Left to Their Own Devices

You may have seen this image, or one like it.


I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of policy is fairly widespread and popular—among adults, that is. Yet while I understand from experience the need in conventional schools to maintain order (actually, I’d argue it’s a core value), I have to confess that this makes me more than a little uneasy.

To explain why, let me tell you a story from this past school year. I was serving on the Judicial Committee (the body that hears complaints of alleged rule violations)—not chairing, but rather as the designated staff member. (At Clearview, two students and one staff member serve on each JC.) During a break between cases, I got on my iPad. I don’t remember why, but really, it’s quite beside the point whether or not it was for a legitimate, adult/work-related reason.

The real point is that when it came time for JC to resume, the student chairing the meeting asked me to put my device away. So I did. The end.

This story is so ordinary against the backdrop of a  Sudbury school day, I almost didn’t see the post within it. Continue reading

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In or Out?

“If change is to come, then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins.” ~ Wendell Berry

A few months ago, I wrote a couple posts on how I got into and out of conventional teaching. Today I want to extend those thoughts and focus on a question I think all who make education our career have to consider at some point. In the words of the classic song, Should I stay or should I go?

Deciding to leave my first full-time assignment was particularly anguishing in the following respect: the guilt I felt over all the young people I’d be leaving behind. Was it really so bad, was I really so selfish, that I could justify abandoning them in order to save myself? Couldn’t I make the best of it and do however much I was able for those who, unlike me, couldn’t opt out? Why couldn’t I stay in the system and work to reform it from the inside?

I’ve mentioned plenty of times how difficult it is to talk about education—how easily triggered we all can be, perhaps even more so than with those textbook topics-to-avoid, religion and politics. As conflict-averse as I am by nature, it’s especially tough for me to say what I really think when it comes to how young people are permitted to go about the business of learning. This post is no different, in that I have a number of friends and former students working in conventional schools. How can I speak my truth without insulting theirs?

For my truth is that conventional schooling, public and private alike, is inexcusably restrictive and inherently limiting (when not obviously harmful). Rooted in a deep distrust both of students and teachers, it assumes people won’t work hard enough or achieve the best results without accountability, by which is meant a system of rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. This is authoritarian, factory schooling, where students aren’t allowed to learn—nor teachers allowed to teach—as they know best, but instead are pitted against each other, weighed down by curricula and other standardized nonsense.

In sum, the system works against people wanting and working to do good. It’s the system that’s to blame, not the people. And yet no amount of fair-mindedness can rid us of the following question: Continue reading


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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


Filed under Sudbury, The Apostasy & the Ecstasy

Callings, Careers, and Concrete Realities

My previous post was yet another in a series of periodic rants on holding out for a job that’s deeply meaningful and passion-driven. It occurred to me not long after I posted it that it could be off-putting in the sense of suggesting that any job that doesn’t reflect a soulful calling is somehow unworthy. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that no one should settle for less than a job that involves changing or saving the world. I think as long as you’re learning things and enjoying yourself, as long as your work supports a satisfying life, isn’t harming anyone, and helps you draw closer to your goals, that’s wonderful.

Anyway, it isn’t my business what anyone else does: really, no one can define for another what constitutes a meaningful, fulfilling, worthwhile existence. I do believe, though, that to the extent possible, pursuing our passions and supporting each other is the way to go. For me, this means seeking work as aligned as possible with my calling to spread joy and reduce suffering, to help people wake up to their nature as unique, sentient beings in this great big, interconnected web of existence. And this is rapidly becoming more than an academic exercise for me, as big changes are on my horizon, approaching swiftly.

In a nutshell, it looks unlikely that there’ll be money for more than a substitute contract for me at school next fall. I’ve known this was likely for some time, but seeing the actual, preliminary numbers gives it a reality it previously lacked; now there’s no escaping or denying the big decisions ahead of me. Where will I live after this school year? What will I do to make money? Should I use this opportunity to seek out a mostly or entirely new path? And how do I even go about addressing these questions?

While I’m not conventionally religious, I do find meaning in the concept of vocation, of being called to live, act, and work in ways that are faithful to a still, deep, inner voice. And I do feel as strongly called as ever; I’m just not entirely sure where that voice is coming from, what it’s trying to tell me. this reminds me of something I’ve thought for a while, that one good way to track down your calling or passion is to catch yourself doing something when you aren’t thinking about what you “ought” to be doing. Consider for yourself: What are you most frequently drawn to? What do you do when you don’t have to do anything in particular?

For me, these things include Continue reading

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Purpose Driven Mad


Writer/educator seeks viable life of creativity and mindfulness. ~ the tag line for Write Learning (a.k.a. THIS BLOG!)

It figures: I ramble on for years about my quest for meaningful work that pays a living wage, and then suddenly one file, randomly encountered online, captures all those hundreds (or thousands) of words in a single image.

Well, that’s all right, really. I’m as big a fan as any of a good Venn diagram, and this one sets my geeky heart aflutter. Seriously, I could spend hours debating and tweaking and otherwise applying this chart to my own situation, reading it like tea leaves or entrails for signs of what I ought to do.

But the larger question remains: why, after three years of blogging, have I not progressed beyond sight of the proverbial Square One?

I really don’t get it: I’m intelligent and well-educated; I have passion, skills, and experience. (For example, however it might appear on this blog, I know I can wordsmith with the best of them.) I’ve blogged any number of times about various schemes and dreams I’ve concocted, brainstorms and half-baked plans to strike it rich…well, rich enough.

But where to find the time and/or chutzpah to take one or more of those ideas and run with it/them?

I’ve tried my hand at freelance writing and editing, but that’s yet to prove sustainable, much less lucrative. And I still harbor dreams of turning my passion for promoting Sudbury schools into viable work, but that dream’s been around much longer than three years, and here I am.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Is it naive, adolescent idealism on my part to hold out for work that’s worthwhile and passion-driven, to avoid what smacks of settling or selling out? Is my conditioning or reticence or inconsistent self-confidence holding me back?

I do think that if I were more extroverted, or if I hadn’t grown up in a world where you picked a career and were able to stay with it, I might be more inclined to strike out on a more entrepreneurial path. Instead, one of the talents I’ve developed over the years involves donating my services or selling them at bargain-basement prices, because my desire to serve tends to trump my desire for material security.

So, how does one find decent work? I mean it: what combination of networking and conventional job applications do I throw into the pot to make this stew palatable? What magical websites can give me the Sorting Hat treatment and send me in a fruitful direction?

Fortunately, I still have the time and savings to find my way to sustainability, though I am growing a bit weary of living monkishly. At an intuitive level, I believe that delving deeper into my Zen practice would help, as mindfulness, clarity, and service are already things I cherish. I’ve also begun toying with the idea of pursuing a graduate degree in counseling as something that might lead me to the purple dot at the center of that Venn diagram.

But my cushion of savings and minimalist lifestyle won’t sustain me too much longer. I need not merely plans, but a plan of action, and I need it now.


Filed under My Quest

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


Filed under The Apostasy & the Ecstasy

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


Filed under The Apostasy & the Ecstasy