A Year Off From Teaching

A few months ago, I did something crazy.  Even though it’s what I want, and even though I’ve had time to get used to it, I still find myself wondering, “What the hell am I doing?”

Or, “Who am I to try this?  I’m just a teacher.”

Let me explain.

In my world, I’m realizing, things don’t change much.  Public schools are remarkably consistent.  Sure, kids don’t pass notes anymore — they text.  Homework isn’t on the board — it’s online.  And nowadays we practice active shooter drills and even talk about arming teachers.  Imagine!

But look closely and you’ll find the core of American high school has stayed strikingly similar for 75 years.  Every morning since who-knows-when, a bell has rung and sleepy-eyed teenagers have wandered off to the same basic classes, on the same basic schedule, for the same 180 days, to earn the same As, Bs, or Cs.  It’s ritual: the droning teachers, the hand-raising, the homework, the lockers, even the detention.  High school is comfortably familiar, its traditions etched into our collective conscious.  It’s a rite of passage.

That doesn’t mean it makes sense.  It doesn’t.  For instance, if I were checking kids’ incisors or tonsils, I’d get to examine one kid at a time.  Instead I’m teaching them to read and to show empathy and to participate in a democracy.  I get them twenty-two at a time.

For American schools, this too is tradition:  We know what works. We just can’t afford it.

Or can we?

Two years ago, a creative principal decided to do something about his students’ writing.  So he lightened an English teacher’s class load from five to four — and made each class a bit bigger (but not too much) to compensate.  Understand, teaching five classes is just as much a fixed reality for American teachers as the 180-day calendar.  It’s tradition.

But not this time.  Now the principal told the teacher to use that extra time — that fifth teaching period — to conference individually with kids outside of class.  This, he thought, would improve their writing.

Improve they did.

The results were immediate.  One month in, the teacher was pinching himself.  Suddenly he could really dig into kids’ writing and show them what his red pen comments never could.  But it was more than that.  Suddenly he could know his students as individual learners, as individual human beings, more than he ever had before.  This, he told himself, is what I’ve been trying for my whole career.

That teacher was me.  

That experience of being freed up to work one-on-one with kids on their writing — to diagnose the individual patient rather than the group — changed my outlook on what was possible in education.

We know what works.  This works.  Maybe this time we can afford it?


A year later — this winter — I received a Rowland Fellowship — a year-long, paid sabbatical awarded to Vermont teachers — with the purpose of investigating whether this new conferencing approach to teaching is a) as good as I think it is, and b) feasible for anyone else.  What does this mean?  For a whole year, I won’t teach.  I’ll visit other high schools and maybe even colleges to see if anyone else is doing this crazy conferencing idea.  I’ll read journal articles to try to figure out if any schools way, way back in time have tried this (hint: they have).  I’ll attend conferences.  I’ll interview kids and teachers to see what they think of the writing conference model.  I’ll research.  I’ll support my coworkers, who are brave enough to try out this new plan.  It’s the sort of chance you don’t often get in your professional life — the chance to step back from the day-to-day to really try to get it right.

And it’s not only generous of the Rowland family, but far-sighted.  In a time when we’re used to educational policy being driven by those farthest from the classroom — professors, politicians, even billionaires — the Rowland Foundation is built on the refreshing and frankly savvy idea that, given time and thought-space, it’s teachers themselves who have some of the worthiest ideas about improving education.

After all, schools are busy.  Teachers are busy.  We jam twelve months of work into a 10-month school year.  We rarely get to pause and reflect.  Too often, we flit from shiny new initiative to band aid reform, without giving anything a chance to work before we move on.  It doesn’t help that our policies are often subject to the whims of short-tenured administrators and to impatient legislators.

Paradoxically, it’s this constant blur of reforms that ensures none of it ever really sticks.  Add in a lack of money, the comfort of familiarity, and the sheer scope of the job of educating the masses, and all of it helps explain why today’s basic school structure looks remarkably similar that of 50 years ago.  There is an “immovable mountain” — as Rowland Executive Director Chuck Scranton calls it — in our way.  No change comes to schools without a lot of time, thought, and hard work.

And yet, change does happen.  The school where I work is remarkably forward-thinking and humane.  Even in my eight years as a teacher, I’ve seen a number of positive changes worked into the immovable system by diligent and committed educators.  I’ve seen it work — and I want to be a part of it.

As trite as it sounds, I took this fellowship because I wanted to make a difference.  And I’m incredibly excited to get to work.  But this does feel out of character for me.  I don’t usually think of myself as a leader.  The goal of the fellowship is not just classroom but school-wide reform.  The question is — can I “scale up” my idea to promote change beyond my own classroom or department.  That’s scary because that’s not how I usually think of myself.  I’m just a teacher.  When I look down the list of past Rowland recipients, I see leaders in the Vermont educational community: future principals, curriculum coordinators, even a future mayor.  I don’t see myself that way.  Motivating grumpy teenagers to pass in their Paper Towns essays is one thing.  Trying to nudge grizzled veterans with pedagogical war stories from the year I was born to fall in line with my wacky ideas is quite another.  Who am I to try to make change?

What if no one’s interested?

Then there’s the fact that what I’m selling may be impossible to spread beyond my classroom.  There are a hundred reasons why it’s too hard to teach only four classes and to conference individually with kids:  Teachers have always taught five classes. Teaching four will make classes too big.  One-on-one meetings take up too much time. It’s impossible to conference with all of your students every semester. Better to just do what we’ve always done: chat quickly with kids during a stolen minute or two in class here and there, or even 30 seconds when everyone else is working well.  Keep your classes small and try to make it work without the individual face-to-face time. Play the long game. Things are the way they are for a reason.

For months, I’ve been wrestling with these doubts.

The last time I remember feeling this way was back in 2003, when I first decided to write the book that would eventually become Let It Rain, the kayaking guidebook that was the passion project of my pre-teaching days.  The questions, the self-doubt, was all the same:

Who am I to do this?

What if no one likes it?

What happens if this doesn’t go well?

But there are always a million reasons why you shouldn’t do something.  Just like back in 2003, I have no idea how the next  year will turn out. I cannot know if my desire to change schools to establish more flexible teacher schedules and more individual instruction will be repelled by the immovable mountain.  I cannot know if the changes I’m hoping to make are at all realistic, or helpful to anyone besides me. But I do know that sixteen years ago I did not regret taking the risk that I did.

I have the sense that these feelings of doubt are again the ones that precede something important.  And something tells me that even if I fail, even if in five years there’s no trace of my reform left, I won’t actually have failed.

I am a big believer in the idea that every now and then — maybe once or twice in your career — you stumble onto something amid the myriad of temporary reforms that really works.  And if you don’t throw your hat into the ring, if you don’t fight for that cause to get its hearing, then you’re not playing the game for real.

Starting next fall, I’m in.