When I was the ticking time bomb teacher — the one doing All The Things, reenacting the Hollywood-esque Savior Teacher storyline, rushing like a runaway train toward the inevitable moment when I'd need to quit — one of my problems, maybe my biggest one, was that I wasn't asking the right questions. My sights were set, always it seemed, on the latest problem, the latest lesson, the latest meeting. I'm not getting down on myself — or on you if this describes your teaching life more frequently than you'd like it to. After all, it's almost like the working conditions of today's teacher were carefully designed to create this kind of near-crazed person, perpetually reacting, rarely thinking deeply, caught in a nonstop cycle of wake up, work like a maniac, crash into bed, repeat nine months a year.
So, this is why I quit, and it's why the average teacher does, too. If you make it past five years as a teacher these days, you're literally outstanding.
A part of the reason is this universal desire when you become a teacher to be great. You don't want to just be okay. You want to be like the teachers who changed your life. You want to be that for all the kids. This is a beautiful goal, one we should keep our tightest grip on.
But then once you get into the work a bit, you realize that it takes this inhuman amount of effort to do everything you think greatness requires. This is because, frankly, you're not thinking clearly enough about greatness — you have a very poor understanding of it and of the work you're doing. You're not asking, intensely, what matters most?
There's this great line from Dan Pink, one of the clearest thinkers of our day, where he says:
Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one’s sights and pushing toward the horizon.
(This is one of the epigraph quotes at the start of These 6 Things. You can read that first chapter, for free, by going to this page and scrolling to the bottom.)
So, here's the first thing I had to do if I was going to make great teaching sustainable — to “lift up my sights,” as Pink puts it.
I had to ask the right questions.
What's it for?
When I restarted my teaching career, I was exclusively a high school English teacher. I knew I wanted to teach in a better, more sustainable way, so I started reading the professional literature aggressively, going to literacy conferences, and watching people talk about teaching on Twitter.
Almost immediately, there was this feeling like I was drowning. A lot of it was delightful water to drown in — I mean, I was reading people like Jim Burke and Penny Kittle and Carol Jago — but still, these people were super-masters. Every sentence they wrote was laden with meaning and experience. I started loving the Reference pages of their books, heading down all of these fascinating professional rabbit trails. The only problem with this wide-ranging professional reading habit that I was developing was that it was a lot of voices to try to synthesize — even more so once I added in the various professional debates I was starting to discern at the conferences and the Twitter chats.
I quickly internalized a feeling that every secondary English teacher knows well — this sense that you're doing a bad job and a disservice to kids if you're not completing a list of things that adds up to about 120 hours of work per week. You've got to read all the books in your classroom library (and you've got to build one to begin with), and you've got to be conferring with your writers (and with your readers!), and you've got to use the workshop model, and don't neglect the classics (or make sure you neglect them because who gets to decide what a classic is anyway!? Down with classics!), and teach grammar and mechanics (or don't, because teaching those things directly is bad for kids), and —
Cue the blood pressure.
It led me where I needed to go — this place of insisting on an answer to one key question: What's it for?
The question wasn't theoretical for me — it was urgent and practical.
At the end of the day, what is English Language Arts instruction for? Was it really just cultivating a love for reading, or giving kids authentic audiences for their writing, or making them more curious? I wasn't against any of those things — it's just that they didn't give me a clear sense of the whole. I needed that if I was going to streamline my work.
And what about all teaching and learning that happens in my high school students' day — what's all of it for? I started sensing that one root of my students' apathy lay in the simple reality that school didn't make sense. My students wanted to succeed in life. I think all kids want to do well. It's just that often school becomes this dizzying journey, every day, where you travel from one class with a teacher obsessed with a love for reading, to another with a love for current events, to another who likes sports… and then next year, same subject area, you get this totally different take on each subject.
It's disorienting for most kids. It's disorienting for teachers. It's uninviting. It communicates, “Hey, you're either into this academia thing or you're out.” (This is all, by the way, a line of thinking that Jerry Graff first showed me in Clueless in Academe.)
So what unites all the content areas and all the classes and all the grade levels?
C. S. Lewis, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, has a way of putting this. It's right after Aslan has resurrected himself, and the kids are asking him, “How? What's it mean?”
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.
I wanted to know the “magic deeper still” — the thing beneath the things people were arguing about on Twitter, or that conference keynoters were speaking into. What was the fundamental fact of education, the starting point from which you might be able to build a coherent sense of the whole, and thereby streamline the work and make it sustainable?
You're probably already guessing what my answer was. It's no secret. More, next time.