Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the Audible.com CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

How I Almost Became an Education Reformer

by Sarah Blaine

By 2011, I’d been practicing law for about six years. That spring, I hit a watershed moment in my practice. I was put on a crazy project that culminated in the one and only time I billed over 300 hours in a month. During that month, I never saw my children awake for more than a few stress filled moments in the morning, and I worried that my “Mommy always comes back” mantra was appearing less and less true in my three year old daughter’s eyes. I had no idea what was going on in my seven year old’s life.  At the culmination of the project that forced my 300+ hour month, one of the partners I worked for came into my office to praise my efforts. She told me that I should keep doing what I’d been doing. G-d forbid.

This partner happened to be a single mother who’d moved a kid sized desk and kid sized folded couch into her office so that her preschooler could sit, headphones engaged, for hours watching videos on a portable DVD player until she passed out asleep on the fold out couch, as mom juggled conference calls. Being a single mom cannot be easy, and in between the 300+ hour months, partner-mom took plenty of vacations with her daughter, and for some of her work binges, she shipped her daughter out to her parents for some actual attention (and presumably less screen time). Nevertheless, while her work-life balance choices seemed to satisfy her, the model she presented did not inspire me. I didn’t want to disappear from my kids’ lives for months at a time. Big law partnership looked more and more like a booby prize. One month at a pace of over 300 hours was problematic enough for my marriage and my children: as fun as the work challenges and accomplishments it had brought had been, it was not an experience I cared to repeat on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t aspire to it as a permanent state of being.

And while the work was intellectually challenging, it was not fulfilling. Helping hedge fund principals and private equity gurus achieve their litigation goals did not leave me feeling that I’d done the world a solid. The intellectual challenge was not enough, since I felt that I was using my brain to leave the world a little worse off. A little less fair. And I watched, from the inside, as the scales of justice continued, in my estimation, to tip a little further away from the have-nots.

As a result, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that partnership at a large law firm was not a future I wanted for myself. I would happily spend the rest of my life driving Mazdas rather than Mercedes in return for a job that would allow me to make plans with my family and friends. My ideal job would let me, on balance, get paid a living wage to leave a positive mark on the world. I no longer dreamed of riches; I simply dreamed of enough.

So I wanted out. As I considered next steps, I began thinking about actually doing what my law school essay said I’d applied to law school to do: to marry my old career with my new one by putting my legal education to use helping students, especially disadvantaged students like the ones I’d taught a decade before in rural Maine.

But still. We had, like so many others, bought our house at the height of the housing boom, and our hefty mortgage payment loomed each month, without hope of a refi. A few more years of preschool tuition loomed, and there was only so much expense reduction we could manage. Leaving my community was not an option. So poverty wages were not an option.

As I considered my future, I started coming across programs. Interesting programs. Financially lucrative programs. Programs and jobs that paid wages I could live on. All I needed to do was to buy into the education reform agenda.

For instance, The Broad Residency helped mid-career professionals transition to jobs in education. And education jobs must mean doing good for the world. Along with annual salaries of $90,000 – $100,000. For jobs in education. Doing good. That sounded like something I could live with. Education Pioneers offered a similar career path. Less money. But still, it had possibilities. Maybe I could earn a comfortable wage and do some good.

So I started applying. I vaguely knew that the programs supported “education reform,” but I’d left teaching a decade earlier, so I had little idea of what that meant beyond support for charter schools. For the chance to do some good (and a comfortable wage), I could probably support the charter movement. Although I had some reservations, I wasn’t in the trenches or up to date on the latest education reform policy wars, and the reformers’ slogans sounded appealing. After all, they wanted to put students first, close the achievement gap, and accept no excuses. That all sounded good to me. As the misery of my big law career dragged on, I desperately wanted to find some work that would allow me to see my family and feed my soul. The education reform organizations sounded more and more tempting. As I revamped my resume for these fellowship opportunities, I conveniently forgot to mention my experience as a volunteer member of the contract negotiations team for my local teacher’s union up in Maine. I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I’d figured out that much.

