Today, I taught my last class. After a decade of teaching, I am hanging up my teaching boots. I am leaving for three reasons. First, I am in a comfort zone, and I find it is extremely uncomfortable. Second, I am increasingly disturbed by the direction of the industry. Third, I am extremely excited about new opportunities.
I leave the industry extremely grateful to (roughly) 2,000 students who helped me find my voice and figure out who I am. There are very few people who are as brutally honest as teenagers and young adults. Their constant feedback helped guide me towards much needed skill development and self-reflection. With the help of some rough-and-tumble teenagers, I transformed from a wide-eyed undergrad to a young adult. If I had not heard the blunt feedback about “not being real” ten years ago, then I would not have been prepared for life’s bumpy ride.
Colleagues at my first two real gigs mentored and molded me to become a well-seasoned instructor. I remember loitering outside of classrooms, listening to my peers paint masterpieces with their lessons. Sitting under their learning tree helped develop me into a better teacher and a better person. They taught me to take chances, understand myself, and how to help others. They helped me set goals – from day-to-day objectives to career moonshots. I am happy to say, I hit every last one of those goals. From student test scores to reviews to letters of recommendation (coming through for students) to watching young people transform into adults – I was objectively good at my job.
Perhaps most importantly, a simple approach to work helped establish my world view. If you do good work, then your brand will take care of itself.
I taught the best course of my life last autumn. Excellent students responded very well to a “best of” syllabus I crafted for a less-than-popular course. Everyone in the course showed remarkable gains, and I strongly believe that their work as undergraduates was as strong as much of the work produced by graduate students at the same institution. At the end of the course, I had left everything that I had in the classroom.
“Beware the comfort zone” is one piece of advice that I have heard from every professional mentor that has taken me under their wing. Last year, I found myself in the comfort zone, and it made be extremely uncomfortable.
Concerns with the Education Industry
Changes within the industry increased my discomfort.
Structures have become shackles. Part of a larger problem with the industry is the way instructors provide feedback to students. The inability to break from the typical A-B-C-D-F model (along with the implication on grade points and scholarships) is extremely limiting to potential educational opportunities. Worse yet, assessment is a double edged sword. On one hand, teachers are cheerleaders for student success. On the other hand, feedback often comes in the “this can be better” vein. I have tried to stay on the encouraging side, but I am finding that the industry’s culture has pushed me towards the latter.
Many of my colleagues in the industry have overwhelmingly negative attitudes – about the industry, the students, and their personal lives. I have found this attitude is difficult to ignore, and the culture is pervasive. In the past, I have submitted to the same negativity. Many in the industry seem to prefer traveling across the country to a conference in order to complain about their students rather than staying in the classroom to improve their kids’ skill set. Complaints about low pay, “strenuous” (20 hour) work weeks, the fight against standards that could try and measure the quality of work in the classroom, and the perpetual shifting of blame is insanity.
As I have transitioned away from the higher ed academic world, the problem seems to lie with the Ivory Tower’s biggest weakness: no one can answer what makes a good scholar. From what I can tell, the business of higher education is peddled primarily by reputation — which fuels the negativity among others. Nearly everyone far from the peak are so concerned with their place within a presumed hierarchy that they spend more time tearing down other rather than building themselves (much less their weakest students) up. Those who seem to have a shot at becoming the “next big thing” are busy producing good research – only to be torn down by their self-conscious peers.
The contemporary education model as a whole rewards the administrators and tenured faculty at the cost of the students. In the current pay-to-play model, it is advantageous for schools to admit students who are unable (e.g. immature) to complete needed coursework — because it is stable cash flow. Considering the high-sticker-price-high-discount model nearly every college uses, some students become cash cows to bankroll schools, especially when they fail multiple courses. This predatory practice is unethical because it preys on the vulnerable. It is surprisingly widespread. Worse yet, the administrators and senior faculty who profit the usually have little time working with these students. Most often, the least qualified carry the largest teaching load — usually working through (or likely unaware) of many weaknesses in their pedagogical approach. Faculty hired based purely on research chops and adjuncts face the most needy students — often with disastrous results. This trend results in poor quality classrooms, under-prepared students, and young people saddled with substantial student loans. Worse yet, the contemporary college campus is a more of a theme park laden with entertainment, far removed from the original intent of learning. Proliferating armies of administrators manage these doodads and special programs, further removing the academy from its purpose. Investments in doodads have irresponsibly inflated college prices, steered many schools into financial turmoil, and fostered a dangerous culture for undergraduates. Not a month goes by without another report of rampant sexual harassment, abuse, and assault on college campuses. When I have brought up fighting this very problem in multiple venues on multiple campuses, those with decision-making power have consistently scoffed at the proposal of actually doing something. Step one would be to admit a problem, but that step potentially undermines the brand, viability, and recruiting capacity of a college campus. Thus we end up at the opposite conclusion as my original training and world view. Instead of focusing on good work building a brand, contemporary academic leaders seem content to focus on branding while ignoring the work at hand. This infatuation by so many is incredibly damaging.
Quite frankly, I am not comfortable working for institutions that saddle students with tens-of-thousands in debt for such little value added. I am not comfortable working for institutions that are so far adrift from what their mission should be.
So I turned to a profession where I could provide value added.
A Brighter Future
Coming up for air from the academic world to normalcy was long overdue. Moving away from the ivory tower was a big scary leap, but I am happier now.
I joined the nonprofit desk at CDW, a technology product and service provider to business, government, education, and nonprofits. On the surface, the position is a sales position; in reality, it is a consultative role where I get to help people who help people. Every day, people in the trenches tell stories of struggle and success. We laugh; we commiserate. More importantly, I help by leveraging a Fortune 500 company’s resources to help people who help people. It is an awesome gig. Nearly every day, I catch myself with a goofy grin on my face. If I can provide a value-add for any of these heroes, then my day is worthwhile.
I look back at the memories from the past ten years (really thirteen, including substitute teaching), and I can not help but smile. I cherish the relationships that I have built; I am thankful to have worked with every student that passed through my classroom. I appreciate even the darkest moments that helped refine who I am. I still love, respect, and admire my friends who remain in education. The grass is too green this side of the fence, so forward I march.
Instead of looking backward, I prefer to look forward. I may have left education because the industry and I grew apart; but I landed in my current role because of who I have become. When I interviewed at CDW, they asked what I wanted in an employer. I answered three basic things: opportunity, ethics, and a positive impact on others. My students, peers, and time in education helped define and clarify the importance of each of those three points. Thank you — all of you — who taught me what is important and to seize opportunities. I can hardly wait to see where this opportunity takes me.