Investing in Public Schools: An Open Letter

Dear Progressive, Privileged Friends,

I went into teaching eighteen years ago because I believe deeply in the power of education to make a difference in our world.  It often seems to me that the only way to make a change is to truly understand–empathy and intelligence are the possibilities of a great education.

I think you agree with me, but we all too often disagree about what exactly this means.

As someone who has worked as a public school teacher now for nearly two decades, I have come to believe that we need to protect public schools, but all too often the conversations we are having are about how much the public schools disappoint–you would rather homeschool or send your kids to a private school.

And I am with you to a certain degree–plenty about how we do school in this country disappoints me too, but mostly I am sad: sad about the systemic failure that seems to be happening despite all the people who seem to care about powerful education.  I live in a city that offers our kids “schools of choice,” and the district I teach in, just across the Bay, also offers “schools of choice,” which means that one’s neighborhood is no longer the determining factor in where a kid goes to school as a way to account for the extent to which our cities are still segregated, to ensure an excellent education for all students regardless of neighborhood or family income.

But desegregation is not what is happening, which is obviously a systemic failure.  This failure has made it possible for, for instance, what is happening in my neighborhood: the Sequoia and Global Family dichotomy.  Here are two schools that are about two miles apart, potentially, in a more traditional model of schooling, a distance that would draw students from the same neighborhood, and yet the two schools are very different demographically.  Global Family is 92% Latino, 4% Black, and .4% White. It is 98% “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Sequoia, on the other hand, is 29% White, 22% Black, 19% Latino, and 12% Asian. Forty percent of its students are “socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The segregation is not stark, and, to be fair Global Family is a dual immersion English/Spanish school, so obviously it is going to appeal to Spanish-speaking families, which may account for its large Latino population.

But, still, this feels off to me–it doesn’t feel like what Schools of  Choice was designed to address, in that one school can be 98% poor and scoring very low on the standardized test scores (a dubious measure of success to be sure, but, of course, even us progressives who know the limitations of these test scores can’t help but notice them and, even unconsciously let them affect our perception of the school’s quality)  at 14% and 10% proficient in language arts and math respectively; whereas Sequoia’s proficiency rates are 49% in both subject areas. Sequoia is considered “highly desirable;” Global Family is not.

Districts such as this one where I live and the one where I teach–districts who espouse values of rigor and social justice, equity and diversity–shouldn’t have let this happen.  But it has happened–our schools reflect and reproduce social inequity.

So where do you come into this?

I’m writing to you, my progressive and privileged friends,  in the first place because, like I said, I know you care about social justice.  If you live in an urban area, you may likely recognize your district in the one I’m describing, even if the particulars aren’t exactly alike, and, especially given the ways that cities have been changing in the last couple decades, you are likely concerned with issues of gentrification; you, like me, may even feel some responsibility for the fact that, simply because of the color of your skin or relative economic privilege you yourself are contributing to gentrification and the fact that more and more low-income folks of color are being pushed out of their homes.  If you have school-aged children or ever plan to have children, you are inherently part of this conversation.

So as someone who is inherently part of this conversation, I hope you’re thinking about what we can do about this inequity.

My answer is that you need to invest in your public schools.

One of the things that makes Sequoia so sought after is that new families recognize the value of its very committed family base; for instance, despite the larger financial woes of the district, families joined together to help raise money for a music program.  While counting on funding from families cannot be an answer if we care about serving well even the poorest kids, the spirit behind that—invested families working to make the school better because they see a shared value, a shared purpose—is an important example of the kind of investment all schools need.  Sequoia is a perfect example of how, when community members feel invested in the school they make it better, and that, in turn, improves the community.

Sequoia is also recognized for its leadership and the spirit of the kids, which obviously comes from quality teachers.  Academic research shows that quality teachers are one of the key factors in student achievement. And, while districts need to think about their policies of hiring and placement, community investment goes a long way to addressing this particular issue as well.  For years I was part of a teacher-led think tank, Teacher Leadership Institute, and we looked at the question of teacher attrition, which has a pronounced negative effect on “low-performing” schools that mostly serve poor kids. Our research showed that only one in five teachers stays in teaching longer than five years, and when we studied why, the primary answer was the workload—specifically, teachers don’t mind working hard, but they want to feel like their hard work is getting them or their students somewhere.  If they feel like it’s not, they burn out. So then, at some point a certain kind of inertia takes over: a school may be “low-performing.” Teachers burn out quicker, but then it becomes harder for the school to attract highly-qualified veteran teachers, highly-qualified veteran leadership…and so then fewer families want that school, or the families that do attend that school are poor, lack resources to advocate, don’t feel empowered to organize for change the way, say, Sequoia families did to create that music program.

