Why We Quit

I recently led a seminar on teacher retention. It was short and to the point. It was based on conversations, quick surveys, research, and experience. It was prompted by something I had learned at a previous seminar. Two years earlier, I was at this same conference and was shocked to learn from another presenter that nearly half (45%) of new teachers quit during their first five years.

How, I questioned, can something we have looked forward to, studied for, interviewed for, and sacrificed for, be such a monumental disappointment as to cause half of us to just walk away and not look back? I don’t mean change schools, I mean just quit education forever.

After talking to colleagues, I did what any good researcher would do–I Googled it. One of the first articles I ran across was from a math teacher whose complaint was that he was barred from teaching the traditional math he was taught in school. His advisors up the food chain wanted a more intuitive approach where discovery and feeling were paramount. His argument was simple: 2+2 still equals 4, and any human with a working memory needs to know their multiplication tables. His leaders wanted him, rather, to allow students to “discover the concept” of two numbers being equivalent to a third. I loved his response. He wrote, and I’m not quoting, that the likelihood of undisciplined, ill-mannered, disinterested students discovering a concept that a studied, intellectually invested mathematician took years to develop was zero. And yet we play the game.

In my conversations with teachers, another big problem is discipline. There is none. Corporal punishment is considered ancient and barbaric. Intimidation and embarrassment are considered cruel. Reasoning is useless in all but a precious few circumstances with reasonable students. Administrators’ hands are tied by local and state rules. The inmates have taken over the asylum.

Another concern is the amount of “hoop-jumping” cited by both teachers and administrators. Ask any teacher, any teacher, and you can get a feel for what I’m talking about no matter where you live. Much of it is what used to be called “paper work” but which is now done mostly online. Some of it is to make areas more competitive for federal funds, some of it is what is humorously and quietly called CYA work. But the amount of it has increased over the years and even though it yields little immediate reward for the classroom teacher, much of its completion falls to these folks. Frustration mounts, and teachers just give up.

If you want to know how teacher feel about their working conditions, just Google “Teacher working conditions survey” and click around. Not all states have their own survey, but many do. You may have to read between the lines, but if your antennae are up, you’ll get the message.

Finally, if you want to get an earful (or eyeful) go to the link below and read about the frustrations of one teacher who says so much that so many would like to say.



Years ago, I remember hearing that economics and behavior should have no effect on educational success. Poor kids, I was told, were just as smart as rich ones. I could believe that, because we lived well below the poverty mark, and I still did well in school. Has something changed? Or was I just a fluke?

According to the report The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do, from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2007)  

“Research shows that poor children are less likely to succeed in school, more likely to have long-term health problems and more likely to rear their own children in poverty than their higher-income peers.”

” Recent scientific evidence further supports these findings by demonstrating that the detrimental effects of poverty are literally built into the architecture of children’s developing brains.”

Something has happened to our spirits, I suspect. I remember poor kids in the 60’s vowing that their children would never live as they had. We had spunk and hope and creativity! I cannot remember any gap or chasm between myself and the children of the scientists and engineers at the area university or government laboratories.

Nowadays, students of hardship enter my classroom with “hopeless” stamped across their foreheads at an alarming rate. When asked if she couldn’t take her studies more seriously, one student answered “I just want to get out of here so I can have some babies and “draw” (go on welfare.)

Nearly 25% of the students in our area live in poverty. I cannot fathom there being a silver bullet for this. Some days I feel as hopeless as they do. But I still believe that somewhere beneath the hurt and hopelessness is a student who wants to make something of themselves. I just hope I can find him or her before they leave my school.

Inverse Functions

I stumbled across a TED video the other day, and have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  Salman Khan was talking about his foray into the education arena. Among all the other down-to-earth, practical things he said was a remark he made about how counter intuitive modern (if you can call it that) education is. We lecture, or demonstrate, or show, during class where students are asked to keep up and then sent home to do “homework” where the amount of available assistance is inversely proportional to the degree of difficulty.

Lectures, demonstrations, videos, etc. can all be done online these days where the student can watch at his/her pace, go back, repeat, slow down, whatever they need. There are now pens that will record everything you write, interface with your computer, and then disseminate your notes online however you wish. Cool, huh? Yeah, but your students already knew about this!

That which we call homework, he suggests, should be done in class, where the teacher can give constant observation and feedback (instruct, assess, adjust-remember?) in the form of Formative  Assessment.

I happen to believe that all teachers are wired for formative assessment, but written work (worksheets and the like) are frowned upon because they look so old-fashioned. As I write this, I am trying to brain-storm ways to use this upside-down model in my area, but no brain-storm yet–maybe cloudy with a chance of drizzle later–we’ll see. But I am committed to trying to come up with clever ways to do more lecture and study at home, and more hands on at school. The idea of  upside-down instruction fascinates me.

More to come. Film at eleven.

Kahn’s video is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM95HHI4gLk

His website is here:  www.khanacademy.org

Academic Darwinism

This post is primarily the result of my thinking out loud. I was listening recently to someone discussing various educational initiatives, and how some school systems actually believe that if they set the bar high enough, and task their teachers severely enough, 100% of their students will graduate on time and go on to college. While nothing would make a teacher happier, and while it may be a worthy (albeit unrealistic) goal, we all know that in the real world this will never actually happen.

No matter how we try to slow the instructional pace, and rein in the progress of our high achieving students (in order to allow the less intellectually aggressive students to catch up, or at least not be left behind) closing the achievement gap is still mostly an illusion. One student’s local grades and EOCs may be higher than another, but it is the ACT ans SAT scores that are a true measure of a graduate’s readiness to go on to college. And, I might add, not everyone wants or needs to go to college.

So, we are presented with this idea that no one should be left behind, or fall through the cracks, and this idea of Academic Darwinism rears its head. The truth is, no one gets left behind; they just get off the train at another stop. No one falls through the cracks; they simply sift out to another level. In this light the idea of Academic Darwinism seems a little less insidious.

This sifting has gone on throughout history. In the Middle Ages, not everyone could make it into a craftsman’s guild. Later, not everyone could read or write, or enter a college, or qualify for higher learning. Just because we have more colleges, better teaching tools, and huge systems of instruction does not mean that we have overcome the human instinct to either seek out or ignore higher levels of knowledge and skills.

Now, I’m not suggesting the use of this topic as an excuse for shoddy teaching. But I am saying that not every one of my students is college bound. AND, more importantly, I am not intimating that those who do not seek out higher education opportunities are failures. I am saying that reality cannot be ignored, rewritten, or used as a whip for educators. I may not produce a bevy of PhDs, but I will produce students who do what they do the best way they know how.

And I will be proud of each and every one of them.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

I’ve often said that I cannot fix in a few short semesters what the world has done to damage a student. As a principal of mine once said “The parents didn’t keep the good kids at home today, they sent you all they had!” It’s that home that sometimes worries me.

At a recent teacher conference, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Henry L. Johnson talk about the myriad influences on a child’s education. He mentioned the usual things like economics, neighborhood, civic and religious affiliations, etc. Then he said something that really caught my attention. He said that a family’s conversations had a profound impact on a student’s success.

One family’s conversation might be “How was school? Do you have any homework? Is everything going alright?” Another’s conversation, on the other hand might be more like “Clean up the kitchen! Get off that phone! Shut up!” And all peppered with curses and threatenings.

Negative conversations at home affect learning at school. –Dr. Henry Johnson

Everything a child comes to school to learn is filtered through everything he already knows from home. Children bring their own culture with them, and the fireworks begin when they try to impose that value set on the outside world–that is, your classroom.

This problem is too vast to try to give you some simple answer (even if I had one–and I don’t) but my hope is that when you spot “that student,” (and you’ll recognize them,) you’ll stop to think about what kinds of conversations created that behavior.

Years ago, a theory of human development evolved along side Piaget’s famous work, but without the fanfare so often afforded to Piaget. The work of Lawrence Kohlberg and its relationship to Piaget’s is  broader than I want to examine here, but his Six Stages of Moral Development is worth looking at, even at a cursory level.

In a nutshell, Kohlberg posited that our human morals develop in six stages as we grow up. My question is: Could we hasten/improve the development of these stages simply by making our students aware of their existence?

I like to couch the stages in words which complete the statement “I am moral because…”

stage 1: I want to avoid punishment

stage 2: I want to receive the benefits of obedience.

stage 3: I want to be “good.”

stage 4: I want to be law-abiding (legal.)

stage 5: I want to be a good citizen.

stage 6: I want to be a good human being.

Yes, this short article is just a scratch on the surface, but some thought given to it might yield and idea or two worth pursuing. I plan on talking with my students about Kohlberg’s work and see where it takes me.

If you do the same, let me know how it goes.

Feeding the Elephant

My Principal once told a story of a speaker at an educational conference who was from India. This Indian presenter summed up the major difference between education in America and the rest of the world when he said “In America you spend all of your time measuring the elephant. In India we spend our time feeding the elephant.”

How I wish I could spend more time feeding my students than I do measuring my students. Teachers with high stakes testing courses feel even more strongly about this than I do–I teach in the arts.