So I applied. For the fellowships, and other jobs at charter schools and reform-oriented organizations. Luckily, I was not their ideal candidate. Looking back, I suspect that I was too much of an unknown quantity: yes, I had only a few years of teaching experience, but that experience was in an unknown rural public school, and I’d gotten into teaching by a traditional method (i.e., obtaining a traditional teaching certification by earning a Master of Arts in teaching degree at an actual university). My experience mirrored that of TFA students, but my preparation for teaching far exceeded TFA’s summer training. And my teaching experience predated No Child Left Behind. I might actually believe in portfolio assessments. Or project-based learning. Or that class size matters.

Similarly, I’d attended an elite undergraduate university, but I’d earned my advanced degrees from (much cheaper) public universities. I’d graduated from law school with high honors, but it was Rutgers, not Harvard. And pedigree seems to matter to the education reformers.

I was parent of a public school student in a town with a reputation for socio-economic diversity that resulted in our public schools never making the top rankings in NJ Monthly magazine.

My pro bono legal experience including partnering with the Education Law Center on impact litigation intended to increase the access students with disabilities had to inclusive classrooms.

I simply did not appear malleable enough.

I got to the final round of interviews with one of the education reform fellowships, but looking back, I am sure that I tanked myself in the group activity when I suggested taking parents’ and teachers’ concerns seriously and advocating obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders rather than ramrodding my hypothetical superintendent’s agenda down resistant parents’ and teachers’ throats.

I did get out of big law. Here I am: a parent who eats dinner with my husband and kids almost every night, a practicing attorney at a small firm that does not do education law, but also does not expect me to aspire to bill 300 — or even 200 — hours in a month. I am an occasional education blogger, and a volunteer in my children’s schools when the stars align between job responsibilities and school volunteer opportunities.  My paid work is not particularly fulfilling, but my colleagues are lovely and it could be worse.  It’s not a bad life.  And I put my kids to bed every night.

My ambition is still to find an opportunity that would allow me to actually manage to do what I went to law school to do: that is, to combine my legal and teaching backgrounds to improve our education system. Or maybe, just maybe, if the opportunity was right, to go back to teaching. Because after all these years, I still miss students. I miss the classroom. And I miss the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in children’s lives. This time, however, it would be Social Studies. If anyone is even teaching that anymore.

But in the meantime, I try.

And I intend to try more.

And, when I can, I intend to write more, so that I can reach an audience beyond my indulgent neighbors.

I try to educate those around me concerning why due process rights matter for public school teachers.

I try to suggest that while teachers’ unions certainly could benefit from reform (and a revamp of their communications operations), they are not inherently evil.

I try to explain the pernicious insidiousness of attaching high-stakes decisions to standardized test results.

I try to be an ambassador for the teachers who were once my colleagues, as they are maligned in the media and beyond.

I try to explain what I learned about the unique problems of rural schools, and why one-size-fits-all education solutions don’t work for a country as diverse as ours.

I try to explain why I am a true believer in the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring schools to provide students with special needs access to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

I try to be an effective advocate for my own kids within our local school system.

I try to explain that while technology can be a valuable tool, it is not a panacea that will cure all that ails education. That data, while valuable, is just another tool.

I try to explain why poverty matters.

I try to explain the distinction between educating future citizens versus training future cogs for our economic engine.

And I try to keep educating myself, and to keep measuring my own knowledge and assumptions against research, experience, and common sense.

And in all of that trying, I try most of all to remember that I flirted with the land of education reform. If I’d appeared a little more malleable, perhaps I would have ended up a bona fide reformer. I am sure that many of the so-called reformers were once in my shoes. Many of them, I am sure, also wanted out from careers they found unfulfilling. Many of them wanted jobs where they felt that they could make a difference. And The Broad Residency, and Education Pioneers, and the charter schools, and the other reform organizations: they promised those opportunities. The chance to make a difference. To put students first. And to make good salaries. Really good salaries. The job boards tell the stories.

The education reform world is tempting, particularly to those who feel trapped by golden handcuffs. So I try not to demonize the Education Reformers, because I know how easily I might have ended up one of them.

But instead, I am just me. So I will continue to try to add my spin to the policy discussions. And maybe, there will come an opportunity that will allow me to marry my teaching background, legal expertise and writing skills. Someday.