I had an unexpected, yet illuminating, conversation recently with a former colleague in education. With just a few weeks before his non-probationary (third year) status was up, he was told he’d be non-renewed at his current school. Until his last evaluation, he hadn’t a negative comment; he had no identified areas of deficiencies. His kids performed well according to the measures of his school and department. He was passionate about kids, teaching, and his subject matter. It was his driving force to make social studies relevant, global, and meaningful for his students.
His supervisor was willing to write him a letter of recommendation and would even hire him back if another position in his subject area were to open up. However, this particular middle school social studies teacher, two sport coach, and highly involved staff member was unable to find another teaching job. He spent several months completing applications, interviewing, and being told he was a strong candidate and was near the top of those interviewed, but still could not find a new position. He was professional through the rest of the school year. He didn’t make a production of his termination with his kids as is often the case with some departing teachers.
As his last official day at school passed, and he still had no job or even job prospects. The inclination to falsely tie his ability to get a teaching job with his worth as a person and husband started to get the better of him. He was disillusioned and shaken on a level much more than the professional. He was getting desperate to find a job. He expanded his search, considered longer and longer commutes, and still nothing. It was difficult to watch the events unfold and my 17 years in education as teacher and administrator proved useless in being of any assistance to him.
However, this particular post isn’t about the inequities or difficulties of finding a teaching job in a tight job market and how that relates to a teacher shortage crisis. It’s about the unexpected part of the conversation I alluded to earlier. He’s now switched job paths completely and is managing a fast food restaurant. He doesn’t make any apologies for it and is doing quite well. My casual inquiry about how it was going turned serious when he said, “Rick, I’m so much more empowered now than I ever was as a teacher.” I didn’t expect that and in my own three years in fast food, I never really felt empowered even in the semi-managerial role I briefly held. We talked more about empowerment and the teaching profession, locally and nationally, and pieces of other recent conversations and experiences came together throughout our discourse.
His story is not unique and many teachers willingly leave the profession for myriad reasons. Teachers leaving the profession concerns me, but not as much as the ones who decide (and are deciding) not to come to the profession at all.
Welcome to the Machine
I was at the Virtual School Symposium in November and keynote speaker former Governor Bob Wise, who is now the President for Alliance for Excellent Education, spoke in his presentation about the mounting teacher shortage as being one of three looming crises that are challenging America’s k-12 education system  . (The other two being declining state fiscal revenues and increased global demands for skilled workers.) Two of the statistics he presented to support this shortage were
- In 1987-88 the typical teacher had 15 years of experience.
- By 2007-08 the typical teacher had just 1 to 2 years of experience. 
What strikes me about these two bits of information is where they fall in the
milestones tombstones(?) of reform efforts in American education. The connection to the impending teacher crisis may not be strictly causal, but it does give me pause. In 1989, the year following 87-88 referenced above and sparked by the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, state governors convened a summit to focus on education. Out of this the the National Education Goals panel was formed and eventually produced the Goals 2000 legislation , signed into law in 1994 . As a follow up in 1996, the National Education Summit convened pledging “to support efforts to set academic standards at the state and local levels” . Also keep in mind in the mid to late 90’s outcomes-based education evolved and messily imploded. Within a few years, states who haven’t adopted academic standards move to do so in the wake of NCLB that is signed into law in 2001. High-stakes standardized testing, school report cards, and the political and continued public vilification of educators soon follow. In 2002 states and school districts that receive Title I funding are required to participate in NAEP in order to keep those federal dollars . High-stakes standardized testing, school report cards, and the political and continued public vilification of educators soon follow.
As the standardized tests explicitly elevated in importance the subjects math, science, and language arts, by extension those potential teachers with a passion for other areas found (and continue to find) themselves marginalized, lost in the hysteria of high-stakes, standardized testing. Math, science, and language arts teachers resent[ed] the building pressure to have their kids perform well on the tests while other teachers resent[ed] the cuts (fiscally, politically, and practically) to their disciplines, especially the arts.