I was all inspired to blog about this but I was having difficulty putting it all into words. Then I read Canadian educator Jack Miller’s “Education and the Soul.” It sums the topic up so well I decided to just paste in my favorite paragraph and then let you go to his article if you wish.

The accountability movement  is another example of mechanization in the curriculum.  Teachers are expected to be constantly testing students so that the public is satisfied with the what is going on the in the classrooms.  Unfortunately, the tests focus on a very limited portion of the curriculum and ignore the important areas such as personal and social development.  These tests tend to  stress information that will be soon be forgotten by the student.  The student begins to see school as a game where succeeding is based on passing tests that seem to have no relevance to anything except what we might call useless knowledge.   When school is seen as a game, there is no vitality.  Classrooms become lifeless places where students focus on achievement in a narrow and competitive manner.  A curriculum of meaningless tests is another example of education without soul. 

Education without soul…what a frightening thought.

Link to Jack’s document: http://www.google.com/#hl=en&sugexp=kjrmc&cp=63&gs_id=72&xhr=t&q=The+accountability+movement+is+another+example+of+mechanization&pq=education+and+the+soul+john+p+miller&pf=p&sclient=psy-ab&safe=active&source=hp&pbx=1&oq=The+accountability+movement+is+another+example+of+mechanization&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=&gs_upl=&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.,cf.osb&fp=9380054e42786d49&biw=1024&bih=600


Transformative Learning

Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning (TL) (1991) is based on the idea that real learning results in a change of perspective which then becomes transformative learning. It is not an exaggeration to call TL life changing learning. This learning changes the way the learner thinks, which changes the way the learner feels, and ultimately how the learner behaves. Now for you hardcore educators and therapists, I know this is an over simplification, but at its heart, the goal of TL is to effect lasting changes in the life of the learner.

Now here is the two-edged sword: on the one side is my contention that this should happen all the time in our class rooms. On the other side is the agreement with many articles on the subject that state that true transformative learning rarely takes place. It may be rare, but I can recall times when I came across an idea in class that felt like a slap in the face.

Just like the proverbial “salt of the Earth” which keeps things from going bad, I hope  every day to say even one thing that might at least change some student’s life and at least maybe keep them from going bad, and at best add a little flavor to their lives. But I still chase after that idea, or phrase, or something that might affect my students the same way some truth affected me.

Some days they look at me wich such bored expressions. Other days I know they will go home and if their parents ask “What did you learn today?” they will have an answer.

And it will be a good one.

I am all about instructional differentiation. I know that each of my students is different and needs to be appreciated as an individual. I know they are the product of a unique set of circumstances. They do, however, have one thing in common: they are all in my room at the same time learning the same information and skills from the same teacher.

In that respect, they must all learn a valued life-skill: adapting to different learning styles and environments. I believe we have mis-interpreted the learning styles paradigm. Whether a student is left-brained, right-brained, kinesthetic, aural – whatever, that preferences only describes that particular student’s natural predisposition toward learning. It does not, however, mean that the only learning that student can experience is that which is presented in his/her preferred manner. We, in fact, do our students a great disservice when we give them the illusion that the great spinning world outside the walls of our school awaits with open arms to custom fit it’s square peg to their round hole.

I do not remember a time when any college professor presented English composition in any manner other than their tried and true methods. We sat in a large lecture hall with 100 other students and LEARNED to LEARN. I do not remember any employer differentiating their instructions to me on the job. Bosses expect you to adapt to them. I have never heard a member of the military tell me that their CO adapted instructions to make following orders more acceptable to them. I can hear you veterans laughing from here.

In short, the most valuable thing we can teach our students is how to learn the subject at hand. This skill, once mastered, will last them a lifetime.

Hopefully, it will be a long and successful one.

Martini by Bond

“Shaken, not stirred” is a familiar phrase to James Bond fans. It also describes many of our students.  We frequently throw some new idea at them, based on some retired administrator’s book, or some other’s expert “experience” and then wonder how we could have adopted some plan clearly ten years too late. The effect on the students is a mild shaking up of routine, but rarely a stirring of their souls.

Those in the upper ranks of edutopia regularly send down the “next new thing” to revive the schooling of children and when it doesn’t work, they blame the teachers, drift off in mid-tirade, and latch onto another equally ineffective initiative.

My own teaching experience teaches me that students don’t seek things “new and exciting” in education. They seek that in their private lives, yes, but when they enter the classroom they want only one thing-what works. Tried and true, time-tested, you-can-count-on-this learning gives them a sense of trust and security.

Granted, you’ll have to figure out how to do this yourself as it applies to your particular subject, but save the dog-and-pony-show for the circus.

Give your students real knowledge.