Category Archives: The Apostasy & the Ecstasy

What Does This Teacher Make? Me, Frustrated.

In its various versions, it’s enjoyed more than a million views. I understand its popularity. What I want to explain today is why it frustrates me so very deeply.

I’m talking about Taylor Mali’s poem/performance piece, “What Teachers Make”, a powerful, clever, and moving riff on the disconnect between what teachers are paid and the difference they make. The context is a dinner party at which Mali responds to a fellow guest’s questions, “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?” and “You’re a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make?”

Taking “be honest” at face value, Mali proceeds to rip his interlocutor a new one. Here are a few choice nuggets:

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­ feel like a slap in the face.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

I make them apologize and mean it.

Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

I have to admit, even as I type this, I’m a little flustered. Okay, really flustered. But not simply angry: rather, I’m saddened, and kind of triggered, by this piece. You see, I have a decent idea where this guy is coming from, having taught in conventional schools at the beginning of my career. Twenty years ago, I likely would’ve thought this was the most brilliant, eloquent defense of the profession I’d ever heard.

Because it’s true: teachers willingly place themselves in stressful environments; they paint big targets on their backs. And why? Continue reading


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Baggage Claim

Last week, I wrote about the process of finding—then becoming disillusioned with and leaving—what I initially considered my dream job, only to find a true dream job shortly thereafter (namely, my Sudbury career). Baggage_Claim_at_CPHToday I want to explore a key implication of this process, perhaps its dark underbelly: the emotional baggage that persists to this day.

That’s not to say it hasn’t gotten better: about a year ago I wrote about how the missionary zeal that overtook me when I discovered Sudbury schooling has been tempered by time and experience, how I’m considerably more diplomatic, pragmatic, and secure. But this bee in my bonnet is still there, and occasionally overshadows friendships now just as it did when I lost my best work-friend from my first teaching job.

So why is it that, even as a (self-professed) secure pragmatist, this stuff still gets under my skin? Why does my teaching past haunt me so, and why do observations of what happens in conventional schools still tend to drive me into a not-so-calm state of frustration, depression, resentment and/or anger? Continue reading


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Dream Jobs and Nightmares

You know the stereotypical dream where you show up to take the final for a class you haven’t attended or studied for? My version comes with a twist: I regularly find myself back at the high school where I began my teaching career. It’s the first day of school and I’ve done absolutely no prep whatsoever. I don’t even know where things are, and my mailbox is overflowing with unread notices.

What’s ironic is that, in the beginning, I really did consider this my dream job. This is the school where I’d done my student teaching, and during the ensuing year and half, it’s where I did the vast majority of my mostly-full-time substituting. The school had a solid reputation, and I’d lived in this town since starting my Master’s program, so not only was this my first-choice assignment, I didn’t have to move. And so I distinctly recall, on a late spring day in 1993, running upstairs to share the good news my principal had just given me with two of my closest teacher friends. I distinctly recall thinking with trembling excitement, “I just got the perfect job! I will never have to look for work again!”

Okay, so you know that old line that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans? How about the warning, “Be careful what you wish for?” Well…

I had some sense, of course, some expectation that my life as a first-year teacher would be uniquely insane. In my case the insanity was enhanced by the fact that I had three preps (i.e., three different sets of lesson plans) and was the assistant Speech and Debate coach (which meant many long weekends spent in other people’s high schools). Yet at some point during that year, I realized that many of the things stressing me out weren’t likely to improve as I grew more adept at the work. As it turned out, I was right: three years after getting my dream job, I left conventional teaching for good.

So what happened? Why did I leave? Continue reading


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Niche Guys Finish Last (?)

If I ever wanted proof that our life’s work calls us, rather our choosing it, I wouldn’t have to look too far. In both my career and my personal life, I seem drawn to things that tend to appeal only to niche audiences. (See The Reluctant Reformer and Missionary Positions for related rants on this subject.)

In some cases, this is a minor to moderate inconvenience. For example, the fact that I’m passionate about singing early and contemporary music means there are relatively few opportunities and relatively small audiences—which means, of course, that those choirs often struggle to make their budgets. While this is occasionally frustrating, for me it doesn’t detract too much from the experience.

Where it really hits hard, this niche habit, is in my passions for Sudbury schooling and Zen. There aren’t nearly as many Sudbury schools as there ought to be, in my opinion, and those that exist are often quite small. On the one hand, there is some benefit in the constant incentive to streamline budgets, but far too few families even know about this model or have a school nearby, and far too many schools have closed in the years I’ve been part of this movement.

To some extent this is inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future: not that many people in our culture appear ready to leap to this not-so-new paradigm, to extend full trust and responsibility to school-age people. To find those who are, I long to develop better ways of spreading the Sudbury word, and then supporting those people and their schools. Hence my creating the organization now known as Friends of Sudbury Schooling (though here again, having a niche appeal means it’s that much harder to find the financial support to do the actual work).

With my Zen practice I face a similar challenge Continue reading

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Connecting the Dots

I never decided to be a rebel.

Indeed, until my late 20s, I seemed anything but. An A-student from the day I started school, I was also a Boy Scout for years and, throughout my childhood, probably missed no more than half a dozen Sunday services at my church, on top of youth groups and other meetings. When I became a high school teacher after college, I can’t imagine anyone was surprised.

No, I saved the surprises for my 30s and 40s, as my second career made me a passionate advocate for Sudbury schooling, and more recently as I’ve taken a longstanding, bookish interest in Zen and developed it into a serious, daily practice.

Elsewhere in this blog I’ve explored the challenges of straying from the herd and swimming against the cultural mainstream in both my profession and my spirituality. Certainly the hazards of zealousness, defensiveness and isolation, as well as the sheer exhaustion of perpetually being different, have at various times taken their toll.

Today, however, I want to focus on how this state of affairs came about. If, as I declared above, I never consciously chose an unorthodox path, how is it that I find myself so frequently in one niche or another? Just how did I transform myself from altar boy to gadfly?

The way I see it, there’s a conundrum at the heart of this question. Continue reading


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