The Immovable Mountain

A few years back, Chuck Scranton, long-time Vermont high school principal and now the Executive Director of the Rowland Foundation, gave a TEDx talk called “The Immovable Mountain.” It’s a great metaphor for what educators seeking change are up against.  What Scranton was referring to was the mammoth weight blocking the path of any would-be school reformer or innovator.  It represents a lot of obstacles. The immovable mountain is the Carnegie Unit. The immovable mountain is the schedule.  The immovable mountain is the need to parcel out learning into eight separate, discrete classes every day in different rooms.  All of these “facts” of American education have proved next to impossible for even the most intrepid public school “change agents” to displace.  

The reason is, people know what a ‘real school’ looks like — it has bells and lockers, and eight separate subjects, and last 6.5 hours, and final exams, and letter grades.  There aren’t wacky semester-long projects, or free comings-and-goings in the halls, or long breaks in the middle of the day for sports, or student taught classes. A “real school” is what we know — and deep down, despite our desire for positive change, that’s what we want.  The immovable mountain, in other words, is tradition.

This year I was lucky enough to receive one of those Rowland Fellowships, but last year, during my interview with Chuck Scranton, he asked me pointedly how I hoped to change “the immovable mountain.” Since that day, even before my fellowship began, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about where that immovable mountain came from, and why, exactly, it’s so hard to move.  I wanted to know who had tried to move it, and why they failed.

Up to this point, I’d not read much professionally.  Then starting last winter, soon after Chuck asked me that question, I began reading, hurriedly, about educational history, reform, and theory.  Sometimes — more than I ever imagined — I’d come across a nugget of insight so fascinating that I found my basic understanding of the job I’d been doing for nine years subtly altered, some new light shed on a practice I’d never understood or questioned.  I read many of the school history and school reform classics — Tinkering Toward Utopia, Horace’s Hope, and — almost by accident, a mind-blowing book called Schoolteacher by Dan Lortie.  

Lortie’s book, written in 1976, is a sociological study at the teaching profession.  It sounds dry, doesn’t it? Let’s just say that sociology wasn’t my usual go-to genre before this.  But within the first few pages I was riveted, and after finishing this book, which is as fresh and current as if it’d been written last month, I’ve become a major believer in the analytic tools of the sociologist to shed light on exactly what makes a group of people tick and move.  It’s the most penetrating analysis I’ve ever read. What was remarkable about it was that here was a book that was explaining to me what I am, as a teacher, in ways I’d never considered. The second I put it down as I finished the last page, I knew I’d be rereading it again within a year.

I was reminded of its power the other day, when I happened to pick it up from behind my bedside nightstand or wherever it had fallen to (my house is filled with such remnants; while I’m spotless-clean at work, I’m less fastidious at home, and also something of a compulsive partial rereader, strewing half-reread books across the house).  I wanted to share a short gem of an insight that I came across this weekend, flipping through the early pages again while making tea.

Let me set the context.  One of the biggest wishes of would-be school reformers, particularly practitioner-reformers, is the notion that teachers should teach in teams.  Many schools do this — math and science together, social studies and English together, formed into interdisciplinary classes. Or even better — all four teachers banded together to teach one large group of kids in one academy-style “school-within-a-school.” In Ted Sizer’s famous and influential book, Horace’s Hope, this vision was central to the Platonic Good School that the fictional school committee seeks to found.  It is, in a way, Horace’s Dream. And teaming has been the lodestar of many other progressive school reformers going back decades.  Even Chuck Scranton’s TedX talk specifically referenced this as a promising model of school change, citing examples of initiatives funded by the Rowland Foundation in Vermont over the years.  In fact, two of my cohort classmates now are working on setting up a similar program at a school here in central Vermont. It’s a great model.

