Dissent Of The Day

Johanna, commenting on my departure from classroom teaching for graduate study:

I am going to be the gadfly in your comments nook. Why? Because I think it’s sad when leaving the classroom is considered a step up. Because your students are losing one heck of a teacher. Because too many inspirational teachers leave the classroom, burn out, or check out.

I don’t know where we got the idea that leaving students to some (possibly) less-able teacher is so laudable. I see this time and again. Stellar teachers come, they leave. Each rung above Direct Student Instruction comes ribboned with the prize called “Increased Status”. Just look at the comments on this thread. You’re leaving the classroom, and it’s as if you’ve won the lottery!

You’ll have time now to rare back in a comfortable chair and think. The bell won’t ring, papers won’t pile up, you don’t have small kids of your own to pick up. All well and good, no fault there. But you left the classroom. Too many good teachers do. Why you did, and what that gesture means for the rest of the teaching profession has implications far beyond a newsletter goodbye.

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. I would argue strongly that the ultimate goal in pursuing graduate education is not to leave the students in less capable hands but rather, ultimately, to be there for the students at the college level.

    I say this as someone pursuing a graduate education in the History of Science while simultaneously seeking a full-time teaching position and subbing for nearly two years. If the school system continues to cut teacher jobs so vigorously that a highly qualified recent graduate like me ends up teaching as a graduate assistant before I ever get a high school classroom, that is their loss and no fault of my own.

  2. I recall leaving a similar message during an earlier planned leaving (last year’s? or the planning stages of it?)

    Also asked this question very seriously at one of our staff meetings when looking over my district’s new plans to offer “different career paths” to teachers (as part of merit/performance pay). Why do we keep taking the best teachers out of the classroom and installing them as managers? (I could ask this innocently, as a first year (though older) teacher.) Wouldn’t it be better to take the mediocre or worse teachers out, let them be coaches — they can do paperwork, attend meetings, do whatever it is that coaches do — and who knows, they might be better observers/managers than they are classroom teachers.

    It’s an upside down model, as far as I can tell. The idea of sabbatical years is fantastic, though. What better than to regroup, think, observe, learn, take or teach classes (to other teachers) after every 3-5 years of teaching? Heck, make it two years — and divide the time between being a coach/mentor/observer and the research/reading/thinking time.

  3. I can’t argue with Johanna. I mean I’m only about to start my first year teaching but I’ve found over and over again the best teachers leaving to do other so called better things. Why are we not instead saying (as the best teachers) “No I will not leave my classroom. I became a teacher to help kids. THIS is the best job.”

  4. Mickey,

    I mean this with sincerity and respect. Why is “being there” for students at the college level any more important than being there for kids at the kindergarten, 7th grade, or high school level?


  5. We do need to keep good teachers in the classroom and I truly hope that Dan is planning a temporary absence, for all the reasons stated above.

    As a math teacher educator, I’d like to believe that working with teachers can have a tremendous, albeit indirect, benefits for students. I’m a recent reader of dy/dan, but I can see that he has the potential to think big in terms of change at the secondary level. Spreading his personal version of mathematics enthusiasm and creativity to his generation of secondary math teachers is a very exciting prospect indeed.

    My best examples from K-8 land are Marilyn Burns and Deborah Ball, who “sort of” left the classroom. BUT, the important part is that both continued to interact with kids continually as they worked on curricular and professional development with teachers. One year, Marilyn even arranged her traveling and other work schedule in order to partner with a classroom teacher to be THE math teacher for that one class. Deborah has also partnered with a nearby school to allow her regular teaching assignments. The work of both women has always been grounded in a “how does this work in the real classroom” component.

    So, Dan, it’s an exciting opportunity to think of someone doing for secondary math what these two women have done for the K-8 classrooms. Best of luck and I hope that dy/dan will keep us upraised of the new developments.

  6. Agree: Talented educators need to be incentivized to stay in the classroom. Or outside of a explicit incentive structure: great teachers need to feel good about a choice to stay in the classroom.

    But: Talented educators are needed at all levels. We just don’t have nearly as many fantastic teachers as we need. To get a radically greater number of great teachers, we need people who know what it takes in places where they can effect broader change. As principals, as superintendents, as education researchers, as education school faculty, as entrepreneurs, as politicians — people who truly get good teaching need to be at all levels.

    We need great teachers. We also need people who will give us even more great teachers.

