Today, Diane Ravitch posted this blog, which reproduces a letter from Ron Maggiano, a Disney (and other) award winning teacher in Fairfax County about why he decided to leave the classroom after 33 years. Many of things about which he complains are familiar to me.
They were part of the reason I retired a year ago. But as regular readers of my posts know, that after spending some time back in a classroom before my wife was diagnosed with her cancer, I began to realize that I belong back in the classroom, as long as I can function with integrity.
I posted a comment on the blog post, which I have decided to reproduce here, below the squiggle.
Take it for what it is worth.
I understand Ron Maggiano's frustration. I explored option of trying to make a difference outside of the classroom, and in the process recognized that I was at a point where I was not certain I could continue to teach with integrity. So I took a buyout and retired in June 2012. I had my own share of awards for my teaching, but of greater importance had been the ongoing connection with the lives of former students, and the number of former students who despite my cautions about the difficulties of the profession who had chosen to go into classrooms of their own to try to make a difference in the lives of young people.
By happenstance, my first principal was involved with a group of non-profit charter schools serving high-need students that had a need for a middle school social studies teacher in November. I agreed to serve for the rest of the year, entering the classroom shortly before Thanksgiving. I thought I was prepared for what I would encounter, but I was not, as I wrote about here. I only left that position because I had to care for my spouse in the early days of her treatment for cancer.
But something had happened in the two or so months I was with those young people. My passion for teaching was reignited. I remembered what it was like to see lights go on in the eyes of young people, of being part of their excitement about learning.
I also remembered that I had found ways to be effective despite various mandates that seemed restrictive of what I could do - probably because I make clear my absolute commitment to my students, because I take the time to communicate with their families, and because I make clear to the students themselves that I am going to trust them and believe in them unless and until they give me a reason to think otherwise, and even then, we can always reestablish the relationship of working together.
At one point during my last year before retirement, when I was exploring trying to make a difference outside the classroom, Diane and I had an exchange. I was saying I was not sure that the war to save public education was not already lost. Diane responded that even were that the case, she was going to go down fighting.
I have had some impact on people's thoughts about education through my writing, primarily online. Much of that came because I was rooted in the classroom. During the Fall of 2012, before I went to that inncr city school, an electronic acquaintance asked me to write a piece of Academe, the publication of the American Association of University Professors, of what professors should expect with the students now arriving at their institutions, students who had spent their entire school careers under the mandates of No Child Left Behind and its progeny (including Race to the Top). Academe allows its pieces to be cross-posted providing credit and a link back to the original are provided, so shortly after it went live on their website, it also appeared several other places, including in Valerie Strauss's blog at the Washington Post. The Post version went up shortly after I had left the inner city middle school to care for my wife (who is recovering nicely) and it quickly went viral - any piece with more than 100,000 Likes on Facebook is something of a phenomenon. I wound up in multiple radio interviews, guest lecturing to faculty at an elite college, and in electronic correspondence with well over 100 people who contacted me directly.
The phenomena about which both Maggiano and I were concerned was being noticed - by parents, by school teachers, by those at universities. The concerns about the restrictions on what teachers could do and how they were being evaluated were already occurring in some university schools and departments, with as devastatingly narrowing of real learning as we were experiencing in the K-12 setting.
I had long been involved in the pushback against the conventional wisdom of the misnamed "reform" movement in education - misnamed because so much of it was recycling of and doubling down upon ideas that had been tried and failed previously. I was one of the organizers of the 2011 Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in Washington DC, at which Diane was one of the key speakers, along with the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguero, Nancy Carllson-Paige, John Kuhn, and many more.
In part, the response to my piece made me realize that I needed to stay involved, but that my involvement only had meaning so long as I was based in the classroom, in a school.
Someone whose judgment I greatly trust, Parker Palmer, told me that I would always be a teacher, the only question would be the definition of my classroom. My writing expands the size of my classroom, but its heart remains my direct relationship with adolescents. I have been fortunate enough to find a setting that will challenge me as a teacher, fits my rather unique combinations of interests and skills, so I have committed to go back into the classroom. I will be teaching 6 classes, on an A/B day schedule - that itself is new to me, so even though half my classes are Advanced Placement U. S. Government and Politics, I have to totally rethink how I will approach the subject. The other three classes are totally new to me, and are based in the school's STEM program.
I sometimes remark to people about a line from "Magnum Force," a Dirty Harry movie starring Clint Eastwood. That line is "A man's got to know his limitations." For me my limitations require me, for better or worse, to keep being a classroom teacher pushing back on behalf of my students, for as long as I can.
I am now 67. I have no idea how long that will be. Some would say I have already earned my retirement. Perhaps. But that does not remove from me my sense of obligation to try to keep making a difference. For me to do so, I must be rooted in the classroom, one full of adolescents, preferably of high school age.
I respect Ron Maggiano's decision. I agree with the concerns he expresses.
For me, the best way of addressing those concerns is to do what I can from within the classroom, knowing the battles I may well encounter.
I am despite the damage being done to American public education and thus to the students it is supposed to serve, more optimistic now about the future than I was several years ago. There is enough pushback coming from ordinary folk. We are now seeing not only teachers and university professors pushing back at "reform" but also parents and students.
So perhaps you could consider this my "Why I Unquit" message. I believe that those of us who understand what teaching should be have a responsibility - as long as we can do so with integrity - to offer our young people that kind of teaching.
I will respect the decision of those who choose a different path.
I quoted fictional words of Clint Eastwood before. There is another set of words, probably apocryphal, attributed to Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. While I am not in general a fan of Luther, those words do seem applicable to the decision I have made, which is different than that of Mr. Maggiano. They are these:
Here I stand. I can do no other.
For better or worse I am a teacher, and I must with all my heart and soul be that teacher in the best way I can for the young people for whom I hope to make a difference.