So why aren’t more schools doing it?  What exactly is the “immovable mountain” standing against such an agreed-upon progressive reform.  After all, when you learn more about educational history, you know that this reform isn’t exactly new.  In fact, it was a major tenet of the Eight Year Study, a major educational reform movement in the 1930s, which sought to break up the cellular nature of traditional schools to allow a more integrated, student-led curriculum, team-taught curriculum to flourish.

So, what’s the problem?  

Obviously tradition gets in the way — the notion of what a ‘real school’ is.  (That’s really the main thesis of another mind-expanding book I read, Larry Cuban and David Tyack’s Tinkering Toward Utopia.)

But there’s more — and that’s where Lortie comes in.

Here’s where Lortie showed me the answer.  Early in his book, he writes about American education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In particular, Lortie highlights how the employment regulations of female teachers influenced the development of the profession: “Continued growth of the public school system required the services of thousands upon thousands of young, single women.  This pool of personnel has never produced a high proportion of teachers ready to commit many years to work outside the home;” [this part feels dated, but for a long time was likely a fair statement] “and the problem of turnover was compounded by school board policies which ruled out the employment of married women. Such restrictions prevailed well into the twentieth century.”

Wait — what?

“In short, teaching was institutionalized as high turnover work during the nineteenth century and the modern occupation bears the marks of earlier circumstance.”

This is fascinating — so the fact that public schools were growing rapidly in number and size, and that for a long time the only people they could get to staff them were young, unmarried women (who could only work, presumably, for a short time until they married) — all meant that teaching was “institutionalized” (what a great word) as a high-turnover profession?  

Amazing.  

I’d never heard of this idea of a “marriage bar.” But here’s a fun fact: up until the start of World War II, 87% of districts refused to hire married women, and 70% refused to keep single women who married.  So much for job security and fair hiring practices!

But there’s more.  Here’s where it connects to team teaching — and the immovable mountain.  Because schools adapted their very structures, says Lortie, to fit that employee transience:

“It was easier for those governing schools to see them[selves] as aggregates of classroom units, as collections of independent cells, than as tightly integrated ‘organisms’ . . .  New teachers could readily be placed in the former teachers’ classrooms with new groups of students. Such flexibility was possible as long as teachers worked independently; but had their tasks been closely interwoven, the comings and goings of staff members would have created administrative problems.”

Again, fascinating.  This is why teaming never caught on.  It wasn’t because teachers were anti-social.  It wasn’t because they didn’t think co-teaching was solid pedagogy trick.  Instead, it was administrative. According to Lortie, the primary historical reason teachers don’t team teach is because they were forced to leave the profession so frequently because of marriage restrictions that it was just easier to plug them into their own rooms to teach than to try to work them into teams.

And according to Lortie, this was still the case even after the marriage restrictions were lifted.  He hints in this section at what he’ll talk about subsequently: that later on, schools were largely staffed by married women, who cycled in and out of the profession (this was long before the advent of modern maternity leave) in order to have families.  This only fed the existing need for teachers to be easily replaceable and in turn only reinforced the “egg crate” design of separated classrooms — with the goal of a relatively porous workforce causing minimal disruption to existing structures. In short, teachers came and went so frequently that teaming was hard.

This notion of teacher transience seems at odds with the traditional notion of teaching as a stable profession, union-protected, a job staffed by fairly domestic, settled professionals dedicated to community service and uninterested in career advancement.  

And yet, teaching is a profession that allows us the freedom to move.  If I suddenly wanted to pick up and move to the Rocky Mountains, I could probably find an English teaching job in any kind of town I wanted: big city, college town, small village in the mountains.  They’ve all got high schools. They all need teachers. Part of what drew me to teaching, if I’m being honest, was that flexibility. I knew that if I was suddenly gripped with the need to reroute my life to, say, Big Sky, Montana to ski, or McCall, Idaho to kayak, I could probably get a job right there in one of those towns.  (If I was a math teacher instead of an English teacher, I bet I could all but name my salary.)