  7. First of all, I want to commend both Johanna and Dan for putting this out there. Brave on both parts. My initial reaction to hearing that Dan was “moving on” was similar–sadness and a bit of frustration–and that’s coming from someone who made the same choice two years ago.

    I see Johanna’s point in her challenging the idea that leaving the classroom for a doctorate is laudable and how this is wrapped up in status, but I do think she’s making some assumptions. First of all, I would guess that Dan would get lots of “good lucks” for any change, and these may have less to do with him moving on to perceived greener pastures and more to do with the fact that change is scary and exciting and we as humans like giving and receiving reassurance.

    Secondly, I really can’t say how much status has to do with Dan’s decision. For me, I will be completely honest and say that status definitely played a role in my decision to go to graduate school, specifically because someday I want to start a school and I just didn’t see this as feasible from a fundraising/charter writing perspective without having an advanced degree (now I know plenty of people have started charter schools without doctorates, but I’m interested in a relatively radical school environment). And I want to be a part of starting a school because I want the opportunity to teach in a way that I think is valuable and missing from the landscape. So Johanna, don’t write Dan off as permanently leaving the classroom and Dan, don’t write yourself off.

    While Dan is probably the only person who really knows how much status played a role in his decision, the fact that getting a doctorate is a step up from being a classroom teacher is a problem with society, not Dan. While I agree that we need great teachers (ignoring the fact that calling/assuming Dan is a great teacher brings up status issues in and of itself), but we also need great curriculum writers and teacher educators.

    I also think there could be room for people to be both classroom teachers and formal researchers (I think every classroom teacher is an informal researcher, trying new things out and evaluating their effectiveness). I’m not sure how well this role fits into the current paradigm of schools, though. I taught full-time last year while in my first year of an EdD program (a big part of why I chose an EdD program over a PhD program…ah, more status issues) and part-time this past year. Next year I’ll be returning to the classroom to teach full-time and conduct research in my own classroom for my dissertation. Finding a place to do this was EXTREMELY DIFFICULT. Granted, the economy is different, but my job offer to interview ratio was much higher when I was fresh out of college with no teaching experience 11 years ago looking for teaching jobs than this past year when I was job hunting with 11 years of experience and a master’s degree (status, status, status, status).

    Anyway, I’m rambling so I’ll stop there.

  8. Outstanding. Johanna’s comment piqued my interest when I first saw it come up back on the other thread and I’m glad you’ve given it the room is deserves here. Having said that, I think she’s right with regards to the power we give credentialing and the extensive cheerleading in your comments. But, she also presents a false choice. This isn’t either/or zero sum stuff. There are many ways of being in education and Dan Englender is spot on here, as are many of your other commentators. We need good teachers in many places, and we need even better learners.

    I say all of this with a heavy and confused heart as well, having made the same move (I like to think of it not as a step up or down, but more to the side) myself last year. My own decision was complex and multifactorial, but I can say I could no longer pay lip-service to a structure and system that I only partially believed in. And so it goes. For me, this past year of doctoral work has been…different. I think that’s my larger point here.

  9. Joe: For me, this past year of doctoral work has been…different. I think that’s my larger point here.

    That’s probably the most I’m hoping for.

    Johanna’s comment is great. The calculus of this decision was really tricky at the same time.

  10. For whatever it’s worth to anybody, as I weighed the options, I never figured a doctoral program to be a departure from classroom teaching. This doctoral program is my marriage to classroom teaching.

    Consider my professional wanderlust, which is evident in every fifth post on this blog, along with my excitement, ambition, interest, and inclination towards a lot of jobs that aren’t classroom teaching. I’ve been a bachelor all these years. I’ve resisted commitment and embraced professional hedonism.

    So here now is a commitment to four-plus years studying the business of classroom teaching and then, with that experience, doing whatever I can to help classroom teachers better themselves, their students, and enjoy their jobs more. Melodramatic or not: this choice, for me, was a commitment to classroom teaching until death do us part.

  11. Hey Dan and Everyone Else,

    Big-G Gratitude on the insights and for rounding out the lines on this one. I can appreciate the points about mining the depths of your teaching practice and bringing those depths to some sort of fruition (or compost). (P.S. I hope it’s fruit, Dan.)

    I wish your marriage to be like the one of Baucis and Philemon. All the best.