In a world of scale scores, cut points, and proficiency levels, the creative impulse in humans, and its associated propensity toward risk and possible failure, becomes unpalatable.
And, in the name of raising test scores, we continue to educate the creativity right out of our children.
So much so that we have to create “partnerships” and entire buzz phrase endeavors to reintroduce ourselves and our kids to the parts of themselves we’ve tested out of them. Consider also the Wall Street Journal article by Sue Shellenbarger that reports “Americans’ scores on a commonly used creativity test fell steadily from 1990 to 2008, especially in the kindergarten through sixth-grade age group…” . We’ve heard Sir Ken Robinson tell us that “creativity is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status” in one of his creativity and school talks from 2006 . If that’s too outdated, perhaps we should pay close attention to his take on the arts, creativity, and divergent thinking in his excellent RSA Animate talk from October 2010 .
In an environment where just about everything has to be quantified and translated into sterile, lifeless measurable outcomes where learners are commodities to be grown for higher education or employers (rather than being developed as human beings), it’s little wonder that more people aren’t flocking to the profession. This, as many current educators will tell you, is only one point of consideration. There are many more factors that are contributing to our teacher shortage -perhaps we’ll discuss some of them here.
[1 ] Slide 2, The Online Learning Imperative Report and an Update on the Digital Learning Council
 Slides 7 & 8, The Online Learning Imperative Report and an Update on the Digital Learning Council
 PBS Frontline, Are We There Yet?
 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Frequently Asked Questions: Is participation in NAEP voluntary?
 Shellenbarger, Sue. The Wall Street Journal Online, December 15, 2010, A Box? Or a Spaceship? What Makes Kids Creative
I’ve just finished Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This book caps of a trio of books I’ve “read” since January 2009. (Note: I have placed “read” in quotations because I actually listened to two of the books and some of my English-teacher friends would say that doesn’t really count as having read them. That’s their problem, not mine. I’m all the better for my auditory or visual interaction with them anyway and I’ll use read to signify both kinds of interaction here.) The other two books are Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (listed in reverse order read.)
First of all, Zander’s The Art of Possibility and Robinson’s The Element represent the books I purchased because I watched related videos on TED. TED, by the way, if you have never heard of it is “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” For all you corporate, copyright, intellectual control, 19th-century business model, knowledge-hoarding authoritarians, you might want to notice that the free media on TED directly contributed to the purchase of two additional, possibly three items -the Zanders’ physical book and Robinson’s audio recording, which I may also purchase in hard copy for future reference. Additionally, after listening to the Heaths’ book, I purchased the hard copy…I’m just sayin’.
I didn’t intend to read the books in the order I did. In fact I didn’t intend to read them at all other than The Element. After watching Robinson’s TED talk and Zander’s TED talk, I had to learn more. Additionally, reading Made To Stick and The Art of Possibility were a result of recurring recommendations by those I follow on Twitter and those whose blogs I read.
…Meanwhile, back to the books themselves. They all have a similar “long line” as Zander calls it, “a theme upon which each [book] is a variation.” That theme is simply to make a difference our own lives and the lives of others. Each author (or groups of authors) present rather compelling and impassioned ways to do this. But each does it in almost the same way; they tell stories -lots of them. In fact stories are one of the six principles in the Heaths’ “SUCCESs” model. Each book speaks to the transformative power of Story. In testament to this, The Zanders have a section at the end of their book called “A Guide to the Stories.” The Heaths include story references from their chapters also in the end section “The Easy Reference Guide.” Robinson focuses often on “epiphany stories,” those stories that “involve some level of revelation, a way of dividing the world into before and after.” For this post, I’ll focus on the Zanders’ The Art of Possibility.
