Yesterday’s front page story really captured our attention. All credit to reporter Sarah Carr. I’d never heard of the school she focused on, but the parallels to Xy’s experience are striking. I’ve quoted the story at length below, interspersing some of my own thoughts where relevant.
Early every morning, Akili Academy’s teachers gather for a daily bonding ritual.
Clutching caffeinated beverages, they offer praise to one another for achievements large and small: calming down an upset student, teaching an outstanding lesson on “realistic fiction” to kindergarteners, sorting out unspecified “bathroom issues.”
For the finale, the charter school’s staff pulls in closer for a quick huddle, like a sports team preparing to take the field. “Who are we proud to be?” one teacher asks. “Akili Academy of New Orleans!” they shout in unison, sending their arms flying. They then head to class before the students arrive.
But this is no casual competition or recreational game. It lasts at least 10 hours every weekday, often spills over into the weekends, and, at times, consumes the lives of the mostly young Akili staff.
“I’m totally tired, and if I’m still working this many hours next year, I maybe wouldn’t work a fourth year,” said Francis Giesler, an Akili teacher. Giesler, 24, a 2008 graduate of Loyola University, grew up in St. Louis.
While Giesler praises Akili for its supportive work environment, she gives voice to a nagging concern of school reformers and charter leaders across the city and the country. How can a movement predicated in part on superhuman exertions of time and effort sustain itself and grow in the long term?
As Giesler puts it: “How good a school are you if you have really strong results, but can’t take that model anywhere else because it was solely reliant on the bodies in the building, and kills people after two years?”
If the model kills people after two years, what do they become after, say, thirteen years? Do they become zombies? Or are they just miserable?
A growing number of schools, particularly charters, embrace a “no excuses” or “whatever it takes” attitude toward closing the achievement gap between poor, minority students and their wealthier peers. Poverty isn’t an excuse for school failure. Neither is bad parenting. Or insufficient school funding.
But to overcome these obstacles, a school’s staff and students must work harder — in the evenings, on weekends and through the summer — and give up some of their personal lives for their jobs.
Arguably nowhere is this trend so pronounced as in New Orleans, where charter schools mushroomed after Hurricane Katrina and hundreds of ambitious young educators like Giesler now live and teach. A looming question facing school leaders is how to maintain momentum as teachers and administrators inevitably grow up, burn out or move on.
Of course not all schools provide such a supportive environment, but the general approach of overloading teachers seems to be ubiquitous. Our schools are currently running on the efforts of the young and idealistic. Of course one has to wonder: What about the not-so-young, the veteran teachers who’ve been around the block, whose idealism may be a bit ragged, but who also have the experience and (dare I say it) the wisdom? Actually I don’t wonder, because I’m married to such a teacher, and I’ve seen what this trend is doing to her first-hand, and it ain’t nice.
“You’re going to run out of people willing to work an 80-hour week,” [principal Sean Gallagher] said. “Everyone here is single; no one has a kid. That’s just not (replicable). I want us to look like something any school in New Orleans could do. Right now, we’re not there.”
Gallagher said he tried to recruit a diverse teaching staff: young and old, novice and experienced, natives and transplants.
But the time commitment proved a deal-breaker with most veteran, New Orleans educators.
At one recruitment fair, a job-seeker stopped by Gallagher’s table.
“Longer school day? Longer school year?” the man asked.
When Gallagher nodded, the teacher quickly walked away, saying, “Don’t need to talk to you.”
We’re not sure but we think the job-seeker was our friend James. I remember when he did that.
Educators will probably always debate the importance of experience, some of which boils down to the contrasting philosophies of school leaders. Some emphasize the importance of building a family-like school culture, where children can develop lifelong relationships with teachers who attend their churches, live in the neighborhood and might even have taught their parents. Others say they care about continuity, but will do whatever it takes to build a high-performing school, even if that means higher teacher turnover.
A growing group of educators and policy wonks say they are not particularly concerned about chronic teacher turnover in urban schools, as long as there’s a pipeline of bright workaholics to fill the vacancies.
And with Teach for America, that pipeline looks inexhaustible. These kids are too young and fresh to realize they’re being exploited. Maybe it’s a viable model; maybe our schools are so screwed up that we have to resort to such measures; I really don’t know. But I do know that it sucks to have the terrain shift beneath your feet, so to speak. It sucks to have your chosen career slowly turned into something you can no longer do. We seem to be moving in the opposite direction from the reforms we truly need.
“I don’t think turnover is inherently bad,” said Andrew Rotherham, publisher of Education Sector, an education policy think tank. “Planned turnover or turnover you can deal with without yielding quality is fine.”
Translation: It’s OK to use and abuse people so long as there’s more fresh meat to victimize tomorrow.
Others stress that more value should be placed on making teaching a viable career for those who do not meet the typical Teach For America profile: young, well-educated and unattached.
Andre Perry, CEO of the University of New Orleans’ charter school network, said he worries about relying too heavily on young teachers from out of town. He notes that schools that burn out their teachers after a few years must repeatedly reinvest in replacements. “It just seems inefficient,” he said.
Perry encourages school leaders to foster the notion that “teaching is a way of living” that can coincide with having a life outside work.
“We are not creating that enough here in New Orleans,” he said. “It’s such a brutal lifestyle. We’re so focused on performance in such a specific way that we’ve become robots.”
Perry’s quote brings tears to my eyes. “Such a brutal lifestyle.” It resonates because I’ve seen Xy ground down over the years by the increasingly unreal regimen. It’s like an endless demand for more that can never be filled. It’s never enough.
The kicker came at the very end of the article.
Still, Giesler can’t imagine ever balancing her 31 students at Akili with a child of her own.
“I couldn’t imagine doing this job with a kid,” she says. “I really could not.”
And that is really what clinches the decision for Xy. She feels like she’s missing out on her daughter’s childhood.
And so that’s why Xy has decided to seek a new career after thirteen years in the classroom.
Needless to say, if you’re interested in this topic you really should read the whole story.
PS: It strikes me that this issue is appropriate to contemplate on International Women’s Day as the teaching and rearing of children has been historically deemed as “women’s work” in our culture. That teachers are chronically overworked and undervalued is perhaps not coincidental.