When I think back on it, I’m always surprised at how many coworkers have come and gone at the school where I work.  Although I teach in a stable, happy school with good pay and good morale, in the past eight years, I’ve had no fewer than eight fairly young coworkers in my department of ten leave.  This is not even counting the four who’ve retired. When I think back on it, two of my coworkers left to become administrators, but a number of them simply moved away. They went down south to be back with family, out west to chase warm weather and dreams, to the big city to be around friends and like-minded people.  

And this ability to simply pick up and plug into another school is significant, because it both reflects the historical norms Lortie describes and reinforces them.  Schools are not like law firms, where you work your way up, slide into larger offices, fancier titles, and higher pay by dint of serving that specific firm. In schools there is no real hope of upward movement if you wish to stay in teaching, and no hope of any more than the same incremental upward movement in salary as everyone else.  If you were to pick up and go to another district, you’d theoretically start at the same step on the salary scale you’d been on before, by virtue of your experience level — not start back at the beginning. In this sense, just as Lortie described, teaching is a career that makes it okay to come and go — either from the profession, or to and from different schools.  That I think explains a lot of the turnover even in good schools like the one where I work.

But if people are cycling in and out, team teaching becomes much harder.  Teaming takes time and effort getting to know and understand your partner.  That becomes very difficult to do if you start having to replace too many faculty.  It’s hard enough even if you’re not co-teaching, but merely working on content teams, or on middle school core teams that call for common planning but separate instruction in different rooms.  

I remember a few years ago I was on two content teams — a ninth grade English team, and a tenth grade English team. I started with four colleagues between the two teams, and within three years, five new teachers had cycled into different positions on the team.  I vividly remember my experience on the tenth grade team, spending an entire year with one coworker, planning the course, learning how to work with each other, building a shared understanding of the other’s style and perspectives. Then one day she informed me that she’d be leaving for another school at the end of the year.  The next semester I teamed with her replacement, a dynamic and talented educator, but a wholly new person with a different style, background, and lack of familiarity with not only the curriculum but with the school itself. I remember feeling, partway through the year after several disagreements, as though I was back at square one.  While I enjoyed the experience, I got the sneaking suspicion that this woman herself, new to the state, would soon leave the school and the region as well. Within another year, she left the state. I had already moved on to teaming with others.

While working with new people can be invigorating, it can also be exhausting.  Training someone new, even an experienced veteran, can be a lot of work. Every school runs differently, and even similar courses at different schools — American Lit in School 1 and School 2 — can be composed of such different books, assignments, and grading standards as to make it practically a new course to learn.  No two student bodies are the same either. It takes time to get a new teacher up to speed.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like if these coworkers and I had been team teaching, rather than merely planning together.  I think it would have been almost unworkable by even the second year. You have to keep the band together, at least for a while — and that can be hard.

That’s Lortie’s point.  Because teaching is set up to be each person in a discrete classroom, it’s easier to imagine switching schools if you want to move.  And because this ability to move has become a well-known featuring of the profession, that in turn further increases the likelihood that teaching arrangements will be cellular rather than truly co-taught.  This is not to say that teaming is a bad model, only that the historical forces aligned against it in public schools run deep.

I love learning stuff like this — about how the early days of public education in the United States dictated what was to come in ways often overt and conscious, but often subtle and below the radar.  I highly recommend Dan Lortie’s book if you’re interested in uncovering the nature of why our jobs are the way they are.

I’ll think about this now every time I hear someone wonder why schools don’t do this or do that, especially if they’re wondering why teachers don’t co-teach or team-teach in academies with their coworkers.  Because the immovable mountain’s not just tradition — it’s a response to historical working conditions that continue to define our jobs in ways we rarely detect.

In the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

It doesn’t have to define us, but often it does.  If we’re to have any prayer of escaping the grip of the past, we must understand its influence and how it continues to shape our profession.

I recommend Dan Lortie.

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