Another Reflection on Leaving Teaching

I recently discovered this draft of a piece I wrote about five years ago. It is still relevant and explains my recent decision to leave teaching.

“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night.”

Those words begin the second paragraph of Edgar A. Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart,” in which a clearly insane narrator claims sanity. Unlike Poe’s character, I can say exactly how the idea of becoming an educator first enter my brain; like that character, once conceived, the idea haunted me day and night. The sanity of one who chooses a career in education at the this point is unresolved.

When I was a freshman in high school, I knew I wanted a career in biology. When even younger, I had an interest in nature and the environment (largely the result of a youth spent camping and hiking). In high school where my interests were focused, I had become a top biology student.  At a college fair, there was a gymnasium full of college representatives, and I was making the rounds speaking with those that offered biology as a major. One representative described the two tracks available for their biology majors: “pre-med” or education.

Thus, the idea of being a teacher first entered my brain. Over the coming weeks, I watched my teachers and my science teachers closely. I concluded that teaching (science) would be a good life, and so I made sure to enroll in all of the science courses that were open to me as I finished my high school career. Soon after I graduated from high school, I enrolled in an undergraduate program in science education at our state university. I completed my student teaching and was hired as a middle school science teacher five years after I had graduated from high school. I was 10 years older than my students, and one of my colleagues was old enough to be my mother.

In the time between when left high school and I entered the classroom as a teacher, computers entered schools in a serious way. Whereas my high school had a small computer room for students to use (I recall four computers in the room which was a converted storage room), my first teaching job was in a school with a large computer room—for high school students. Because I had discovered the value of computers for information management while I was an undergraduate student, I used computers more than my colleagues and I was soon the resident computer guru in the schools where I worked. Eventually, I left the science and math classroom and became an educational technologist; the term I use to capture my work teaching students how to use computers, managing computers and networks in schools, providing leadership to educators, and researching technology in schools.

Over the course of my career, I have maintained an obsessive focus on teaching and learning. My office at home is filled with books and magazines in which I have taken copious notes. I maintain notebooks (both pencil and paper notebooks and multiple digital textbooks) with thoughts and about how “something” can become a lesson. As an educational technologist, I have been a bricoleur with the hardware and software tools that have been pushed on to the market by publishers and manufacturers. The turn of the century was an amazingly energizing time to be an educator.

The years since the turn of the century were amazingly dejecting time to be an educator. I graduated from high school in 1983; the same year that A Nation at Risk was published. While education has always been an institution that has been scrutinized by the  public, that scrutiny has been particularly sharp since 1983. Much has been written about the dismal state of education, and much (but far less) has been written in response. Because that discussion is  political, the participants are not compelled to site evidence, so the debates in the field are unresolvable discussion, so I will not add to the clamour. I will, however, note that educators have been subject to a non-stop parade of curriculum and instruction reforms each intended to “fix” education since 1983.

Over my career, I have adopted the role of skeptic. Whenever anything new comes along, I look at it carefully and I must become convinced there is a compelling reason to adopt it. I also, however, turn the same critical eye to my own practices; I seek to convince myself that what I am doing or what I am thinking is really as I perceive it.  I attribute this to my background in science.

Some have said, that I am more than a skeptic. “Cynic” is one term that has been applied to me; some days the qualifier “ticked-off” was (probably accurately) applied to my response to educational reforms. I am cynical about much that is presented as education, especially by outsiders. I get ”ticked-off” when insiders, professionals who should know better, accept an outsider’s curriculum and instruction with the argument, “they are paying for it.”

If education was simply an engineering problem, it would have been solved decades ago, and there would be no on-going debate about student achievement and educators would not experience what a former colleague referred to as the “fad-of-the-year approach to school reform.” He says, “recommendations from our curriculum coordinator are like New England weather… wait 10 minutes and it will change;” he was a more ticked-off cynic than I.

I do believe that schools are becoming irrelevant in the lives of young people. Adults are trying to improve schools by looking towards their past; “what worked for me will work for them,” is the misguided reasoning. We (and this is an all-inclusive we) must reinvent our schools so that it is an experience that prepares students for their futures not adults’ pasts.

Paole Friere, an education philosopher suggested educators must adopt critical consciousness which is ability and tendency to evaluate proposed reforms. Educators with critical consciousness understand learning and learners and they know pedagogy; they are also active learners about all of these. Their understanding and learning is deep also; it is sufficiently deep that they can distinguish good ideas from bad ideas and they can articulate the reasons for “good” versus “bad.” I am increasingly intolerant of those who continue to improve schools through old tired ideas that have not worked in the past and that ignore emerging ideas (that do challenge decades of institutional history and thus inertia).