Wherever You Can Find It

I woke up with a scorching sore throat and called in a reliever. I’m at a coffee shop right now, putting down some echinacea tea but, sore throat or not, I needed a personal day. It’s been a rough few weeks, light on blogging, which, if you’ll recall, is as good a sign as any that my job satisfaction is tanking, that someone needs to send a St. Bernard up the mountain after me.

In the middle of all this, Ian Garrovillas got a T.A., a class tutor, and a new lease on his career. Also, Jen, a first-year English teacher somewhere in the Los Angeles Unified wrote:

I don’t normally post on good days, so I just wanted to take a moment to say that today went pretty well. This isn’t to say today was smooth — crying girls, a special ed kid going off the wall, and a surprise admin observation were just part of the fun — but it was functional, kids understood the lesson, some real punkasses did a bit of classwork for a change, and we even had some laughs. Maybe there’s hope for this year, and this career, yet.

And I’m encouraged by these newcomers. I still wonder, though, exactly how low I have to set my standard before I can qualify days as “good” or, especially, “sustainable.” Reasonably how low, I mean.

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. Dude. I wasn’t trying to start the personal day trend.

    I’m trying to remember what it’s like at a “normal” school. Wondering how their bad days compare to my good ones?

  2. I’d say every day you are fair and respectful to students while trying your best to teach them is a good day.

    On a side note, I just finished my adaptation of your introduction to graphing using your videos. I used it last year and I can’t wait to use it tomorrow. That was stellar work, Dan.

  3. You’ve never had it so good, Dan.

    I mean really. Four years from now – when you’re one of the technology specialists in your district – you’ll think back on these days often, glad you gave it all you had, and actually thankful for that “good tired” feeling you’ve likely become so accustomed to.

    Teaching has got to be the most emotionally draining profession in the solar system. And the most worthwhile.

    Hang in there, man.

  4. I hope that none of us ever lower our standards to “its just a job,” because that might be the day that we may need to find a different career.

    The toughest part of the job is that 1) we may never truly know our full influence in this world and upon history and 2) even our worst days may be a positive influence on a student. We must balance our drive and determination with our personal well being and family.

    Get well soon, Dan.

  5. Dan, I first want to wish you good health. It is much easier to continue to battle the ennui or angst that plagues challenging situations when healthy.

    I agree with Michael’s comments that our full influence is rarely directly visable to us. The fact that you are not satisfied with your work is a sign that you are still commited to kaizen. It is important to have time for reflection and recuperation as you continuously seek improvement.

    Get well, buck up and dive back into the challenges of meeting diverse needs of the kids in your class. I hope the first success that exceeds your expectations helps buoy your spirits.

  6. There is no “reasonably” low standard. You get what you expect. The “funks” come and go in this profession and they are worse when sick. Take care of you, decompress and get better. Cold Fx works wonders – is that available south of the 49th? Chicken soup, a fav movie cuddled up with your lovely new wife – whatever.
    The point is Dan, that having put three kids and one “relative-in-care” through high school, finding math teachers who can depart their knowledge into their students, “Math Gods” as we call them in our house, are as rare as hen’s teeth. You are one of those rare hen’s teeth. Don’t give up, rest up. This profession needs you and those like you.

    Great reply, Michael – finding that balance is the key.

  7. @anyone who cares

    What makes a good, no… a great day?

    Sometimes I consider good days as those days where I’ve asked intelligible questions that allow students to discover a concept. A day different from the one-way street of knowledge. Specifically the days I get caught in the flow of one-way, boring, imposing, indifferent information which students usually dispose of as they leave my room.

    Most of the times I concentrate on the bad. Like those test days where your pretty confident your students know the material and half the students fail. This is a crushing, shocking, where do I go from here, and what do I need to do different day. A day where all the hard work, planning, and efforts are returned to you as defective.

    Is this my fault that I concentrate on the bad? Or is it what 5 years of college, sponsor teachers, mentors, and administrators have conditioned me to do?

    “What can you improve?” A seemily harmless question which creeps into the brain to eat away the good feelings. The thought that makes you look for the weak and empower it. But does it make teachers improve or just promote a stressful and depressing environment?

