How Do You Solve A Problem Like TMAO?


What gets me going is the pursuit of exponential student growth, and what keeps me coming back for more is the chance to hack away at the intensely complex pursuit of that growth. What stymies me, what blunts me, is the unraveling and solving of this particular puzzle. When the work becomes less about discovery and innovation and more about delivery and application, when the achievement becomes less shocked success and more the expected norm, when the cool thing you did to dramatically accelerate progress still accelerates progress but becomes less cool every time you do it, further and further removed from the spark-joy of innovation… I start checking for exits.

TMAO isn’t another canary in this coal mine of new teacher attrition. His kind needs an entirely different prescription. Ordinarily, I’d close comments and send you over to Room D2, but I’ve gotta ask the question here:

Where, in the vast sphere of education, do you deploy someone like TMAO, someone who is more satisfied by instructional innovation than by instructional implementation? How do you play to that teacher’s strengths? How do you keep him challenged?

‘Cause I can’t see it.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. It sounds like the difference between research and development in engineering. Research is about exploring unsolved or unasked questions, something you don’t initially know the answer to. Development is about taking concepts that may be known and executing them well in a new product. Novelty and innovation vs. performance and craftsmanship. Both are necessary, but they are different aspects of engineering.

    Extending this analogy to teaching; I would say coming up with new teaching styles and techniques, would be like research, while implementing proven teaching strategies would be like development. TMAO’s comments sound like he wants to do education research more than development.

    Not sure if this analogy is useful or not, but if so, we may be able to look to research and development industries and job positions for hints as to where a “research” teacher might fit.

  2. If you’ve got a school community that is clicking, there are always infinite new challenges. If you don’t find them sufficient, you were never going to have a long career in teaching. The problem is that generally those periods where things click are generally brief, you have to retreate, then you get bored, then you leave.

  3. The traditional answer — and though I disagree with it is the only answer I know — is that TMAO wasn’t fit for the job, because he wasn’t in it solely for the kids.

    “If you aren’t in it for the kids, you aren’t cut out for teaching” takes on another level of meaning, if you wholly believe that standard educational dogma.

  4. Maybe someone who is so satisfied by “instructional innovation than by instructional implementation,” like TMAO, could obtain that satisfaction by moving to schools where both innovation and effective implementation are lacking. There are plenty of schools in each state who could greatly benefit from TMAO’s innovation and teacher leadership. After a few years of innovation, leave the reigns of implementation to someone more interested and move on to another school. Perhaps that is where the challenge lies.

  5. Tom, I can’t cotton to that kind of careerist predetermination, the kind which says, “those who were meant to teach will stick with teaching in spite of all the rectifiable nonsense teaching throws at them.” Teaching is a job which aches for all kinds of talent but which simultaneously casts talent off with great force.

    I have to wonder what would happen if the job of “teacher” splintered across r & d (like Steve suggests) and broader classifications from “master” down to “novice,” classifications independent of years & units.

  6. Dan, I’m not so sure that Tom was talking about careerist pre-determination in the way I read his comment. To me, it is more about finding the right place to be, where your talents will be valued and utilised, which might mean looking around and switching schools until you find the right fit. Where I am right now isn’t perfect but it’s where I want to be in terms of control of what I do, where my school sees its future direction and how much I can help to shape it. It’s probably why you see ex-pat teachers in places like international schools – sure, travel and the change of scenery is great but that would get pretty old if the work situation wasn’t stimulating and allowing growth. If you can’t find that place, or are unable to due to life choices (family and other ties to location) then that’s when Tom’s short career observation kicks in.

  7. In the business world, they’re called troubleshooters.

    We need a Navy SEAL team of teachers. These are the ones who, when you’re having a problem, you break the glass, and it calls the elite teacher commando unit in (and here’s the important part) without the pressure of judgement/the feeling it will have an impact on your evaluation. I’m talking intelligent men and women like TMAO, who ruthlessly use their observations and logic to break the problem down to its core, then come up with a (the other important part here) unique solution to the problem. These are the people who have the cold detachment to be a neutral observer in your classroom, to let you know what’s going on, and have the time your typical teacher doesn’t to maybe do some research on that problem. After presenting the info, they work with you to help implement the strategies they design and (the third important part) are willing to make adjustments after the fact depending on how it goes.

