This will at least be the beginning of the telling of this story. I recently read an article in The Atlantic that was titled ‘Why Teachers of Color Quit’. This article was brought to my attention by a former teacher friend and colleague, and the article resonated with me, making me think again about the reasons why I retired from the teaching profession. My posting is in no way an attempt to equate my reasons for retiring with the reasons stated in the article about teachers of color. If there are any commonalities I leave that up to the readers of this post and recommend that those readers take the time to read the Atlantic article.
There was much in the article about the author’s (Amanda Machado) experience with Teach for America. I would disagree with some of her statements about that group. Although I applaud the altruistic beginnings of Teach for America and its attempt to enlist college graduates into teaching positions when they otherwise may not have considered such a move, I have come to dislike what Teach for America has done in destroying the professionalism of the teaching craft. Teach for America has taken a position that teaching is simply a mechanical occupation whose goal is to increase standardized test scores and that if a person follows a prescribed set of directions, then higher test scores will be the end result. Such a stance dovetails with the charter school movement (which by the way, here in Philadelphia, is where most Teach for America enlistees end up). Much has been written about this dynamic and I do not wish to pursue it further in this posting.
So, why did I retire from teaching? A bit about my background first – I was born and raised in a working class coal mining town in Pennsylvania. I recently attended a high school class reunion – I will write a posting about that experience next – and I ran across a chemistry teacher that took a few of us on a trip to the U. of Penn. I was such a naïve student of the world that I was not even sure what the difference was between the U. of Penn and Penn State. That may seem hard to believe but it is an indication of how little I knew about the wider world around me. After some time served in the military during the Vietnam Era, I graduated from college and entered the teaching world. I had an uncle who was a huge influence on that decision, but I must admit that entering teaching also had a little bit to do with not wanting to work in a factory – which I tried for a while after getting discharged. I grew into the teaching profession slowly, beginning by teaching in institutions (Eastern State School and Hospital and Allentown State Hospital), moving into public schools, and eventually teaching in urban schools in Philadelphia and then finishing in a charter school in the city. That serpentine course ran for 31 years and towards the end, almost until the day I retired, I was sure that I would teach until I was 70.
Circumstances would however change that forecast I made for myself. Towards the end of that 31 year period certain factors began playing themselves out. I developed some minor health problems – some folks thought that they might have been major problems but I, although discouraged by them, did not consider them a huge impediment to continued teaching. A second factor had more influence on my thinking however. Years earlier Carol and I had separated and divorced but still remained friends. That relationship developed into a deeper one and we eventually joined together and remarried. I knew that to continue teaching, which occupied a tremendous amount of time and attention, would hinder that developing relationship. We continued together as I struggled with a decision. I was approaching a time when I could retire and I had to weigh all of the factors in making a decision. Perhaps something would tip the balance and that something would soon reveal itself.
The last ten years of my 31 years of teaching were completed in an urban charter school. The beginning of those ten years was an exciting time. I had left an urban school because many changes were occurring in Philadelphia public schools at that time. Student population was dropping for a number of reasons and the school where I taught was going to disband the teaching team I worked on and force transfer half of our team. We were left in a confused and depressed state over that decision when an offer to teach in a charter school was presented to me. Charters then were still hewing to the original premise that charters could serve as a ‘laboratory’ to try out different approaches to teaching and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to find new and exciting avenues to teaching and learning. For a couple of years it worked that way, but it was becoming evident that the original premise of discovering new pathways to educate urban students would not be shared with public schools. It became clear that charters would compete with public schools as opposed to working with them. I considered leaving charters and retiring at that time but I knew that to re-enter public schools would require a great deal of energy and focus to re-establish my credibility with students. I was not sure if I had that energy and focus in me anymore. At the same time, the charter where I taught decided to develop an AP program, and I became a part of the planning team for that development. I thought that introducing AP classes would disrupt the move the charter was making to a more formulaic approach to classroom teaching and might actually serve as a model for the other classes being taught at that time – a model that valued teacher knowledge and wisdom, encouraged increased reading and close examination of multiple texts, and emphasized student/teacher dialogue in interpreting text. Though I did not seek it, I was asked to teach the AP English class that was about to begin. That became an opportunity to engage students in a classroom community of learning and led to a few years of great enjoyment – sharing learning with and among students who were eager to be challenged. I even tried to get the school to set up Pre-AP classes – they can begin even in middle school grades and are based on students doing some independent and analytical assignments, engaging in classroom dialogue and being met with rigorous content. That idea was not accepted as it ran counter to the prevailing emphasis on teaching to a model that all teachers had to follow and that was set up to prepare students for taking the state standardized test.
Slowly the balance tipped towards retirement as an option. One of my teacher evaluations let me know that I was teaching too many skills in one period of instruction – as opposed to the model that stressed teaching one skill at a time be that main idea, making inferences, etc. My argument that reading was a skill that required using multiple skills simultaneously was met with silence. Another evaluation informed me that I was not a team player. True story here – at a faculty meeting I questioned the need to devote so much time to standardized test prep. I was approached later and told that that was an example that I was not a team player. It tended to silence me at faculty meetings although there was one meeting where the only question I asked was what time the standardized test began and ended. I was approached after that meeting and met with smiles and the comment that now I was being a team player. Sadly, I wish that story were not true, but it is! At a final evaluation meeting I was told that if I were to come back the next year I would need to ‘protect’ myself. At that comment I simply stood up and said I would have no need to ‘protect’ myself – I would have my resignation on the principal’s desk that afternoon and that is what I did. I understood the implication that I would have to ‘protect’ myself from being coached (read harassed) for endless weeks with people telling me how I needed to change my practice to fit the prevailing model.
Retirement then became a reality. I loved the classroom teaching and learning that occurred with my students. They were some of the brightest and most inquisitive students that I had ever encountered. I loved sharing practice with my teaching peers in a collegial effort to seek out better practices that all of us could implement. The difficulty came in working with administrators that had little classroom, and sometimes no experience.