    I thought I’ve had many good days so far this year. We’ve had great discussions about math, some even student led. We understood the overlying concepts and practiced the specifics. Heck, we’ve even had quizzes where 95% of the students passed. Should these days still be classified as good when half the students fail the unit test?

    My expectations are high. Kids should rise to them, right? I feel like I’m losing more students each week. What can I fix? Am I a defective teacher? How can I help students be successful? Is the ability of just thinking this way helping me? How can I change my lessons to encourage a successful environment for all? Is that environment even possible for a regents geometry class in which EVERY 10th grader is enrolled without choice or more importantly ability?

    A good day is when I can actually answer these questions. No… that would be a great day.

    I pray I have a great day very soon.

  8. Dan
    What makes a good day? Wow, you have a talent for asking the right questions. For me, is the day better than if I had spent it at another job, like selling insurance. Mostly yes

  9. Just a correction – Jen is a second year math teacher. Her posts are often funny, but the situations she writes about are definitely not.

    I hope you start feeling better soon.

  10. I used to have good days at work. There were lessons that “worked”. Same as everyone else. Reticent kids participated. Advanced kids didn’t lie about shoddy work. Talk around the faculty lunchroom devoid of student names.

    Then, I had kids.

    Today, a good day at work is one where I get to go home and have dinner with my family.

    Keep your head up.

  11. I’m childless, and already there. I’m happy with the quality of my work but the opportunity cost is just outta control lately – all the stuff I don’t do for the sake of planning interesting, visual lessons, for the sake of assessing rigorously and remediating constantly, for the sake of pulling kids up to fluency who haven’t seen the bright side of C- since the fifth grade.

    Which wouldn’t be so awful except I’m here working lawyer hours for teacher salary, and I’m stuck here trying to remember when, in my admissions interview for UC Davis’ school of education, did they ask me, “Are you ready to do it all just for the kids?”

    Maybe I’m unique, maybe I’m superficial, maybe my priorities are beyond repair, but that kind of sacrifice just isn’t in my DNA.

  12. Dan – if you or I were in this career for the money, we could take our Math degree and at least double our salary in the private sector most likely NOT teaching.

    You are struggling with a problem that is symptom of the educational system as a whole, which is ultimately a social problem. The point is that much of what we deal with lies outside our realm of control or stewardship. The trick is to identify what can we do today.

    Today I can notice something about a student that is not academically related, like “I notice you really like the (insert student’s favorite sports team).” Today I can acknowledge that a student put a lot of effort into today’s or yesterday’s assignment. Today I can either grade papers or plan, but if I do both that will mean less time I get to spend with my family. Today I can call a parent and tell them what a pleasure it is to have their student in my class and that they helped me out in some way. Today I can sit down with a student and give them some one-on-one attention. Today I can tell a student I care. But I can only do so much. Not every student will be addressed every day. But if I remain apathetic, we all lose.

    Lawyer’s time on a teacher’s salary, perhaps. But what is the true payout of your efforts? More money? More student’s passing a silly test? Or more students having a profound understanding of mathematics?

    Lastly, I wish our government would stop looking at all students as the “same” raw material. Every student comes to my class at different readiness levels. Not every student will be at the “same” proficiency level by the end of the course, it just isn’t possible, given antecedent conditions. If the educational system adequately addressed this issue, perhaps that will ease our burden – or increase it. Right now, it is not fair for us teachers or the students. It is a lose-lose program. That is why we teachers are working lawyer’s hours, in my opinion.

  13. — I’m stuck here trying to remember when, in my admissions interview for UC Davis’ school of education, did they ask me, “Are you ready to do it all just for the kids?” —

    You didn’t.

    And that’s the fallacy of “Children Come First” or whatever slogan people want to use that seems innocuous at first but really is used to bludgeon the adults into leaving or martyrdom or Erin Gruell-dom.

    Here’s the thing — if we want our teachers to treat the kids with an ethic of care, we must treat our teachers with an ethic of care. We cannot treat the adults one way and expect them to treat the kids another way.

    That means that someone at your school needs to be taking care of you — making sure you aren’t burning out, frustrated, exhausted. If no one is doing that, if the only answer is, “If you aren’t satisfied, try harder,” then you aren’t getting what you need.