Meanwhile, the wealthier, more resourced families are looking elsewhere.  They pull out. They divest by sending their kids to private school. The vicious cycle continues.

I suppose it’s not any one family’s responsibility to step up and invest in the school, but if it’s no one family’s responsibility, then it becomes no one’s responsibility: the inertia is in place.  The school suffers, the district lacks equity.

Progressive, privileged friends, I understand your concerns.  I really do. I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about what good education looks like, and I know the power of an engaged, rigorous, relevant classroom.  When it comes time to send my kid to kindergarten and beyond, I worry about how I’ll be as a parent because I have such high expectations for teachers–I know what we’re capable of.  And, just like every parent, I want the best for my kid. The parents of children at Global Family want their kids to feel smart and capable, want their kids to be their best selves. They may not always have the resources to advocate for this; they often don’t have models from their own lives of what invigorating and rigorous education looks like, but regardless, their children deserve to be inspired by school in the same way that my kid deserves that and your kid deserves that.  Privilege does not make our kids more deserving.

All too often we are thinking only about our kid, not about all kids.  Investing and integrating benefit all children–test scores and graduation rates increase in integrated schools, and isn’t part of what we want for our children that they feel themselves as connected to a larger whole, not somehow separate from or above others because of their privilege?  Even small children can begin to understand the ideas of social justice inherent in this.

Given this, dear friends, I think it’s also useful to really actively work to redefine what we see as “quality education.”  Test scores aren’t the only factor. Is the school diverse? Will your kid get a number of different points of view from kids of varying backgrounds and life experiences?  How will they learn to be connected to and part of their community? Powerful learning is bigger than the individual lessons the teacher imparts. These are important qualities in our kids’ schooling in part because school is the primary way they will get these lessons.  As an individual parent, I can work to instill a love of reading in my kid. I can encourage their creativity and provide resources for these pursuits. I can work to teach them how to communicate well–all of which schools should strive for as well. It is however much harder as a family to provide my kid a number of diverse points of view or life experiences.  It is much harder to create the conditions through which my kid can learn to communicate and negotiate across differences, discovering all the things that make him like his peers and all the things that make him unique. All too often, families who divest from the local public schools and send their kids to private schools are choosing a more heterogeneous and privileged environment.  What does that teach children?

This isn’t just a local issue.  The national conversation about public schools has encouraged divestment.  Our current Secretary of Education made her mark being an advocate for private school vouchers and charter schools at a time when more and more public school teachers feel beleaguered by lack of resources, low pay, and general waning support for the work they do serving the vast majority of school-aged children.  In practice, in seems we can’t have both a strong, invested public school system and robust support for private school vouchers.

Of course, there are many ways to be engaged in your community and even ways to help support your local public schools even if you don’t send your kid there.  But schooling is so universal, and schools tend to be a place where many of our cultural values get debated and worked out. Talking about the politics of schooling is a conversation about race, class, justice, and all the things we want to pass on to our future generations.  My hope is you’ll be part of this conversation in ways that make our world better for everyone.


Letter to the Editor

Dear New York Times:

I’m dismayed by the Ethicist’s advice from January 10 regarding public schooling choices  in part because he accepts the assumptions that the letter writer makes in suggesting that something is “seriously wrong” with the neighborhood public school because of test scores. As a veteran public school teacher, I know that standardized test scores are only one measure of a school’s quality, and a questionable measure at that. Since the letter writer says the school seems “perfectly fine,” the Ethicist should at least be encouraging more questions: Are the teachers kind, caring, and empathetic? Is the student body diverse? Does the school serve a number of bilingual students? (We know, for instance, that bilingual children take much longer to achieve proficiency on standardized tests, yet bilingualism is an asset, not a deficit.) The ethics around school choice should be viewed with more complexity; to only look at standardized test scores as a measure of the quality of an education seems shortsighted.


The Most Important Teacher In My Life

I remember not starting to read The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home until the night before the day it was due. Around nine p.m. I made a pot of coffee and sat down with my coursepack-printed version of this out-of-print book. Staying up until three in the morning was standard for me, and I looked forward to the quiet of our living room on Lawrence Street. As I read, I became more and more agitated and more and more awake. The coffee was nice but not necessary. I devoured the book in one sitting, angry, excited, moved.

I remember the beautiful blonde wood and the echo-y, old feel of the Perry Building (I am almost certain that is what it was called) where English 319 met. I always loved having the chunk of time set aside at the beginning of class to discuss with a partner whatever we’d read, in part because I loved being able to go off exploring the building. LaShaun and I partnered up for that day’s discussion, and we sat on a sunny window ledge and talked. I remember the discussion was friendly, engaged, but I wasn’t yet starting to feel riled up.

It wasn’t until we all reconvened to discuss, that my hackles started to raise. I described the book in my journal as an “absolutely inspiring and totally frustrating” read. I wrote that it was “making me re-examine myself and my life” and “really shaking me up.” So then, here I was feeling so emotionally engaged with this book, especially because I had just decided to become a teacher, and I felt that we were “having this really…safe discussion of it. And I became so frustrated, and I raised my hand and voiced this in this totally inarticulate and frustrated and near-tears-voice-quavering way because it was this totally safe discussion about a book about revolution: we were sitting in our class in an expensive university, politely discussing revolution.” I wanted to “be all frustrated with everyone else, but I didn’t feel like I could. And I felt so safe, and talking about middle-class high school experiences—no matter how oppressive—was still really, really dancing around everything, and why weren’t we jumping into the the class issues and why weren’t we talking about being hypocrites sitting in a classroom politely discussing this book which, in not so few words, calls for revolution?”

Buzz’s response in my journal in part said, “Anywhere you are, there is work to be done, ways to deepen your commitments, connections to be made, anywhere…It’s important to be unsafe and to be secure in being unsafe…”

At the time, I felt grateful for these words, but I didn’t know how much they would continue to be relevant in my life and my work.

I became a teacher, and for years I struggled with not feeling very good at my work. I student taught in Detroit under a terribly racist master teacher, and I cried nearly every day because I knew that the little bit I was giving these poor Black kids wouldn’t ever be enough to undo years of miseducation and poverty. I taught in East Palo Alto, where I was fired at the end of my first year of teaching because I had given the kids too much freedom in publishing zines. I nearly gave up on education at that point, but so much of what I cared about felt connected to being in the classroom. So I found a good fit: a large, comprehensive high school in San Francisco where I am supported by my administration and inspired by my colleagues. It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing, and even now I still feel like “there is work to be done.” I finally feel secure in all the ways I struggle as a teacher: I don’t feel like that struggle is indicative of failure but rather of engaging with all the big questions about what being an educator in this country truly means: How do I inspire true freedom in my students while holding them to authentically high expectations? How do I create a sense of righteousness within a discipline framework without becoming an authoritarian so that kids feel safe? And how do I help students feel secure in being unsafe in all the important ways?

I became a teacher very much because of Buzz, his courses, and Jonathan Kozol. Years later, I had a chance to meet Kozol at the Teachers For Social Justice conference that happens every year in San Francisco. I had him sign my book, my coursepack copy of The Night is Dark…, and when I told him it had been required reading for the most important teacher in my life, he knew right away who the teacher was who’d assigned it.

Dear New York Times

As a progressive educator of thirteen years, I agree with Hacker and Dreifus in “Who’s Minding the Schools” ( ) when they conclude that teachers should be “allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.” That said, it’s not like the Common Core creates standards where none existed before; for my entire teaching career in California, I’ve been beholden to standards—state rather than national, but standards nonetheless. And, for the most part, I greatly prefer the Common Core standards to the California State Standards. The former are much more holistic and critical-thinking based than the latter. While the state standards were almost a checklist of facts the students should know, the Common Core standards approach learning more as habits of mind, ways to think and learn. This is a progressive approach to education. Yes, these standards are more challenging, but this is a challenge I welcome.


It’s Because I’m Black, Isn’t It?