  12. @Johanna’s question for Mickey:

    I don’t think anyone at any point in time said, or implied, that:
    ” “being there” for students at the college level [is] any more important than being there for kids at the kindergarten, 7th grade, or high school level”

    All kids need someone to be there for them. All students deserve good teachers, whether they are starting out in kindergarten, or they’re in community college. I even think the kids shelling out the big bucks at a private school deserve great teachers. While there are many equity issues we could get into about the distribution of quality educators that I’m glossing over, what I really want to say is that there is no level at which it is “more important” to have good teachers. Every age level deserves to have better.

    As far as I see it, as a professional, you’ve got to make the decision to be there for kids–of whatever age–in whatever way makes the most sense to you at the time. At different stages in your career this might mean different things. I believe that people need to grow or they become stagnant. I believe this of adults as well as of students. If someone needs to grow in a way that takes him/her out of the classroom, and that’s what is best at this time, more power to them for making the change. If they are leaving for some other reason…who am I to make that kind of call?

    I think it’s kind of silly to judge Dan, or any teacher, for his or her choices in this matter. And I mean that in both the positive and negative direction. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with wishing someone the best as they move on to a new phase.

  13. Jill Backlund

    June 16, 2010 - 8:51 pm -

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been reading Dan’s blog for about a month and have an entire year’s worth of inspiration. I’ll be entering into my 9th year of teaching and hope Dan can continue to contribute. The one thing I think we’ll miss is his commentary on how things went in his class when he tried this or that. Oh, and Dan, thanks for being awesome!

  14. They can pry my classroom position from my cold, dead hands. That said, I do laud those who seek to bring change on a wider plain. If I had the inclination (or the talent) to want to make district-wide changes, I know I’d need a PhD just to get anyone at that level to listen to what I had to say…

  15. @Johanna,

    As Breedeen pointed out, I don’t think it’s necessarily more important for great teachers to be present at the college level than at any other point in a student’s career. I was simply indicating that leaving primary and secondary education with an eye towards teaching at the college level deprives students of nothing in the long run. Most doctoral students will teach classes – so many in fact that the use of ABDs as cheap labor has frequently been cited as a problem in higher education.

    Moreover, there is nothing about having earned a PhD that prevents anyone from going back to teaching secondary or primary students. Would that every kindergarten teacher could be a developmental psychologist, every AP Physics teacher trained as an astronomer, and every math teacher a cryptographer.

    If I have learned nothing else from two years in other peoples’ classrooms it is that students respond enthusiastically to expertise and a willingness to engage with them and the material.

  16. I can’t argue with impassioned support for kids here and now, but I’ll add this meditative note: just imagine Mr. Meyer’s classroom if he’d had ed teachers like the one Dr. Meyer will be. We’d need exponents for that calculation. And imagine the classrooms of Dan’s cohort.

    As a math ed student, I depend on electrosocial beacons like Dan and his many colleagues to urge me to think in ways that will make a difference in my own teaching. For me, paying attention to these lightning-bright perspectives on mathematics and math education is an essential, supplementary activity to my teacher-school education that will improve the shot I take at making a difference with my own kids, then and there.

  17. “Moreover, there is nothing about having earned a PhD that prevents anyone from going back to teaching secondary or primary students.”

    Sorry, Mickey. No go.

    It is the exceptionally rare– near absent, I would say– educator who can return to the public classroom with a Ph.D. and have it be of use systemically and/or compensated adequately. In my district, there are no avenues in which a Ph.D. purchases you opportunities to put that in-depth training to use while still maintaining a teaching relationship with kids. It’s admin or nothing.

    A Ph.D. simply placed back in a standard classroom role (provided they even hired you, as you would be a financial liability) does not even compensate fiscally; it nets you at most 10% (pre-tax, by the way) of what you paid to get the thing, with no other tuition reimbursement or paid leave.

    Dan’s skill and purity of heart notwithstanding, and false dichotomies duly acknowledged, his move effectively means that he will never be a K-12 classroom teacher again. And he has stated himself numerous times over the years that if the profession were, indeed, *professional,* it would have delayed his departure.

    The only response I have to that is grief.

  18. The teaching profession is set up so that teaching is a low-grade profession, probably because it had become more of a career for women, who are easily imposed upon. Some things that need to change to stop this lack of respect are:
    1. Much higher pay, going consistently higher for the more successful years a teacher has;
    2. Having more teacher-overseer positions (middle management) opportunities instead of just becoming a principal as a promotion these positions can have less classroom time, perhaps either extremely remedial, or highly advanced, students and more training opportunity;
    3. Having the ability to attend good graduate programs without leaving the classroom – perhaps attending during the summer with some online opportunities?

