The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What IS Behind the Curtain?

Man dates used to be what teachers (mostly female, in the 1950's) only dreamed of. If you were a single woman and a teacher, a good man--as Carson McCullers wrote--was hard to find back then. The pickin's were slim (or more accurately, paunchy and bald).

However, nowadays, mandates are every teacher's nightmare.

Gone are the days of leisurely lunches in the smoky teachers' lounge. (I usually gobble down my lunch at my desk, hoping I don't choke in my haste as I work while I chew.) Gone are plan periods that can be used for actual planning or grading papers. (Instead: Data. Data. Data.) Gone is the luxury of having a little bit of our plates left empty for the little extras we want to teach. These days, our plates keep getting heaped with more and more every year, and nothing is ever scraped off.

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D. A. Russell, the author of Lifting the Curtain: The Disgrace We Call Urban High School Education, graciously agreed to answer some questions. Initially I asked him if he had ever started teaching a class wearing a black and a brown shoe when it wasn't "tacky day." (I have.) I also asked him if he had ever dumped a blueberry smoothie all over his shirt right before the start of a school day. (I have.) Since he liked neither one of those questions and since I was hoping to bat at least 0.33, I was glad when the third question ended up a winner.

The question:  What advice would you give to someone who is considering going into the teaching profession? Read his answer below, along with some tidbits about Russell and his book.

Advice for a new teacher – don’t, unless teaching is as much your passion as it is for so many us who still teach.

It is hard to answer the question “…what advice would you have for a new teacher?” The problem is that all teachers, even the most passionate about teaching among us, have a love-hate relationship with teaching.  We love the children, and the look of pride on a child’s face when they master a topic, and treasure those times we can engage and challenge some of the children despite the educational system and mandates.  But we are so deeply frustrated and hurt by all the mandates that prevent teaching and force us to dumb-down instruction, and by the atmosphere of cronyism and intimidation by administrators, that most of the joy of teaching has been sucked out of the process.

That is why 46% of new teachers now quit the profession within five years, and overall we are losing a staggering 20% of our teachers each year to all causes – including early retirements, career changes, and movement to private schools.

Still, if your passion is teaching, as is mine, then you have to go for it!  Here are the five things rarely discussed in college education classes that will be the key to your ability to engage and reach some of the children despite the system, and to get the most joy possible out of your career.  The first three are absolute requirements to be a great teacher, and the final two are for your own mental health during the process!

Vital for all “great” teachers:

  • You must have a passion for teaching and the topic that is clear to the children
  • You must have the ability to challenge and engage children in the learning process
  • You must genuinely like children, and enjoy them – even those horrible teenagers!

Mental health:

  • You need a sense of humor.
You cannot take yourself too seriously. Here is a critical fact in today’s teaching:  children can only learn from a teacher they like and respect.  Children are street smart.  They can tell if you are going through the motions, or really care.  When they figure out that you do, they start to listen and believe in you.  The system, and a numerical minority of parents are so bad today that you will never be able to get through to all of the children.  But with genuine passion and engagement you will get through to some of them, and even to many in a good year. 

 I cannot overstate this:  without that passion, engagement, and caring you will fail as a teacher, no matter what training you have and no matter how skilled you are.

The last two are for your mental health, especially if dealing with high school teenagers!  Teenagers are still teenagers.  They do dumb stuff.  They say completely inappropriate and whacko things.  If your natural reaction is going to be anger or “discipline” rather than a smile and a quiet laugh, you will burn out within months as a teacher.  And more importantly, you will never earn the ability to change those views and statements.  Since teasing and “insult humor” is the nature of the teenage beast, if you have a thin skin you are doomed.  Only if you can learn that such teasing is an act of affection (even though it occasionally crosses the line and must be reined back) can you connect with the children in your class.

So, bottom line – it will be a love-hate relationship for you, as it has been for all those of us who went before you during the education mess of the past 5-10 years.  The wins, when you get through to children and see pride on their faces will have to carry you through all the losses when you have to deal with the career DoE bureaucrats and their destructive mandates, and with administrators who raise cronyism and intimidation of teachers to an art form.

For me, those smiles of pride make the rest bearable – even on those many nights I drive home muttering and clenching my teeth at the system!

Lifting the Curtain takes a serious, impassioned look at what is going on with education today. For those outside the inner sanctum of the school system, some quick fixes might be demanded. Fire the teachers and replace the whole lot of them. More money. More technology. Merit pay. State tests with more rigor/less rigor. More inclusion. Less inclusion. The suggested remedies go on and on... 

I've been a public school teacher for 24 years. There have been days when I've laughed on the drive home. There have been days when I've sobbed. But throughout, it's remained a job I love... and hate at times.

However, it's never the kids I hate. My students are what make the job worth it. They keep me plodding to work every day.

So, if you want to know what is really going on with the screwed-up educational system, if you'd like an insider's view into teaching... buy D. A. Russell's Lifting the Curtain. It's informative and is a book that's easy to dive into.

About the Author: D. A. Russell has spent the last ten years as a math teacher in one of the urban high schools that is the subject of Lifting the Curtain. He is an honors graduate of Dartmouth College, and has his master's degree from Simon School, where he was valedictorian of his class. Russell is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has two children that he treasures, and four grandchildren. His son is a police officer who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for valor. His daughter is a lawyer and his most passionate fan and honorary literary agent. Russell has a passion for children that dominates his life. He has taught and coached children for decades. Few things are more important in Russell's view than to cherish the children who are our real treasures in this world. He is a contributor for education matters to the Huffington Post, and runs a personal blog at: dedicated to letting teacher voices be heard in the real problems with education.

Visit Russell online at: