a tale of two teachers

This is a description of last week in the life of two teachers. The second teacher is the one to remember.

The first teacher is me

Last week I accepted Ash Kaluarachchi‘s kind annual invitation to serve as a “shark” for startup founders at EdTech Week in New York City. It’s always great to see so many bright, dedicated people trying to solve problems and improve learning with innovative ideas. As usual, among all of the entrepreneurs, executives, consultants, creatives, advisors, and investors, I was the only currently practicing teacher. I listened to founders’ pitches and I helped them understand the K12 environment.

It is often difficult for business people – even former teachers – to empathize with the experiences of teachers and students in classrooms today. The two environments and cultures are so different. It’s hard to teach. It’s even harder to teach and do other things at the same time, especially if those things require (a) a lot of mental bandwidth and (b) a deep desire to change the status quo.

This balance has defined the last 30 years of my career. I try to help both public servants and capitalists understand the implications of what we’re all doing to school. So I took a few days away from home, worked even more remotely than usual, and went to meet Ash and company.

Truth be told, it was a hell of a lot more fun than telling a 9th-grader for the 23rd time to put away her phone.

It was exciting to meet in person!

I flew on an airplane with lots of people.

I stayed at a hotel.

I reconnected with old friends I hadn’t seen in years.

And I had a really good sandwich.

Originally I planned to dedicate this week’s blog post to reporting on the people and ideas from the conference. But there is more than one reality here, and unless we address the conditions in which teachers are trying to teach, school will simply be a place where good ideas go to die.

The second teacher is not me

The day after I came back, I picked up a weight rack that I’d bought online from a really nice guy whose fiancée, it turns out, is a second-year teacher.

“How do you like teaching?” I asked her.

She shook her head and stared at the ground. “I think I’m going to quit.”


“I’ve wanted to teach my whole life. And my first year started off great. I was in a first grade classroom with 23 students and a really supportive supervising teacher. But when the school year ended I wasn’t offered a job. The principal told me it was because they couldn’t predict enrollment and they didn’t know if they’d have enough students.

”I had to apply to every district in the county. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to keep my apartment. I couldn’t even get an interview.

“Finally I got an interview and a job offer. At that point I had to take it even though it’s an hour and a half each way from my apartment. I stay with friends during the week. It’s too much driving and I can’t afford the gas anyway.  Now I only see my fiancé once every two weeks. It’s hard on our relationship. My salary is about thirty thousand a year, which is barely enough to pay bills. But we’re strong … he just got back from his second tour in the middle east so I know we’ll make it.

“Actually, I’m really not sure how long I can do this.

“The thing is, this year I have 38 fourth graders and they all have some sort of special need or trauma. And their parents. Last week a girl in my class forgot her water bottle on the playground. I couldn’t let her go back outside by herself – it was 105 degrees – but I planned ahead for moments like this. I bought water bottles for each student and kept them full, so I handed her the one with her name on it.

“Her father came to the school and cussed me out in front of all the students and their parents. He jabbed me in the chest with his finger and told me he was going to beat the shit out of me. Why? Just because I gave his 10-year-old a bottle of water I bought with my own money instead of letting her wander around unsupervised in 110 degree heat by herself?”

She wiped away a tear.

I asked, “Are you ok?”

She seemed surprised by my question. “It’s been a week since that happened and you are the first person to ask me that. Yeah, I guess I’m OK. But I have to park my car away from the public lot, around the back of the buildings so no one sees me walking to or from my classroom. I’m scared every day. I just don’t think I can do this anymore.”

Why this is a Dickens novel

Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities as the story of two protagonists who are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed, against the backdrop of a civilization that was disintegrating in ways that would bring about the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

That’s us, right now.

Every teacher is at risk. We are all one misunderstanding away from being censored, fired, beaten, canceled, or worse.

So, while I am truly grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with innovative entrepreneurs for what I hope is the betterment of our education system and everyone in it, I stay mindful of all my colleagues in classrooms who must calmly and kindly fight for their lives every day.

For decades we’ve had the data that describes and analyzes teacher burnout. We know that teachers “must constantly navigate complicated interactions ‘charged with feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear or despair.’”

As many policy makers and school administrators like to say: “Data drives instruction.” All of the qualitative and quantitative data indicate that teachers are being abused.

There is no more standing by on the playground while the nice kid gets tortured.

Whoever you are, and whatever else you believe or do in life, it is your responsibility to protect and defend our teachers. Start by asking if they are OK.

I strongly believe that technology can improve our systems and practices in learning – but we need people and purpose much, much more. This is not a “yes and.” This is a “first we must.” If we fail our teachers, education technology will be worse than worthless.