I was handing back finals in class the other day.  When I gave Mandy hers, her immediate reaction was, “C plus!?  Why’d I get a C plus?!  It’s because I’m Black isn’t it?”

I’m sure many public school teachers have, at some point, been accused of racism, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve had a comment like this directed at me.  It makes sense: Our students are grappling with questions about who they are in the world, what their world is to them, and how their words and actions can affect and shape it, and, frankly, race and racism are very real, palpable parts of our students’ lives.  Questions of race and politics are an everyday part of my job, explicitly stated or not.  I’d like to be able to say that I always approach these conversations with aplomb and empathy, that I always use them to open up larger conversations about the implications of oppression and privilege.  But in this case I just got mad.  Because here’s another reality of the lives of teachers: There are some kids we just don’t like or get along with.  Mandy is one of those kids for me.

I feel a little uncomfortable admitting this: When I was a brand new teacher, I always assumed I’d love all my students, and the force of my love and my dedication to changing their lives would be a push to inspire them to love themselves and to make change in their own lives.  And I really do work at loving my students, all of them.  I try to understand them and get to know where they’re coming from.  I try to start every day fresh; even if I had a negative interaction with a kid, I’ll come into class the next day with the intention of being friendly and “starting over.”

I really tried with Mandy.  She’d come to my class, an elective, recommended by her English teacher, a friend of mine.  Mandy had told me she wanted to be a writer one day, and so I had high hopes for her.  But our relationship started to sour pretty quickly.  When it did, I initiated a conference with her counselor mediating so that we could work towards some resolution.  When she voiced her concern—I was too hard on her—I looked for every opportunity for praise, and I tried to limit my comments on her pieces.  But no matter what I did, Mandy complained, mocked me, didn’t take my advice, talked back to me, didn’t listen. 

In many ways, Mandy is a very hard student to like.  Students even complained to me about her attitude in class.  That said, I’m not proud of my reaction to her accusation of racism being the cause of a grade she was displeased with.  Aside from the fact that anger is rarely useful (although I was able to elicit an apology from her), I do think there’s something to what she had to say.  I don’t mean that my grade was based in racism—I think my grade was fair, that her final really was C plus, not A, work.  But I can’t deny the reality race and racism play in our students’ achievement. 

I still remember very clearly a conversation that arose with my students during my student teaching in Detroit, Michigan.  I was in despair.  I’d just finished grading students’ final short essay tests on Oedipus Rex.  Students, uniformly, had done very poorly on the test.  It wasn’t because they hadn’t read Oedipus Rex.  I knew they had; after all, we’d read the whole play in class, since the school couldn’t afford extra copies of the book to take home with them. 

The problem was that these students, seniors in high school, had never been taught to write essays, not even short answer essays with topic sentences and supporting details.  My teaching this was new to them. 

I handed back their tests, their Fs.  Students were annoyed; I could hear the grumbling.  They didn’t want Fs; they were just trying to graduate and be done with high school.  “Ms. Falls, this is too hard. You give us too much work.  Of course we didn’t do well!”  I had been prepared for this, and I launched into my speech.  “This is not too much.  When I was a senior in high school, we were expected to write, not only these kinds of short answers but full essays.  My senior English final was a ten page paper.”  “But Ms. Falls, this is Detroit!” 

Indeed this was Detroit; the students had pinned down the exact problem: My high school had been a predominately white, middle-class suburban high school.  This was Detroit: One hundred percent of my students were Black and poor.  The high school had a twenty-five percent graduation rate.  One morning when I came to school, I saw a car crashed into the front doors of the building.  It had been shot up in a drive-by and was left, all bullet-riddled, to greet the students as they came to school.  And my students had made it to their senior year of high school without ever being expected to write full essays. 

Why had they never been expected to learn the same things I had been expected to learn?  None of the teachers at Henry Ford High School had ever used racial slurs to refer to their students; no one had ever said explicitly that they didn’t expect much of these Black kids.  But that was the reality.  These students had inherited the racist legacy of this country: Their parents and grandparents had come from poverty.  Likely their parents and almost certainly their grandparents had not even been allowed to go to college.  They didn’t have faith in the educational system; they didn’t believe that school was a path for them to gain power.  Why would they?  They hadn’t actually witnessed this in their lives.  Seventy-five percent of them, in fact, had already left the system.  And their teachers had gotten burned out trying to break through these barriers; they had given up.  Racism and poverty had become such a part of the system, that, for the most part, students and teachers didn’t see it, but here were my students telling me, “This is Detroit.” 

