Thursday, January 17, 2013

Teaching in the Time of Obedience

Last night on facebook, I lamented about becoming a teacher during the craziness that is corporate education reform.  I wrote: "I am in a foul mood. I feel this way anytime I look around and think about my career prospects. Why couldn't they have destroyed the teaching profession AFTER I spent my years in the classroom? I wish I had never become a teacher. #Selfish #PityParty

My friends were kind and supportive, offering many words of encouragement.  But here is what I said in response:

Thanks guys. It just pisses me off. I did things the right way, got my Masters before entering the classroom, had years of experience teaching already, spent years working with students with special need at the psych hospital. But then the year I graduate (2009) the sh!t really starts to hit the fan. I morally and physically cannot do what the job has become, especially for Sped in the inner city. I can't do it. I can't give those damn tests. I can't divert more time to paperwork than kids. I can't contribute to making kids HATE school. I can't stay silent and wait 3 years until I have tenure to speak out or work openly with the union. I can't stay up every night past midnight and get up at five, working 7 days a week. So now I am in a dead-end job, with no possibility to ever pay off my students loans, and no where left to go. Teaching should have been..different than this.

My anguish was sparked by two events.  One, a dear friend invited me to apply for a new job opening at a CPS school.  It really was a great opportunity, but I found I simply could not hit the send button to turn in my resume.  My one year of being in the Chicago Public Schools has left me with such deep scars, than simply entering a CPS building brings me near panic.  I have no doubt that I have PTSD symptoms from that absolutely horrific year of abuse. Perhaps someday I will be able to write in greater detail about the trauma inflicted on me, my colleagues, and the students at that tiny little school on the southside of Chicago.  But not yet.  I'm not ready even 2 and a half years later.

Another event was the vote on principal retention at the CPS elementary school where I sit as a community representative on the Local School Council.  Last year, the principal used every trick in the book to redefine a number of tenured teachers out of their jobs.  At the time, she claimed it was unavoidable due to the changes inflicted by the longer school day.  But the teachers who just happened to be displaced were also the teachers who had vocally disagreed with the principal at some point in the year or who were most active in the union.  And so there was a purge of staff, some forced out, others left after feeling unheard and unwelcome.  All in all, the school lost 11 good teachers at the end of the year, many parents were upset, and many tears were shed.

You'd never know anything happened if you went back to the school today.

That's the thing about purges. I'm sure life is easier now that no one speaks up about anything...ever.  If you went to the community principal retention forum, you'd think this was the best principal on the face of the earth.  Nothing but glowing praise, especially from her teachers.  Glowing praise for the world to hear while parents and some staff members cried silently in the shadows.

And I understand why those (primarily) teachers worked so hard to kiss some serious principal ass.  That is how things work, and this principal made it more than clear that if you disagree with her, you will be punished.  Nevermind if you are a phenomenal teacher, nevermind if you have legitimate disagreements, nevermind if you have tenure and have a proven track record of excellence.  The only way disagreements are  resolved in CPS is to punish and fire.

Now, I realize not every school and not every principal is as cruel, vindictive, or plays favorites the same way as the two principals I mention here.  But far too many are this way.  I don't know if the system seeks these terrible people out and rewards them with power or if it takes decent people and twists them into these monsters, but either way the result is the same.

And now the precedent has been set.  No one will ever voice their concerns, their disagreements ever again at that school.  Even if it is in children's best interest, who will be willing to risk it?  The lesson has been learned, dissent will be punished, and the dissenter will be destroyed

I can't be part of that again.  Blind, unthinking obedience is what is rewarded in this system.  And it is a symptom of a greater push toward compliant little workers throughout America.  Compliance is the greatest demand of workers from corporate America.  This corporate mindset is why corporate education reformers are so insistent on eliminating tenure and weakening union protections.  Even in a city with a union as strong as the CTU, there was no way to protect good teachers from abuse and from losing their (tenured) jobs.  This is on purpose.  Punish into compliance.

I've only been a special education teacher for a few years.  I have a long way to go before I become a great teacher. But I don't think I'll survive in the system long enough to become great.  I am not courageous to say this, I think I am a coward.  I think I am still a mediocre teacher, although I have potential to grow into something good.  I know I have deep compassion and an ability to connect with marginalized children, but I don't have any confidence that I can raise test scores.  When I taught in CPS, I was constantly torn between doing what I intuitively thought was best and what I was being told to do.  I'm simply not good at filling out the paperwork I am required to do, especially when that takes away from my job preparing for time with children.  I am lazy that way, because unlike all the other teachers in the building, after the first few months of non-stop pain, I refused to work those 12 to 16 hours days.  I said "no" after 9 to 10 hours of work.  But the work doesn't get done that way and now your bosses have evidence to punish you.  So the only way to survive is to take time away from kids.  And that feels awful.  Although I have learned my lesson about what happens to teachers who speak out without tenure, I have no confidence that I can keep my mouth shut if things aren't working for my students or for me.  I just can't do it again.

My current job at the hospital is as corporate as it can get, and I disagree with many of the practices being done there, but at least I am under the radar.  It is difficult and bad, but not to the point of abuse...yet.   But they are trying to get more and more out of us workers, to the point that things are becoming unbearable there too.  Corporate f-ing America.

Why do we all cower in fear and just take this abuse, again and again? Sure, go ahead and increase my workload with no extra pay.  Of course you can tell me to "do more with less". What else am I going to do? Say "no"?

I wasn't prepared for what teaching has become.  I chose this profession, in part, because it was NOT corporate.  I like autonomy and collegiality and debate.  I like the unpredictability that comes with working with children.  I like that everyday is new, unique, and can never be standardized.  But that is no longer what teaching is.  It is now all about compliance, productivity, data, measuring, intimidation, and fear.  This is not what I signed up for.  This is not the kind of teacher I want to be.

So I'll say it again.  I wish I had never become a teacher.


  1. Wow. I'm so sorry to read this. Thank you for speaking up, and I do encourage you to consider other districts or other avenues through which to serve kids; we all lose when someone as thoughtful and caring as you leaves the profession.

  2. Katie, you and I discovered in 2011 that we are kindred spirits as special educators who could not remain silent about the harmful practices taking place in public schools. My PTSD diagnosis came last February as I was literally being hunted down by my administrators on a daily basis. Like you, I am unable to sit down and retell my story start to finish because my heart literally begins to ache, the same way it did constantly by this time last year. So I tell it in bits and pieces, wearing the letters off my keyboard one by one. I have to believe that eventually, people will listen to us if for no other reason than curiosity about why we were considered such a big threat by people with much more power than us. Somebody out there has to be wondering what secrets we are keeping about the things that happen to children with disabilities behind closed doors.

  3. Katie, you've again articulated my thoughts in a more thoughtful way than I can. Thank you for saying this so eloquently. I find myself wishing I had never become a teacher more often than I dare say aloud. (nearly every day this school year, it seems)
    I often envision myself like Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman":
    "I got nowhere else to go!"
    I know I belong where I am - teaching the "special-est of special ed." I know that, like you, we are newer teachers who are good and want to become great. I know that the current climate does not foster our development as special ed teachers and it is nothing less than a criminal the way the most severely disabled children are "handled" by the drive for data, numbers and progress.
    I've often toyed with the idea of working at a private sp. ed. school, or going into "consulting" or something, I got no stomach for politics. But I'd hate that. I bet you would too. The only thing I'm left with is just to count on the one constant: change. You're already a part of making that happen with your blog, and your graduate studies. I hope you can Hang in there. You're an inspiration for me. Thanks.

    Rebel Speducator is right about the secrets of the things that happen to children with disabilities behind closed doors. It is a curiosity that we are considered a threat. I'm

  4. Katie, After 30 years teaching I fully understand your feelings, but please hang on, change schools, do anything but leave. Reforms come and go, and this one is always cracking, and will fall from grace soon. Following has allow me to see a teacher who makes a difference in the darkest of places. Reformers are trying to bottle effective teaching, but have lost sight of the heart of teaching is the building of caring and trusting learning communities. During my 30 years there have been times when building those communities were easy, and others where it is almost near impossible. Looking back I have come to believe that the years I make the biggest difference are the impossible ones. As crazy as this sounds my thinking is some day you'll feel the same.
    Thank you for your honesty,

  5. I met a middle school teacher here who was saying that I should apply for a job at her school, since they had lots of openings. I asked why. She said that their new principal was a real hardass who wanted teachers who could bring test scores way up. I respectfully declined. There's another middle school building that will churn out robotic minds that hate school.