    To sum up:
    1. Crack commando team of people who just want to improve teaching
    2. They aren’t attached to any particular teaching method that they always recommend the same thing
    2. They’re not so full of themselves that they think the first solution they propose will immediately solve the problem

    Those last two points really drive at the problems I’ve had when working with administrative people, or worse, people from outside contractors/publishers. They become attached to their one system, never once questioning whether it will work in all situations.

    If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

  8. Agree with Michael. There are no rules with regard to how long you must stay in one place. To stay fresh, take innovations and your joy from place to place. The challenge- to leave a place better than you found it- there’s great satisfaction in that! Each position requires new discoveries and new innovations.

    I never stayed in one position for more than 3 years except this last year, I just resigned. You CAN have a long career in education by being the agent of change; I’m in my 22nd without one burnt bridge. Finding a new position took all of three days from resume to interview to offer; there ARE schools looking for joyous innovators who can help those satisfied with implementation.

  9. Well, I’m always coming at this from the point of view of urban or rural education, so it is really hard for me to imagine a well-run faculty getting to the end of the year and not having a long list of things they’d like to improve next year. And the thing is, if the school is doing well, the list is longer than if the school is doing poorly, because you’ve got more capacity and flexibility.

    What I’m saying is that if you look around an urban school that’s meeting AYP, and see a whole new set of challenges, you’re seriously lacking imagination as a teacher.

  10. It’s not a matter of lacking imagination, it just seems to me it’s more the types of challenges he’s interested in. He’s got a certain set of problems that he enjoys cracking, and recognizes that once he’s met those challenges, he’s ready to move on.

  11. We don’t have a school system that supports students in this type of open ended, self-directed development. Why should we have one for teachers?

    Just sayin, is all. And just dropping some chum in the waters… But when high stakes testing receives a disproportionate amount of attention in rating a school’s performance, this type of flexibility on the job becomes more difficult to justify — it’s non-traditional, and non-traditional is a risk.

    Tom, in 9 and 10, nails it. All challenges are worthwhile challenges, and you have more room to conceptualize and articulate these challenges when working for an administration that supports and encourages teachers to think of their role in the classroom as an integral part of iterative, never-ending improvement.

    Several other people have hit on another idea; and that is to have faculty on staff within a district who are roaming support/master teachers. Of course, coming up with the hiring criteria for this position is a difficult proposition. Of course, I’d prefer to do it without the military metaphor.



  12. Dan C. calls them ‘troubleshooters’. I’d call them consultants, but it is essentially the same.

    TMAO solicits himself as an expert in a particular area of school innovation, maybe teams up with somebody else who is an expert in a different area and hires himself out on short- to medium-term contracts. He isn’t a classroom teacher, but rather an observer and a facilitator of change.

    Once his contract is fulfilled he moves onto another school. Of course, he’d need to conduct follow-up visits, for an additional fee…

    I don’t know for sure, but I would assume that school districts already hire consultants to help with budget issues or technology issues or whatever. Why not hire somebody from the outside to consult on classroom issues?

  13. I’ll try weighing in on this one, although I’m finding it hard to understand the distinction–there are new kids & challenges every year with lots of room to set the goals higher.

    On the other hand, a change of scenery, a new set of challenges, a school needing a whole different approach might be–as suggested by Michael & Joanne to best answer.

    While I have found instructional coaches teaming with teachers to support instructional improvement & learning results to be a worthwhile model, there’s a bit of skepticism that wonders how an outsider would better facilitate instructional improvement than an instructional leader, such as a principal, within the school or district.

    To me, many different approaches, materials, strategies can be effective in facilitating learning–there’s not one best solution to an instructional issue–but rather it’s the consistent, effective implementation of selected strategies with high fidelity over time that makes a difference. It’s important for individuals to work in systems where they can be supportive of and contribute to the shared instructional approach.

    Although in some schools, each teacher is pretty much on his or her own–although I think standards change that dynamic.

  14. On an unrelated topic. Anyone play with this at al? Looks really promising….

    I think for many burned out younger teachers, teaching in a rural school is the way to go.

    I teach in a school with about 85 kids per class, the building is 7-12. I teach 5 sections of grade 8 history and 1 section of senior level AP US history and its the best thing ever.

    Going through my daily blogs of new teachers, it seems like the workloads are high and the issues are very, very real. I don’t deal with kids who don’t have a place to stay at night. You have issues with drugs and alcohol but not to the extent that i’ve read in other areas. The “discipline issues” are few and far between, a couple of rowdy kids who might talk too much out of turn in class. Every new teacher should start out and get going in that kind of environment and then move on to bigger things.

