You Burn Me Out

Education 2011: A case study in seniority—and burn-out

Graduating from Buffalo State College in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in math, Sara has a burning desire to teach. She’s grateful to land a position fresh out of college, even in a troubled high school at low starting pay. It’s been four years since the task report A Nation at Risk sounded the rallying call for change, and Sara is ready for the challenge. Unmarried, childless, and full of youthful vigor, she devotes lots of extra time to her job, even as she pursues her master’s degree during the evenings. Students identify with Sara, who is young and cute, and Principal Bell makes sure the new teacher isn’t assigned many “problem” kids. He urges Sara to take on extra volunteer work: chaperoning dances, serving on committees. For untenured teachers, these are offers you can’t refuse.

In her first year, Sara is introduced to Madeline Hunter’s Instructional Theory into Practice, a highly touted teaching model the ambitious neophyte welcomes. Sara’s eagerness is noted, and the following year, she’s asked to join a massive shared decision-making team developing a district-wide ten-year strategic plan. It takes two arduous years, but the committee is justifiably proud of its work, and mission statements are posted in all schools with great fanfare.

Sara can’t help but notice that many older teachers show little interest in the new initiative, but she’s committed to developing the alternative and authentic assessments called for in the plan. Subsequently the staff is required to create “assessment rubrics,” and they’re introduced to “cooperative learning,” both vital in addressing the upcoming new state assessments. Sara’s head spins sometimes with information overload. Most of her energy is focused on day-to-day survival—preparing lesson plans, covering course material, avoiding politics, completing paperwork, and grading stacks of student papers—but she also works hard at incorporating new educational ideas into her teaching. Her glowing evaluations pave an easy path to tenure.

Sara reads letters to the editor in the local paper attacking teachers for various perceived offences, so she isn’t surprised when parents blame her when their children misbehave. She is surprised, however, when Principal Bell takes an impartial position in such matters, labeling the behavior “personality conflicts” between teacher and student. Eight years into teaching, the strategic plan and the related initiatives Sara worked so hard on are now gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. Despite everyone’s efforts, student achievement has not improved. Sara joins the new school-based management team—part of Albany’s Compact for Learning—though the open joke among the staff is that shared decision-making is when the principal makes decisions and shares them with the team.

A new superintendent arrives, bringing with him a revolutionary new reform movement—Mastery Learning—as the district prepares for the new learning standards from Albany that will replace the performance indicators Sara and others agonizingly developed two summers earlier. It’s becoming harder for Sara to process all the new reform movements, all of which—multiple intelligences, learning styles, critical thinking—are heralded as critical advancements. Outcomes-based education (renamed “standards-based education” after Rush Limbaugh attacks the word “outcomes”) is the widely adopted response to the new Educate America Act (Goals 2000). Superintendent Tucker announces that the district requires a mission statement, and Sara wonders aloud what happened to the one her committee wrote years ago. “It’s in a drawer with Madeline Hunter,” another teacher quips sardonically. Principal Bell leaves for greener pastures. Sara begins Lamaze classes.

Principal Power announces her plan to make hers a Quality School. “William Glasser is revolutionizing education,” she says. When Power asks for volunteers to lead the Total Quality Education program, Sara is quiet. She wants to spend more time with her own children, attend their school’s open house, help with their homework. She invested so much time and energy already on programs that were later discarded. The high school is lambasted in Business First’s annual school ranking, further demoralizing Sara who has tried everything to improve student achievement without success. “Data” is the new buzzword and Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works is a data-driven program. Sara gets another workbook. This time she waits until she’s instructed to read it.

A seasoned teacher now, Sara gets many of the school’s “problem” kids. No longer the perky young teacher students once identified with, Sara cracks down on the growing discipline problems, and students resent it. After one particularly difficult class she tearfully turns to the principal for help, but is rebuked for not having control of her class. Her test scores drop. Her marriage unravels.

Now the district has a major new program. The ASSETS Project identifies forty developmental characteristics students need for success. According to student surveys, the ones they most severely lack revolve around home life. But with the introduction of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind, school accountability is the new catchphrase. When Principal Power assigns Sara additional duties in blatant violation of the collective bargaining contract, she files a grievance. Administration isn’t happy.

Asked to peer-coach younger teachers, the newly single mother feels renewed optimism. This latest educational trend is the closest she will ever come to advancement. Sara commits, but the program is never properly funded and gradually dies. Assistant Superintendent Moody however, has a new program—Essential Elements of Learning—which will revolutionize education. Teachers learn to identify the essential element of a lesson and put it into a concept map. Education expert Max Thompson arrives in a concerted push to introduce his Learning Focused Schools program district-wide. A new lesson plan format with the catchy title, Understanding by Design, is adopted. All these initiatives gradually fade away.

The following year teachers are required to “map” curriculums, a long process with no apparent functional use. Teaching for Understanding and Cross Curriculum Literacy are two trendy new programs promoting the latest hot topic. Everyone reads Active Literacy before author Heidi Hayes Jacobs arrives amidst great fanfare to promote her comprehensive program, which administrators cherry-pick, then forget. By 2008 the latest buzz-phrase is Professional Learning Communities. The high school adopts this concept at considerable cost and strife. Three years later Principal Power moves on, and PLCs fizzle. With each new initiative Sara’s enthusiasm diminishes. She has twenty-two years of books, binders, and workshop folders stacked in a file drawer, representing hundreds of hours of abandoned work. Sara digs through the strata like a scientist noting geologic eras. She ponders the energy spent on each new program, technological advance, and philosophical shift, and decides the only way she’ll make it to retirement is to stop caring so much. President Obama introduces the Race to the Top Fund, and by 2010 New York has successfully secured its slice of the cash cow. Common Core Standards are developed in 2011, and a system is put into place to rate teachers based on student test scores.


In 2013 the anti-union movement hits NY State and teacher unions lose the right to collectively bargain. With the help of key Assembly members, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo push through legislation they had endorsed for years eliminating the time-honored practice of laying-off teachers by seniority—“last hired, first fired.” A new math teacher is hired at Sara’s school. Being young and unattached, Bob impresses the new principal, who sees to it that he is not assigned the “problem” kids. Sara remains a competent and dedicated teacher, but the fire is out. She is asked to mentor Bob, but feels no motivation to train the competition. Bob can’t help but notice that Sara shows little interest in the newest reform initiatives. In 2014 a math position is cut due to budget constraints. At half the pay, Bob is clearly the better choice. Sara is laid off, and at age fifty, with a son in college, she joins the unemployed.

Artist, educator, and writer Bruce Adams is Spree’s art critic. He taught in a public high school for thirty years.

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