    No matter how much they are needed, teachers are taken advantage of to be expected to always receive a low salary and then refuse opportunities to do better for themeselves and their families.

  19. I have sort of done Dan’s route. I taught math for 8 years then went back to school for the Math Ed masters. Taught math at the college level for 10 years then back to high school teaching. Then back for the PhD in Ed. I bagged out on the PhD after 1 year. What a waste of time. I was hoping to improve my teaching skills but the PhD consisted primarily of reading other peoples theories unsupported by real experience. When some some fancy research article that everybody claims is a seminal work was written by someone with 3 years of high school teaching experience, I begin to wonder. Teaching at the college level, for me, was terrible. I taugh intro math courses; PreCalc, Stats, etc. I really did not have time to teach. With 8 or 9 people teaching the same subject it was required we all be on the same schedule teaching the same topics. There is no time for real investigation by the students. I also taught the Elementary Math Methods course for prospective elementary teachers one year. And I thought high school students whine a lot. Of the 30 or so students in the class, maybe 5 wanted to be teachers, the others just wanted summers off. They simply did not understand the teaching was hard work with low pay and huge personal satisfaction. I am back in the high school classroom with too much work, no money and extremely happy.

    Good luck Dan, you will be back.

  20. The foregoing is example #4589723 of how problematic the horizontal structure of the teaching–NOT education–profession is. Paired with a previous post that touched upon the awful nature of the evaluation system both teachers and administrators are abused by, and you see a system that is incapable of:
    1) rewarding achievement;
    2) providing meaningful professional growth;
    3) incorporating the type of symbolic/ monetary signposts that smart, ambitious, talented folks (i.e. the kind of person I want to teach with, the kind of person I want to hire, the kind of person I’d want my and your kids taught by) desire.

    Dan (or me, or you) gets good at that there teaching gig, and then… what? Seriously, what? Do it again and again and again, in 55-minute chunks, constantly calling upon that thing that lives in your heart and head to keep getting better, OR go do something else. Grad school. The AP’s office. Consulting.

    That either-or sucks. For kids. For Dan (or me, or you). For schools and the families they serve.

    But that either-or will persist until we create meaningful pathways for advancement within the teaching (again, NOT education) profession, pathways that don’t automatically and by definition require leaving the classroom, even temporarily, even while making protestations that, like, really, you’ll be back one day.

  21. As I think about your departure from the classroom, I find myself reflecting on my own departure to pursue doctoral studies. I taught secondary math for 8 years before leaving the classroom to work with teachers. I came across many individuals who felt like I was “abandoning” teaching. The popular comments were, “math education need teachers like yourself”or “what will happen to the students who really benefit from your teaching?” Knowing that I can reach more students by reaching more teachers, my question to others became “what about the teachers who could really benefit from my successful experiences as a classroom teacher?”

    I’ve been out for a couple of years and I admit, there are times that I miss working with students. There are times working in administration was less fullfilling than teaching students. However, it was those moments when I had teachers recognize better ways to engage students in learning that made leaving the classroom all more purposeful.

    Good luck in your studies and have you decided what your research focus will be yet!

  22. Andrew Nicholson

    June 17, 2010 - 11:20 am -

    While I understand the desire on Dan’s part to do a PhD and to understand teaching better, I have misgivings about the choice. The thing I respected about Dan’s prior postings was that he had an “iron in the fire” and was practicing what he was preaching. Too often PhDs become divorced from reality.

    Hopefully, enough teachers will hold his feet to the fire as they try to emulate his lead. Best wishes Dan.

  23. Hah, this is good for me to read (I’m one year out of college) as my plan is to do a lot of other things first, then “retire” into classroom teaching when those other avenues have been exhausted.

  24. Dina, I kind of agree with Garth. There is no reason you can’t go back to teaching in public schools as long as you don’t mind the lack of income. Obtaining a PhD in something relevant, like curriculum, or expertise in your field of teaching, could be useful in the classroom – you’d have more tools to use.
    Rather than the intense reading of other’s studies that Garth mentioned, I think it would be good to branch out on new thoughts, line them out in a curriculum, test them on actual classrooms, and incorporate them in such a way as to make them implementable for many different types of teachers. Then, go back to the classroom, teach it, and see if anything needs retweaking.
    So, you’d constantly be in the classroom, then out, then in, etc. Until you’re decrepit and have a deep body of knowledge with which to become a doddering old professor at some university.