    The idea that schools are only about the kids is a problem because, as much as I am a proponent of student-centered learning, we have to do a better job of taking care of the adults because we are losing too many of our best young teachers. And we’re not losing them because they don’t like the job, we’re losing them because we aren’t creating pathways for them to feel good about their job without it coming at incredibly high cost.

  14. Chris, you see a correlative problem here, though. It’s the Stockholm Syndrome. It’s African-Americans or women appropriating “bitch” or “nigger” as labels of power. It’s teachers who now get off on being abused by the system– in otherwords, who have chosen to define their meaningfulness in a dysfunctional system by *embracing the dysfunction.*

    How many unpaid hours they put in. How many out of pocket bucks they spend. How little they are acknowledged. These things become badges of honor. They become the twisted measures of accountability that responsible teachers crave, because we are not provided with them anywhere else. And so the SuperTeacher myth is perpetuated, by both its constituents and its administrators.

    And so I would wager that that at these low points Dan feels double-f***ed, not to put too fine a point on it. Between the twin hells of a) bad teachers, and b) good teachers who shake their heads ever-so-sadly because Dan wants more money or more time or more whatever, because “clearly, he ain’t putting the kids first”– well, it’s a long walk to a drink of water from there.

  15. I’m curious, Chris, what this looks like in practice:

    That means that someone at your school needs to be taking care of you – making sure you aren’t burning out, frustrated, exhausted.

    How is anyone supposed to take care of me?

  16. To quote a young scholar:

    “Because none of this intervention – I don’t think – makes any difference if you haven’t already asked your students, “How are you doing today?” But I dunno.”

    I try to ask my teachers every day, “How are you doing today?” And then I try to make sure I can really listen to the answer.

    It starts with that. It includes things like making sure the coffee pot is always hot. It includes things like making sure that when one more thing comes across the transom, that we ask, “Can we do this or is it too much?”

    I means that I have to care about my teachers as people in as many ways as I can.

  17. And maybe that kind of leadership is enough to staunch some of this new teacher blood, but it isn’t enough to staunch mine.

    Because I came here to do a job, just a job. I wasn’t “called” here but I knew that job was essential to the future and polity of our country. That job was too hard. I failed. Then I learned. Then I started blogging. I torched a lot of terrible personality defects on the altar of better teaching. I sacrificed a lot of time to improve. Now I’m good at this job.

    How many other professions would tie that kind of growth to zero extrinsic (and particularly financial) reward?

    There is no promotion. There is no pay raise. There is no bonus. And lately, most obviously, there is nothing to compensate me for the time I spend elevating student achievement, time which other teachers spend throwing frisbees on the beaches of Santa Cruz with their wives.

    Dina has my resignation letter penned out pretty well in her last paragraph , right down to the grief I’ll get from those who will say, “We don’t want his kind – the kind that hasn’t sold out 100% for the kids – in our faculty rooms.”

    Preferably, I’ll retire an educator. I’d like to stay in education though hopefully not in teaching. I need to find a job that doesn’t impose entry-level status on my entire career.

  18. Careful, Dan – you’re on the way to burnout. Having been there, it wouldn’t be pretty for you or your wife. :-(

    I’m teaching only half a timetable this year now that I’m E-Learning Staff Tutor at my school. I’m fairly sick of the politics, the ‘you can never do enough’ culture and fact that I don’t get paid enough for my wife to be able to stay at home and look after our son full-time.

    As you say, in any other job where you worked as hard as the majority of us in the edublogosphere, you’d get a lot more perks and pay.

    But then, it’s not about that. The reason I haven’t given up teaching and am in my fifth year is because of the students. They’re great. Indoctrinated with false gods about assessment and ‘real learning’, but great nonetheless.

    You have to know your limits, Dan. It’s hard on a dark morning in November to haul yourself out of bed when you know you’ve got a ton of marking awaiting you at school, performance management forms to fill in, and parents wondering why little Jimmy didn’t do so well on his last test.

    The work you’ve done so far is outstanding. You’ve proved your credentials – now’s the time to be able to sustain it, keep your mental and physical health, and focus on the important things in life outside school!

  19. I’m not in this job for the kids.

    I just want to get that out there so that, if I’m going to be caught in this self-absorbed stance, at least it won’t be under false pretenses.