    The drawbacks are living in a rural area, but i’m in the mountains in upstate NY and its beautiful, so its not a big issue…..

  15. I second the comment on moving schools. I think such movement is absolutely critical to keeping both schools and teachers fresh (which of course keeps kids fresh!). I’ve taught at three schools in ten years and only one of the three was really open to hearing ideas from teachers who had been other places. The last two have been very set in the “this is how it’s done here” mentality which I think mainly comes from a staff of teachers who have only taught at this one school, often including their student teaching! Obviously moving schools is a pain and difficult and requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance for teachers but it is that exact cognitive dissonance that in turn makes them better teachers – imho. I’m sick of trying to work with teachers who are still making copies off of old purple and white ditto “originals” because that’s what they’ve always used. If you’re a teacher like TMAO the goal is to find another school that has what he had when he first arrived at his current school. I don’t teach with him but that sounds like a school in need and a staff (all levels) unified in order to meet that need. The problem is finding that school.

    I agree with what APPEAR to be TMAO’s thoughts on the issue of being a teacher coach – for many of us I don’t think that’s what we want. I can’t imagine this job without the kids. I LOVE the kids! I love doing data and analyzing scores and growth and making charts and all of those things. But without knowing the kids I wouldn’t enjoy it. I enjoy it because I know the individuals behind the numbers and I know what it means to them to be successful. OK I guess that’s a little much for a “comment”!

  16. Too much interesting stuff to hit in a shot but I’ve gotta note all the bloody fish guts Bill threw into the water, bucket and all.

    It’s pretty easy to blame the NCLB boogeyman for anything and everything but it’s worth noting in this case that it was NCLB’s accountability demands that offered TMAO the challenges which sustained him for these years.

    Moreover, “All challenges are worthwhile challenges” disregards the not-inconsequential fact that different challenges satisfy differently.

    eg. Any student who can’t multiply numbers or who feels abandoned by math represents a worthy challenge but, each successive year, those extra ten hours per week I spend on differentiated assessment and engaging instruction feel decreasingly satisfying.

    I need a place to generate ideas, ideas which live only a few degrees of separation from students but which don’t require my implementation year after year.

    Is this just a consultant? Some kind of journeyman teacher?

    Just hijacked my own thread – my bad – this is and, uh, always has been, about TMAO.

  17. @Dan I think this is a issue that is bigger than TMAO. He is (and I hope he’s not offended by this idea) our case study and his situation will apply to many of us at some point in our careers, if it hasn’t already. How do we, as teachers, keep our (personal) motivation to do what we do? If your motivation is intrinsic and never wavering, then Hallelujah and Congratulations: you’ve reached the promised land.

    I know I struggle with this on some level year after year. How do I constantly re-invent myself? How do I keep from growing stale or jaded? How do I reconcile spending more time with other people’s kids than my own?

    For TMAO, I guess the question I want answered is: Do you want to leave education, or do you want to leave your school? There are options in either case…

  18. I’ve been lurking for a year…

    If you don’t get up for the kids, then you should probably get out. If you want to help people become better teachers and develop ways for those teachers to get better, then you maybe should consider a doctorate in education and becoming a teacher of teachers?

    It sounds like TMAO is someone who looks at what his lesson is going to be, tries to improve it to reach more of the kids, then is pleased when he sees the improvement. I’m not exactly sure what his problem is, because I’m pretty sure there will always be room for improvement! I just finished my first year (yay!) and have about 20,000 things I like to try next year. I think if I get all 20,000 done, I’ll have 15,000 more next year at this time. I mean, shouldn’t that be what we’re all doing? We’re never going to get 100% effective 100% of the time.

  19. @Joe, I totally agree that we’ll never reach 100% efficacy. I disagree, though, that the jump from 50% efficacy to 75% efficacy is as meaningful as the next year’s jump from 75% to 85% and so on.

    For a particular group of educators – a group which I am not deifying – the returns on the usual classroom grind diminish more quickly than for others. I admit to some surprise that Tom and Bill, both refugees from the classroom, don’t identify more with this group.

  20. Man, not even my mom finds me this interesting…

    I wish this was as simple as maybe it appears everyone who’s not currently residing in my head. Take the first sentence Dan quoted: “What gets me going is the pursuit of exponential student growth…” and complicate with the fact that what makes me want to go after that exponential student growth is my passion for these kids, this community, and its trajectory into American history. And that passion is underwritten by all the amazing kids I’ve met, their incredible families, the grit and guts I’ve watched kids pour into trying to get over the wall erected by all kinds of inequity. It’s never as simple as I-like-revising-my-lessons-more-than-I-like-teaching-them, even if I fail to accurately express that.

    But, but, but… being in it for the progress IS being in it for the kids. Why do we reduce the commitment to youth as being confined to really digging how funny they are, how they’ve got this neat-o idiosyncracy? I don’t know.

    The idea of moving schools and kinda, like, starting over has (perhaps bizarrely) never appealed to me at all. It feels like the guy who hits .407 for a season, and decides to start over again the next year hitting from the opposite side of the plate. That’s a challenge, sure, but why would you seek out that kind of challenge? Plus, I’ve got this thing where if I’m not teaching the poorest, darkest, most under-taught kids whose first-language is something other than English, I feel guilty and weak. Like, I feel bad about teaching in east San Jose sometimes, because I could probably find spots in Oakland and L.A. where shit is worse. Let’s not even talk about this too much…

  21. My career prior to teaching was in technology in everything from startups to Fortune 50 and in that world I always noted that the organizations with the highest levels of innovation had the most chaotic organization charts. On the other side of that coin, the companies with low innovation had very stable, formal, symmetric org charts.

    Public education is organized (at the point of delivery) as a very flat, stable, formal, symmetric organization. In most schools there is a principal/VP and then ‘everybody else’. There might be a department head or two but generally these are found in high schools not in lower grades.

    Here’s a short list of the various skillsets you might expect to find in a math teacher: Scriptwriter, Director, Entertainer, Mathematician, Curriculum Expert, Behavorial Expert,
    Analyst, Clerk, Linguist, Cognitive Expert, Technology Expert, Custodian, Decorator. Now in an innovative tech company you would find formal and informal organizational structures that criss-cross the skillsets like silly string. In education what you find is boxes (classrooms) filled with ‘teachers’. You find recruitment of ‘math teacher’, ‘ela teacher’, etc. No skill distinctions are made in recruitment because every one is (unrealistically) expected to have and love the whole enchilada.

    People evolve, and in innovative organizations, managers provide the stimulus and ecosystem to take advantage of the evolving skillsets and interests in order to leverage (as much as possible) every single person. The side effect of this managerial style is that people can move to, or create the kinds of jobs they love.

    In public ed it’s just the box. If script writing is what floats your boat and you’re really good at it, there is no structure that enables you to leverage that work product across the organization. Each box sort of drifts into a comfort zone, if you’re so inclined, or a discomfort zone, if you’re an eagle.

    TMAO is an eagle in a box!

  22. What I’m trying to critique is the idea that if there were some kind of non-administrative career ladder for teachers that it would solve a significant part of the retention problem. This was the original question, I believe.

    To be sure, I think having master teachers mentor rookies is important, but on its own merits, not to make the master teachers feel better about their career.

    What a teacher needs is a well run school that gives them a real voice and role in the school as a whole. It’s the most you can give them, and if it isn’t enough, well, they aren’t bad people, but they just aren’t going to be long haul teachers.

  23. I say he comes and teaches at SLA, where we believe in educational innovation *and* innovative implementation.

    We look to get better every day, and then we look to share our best practice with anyone who reads our blogs, comes to visit, comes to EduCon, etc…

    Tom’s right — we need schools that work, that see themselves as incubators of ideas, etc.. .and we need more and more and more of them.

  24. No, Chris, I disagree. I say he comes to ISU and gets his degree in school leadership and then takes on the challenge on making it happen school-wide – the challenge of BEING the principal he wants… =)

  25. The lack of a career progression in classroom teaching I believe does discourage people from entering the profession at the K-12 level and hurts retention. If I’m a bright and ambitious would-be teacher, college-level teaching with its career ladder (associate professor, full prof, subdepartment head, department head) is going to be much more attractive. Obviously there are other reasons why someone might prefer teaching at the college level- higher pay, much greater autonomy, better physical surroundings, students who are in the classroom of their own volition rather than by force of law, etc. But I think the flat structure definitely makes K-12 teaching less attractive a profession.