Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why I Quit Teaching (For Now)

(two of my former students and graduates of Broadway Academy)

I just read a piece in the Washington Post by a private school teacher who was simply burned out.  This whole genre of "Why I quit Teaching" articles is often dramatic and has been done to death: We know education is a crazy, uphill battle; and teachers piling on with their sob stories isn't necessarily helpful in terms of fixing our fundamental problems.

But Jan Sidebotham's piece is straight forward and refreshing, stating simply, "This is what you guys think we teachers do - and this is what we actually do." Her piece prompted me to finally write my own reasons for exiting the profession, and choosing to reengage corporate America:

My students would not sit down.

Teaching in this charter school was like teaching in a stereotypical movie about urban schools. It was nuts. 

Now, I'm always up for a fight ... I'm up for a daily fight, actually; so, this wasn't the problem.

My students just would not sit down.

There were very rare occasions when you could get them to settle in, maybe, when the principal was in the room threatening everyone with expulsion. But the second he left they'd erupt, seething with resentment and anger. 

And when I corralled all of my energy, talents and creativity into a lesson - and added some incentives (or threats) of my own ... the kids would do some work for short stretches of time. Maybe 10 minutes, before some wheel fell off and the bus inevitably tipped over.

Cleveland cops (always present in the building) could not quiet a class.  They'd tell the kids to be quiet while they spoke, and that was accepted as a challenge. Suddenly these hardened officers in bullet proof vests had 30-plus kids all jumping to their feet, shouting at them.  We joked that it would literally take the National Guard to get the entire school under control at any given moment. 

Don't misunderstand: This overall situation was far from all bad. I loved my kids, and they loved me back. We had a special connection and an understanding. 

Because my kids liked me, they actually behaved better for me than for their other teachers. I brought some of them to my home, prompting one kid to say, "Mr. Bank, we've never had anything like this before."  "What do you mean?" I asked.  "A teacher who cared," was his answer. 

But the fact remained: The basic concept of sitting down and doing work was absolutely foreign to these eighth graders. The seventh graders were better; but, the eighth graders had a full decade of Lord of the Flies behavior under their belts, and that's hard to reverse. 

And I had them for three-hour blocks at a time.  

I'd have the seventh graders for the morning, then the eighth graders for the afternoon as I traded off with my partner teacher (a first year guy with an incredible amount of grit). I did English, he did Math. We estimated that, on a good day, we got in somewhere between 15 and 45 minutes of instruction - and the rest of the time was utter shenanigans.

Mostly, they ran around the room - around the tables, on top of tables, smashing through the tables - chasing each other and play fighting until an actual fight broke out. Which was an inevitable, at-least weekly occurrence.  You could just about set your watch by their fights.

These were tough kids. They thought nothing of jumping each other in between classes, then sitting down as if nothing had happened.  I actually gave some self-defense tips to one of my eighth grade boys, and he put them to use the very next day when he was walking home. Some kids questioned his "set," and didn't like his answer.  Translation: He walked a street over, away from the safety of his own block. 

I was proud of my student for not only surviving the assault, but for turning the tables and besting his attacker. I taught my students the difference between thinking you are tough, and knowing you are trained. 

I just couldn't quite make them see the connection between disciplined class work now, and rewards to come later. That corner was too much to see around. They had enough trouble navigating the dangerous physical corners as they walked home from school. 

I don't know if I'll be back in the classroom; most likely if I do return to education, it will be on the administrative side. I love my job as a corporate trainer; but, life has taught me to expect the unexpected, and I willingly go where I am called, and where I am led.  We shall see. 

In the meantime some advice for my students:  Hey J.J. and T ...?  Guys?  I think about you and your classmates a lot.  You will always have a place in my heart. 

Here's some advice for the next time around: 

Just sit down.