Such a Brutal Lifestyle

March 8th, 2010 by Editor B

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.

22 Responses to “Such a Brutal Lifestyle”

  1. Brian D Says:

    The burnout factor is why I never answered the call to teach beyond a two-year experience.

    If we want to attract real professionals for long-term career paths filled with excellence, we have to pay them more money, and hire more people. There are no easy answers, like the meat grinder of hiring college graduates to do something for a year or two until they decide to do something else.

  2. Editor B Says:

    More money is usually helpful. I should have mentioned that Xy is earning more than ever before. The compensation is nice. It’s nice that we are not having to worry about money right now, not having to pinch pennies. But it’s not worth it. Xy is looking for a pay cut.

  3. Anna Says:

    So harsh. I heard her talk about a new career but didnt know how serious she was. How about starting a daycare? Lord knows they cost enough!

  4. Eric Says:

    Holy crap.

    SInce you’ve put it in the blog, I suppose it’s alright to offer unsolicited suggestions. Here’s one: A program like the one I’m in, “Jobs For America’s Graduates.” It’s a national program, mostly high schools & now some middle schools. The work load is much lighter than a classroom teacher’s (as is the pay) but I get to work on things I care about.

    As for that Teach For America thing, I’ve never thought about that before – about how they take them to the “toughest” schools hoping to squeeze out their youthful energy, like a tube of idealistic toothpaste, only to be replaced by a fresh tube 2 years later.

    Here’s another problem with their strategy: Malcolm Gladwell points out that it takes – what – 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert at anything. So while you may have some talented and ernest folks giving it their all, you lack what you call “wisdom” which I think is a really valuable thing. For one thing, kids aren’t experimented on so much – teachers already have an idea of what works after several years on the job. As long as the older teachers keep an open mind & don’t become resistant to innovation, the students really benefit from that teacher experience. I know because I am an enthusiastic older version of a new teacher and I can’t wait til I have the experience to know at the beginning of the year what’s more likely to work in various situations.

  5. Julie (Marietta,GA) Says:

    There are some Orleans Parish school administrators who should not be allowed within 100 yards of a school.

  6. Therese Says:

    It is all too close to home for me.

  7. Cade Roux Says:

    Andrew Carnegie said: “Take away my people and leave the factories, and soon there will be grass growing on the factory floors, but take away my factories and leave my people, and soon we will have bigger and better factories.”

    It is always tempting to think that we can make a better system and it won’t require so much from people because we’ve built a great system. At the other extreme, if you throw people at a problem without any building for the future, it will get solved at huge personal cost and it will be impossible to keep going.

    Finding that balance in organizations is truly the great dichotomy at the heart of all enterprises – consistency and creativity, control and flexibility, stability and growth.

  8. Anthony Says:

    Is there eventually a “tipping point” where we have educated such a larger percentage of our population to such a greater degree that their children come to school better prepared and the struggle to get all students up to and above grade level work becomes easier.

    In other words, for decades we had an educational system that failed large percentages of our population and this perpetuated itself in the number of their children who came to school unprepared. As we educate sufficiently more of our population, more and more of their children will come to school better prepared, and as we have a better educated populace we have the opportunity to expand economic opportunity for our citizens, in turn they can afford to pay more to support the schools and the funding issues ease a bit.

    It’s a long term goal but it is how communities have progressed in the past. At some point it gets easier as we raise the overall education level of our citizens.

  9. Marco Says:

    I honestly don’t know how she did it for 13 years. I have to give it up to her and the people who continue to do it well under the current circumstances. Many moons ago, I tried social work and was burned out in 3-4 years.
    She did her time and well. She deserves a break and peace of mind going to sleep at night.

