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Kris Nielsen: I (Used to) Love Teaching

Guest post by Kris Nielsen.

This post was originally published here on his blog, Middle Grades Mastery. A modified version was sent to President Obama.

I love teaching. Or, I did love teaching. I loved teaching when my job was to teach. Now, I don't love teaching, because my job is no longer teaching.

Was that introduction awkward enough? That's kind of how my job feels: awkward, frustrating, backwards, stifling, and redundant. Breaking away from the comparison to the introduction, I'd like to add demeaning, thankless, exhausting, fruitless, unappreciated, lonely, undemocratic, unfulfilling, and major energy drain.

But, please, let me explain my whining. I'm not generally a whiner, so I feel that when I do moan and complain, I should have some good reasons, and maybe even some solutions. (Before you get your hopes up, I'm not going to offer any solutions. I've tried that; it's pointless.)

I look back and I believe that my entry into the world of teaching had the worst possible timing. I got my teaching certificate late 2006 and spent the first two years of my career teaching Earth science to 6th graders. I created my own curriculum, based loosely on the New Mexico state standards. My kids loved it! I kept them busy with hands-on, student centered learning that built vocabulary and concepts along the way. I based my lessons on real-life problems, invited community scientists into my classroom, let students create their own projects, and had a solid stream of parent volunteers and visitors in and out of my door. My students led their own parent conferences, with me sitting close by to monitor the discussion and answer clarifying questions. My students had good grades and, much less importantly, had high scores on the New Mexico Standards-Based Assessment at the end of the year.

After two years, I believed I had gained enough valuable experience to become more mobile. A college professor told me that teaching was awesome because you could go anywhere in the United States and always have a job. So, I gave my colleagues a fond farewell and moved to Oregon, a state that I had always dreamed of living in. I was lucky to get my job there--I beat out over 80 other applicants to teach math to middle school kids. I taught the Connected Math curriculum and worked closely with a group of professionals who shared my goals. It was awesome. I taught math like I taught science: hands-on, student-centered, constructivist, discovery learning. Again, I saw great success, especially with minority students and English language learners. I had students coming from the high school thanking me for giving them hope when they were sure they wouldn't make it past 9th grade. Two girls--children of immigrant parents--told me they knew they would be the first to go to college in their families, and they thanked me for it. Teaching in Oregon was amazing.

Then, the floor fell out. I could blame conservatives for the bone-cutting budget reductions, but it was everyone's fault. My district found itself in deep shortfall and cut over 350 teaching jobs. Having been there only two years, I was on the chopping block. My principal was dismayed, my colleagues were shocked, parents were mad, and kids were upset. My union was apparently powerless, despite my pleas, to do anything. Seniority stays. I was not seniority.

In shock and sadness, I spent over four months looking for a job. I filled out over 300 applications and had three interviews. Those three interviews represented my competition with hundreds of displaced teachers. I was not hired. So, I looked outside the Oregon state borders. After a Google search for cities that were hiring teachers, Charlotte, North Carolina was number two. I went from looking at the nine classified jobs in Salem, Oregon (none of which I could do), to sifting through over 350 teaching jobs in Charlotte. It was mindblowing. How did this city need so many teachers? I applied for about 15 jobs, got callbacks on ten, and interviewed over the phone with three. The first interview landed me a job over the phone. My family and I packed up and drove across the country.

Let me emphasize that: my incredibly supportive (and adventurous) family sacrificed and adjusted just so I could keep teaching.

It was an exciting and daunting prospect and I was nervous. The staff at my new school was pleasant, helpful, and upbeat. The district orientation was disheartening (I felt like I was being hired at Kmart). The students were initially eager and well-behaved. The union was non-existent, which I didn't really mind after my ordeal in Oregon. The administrators were generally professional and friendly, with only a minor "corporate" stench. I felt good about the arrangement.

What they didn't tell me in orientation was that I would not have time to teach anything meaningful. I was hired to teach science and the exact same math I had taught in Oregon, but this was different. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a district that is drowning in its own mandates, risk-taking, and testing culture. I think CMS is a microcosm of what's to come in American education. It's depressing. I didn't like it, so I did some research. An adjacent district was hiring some math and science people and I was attracted to two main things: it was closer to home and they had rolled out a one-to-one laptop initiative recently. Every student was carrying a laptop in class every day. I had to get into one of those classrooms!

To make that story short, I did. It's no different. Despite the lofty ideals and motivating speeches from administration, everything is the same. I'm not an educator, by the definition I had comes to terms with; I'm an employee of a system that has an agenda. My job is to frontload a small encyclopedia of knowledge to a group of students so that they can pass a test at the end of the year. There are now more shallow and meaningless tests, and my job now depends on the scores. That's not teaching. That's not what I do.

I've heard this several times already: "If you're teaching students to learn and letting them discover the knowledge, then shouldn't they be able to pass those tests easily?" At first, I thought, "Yeah! Totally!" But after trying it, I don't think it makes sense. Standardized tests are rigidly specific in the knowledge kids should have. They are bent way over into the realm of vocabulary and multiple-choice answers-and they don't even come close to teaching 21st century skills. If I teach my kids how to think and how to learn, then they will not be prepared to pass state tests, because that's not what those tests are measuring. The tests measure two things: memory and application. The second one is important, but not in a multiple-choice or short-answer sphere.

So that's the long story. Here are some more reasons I can't do this anymore.
I've gotten to the point where I feel good about how a lesson played out, only to check my email afterwards to find no fewer than five menial tasks that I must dedicate my time to. This is time when I should be planning more lessons, conferencing with parents, and learning.

I fight against poverty every day, knowing that I can't save everyone. And no one in power seems to care. All I hear are excuses. I hate excuses. I'm teetering on the poverty line myself, always running out of money by the third week of the month. And my family lives very frugally.

I have no health coverage for my family, because it would cost over a quarter of my pay. 
My take home pay is roughly equivalent to that of a full-time customer service manager at Walmart. I make less if you take into account the hours I work.
I worked diligently through a master's degree program to increase my efficacy as a teacher. I was rewarded with being treated like a disposable cog in a broken gear.
My coworkers are downtrodden and frustrated.

My students are falling apart. They have little hope. I don't blame them. They are reminded every year of their failure to pass meaningless tests and they watch the news that tells them they are dumber than the rest of the world. That piece of information is not true, by any means, but you can tell it affects them. And no one stands up to tell them they are doing fine.

I wanted to be part of the fix. I wanted to save the world. But every day I see powers greater than me stomp us down and tell us to get back into the classroom and be glad we even have jobs. If this is the way that public education treats professionals, then it's time for me to find a new field.

I give up. They win. I have joined the ranks of parents who have come to realize that we are only empowered to do one thing: take care of our own. I hope that things change, but I don't have the energy, the money, or the time to continue beating my head into a wall. And if the choices have run out for my toddler when he's ready for school, I will do it myself. Maybe I'll do it for others, as well. Who knows.

What do you think of Kris Nielson's statement?


Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator for six years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. After watching the field of education change in appalling ways, he decided to start blogging about how teachers and principals can create positive change in their own classrooms and schools. Kris is an activist against the bipartisan, corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs. Kris currently lives in North Carolina, where he is working on his first book, Maximizing the Middle: Rethinking Middle Level Education in the 21st Century.

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