In using stories told from each of their perspectives, Ben and Roz (as they identify themselves in the book) illustrate in concrete ways we can make a difference in our own lives and of others. Of the three books, theirs provides some of the most practical thinking for transformation -well, duh, it is in the title. One of the most compelling thoughts comes early on in the book as they reframe the context of world from one of scarcity to one of abundance. Here are some examples from the book. While note set against each other for a direct comparison, some do flow that way. Some may make immediate sense, while other may necessitate your reading the book.
|A world of measurement: assessments, scales, standards, grading, and comparisons||Beyond the world of measurement to include all worlds: infinite, generative, and abundant|
|Obstacles show up as a scarcity of people, time money, power, love, resources, and inner strength||We gain our knowledge by invention|
|Acceptance and Rejection||Action may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word -reproducing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves.|
|Surviving in a world of scarcity and peril|
|Responses: alertness to danger, a clever strategic mind, an eye for assessing friend and foe, a knack for judging strength and weakness, the know-how to take possession of resources, a measure of mistrust, and a good dollop of fear|
|Resisting challenges to our personal viewpoint||Resources are likely to come to you in greater abundance when you are generous and inclusive and engage people in your passion for life|
|We know each other and things by measuring them, and by comparing and contrasting them||A passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate|
|Children are compared to each other||Children contribute meaning and are passionate|
|Life arranged in hierarchies||Taking a long view without being able to predict the outcome|
|People, ideas, and situations can be fully known and measured||When you are oriented toward abundance, you care less about being in control, and you take more risks|
|Some groups, people bodies, places, and ideas seem better or more powerful than others|
|Some people, races, and organizations are safer and more desirable than others||All are contributors|
|There are only so many pieces of the pie||The pie is enormous, and if you take a slice, the pie is whole again.|
|A world of struggle||Setting the context and letting life unfold|
|Competitive sports and war metaphors apply to almost any situation||A cooperative universe|
|Conversations chronicle personal trials and triumphs||A wiliness to be moved and inspired|
|Fear, anger, and despair at losing||A humane, charitable world|
|…virtually everybody, whether living in the lap of luxury or in diminished circumstances, wakes up in the morning with the unseen assumption that life is about the struggle to survive and get ahead in a world of limited resources.||Unimpeded on a daily basis by the concern for survival, free from the generalized assumption of scarcity, a person stand in the grate space of possibility in a posture of openness, with an unfettered imagination for what can be.|
|Seek more for ourselves no matter how much we have and treat others as competitors no matter how much they have||Lighting a spark in others|
|Questions of assessment||Questions of inquiry|
|What’s best for me||What’s best for all of us|
|Expectations to live up to||Possibilities to live into|
|Reality is fixed||No guarantees|
|Winning and Losing||Life appears as variety, pattern, shimmering movement, inviting us in every moment to engage.|
|Overcoming odds and prevailing|
|Being acknowledged and included|
|Competition is the vehicle to success|
|Exhilaration of coming out on top|
|Supplies are fixed and limited|
|The frenzied accumulation of resources by some leaving others without enough|
Further in the book the context for these ideas are framed in the illustration of “downward spiral” and “possibility” talk/thinking. The define the downward spiral talk as “a resigned way of talk [thinking] that excludes possibility…[f]ocusing on the abstraction of scarcity…creat[ing] an unassailable story about the limits to what is possible, and tells us compellingly how things are going from bad to worse” (p. 108). They introduce possibility earlier on page 20, but it stands contrast:
“The action in a universe of possibility may be characterized as generative, or giving, in all senses of that word -reproducing new life, creating new ideas, consciously endowing with meaning, contributing, yielding to the power of contexts. The relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.”
See the video on Pop!Tech to hear from Zander himself on the topic -and many others from the book. Zander is one of those teachers we all wish we could have. He walks his talk absolutely graciously. It has some similarities with his TED talk, but this one has a kid! Stay for the end. The 30 minutes is completely worth it.
The above quote from the the book, published in 2000, resonates with me as an educator (and I suspect others also). It’s what we strive for as educators it speaks to our passions and best hopes. It’s often how we define our educational reform efforts.
This is one of those must-read books for educators. It has so much more than a blog post can do justice.
If you’ve read this book or have feedback on the post, I welcome your comments.