    The kids are a big part of what I enjoy about this job but they are far from the only reason (and they are far from the most important reason) I’ve stuck with teaching for five years.

    Let me also be clear that I’m not burning out. I’m doing the most satisfying work of my career. No resistance from kids. Total support of my administration. Even my stubborn, recalcitrant department is making huge strides towards collaboration.

    But all of this achievement I’m coordinating in all my classes takes time and, especially, skill. It takes time to disaggregate and assess Algebra by concepts, time to track individual student and class averages and remediate material in fresh ways while at the same time challenging students who have already mastered the entry level material.

    Time and skill. Most jobs pay for that and pay more for more of it. I love teaching kids and if I ever leave the classroom I’ll miss them. But there are lot of things I could love in a lot of other jobs.

    Rhetorical questions:

    1. In what other jobs does affection for the customer base pass for compensation?

    2. Which potential teaching candidates will teaching’s compensation plan (which is to say, no accountability, no options for advancement, no pay for merit, pay that doesn’t keep pace with inflation) repel? (Hint: me, and Teach for America grads after they’ve served their two year commitment.)

  20. Dan, if you love what you do and you are doing what you love, then there shouldn’t be a problem. Money won’t buy you happiness or even rent it for very long. Yes, you’ve had to work hard to do all the things you do but, if you aren’t satisfied with what your return is, then maybe you need to reevaluate what it is you are doing. As you say,” I’m not burning out. I’m doing the most satisfying work of my career. No resistance from kids. Total support of my administration. Even my stubborn, recalcitrant department is making huge strides towards collaboration.” and you aren’t happy, then get out because it won’t get any better. To be a change agent, you have to be willing to put in those long hours, do the things others don’t/won’t do, question and push, learn, reflect and change because it is what you want to do. 20 years ago when I started, I hated the job but I put in a few more years. It took some twists of life for me to decide that making money wasn’t going to drive what I did.
    Today, I spend quite a bit of time trying to create lessons that pull my students beyond the mundane, helping those who need help, questioning those who seek for easy answers and exploring a world that is bristling with activity. I differentiate for those who need it, track how the students are doing and try to make learning more than showing up and being spoken at. At the same time, I coach all year long, I sit on various committees, I work on different projects at the school and division level and all while leading a staff of 25 to embrace the changes that are taking place, dealing with the students who are having behavioural problems and doing the managing work needed to run a school plus supervising 6 new teachers and mentoring a new vice-principal. Are there days I feel tired and don’t leap out of bed to face what is coming? You bet. But, if I didn’t truly draw satisfaction from what I do each day, I’d be out in no time and employed the next day. I don’t wear any of what I do as a badge of honour or want someone to hand me a stupid superman cape because I usually don’t list the things I do as I’m not looking for any sympathy. I don’t complain about it because I chose to do it and I’m a big boy so I know what the ramifications will be for the decisions I make. There are times of frustration and days I want to walk away but that comes with any job.
    I’m a husband and a father to 7, soon to be 8, children and try to attend as many different functions as I can. I’ve learned that quantity is not quality and moments around the supper table are as precious and vital as those expensive vacations to somewhere else – I’ve experienced both. It’s what you do with the time you spend with the people that makes all the difference.
    There have been those who advise you to buck up and stick it out and take care of yourself or that administration isn’t doing their job if you aren’t being taken care of. For all that, you know what the costs are and what it takes so, make a decision and then, once made, get on with life. Too many people spend too much time bemoaning the fact that they work too hard and don’t get paid enough, not just teachers.
    I wasn’t called to this profession either and didn’t get into it to save the world or be with children. I really didn’t expect to actually do any teaching. Today, after much hard work, long hours and dedication I am a good teacher, a good administrator and a great father and husband. But I chose this knowing all along what it was going to cost because I know what type of person I am and what I expect from myself.
    A while back, you made some pretty interesting remarks about what kind of administrator I must be and we’ve traded jibes on various occasions. I’ve 20 years in this game and been in all types of classrooms and taught at a variety of grade levels. In the past five years, I haven’t taught the same subject twice but that doesn’t mean I don’t do my absolute best because that is what I would expect from someone else.
    You know the price and you know what you will expect from yourself. Only you can decide if it is worth it. But, once you make that decision, then live with it and do what you are comfortable doing and will allow you to look in the mirror in the morning and be satisfied with the person looking back. If that isn’t happening, move on.

