will. We’ll just say that some statisticians somewhere said it’s fine and that will be enough.

MURPH: But isn’t it unfair to hold trainers accountable when they only see the athletes for five hours a week? What if the kids go home and their parents undo all the trainers’ hard work? What if they feed their kids horrible food and never exercise themselves? What if they, God forbid, denigrate the whole idea of a healthy lifestyle? Isn’t it possible that some parents, either through ignorance or willful neglect, will sabotage the trainers’ efforts? Should trainers be punished for that?

TARA: Uh, huh. Yep.

MURPH: Okay. How about these trainers? We’re putting a lot on them and trusting them with the future health of the nation. How will you ensure that they’re up to the task?

TARA: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. We’re going to be rating them, so they have a strong incentive to really study their craft and become excellent at what they do. They’ll be judged on their performance (okay, actually their athletes’ performance, but let’s not split hairs), so they’ll probably try really hard. So, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to require them to train kids certain ways. Now, sometimes those ways will be based on the latest scientific research on wellness. But other times, they’ll just be based on the latest fad, like maybe a popular book that’s out at the time. And to be sure they’re all doing pretty much the same thing, we’re going to make them sit through lots of meetings where we train them in these methods. We really want them to train their athletes the way we think they should train them.

MURPH: But then, shouldn’t it be you who is held accountable? I mean, if the trainers are just following your marching orders and they don’t get results, isn’t that your fault?

TARA: I don’t think so. Perhaps they aren’t training with fidelity. Maybe they aren’t very good at implementing the required methods. Their fault, for sure.

MURPH: Let’s change gears and focus on the kids.

TARA: Athletes.

MURPH: Right. What about those athletes who come from families that can’t afford tennis shoes or gym shorts?

TARA: We’ll provide those.

MURPH: So will all gyms get the same equipment? Will they have the same budgets?

TARA: Hahahahaha! No. Taxes will be raised at the local level for equipment, so certain areas will have newer machines than other areas. But every gym will have some equipment. Research tells us that it’s not the equipment that matters, but the trainer. So we won’t accept any excuses from trainers who have to work with older equipment, or even equipment that no longer works. Those trainers will simply have to be more creative.

MURPH: That sounds difficult. It might be hard to get good trainers to work at gyms with broken machines. Will you pay these trainers more?

TARA. No. Less, actually.

MURPH: But–

TARA: It’s fine! It’s all going to work out fine. We’re going to have no fat kids by 2025. They’re all going to hit their EYWL targets. Every Student An Athlete is going to be an amazing success because I really want it to be!

MURPH: Aren’t the athletes going to get tired of all this working out? Won’t they need some breaks? Even elite athletes take some time off.

TARA: Yes, you’re right. We’ll build in a few two-week breaks throughout the year and we’ll give them — I don’t know — two straight months off in the summer. It’s too hot to work out then anyway.

MURPH: But won’t a lot of athletes, especially those whose parents don’t value exercise and healthy eating, regain the weight and fall back into bad habits?

TARA: Perhaps. But the trainers will just have to work extra hard to make up for it.

MURPH: Just one last question, Tara. What is your background? Do you own a gym? Are you a former Olympian? Have you ever been a trainer yourself?

TARA: No, nothing like that. I’m rich. I’m very, very rich.

Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with clogged glue bottles, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the second Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school is still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once gone looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the number of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.

The Expectation of Free Work

I have a neighbor who’s a math teacher. He’s also the owner of a landscaping business. I figured the guy must really love taking care of people’s lawns to do it after teaching all day and on the weekends. Lawn care must be his passion to sacrifice like that. His calling in life, even. So I phoned him and asked if he could mow my grass once a week. He said sure. Then he quoted me a price.

“Oh, you misunderstand, I’m not going to pay you,” I explained. “I figured, since you obviously love it so much, you’d just do it for free.”

My daughter’s pediatrician’s office left a message on my voicemail the other day. She was due for a checkup. I scanned my calendar to find a convenient time to take her in. I had to work all week, so after five o’clock or over the weekend looked good. I told them that when I called. They said they closed at five and weren’t open on weekends. I waited.

“We can get you in at 11:00 am on Thursday,” the lady said.

“I’ll be at work then,” I told her. “Listen, I can get there by quarter after five. We’ll just meet with the doctor then.”

She didn’t seem to understand. I think I’m going to change doctors. This one’s obviously not very dedicated. Doesn’t she know she’s supposed to be there for the kids?

My mom had to stay overnight at the hospital a couple months back following a surgery and she had this great nurse. Rachel was kind, patient, funny, and explained everything she was doing to everyone in the room. She was very attentive. Mom loved her. But then, around 8 o’clock, a new nurse popped in.

“What happened to Rachel?” mom asked.

“Oh, her shift ended at eight.”

We couldn’t understand. Rachel seemed so dedicated. She obviously loved her patients. How come she wasn’t doing everything she could for them?

I was in a golf tournament last summer to raise money for the local school’s athletic program. After our round, we were served an excellent dinner catered by a local restaurant. They had a number of employees there. There were a few waitresses walking around refilling drinks, a couple of people tending to the buffet line, and one of those meat carving guys. I was really impressed. As he was slicing off a slab of prime rib for me, I told him, “Wow, this is really great of all you guys to give up your Saturday to do this. Thanks for helping out the kids of our community.” He smiled and said thank you. But I learned later that he was paid to be there. Here I thought he was carving that meat out of the goodness of his heart.

When we expect people to work for free, to bend over backward to meet our needs, or even to donate their time in the interest of a worthy cause, it makes us, not them, look bad. It’s insulting to suggest others work for free. It shows exactly how much we value their time, their work, and their lives outside of work.

If teachers choose to donate labor that’s their business, but they should never be asked or expected to.

Lawyers charge, doctors keep office hours, cops and nurses get paid overtime. Taking advantage of a teacher’s passion, dedication, generosity, or sense of obligation is wrong.

If a committee is important enough to create, then it’s important enough to pay teachers to be on it.

If meeting with parents is a necessary part of the job, then those meetings should take place during paid hours.

If teacher attendance at an after-school event is critical for the success of the night, then pay teachers to attend.

The fact that teachers are “there for the kids” doesn’t excuse mistreatment, it makes it worse. If the work teachers do is so important, they should be paid to perform it.

Related Content:
Dear Teachers, Please Go Home
How Teachers Can Get Paid For Extra Work
Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary if You’re Working For Free
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