  25. Michelle, with no facetiousness intended– sounds like heaven. When you find a district that is willing to support such a professional, instead of a district that tells them (as Rafe Esquith so poignantly documented in his first book) that they can’t hire that person again once they’ve left, please let me know.

    Also, “as long as you don’t mind the lack of income” is far too casual for this conversation, I’m afraid. It sounds worrisomely like the currently popular rhetoric of “real teachers shouldn’t care about money.” I’ll let the needs of my two growing children, aging widowed mother, and disabled brother speak as testimony against that statement.

  26. I totally agree with the money part, witness my earlier above comment. Teachers probably need to have a major strike to change – how did we ever get trapped into this low-income situation? Do we care more about others’ children than they do? I bet if every teacher decided to not come in, districts and their constituents would cave.

    However, in that last part, where I live a person would always be hired back if they did a good job. Why wouldn’t they? What was their reasoning?

    Of course, smaller places are better for that, where people know you.

  27. This whole thread takes me back to a conversation with my late father-in-law. When I planned to marry his daughter he questioned me about my plans for the future. I was changing careers INTO teaching – 15 years later I’m still loving it, and I’m still frustrated that my sisters in law and brothers in law ALL earn BONUSES that are larger than my annual salary!

    It frustrated me to realize during that conversation with my father in law … that in my chosen career … the only way to be considered as having ambition, in the eyes of someone in a “real profession” (law, medicine, engineering …) is to leave it and move on …….

    I wish Dan the best … and will miss him. Although I just found him (via TED) He inspired and re-energized my outlook on my 9th grade conceptual physics course …

    Good luck Dan … you will be missed … by more than just your future students ….


  28. Good Luck Dan, it looks like you will need it.

    You obviously are more than a classroom teacher always have been. You reached out and touched people with the simple questions like “What Can You Do With this?” We responded by discovering that whining and complaining about piss poor textbooks did nothing, but a simple picture of a measuring cup could incite imagination.

    Go to grad school discover why what we know intuitively to be true, that real math can and should be taught in the classroom.

    What I hate most about teaching and why I am working towards my administration degree is that I can only teach in one classroom, I can only coach a few teachers, my reach is just too limited. I need a bigger stick to make these people listen. We need to change the way we teach or we might as well just forget about it.

    So go get your doctorate and see what you can do with that.

  29. Dan,


    Just felt the need to jump in with a post-script to my original post. If I know you at all (and I think that you have given us all quite an important insight into your psyche) you may be tempted to take some of these posts personally … PLEASE DON’T …

    At least for me … my comments are not a criticism of your decision … but rather a commentary on the current American Educational system that requires moving out of the classroom to be part of career advancement.

    Maybe someday that may change … maybe someday we will be closer to the social/professional status enjoyed by teachers in some European countries, or have the 1:1 planning to student contact time of many Japanese schools … maybe ….

    Best of luck …

    I look forward to seeing more of you in the future, of benefiting from your leadership once you find your new level.

    Best regards, (and many thanks for all of your dedication, excessive hours planning for your students and most of for taking the aditional time to share all of this with us in an inspiring way)


  30. It isn’t the PhD that gets the salary. PhD-level positions in universities often pay less than starting-level wages for teachers (look at the postdoc salaries sometime). Even university faculty with PhDs and 28 years of teaching and research experience in engineering make less than an assistant superintendent.

    indicates that in Dan’s county, there are 23 administrators at County Office of Education making over $100k a year.
    There are hundreds of full professors at UCSC making less than that http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/ci_13741287

    The purpose of getting a PhD is to do research or to teach at a university. Only rarely will it get you an entrance any where else.

  31. DanSo here now is a commitment to four-plus years studying the business of classroom teaching and then, with that experience, doing whatever I can to help classroom teachers better themselves, their students, and enjoy their jobs more. Melodramatic or not: this choice, for me, was a commitment to classroom teaching until death do us part.

    Well said. Just finished my third year teaching and I’ve decided to go half and half. So next year (and years thereafter), I’ll be teaching three classes and taking roughly 9-12 credits of doctoral classes a year. At some point I’ll have to “leave” the classroom, but this was a temporary compromise.

    Best of luck!