  10. Jack Schick Says:

    We cannot pretend about egalitarianism vs. real differences in Native Ability.
    There are NOT job slots for everybody.
    I witnessed firsthand the “Special Needs” drain upon our Survival Resources.
    Very Sorry.
    The typical bed-ridden, profoundly retarded or You-Name-It Diagnosis cases…
    They Get a complete package of Care Assistants, Nurses, Transportation for
    their many Appointments around town, Dental, Optical, “recreational” activities
    where the slobbering wheelchair-bound group travels to somewhere like Bowling or the Zoo, and basically left in a circle to grunt and vocalize at each other. The
    Care Assistants put in their time, and then load them back in the vehicles for the
    trip back to the Residential Care Home.
    There is a Poster in the Administration Office for the Program:
    Are you ready for this?
    A picture of two Down’s Syndrome people nuzzling each other,
    with the caption–
    “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO MARRY and HAVE CHILDREN!”
    This is not a joke.
    This Bureaucracy works hard to sustain its Funding Level, and this
    Poster propaganda is just too hard to take! You, the Mentally Disabled,
    You, the completely, Officially Incompetent, are hereby encouraged
    to FUCK and create for us another Completely Incompetent child,
    to be raised and funded by this Idiot Decline-of-Civilization program.
    God Bless You Xy, and Bart.
    So Let’s get Serious.
    TRIAGE….you understand? I must make the Quick judgement about
    WHO is worthy of Nurture toward SURVIVAL of our people.
    I cannot continue to Pretend that little Criminal Monkeys are worthy
    of my Classroom efforts.
    The system is creating more INSTITUTIONALIZED, Incompetent Diploma-holders. Social Promotion is destroying the groove of the classroom.
    The Purge is well underway. Humankind is dying by tolerating SUBSTANDARD.
    Read some Heinlein….
    In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, we see that, if you had an accident
    on the moon surface, where you were stuck in your vehicle, with a
    limited air-supply, you could try calling for help, but
    you must understand that NOBODY OWES YOU GODDAMNED ANYTHING!!!
    If somebody decides to RISK their own life to go out and HELP you,
    it is WELL UNDERSTOOD that YOU OWE THEM a very serious Life-saving
    Debt which will not remain Debt—YOU will PAY for the PRIViLEGE.
    We can NOT BEAR the PRICE of millions of illiterates scrounging for slave jobs.
    WE CAN’T AFFORD to pretend anymore…

  11. dsb Says:

    Yeah, at some point you have to ask yourself: by participating in the system am I helping to perpetuate it? That’s exactly why I got out of the college adjunct teaching racket a long, long time ago.

    Anyway, hats off to Xy for getting out of that mess. It’s heartbreaking for the profession, and for Xy having to turn her back on her professional passion, but nobody should have to work under such conditions. It’s really as simple as that.

  12. swiftone Says:

    Just scanned the comments so I may be repeating. But teaching is NOT rocket science. However it is hard work. And it helps to have experience and a somewhat free hand to do what works, instead of micromanagement from an overactive administration. I knew I had to get out of the classroom when I noticed that most of the teachers who were approaching retirement were NOT well adjusted happy people! I thought of this blogpost which I read last night when I ran into this post on Overcoming Bias entitled Hard Facts Teaching

  13. bark, bugs, leaves, & lizards » Charter Schools Are So Way Awesome Says:

    [...] b rox: 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? [...]

  14. Mark Folse Says:

    It is simply the extension of the modern corporate culture to education. Whether the charter operator is in the racket just for the money or to prove some point from their graduate thesis, it is a sick and dysfunctional approach that will drag our schools down the same shit hole the rest of the economy is sliding down.

  15. A. L. Says:

    There was an interesting article last month in the Atlantic on this very issue: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/7841/

  16. Le Bloc Says:

    Jack, I really hope you haven’t reproduced.

  17. Jessica Says:

    Smart move, Xy.

  18. G Bitch Says:

    Brutal–perfect adjective. That’s how the trenches feel. As my teaching and grasp of content has improved, everything else has fallen straight to hell around me, a hell I am told is paradise if I’d just stop being so “demanding” and inquisitive.

    Ugh.

    I’m with Xy–I’m ready to do anything to get out of education. Anything.

  19. swiftone Says:

    G Bitch says “I’m with Xy–I’m ready to do anything to get out of education. Anything.”

    How hard is it to get a license to open a charter school? If I were younger, I’d have a go at it…. do some of the things I KNOW I can do well… work with a partner and start with maybe 10 students of an age I could work with well…

  20. Editor B Says:

    How hard to start a charter? Very. I’ve seen the process. It seems you’re pretty much doomed unless you partner with an established education management company, preferably from out of state. Or so I gather.

    Given Louisiana’s liberal (read: conservative) home schooling laws, it might be easier to set up a private school in your living room.

  21. Jack Schick Says:

    Le Bloc–
    OK, WHY? Do you not understand that I’m in it to save your COMPETENT
    child from being categorized as just another blob of peasant-slave flesh?
    Do you not understand that there are standards for survival?
    Do you make your living sucking off the retarded-services bureaucracy?
    And the answer is NO! I haven’t (as far as I know) reproduced.
    So LeBloc:
    Does your awareness level show you that this is a real KEEN time for
    you to be bringing babies into this world?
    ….and will this be acceptable for you to allow your kids
    to
    be programmed as Equal Idiots with all the others?

  22. b.rox » Blog Archive » Back to School Says:

    [...] teaching, reviewing these pictures also makes me a little sad. She’s still reeling from the brutal year she had in 09-10. Teachers across the country have had it rough but here in New Orleans [...]

Leave a Reply