  21. Oh, I won’t – don’t sweat it. It’s just that he’s the one that has at least some power to pay you more – but that always comes with more responsibility.

    When I began my teaching career I was amazed that a person could ever bring in over $1,600 a month. 16 hundred bucks! Cha-ching!

    A year later and a house mortgage under my belt and I realized that this kind of gig wouldn’t last at the salary I was earning (color me quick). So I went to my principal, made my case and he gave me additional after-school assignments that helped to increase my pay. Eventually a Master’s Degree came along (all paid for through a state grant – which my principal helped me to get), and then an assignment to be the school tech (teaching half time and tech-ing half time). The pay still stunk but I was able to get by.

    The truth is, I was happy because in that time I realized that A) I was good at teaching, B) my students actually needed me, and C) I was in a career that could pay the bills without spending my life chasing money.

    My point here is that if you really want to stick it out in teaching, your principal can be the key to a higher salary. Playing the game by earning a Master’s doesn’t hurt either.

    For what it’s worth. Best of luck, either way.

  22. Shrewd stuff there, Darren. For whatever it’s worth, though, this isn’t just about teaching’s low base salary. It’s about:

    a) teaching’s low base salary,
    b) teaching’s undifferentiated salary (I don’t know how not to feel weird making the same [or less] as teachers who phone it in),
    c) teaching’s stagnant career trajectory.

    I’m less concerned about (a) than (c), which you seem to have resolved with your hybrid tech / teacher role. That’d buy me off for a long while (though not in tech where I have neither the skill or the interest). I’d gladly hop into the role of a teacher / data analyst, a teacher / instructional coach, or a teacher / curriculum designer. Just some position where I can differentiate, distinguish, and more importantly to me than anything else I’ve written in this post, challenge myself.

  23. Dan,
    Let me tell you how much reading your blog has meant to me. The work we do each day in the classroom is only a fraction of what we do. Working with colleagues, parents, involving ourselves in professional development are all part of the profession of educator. I enjoy and fill enriched by each and every part of this job. Okay, that is stretching it to include the parent conferences. But reading your blog has helped put what I do in perspective. I teach first grade. Those of you who teach high school will eventually have my students in your classrooms. They come to me with full imagination, confidence that they will succeed, and no understanding of what they are incapable of achieving. I build on that confidence and encourage their curiosity. Between your high school classrooms and my first grade classroom something happens. Life experiences, including many classrooms, good and bad. I read your latest blog about observing other classrooms in your school. Have you ventured into a middle school classroom, or even an elementary classroom. I find it very interesting whenever we work as a staff, K-5th, to articulate a subject or standard. Where our kids come from to where they need to go gives me both affirmation and guidance. I feel better about my part in the spectrum of a child’s education. This knowledge helps get me through those days when I feel all I do is manage behaviors. Anyway I hope you keep blogging, you do a great job getting your ideas out there, and keeping your sense of humor. As I often tell my principal, if I didn’t have fun doing this job, why would I work so hard. I have never had a job in my life that I did not consider fun, this one included.

  24. This is quite tangential to your post, Dan, but I’ve been kicking around simple (SIMPLE) ideas about how to beef up teacher salary. Seems to me that a general raise competitive with cost of living is only the first step. What about

    a) Overtime. Seriously. I mean, if you’re going to buy into the blue-collar model of employment for teaching via unions, shouldn’t we be buying into the entire model?

    b) Hazard pay. Do you know how much deep-sea oil drillers make? Or how much my engineer friend was offered to work for 2 years in Baghdad? There’s at least as much danger in some of the crime-ridden sections of Rochester, much less San Fran.

  25. Dan – I guess it’s better to be shrewd than to be Schrute. :)

    Dina – I don’t think your comment is tangential to Dan’s post at all (or at least not to this comment thread). And hazard pay? I seriously don’t see why we don’t fight for that more. We work in a bona fide petri dish and for $3.35 an hour.

    Hazard pay indeed, laced with a dose of worker’s comp and a side of “Wow, I’m sure glad that freak with the switch-blade isn’t in my class.”

    Just one more reason to head out to Philly and start working for Chris.