Twelve years later, San Francisco, California, for all its mythical liberalness, is a city that still embodies these realities of race and class oppression.  The city itself can be a very hard place for poor folks to live given the skyrocketing cost of living.  People of color, particularly Blacks, have been pushed out of the city or pushed into the ghetto.  The majority of my school’s Black students come from the projects all the way across town.  Many of them spend hours riding the city buses to get to and from school, and many of them feel disconnected from the school culture because of the distance.  Students who live in the projects often express to me that they can’t stay late at school for various events or extra-curricular activities because it isn’t safe for them to return home after dark.  And, like most other public schools in the country, our school has a divide between the scores of our majority population (in our case Asian students) and the scores of our Black and Latino students.

Mandy comes from a single parent family.  She doesn’t really know her father, who is currently in prison.  Her mom had her young and never went to college.  Despite all this, Mandy aspires to be a good student.  She wants to get the grades.  She has enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes, even knowing that they will be a challenge for her.  But the reality is that she’s not as strong a writer as her peers.  She sometimes struggles academically.  And I can feel for this struggle: She is often the only Black student in these honors classes.  Not only must she feel like she has to achieve for herself, but she must feel like she has to do well as a representation of her race.  Whether this is a conscious or unconscious drive, it must feel like a burden.  And her Asian and white peers must, consciously or not, weigh her too as the single Black student in the class.  Given this much larger context, it makes sense that Mandy would have a chip on her shoulder, that she would feel threatened by criticism.  My suggestions for improvement are just one more reminder that she’s not where she would like to be.

As a teacher, I struggle all the time with this larger context.  I don’t want to fall into the trap that many other well-meaning teachers fall into of not having sufficiently high expectations for my minority students, of behaving as though just showing up and trying is enough.  I don’t think this does any of my students a service, and I think this kind of patronizing attitude is just as racist as a “you’re not good enough” attitude. 

Further, as a white, middle-class teacher, I have to be aware of my own biases.  All teachers have an agenda, whether they admit it or know it or not.  How much of the values, ideas, and approaches I teach are such a part of this unequal society that I’m a part of that I can’t even see that they’re biased or oppressive?  How much of our oppressive culture gets passed along in any sort of institutional setting despite people like me who work from the inside to make change?

I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to be a teacher who is at least conscious of all these dynamics that so many people aren’t conscious of.  I hear teachers I work with complaining all the time about students “playing the race card” or saying things like, “My best friend is Black, so I can’t be racist.”  (Or one White colleague likes to say, “I’m more African-American than my students because I actually grew up in South Africa.”): None of these approaches or attitudes actually change the real dynamics of race in our schools.  And our schools are simply a microcosm of society at large.  If we can’t productively talk about race and racism in the classroom, we won’t get very far in addressing racism in our nation.  I hope that the next time a student says something like what Mandy said to me, I’ll be able to engage better and start a conversation rather than getting mad.

Specialized Knowledge

Over dinner recently, a friend said something that, while slightly offensive and upsetting, is, I’m confident, a commonly held perception in this country today.  We were discussing another friend’s new job.  He is working an entry-level position for a computer software company, still learning the skills and the language of computer programming, and he makes one-and-a-half times what I make as a teacher of nine years.  In another year or so, once he has mastered the job, he has the potential to make three times what I make.  It was hard to conceal my disgruntlement over this.  I certainly am not angry with him, and I certainly didn’t go into teaching for the money, but I was trying to express to my dining companions how these pay differentials show a skewed sense of priorities that we have in this country.  My other friend began trying to defend these numbers.  Her argument was, “Well, computer programmers have specialized knowledge.”

She didn’t say it directly, but the subtext is that we teachers don’t have any specialized knowledge, hence the lower pay: Anyone can be a teacher.

Almost everyone in the United States has had the experience of being in school, of having teachers.  I know that when I was in school I barely thought about my teachers.  My middle school and high school years were so filled with my own angst: boyfriends and friends, stress over balancing grades and my part-time job and my social life, sex, and my own burgeoning sense of self and who I wanted to be in the world, that I never thought about my teachers except in that hour when I was in their class.  When they told stories from their own lives, stories of their spouses or pets or children, it was impossible to picture them outside of their personas in the classroom, impossible to picture someone calling them by their first names or talking to them about anything other than their subject area.  I feel lucky that I had excellent teachers, and I truly learned a lot from them, but they really did not exist outside school in any concrete ways for me.  I never considered what went into preparing a lesson for the day or the time it took to grade papers or tests.  And I think most adults who aren’t themselves teachers or who don’t intimately know a teacher still wear this same kind of veil.  Most people think, “I know what being a teacher is like.  I had teachers for twelve years.  Anyone can be a teacher.”  After all, how is it that the terrible adage, “Those who can’t teach,” has stuck?

Indeed, much of our current legislation around education is rooted in similar thinking.  Programs like Teach for America and other similar fast-track credentialing programs operate on the basis that all it takes to be a teacher is some strong common sense and a college degree, and teaching is often seen as a “stepping-stone” to something better.  People who have no formal training in educational theory can become teachers and will learn as they go.  How hard can it really be?

But the statistics on the revolving door of education, the high numbers of teacher attrition, suggest otherwise.  Teaching is a demanding job with no easy formulas.  The fifty percent of teachers who leave the profession within the first five years surely know this.  I, as a teacher of nine years who still struggles every day as a teacher, know this, and the implication that what I do doesn’t require any specialized knowledge certainly feels like a slap in the face.

I teach at a large urban high school in San Francisco.  We are a school with a decent standing ranked statewide and a pretty good local reputation.  We are not one of the top, elite schools, but I think, in this way, we are representative of what school looks like for many kids in this country.  The majority of our kids go on to college, most of them to local community colleges first; a good number go into vocational fields after school, and a small but not un-notable number of our students drop out.  We have a sizeable special education department and an equally sizeable advanced placement and honors track.  We have clubs and sports teams and problems with graffiti and the occasional fight.  The student body of my school is complex, and the realities of their lives that they bring with them as learners inform my work on a day-to-day basis.  And these facts are only very surface-level observations; trying to define the realities that make up the daily work of a teacher go far beyond any demographic descriptors.

Any teacher will tell you that the title “teacher” really encompasses a number of different roles: we are mentors, cheerleaders, counselors, conflict mediators, and students ourselves.  We are required, at times, to fill the roles of parents and friends, and then, of course, we must aid in subject mastery with inspirational, relevant, culturally responsive, varied, differentiated, accessible pedagogy. Perhaps the reason it’s so hard to see this as “specialized” knowledge is that this work is so varied and so complex.

In a typical day of teaching, I call upon a wide range of skills and knowledge, some learned in my English courses, some learned in my education courses, some learned through the reading I’ve done over the course of my life, some learned from being in the classroom teaching for nine years, and some learned from colleagues and ongoing reflection and professional development.  I may be lecturing on Romanticism, guiding my students in creating tragedies based on Aristotle’s writings, helping students write literary analysis papers by developing a thesis or expanding their analytical thinking.  I may be coaching students to read a Shakespearean soliloquy in a way that demonstrates emotion and their understanding of the text, or I may be facilitating a discussion on issues related to cultural assimilation that come up in our reading of A Raisin in the Sun, discussion facilitation being a demanding skill in and of itself, which I could write a whole paper on (How do I challenge reticent students to speak up?  How do I encourage confident speakers to open up space?  How do I ensure that all voices and opinions are heard?  How do I ensure that students are making meaning and thinking in deep ways?).  I may be expounding on finer nuances of vocabulary words; pushing kids to make inferences in their reading, or understand the symbolism or metaphor of a poem.  I may be reviewing rules on the uses of semicolons or how to do MLA citations.  I may be planning a lesson that takes into account the students who are noted as gifted and talented and the kid in the same class who is barely literate, or that addresses the learning needs of a student who does well with seatwork and her neighbor who can barely sit still for ten minutes.  I may be helping a student organize a binder.  I may be facilitating small group work or doing conflict resolution when groups come to an impasse.  I may be handling the daily homophobia of high school students in a way that doesn’t simply dismiss the offender but also makes it clear that intolerance is unacceptable.  I may be working one-on-one with a student who has only been in the country for two years or with a student who has severe cognitive disabilities (and, yes, I have had these students, often with an aid or para and often without).  I may be listening to a student who hasn’t eaten in days, whose best friend was just killed in gun violence, or who is simply anxious of graduating from high school.  I may be calling home or meeting with parents, guardians, counselors, or specialists to provide the services a student needs.  I may be writing letters of recommendation or writing referrals for misbehavior.  I may be working with a student teacher whom I’m mentoring, looking over lesson plans, trouble-shooting, or writing evaluations.  I am usually grading papers, trying to provide feedback that is meaningful and helpful to my students’ growth.  And I am usually doing all this, trying to ensure that I am holding myself to high standards for equity and fairness, that I am keeping my classroom student-centered rather than teacher-dominant, that I am allowing my students to use their voices and express themselves, and that I honor student experiences while still pushing them to go beyond their comfort levels.  I am reading the most recent literature on pedagogy or attending seminars or trainings, some mandatory, others voluntary.  I do all this to ensure that all of my one hundred and sixty students are joyful, empowered, successful learners.

And some days, I even feel successful!  I’ve built positive relationships with a number of students, some of whom I kept in touch with after graduation and now have real, adult friendships with.  I’ve had students tell me that, because of my class, they now love reading or realize they actually have things to write about.  I’ve even had a student tell me that my class changed his life and gave him the hope to go to college.  I’ve mentored student teachers who have gone on to have successful careers in education and who feel like they, too, are making a difference in the lives of young people.

My successes haven’t happened by accident.  They were not the result of simple common sense.  I’ve done a great deal of thinking about my pedagogy, about how to build in student choice, about how to build relationships with students.  I’ve had my share of failures and done a great deal of (sometimes tearful) reflection on what went wrong.

And I’ve worked really hard.  Especially in my first few years of teaching, I worked every weekend, developing my unit plans, grading, calling the families of my students.  I currently commute to work on public transportation, and, nearly every day, in my hour and a half round-trip on BART, I grade papers.  The pull to simply use multiple choice scanning machines or put a simple letter grade on an essay with no feedback is strong, and I sympathize with teachers who have over one hundred and fifty students and maybe even children of their own.  My sometimes seventy or eighty hour work weeks don’t feel sustainable, and I often feel torn between wanting to have more time for myself and wanting to provide as much support for all my students as I can.  It’s unfortunate that many teachers feel they have to choose between these options, and it’s unfortunate when teachers give up by leaving the classroom all together or by simply not seriously engaging in the real work of the classroom.  I always work through lunch, and I always have to laugh a bit when I get home and check my email to find that my friends who have office jobs have emailed me comics, funny stories, or YouTube posts.  When do they find time to do this while at work?

My work feels challenging and meaningful.  It certainly feels specialized to me.  But the other extreme of this thinking is equally discouraging.  Many excellent teachers make teaching look effortless, while, in reality their jobs are incredibly demanding.  While I want to be recognized for the work I do, I do not want to be a martyr.  The teachers who are doing excellent work should be viewed as professionals.  This means they should be paid equitably and seen as experts in their field.  It’s true that I didn’t go into teaching for the money, but if we want to ensure that our young people are getting the best education, we have to be serious about how we treat those who are providing that education.  Studies show that having excellent teachers is the number one factor in student academic success.

But teacher burn-out is real.  The workload is heavy, and the acknowledgement we get for the work we do is minimal.  The recent research I’ve done as a member of the Teachers Leadership Institute Policy Fellowship looking at causes for high rates of teacher attrition in San Francisco Unified School District confirms that teacher working conditions and workload are a key cause of teachers leaving the profession.  Nine policy fellows interviewed thirty-four San Francisco public school teachers who met publicly recognized standards for being considered excellent teachers.  The interviewees represent the full range of schools in the district.  From these thirty-four interviews, one hundred decisions to stay at a school site, move schools, or leave teaching or the district altogether were identified and analyzed.  We all worked together to answer the question, “What working conditions are necessary to attract and retain highly effective teachers in high-needs schools?”

Teacher attrition rates are incredibly high.  While certainly any job has attrition, and surely many teachers might, like other professionals, realize that the job just isn’t for them, this attrition has its costs.  Studies estimate the annual cost of teacher turnover to be more than $200 million in California alone.  Money is spent on recruiting and hiring new teachers rather than supporting those teachers already in the profession or funding school resources or infrastructure.  Further, high rates of teacher attrition exacerbate inequity in education and further the “achievement gap.”  High-needs schools have teacher turnover rates three times higher than high-performing schools in San Francisco Unified, and this is problem is echoed in other parts of the country.  The majority of new teachers get placed in high-needs schools, where they will have a much harder time developing their skills and will face the most difficult working conditions, thus accelerating high teacher turnover from high-needs schools.  We know that this constant turnover fractures the entire school community: Students lose the value of being taught by experienced teachers and teachers who know them; teachers lose the opportunity to build strong communities, and administration cannot build a stable environment with any solid institutional memory.  All of this leads to even more teacher turnover creating a revolving door of teacher retention.

In our interviews with teachers from a wide range of backgrounds, teaching assignments, and years of experience, teachers cited workload numerous times as a cause for low morale or even a desire to leave the profession or change schools.  Teachers describe the work as “insane and ridiculously unreasonable.”  High school teachers point out that they have up to one hundred and seventy students a day, and that grading papers and meeting all the students’ needs can be draining.  One teacher said, “How long can I do this?  [Other jobs are] not going to take me working fourteen hours a day.”  Another teacher, who says she always worked a lot at her other jobs, said that teaching required “just way too many hours to get done what you needed to get done. It was twice the amount of work than anything I’ve ever done.”  Another teacher at a low-performing school stated flatly, “[I felt like I had] been run over by a truck [at the end of each day].”  And finally, one teacher summed it up best when saying, “Even the best teachers can only do so much, and instruction and planning suffer when teachers are spread too thin.”  We have a real paradox in education in this country: We wouldn’t dream of sending our children to schools with less than excellent teachers, and yet we act as though anyone can teach.  We want the best teachers for our youth, but we refuse to recognize that we must fund and support excellent teachers, and we must create an environment where new teachers get to become excellent teachers.  This will not happen by magic or by simply complaining about our educational system today or about its teachers.

I have heard of various models for teacher workload that are provocative and compelling.  For the past few decades, education reformers have been comparing the United States public education to other countries’ approaches, and while these comparisons warrant a much deeper look and aren’t always relatable, different models of teacher workload are at least worth thinking about.  In Japan, for instance, schools are structured to provide more common planning time between teachers, and teachers teach sixty percent of the time while using that other forty percent to plan, analyze student work, and collaborate.  This is in contrast with American teachers who spend an average of eighty percent of their work day in front of students and only have twenty percent of their time for preparation and analysis of student work.

Another model that offers stark contrast to the reality of a teacher’s day is to imagine a performer.  Musicians, for instance, spend most of their working time practicing.  They use these non-performances hours to warm up, hone techniques, analyze their strengths and weakness and practice the parts that need extra work.  Imagine if performers worked like teachers.  They would spend eighty percent of their time performing in front of audiences, being on.  Of course their performances would be far from perfect; they would have no time to reflect or improve.

This is not to say that teachers should only teach twenty percent of the time.  I wouldn’t want this for the simple fact that I teach to be with students.  But I also realize that my work with students improves dramatically when I have time in my work day to plan to incorporate best practices or to look at student work to see what skills my students still need support with or what they’re doing well that I can build on.  I want to be the best teacher I can be, and this means that I can’t be frazzled, underslept, or unaware of my students’ needs because I have no time in my day to stop and process.

A number of other solutions exist that would ensure that teachers feel supported not overwhelmed and that would help guarantee that all students get to learn from excellent teachers.  Of course, many of these solutions, such as reducing class size or class load, do require funding, an unpopular reality given the current economic climate, but not all the solutions require extra money.  And, in addressing issues of teacher morale in the face of a demanding workload and low or dismissive public sentiment towards the profession, the solution is free: Support teachers and the work they do.  Recognize the excellence that does exist in our public schools.  (Of course, I’m not arguing that one hundred percent of teachers are excellent one hundred percent of the time, but we are also not the villains in the story that is being told about the “decline of American education today!”)  Get involved with your local school or your kids’ school.  Thank the teachers you know who are doing their demanding job expertly.  Talk about teachers like professionals who do indeed have a great deal of specialized knowledge.