Upon hearing that he was going to be working under an extremely unpleasant leader after several years with a strong one, a wise friend of mine once said, “I am going to grow so much as a professional.”
In that spirit, I am currently making leaps and bounds, professionally. However, what I’m learning now is not the sort of work I’d ever list on my resume and I occasionally refer to it as the doldrums, purgatory, or working on the dark side of the moon. I’m learning, first hand, how good employees go bad, how dedication becomes discouragement and urgency disintegrates into apathy.
For the last ten years, I’ve worked hard, with focus, discipline, and little understanding for those who didn’t share my ethic. I was a purposeful student before that for as long as I can remember, the sort of kid whose notion of misbehavior was surreptitiously reading a novel. In college, the only time I missed a class was when I was on the operating table having an appendectomy. As a classroom teacher, I settled on working 7 to 6 as a “reasonable” day. I would routinely teach an extra hour before and after school and, after my first year, I never had a teacher desk in my room. Now, I’m sitting here on company time, writing this blog.
Yet, I think this was precisely the lesson I needed.
Some of my greatest learnings about how to be a good teacher came from an awful two semesters of reading methods classes. Not by the negative example of the instructor, but by experiencing life as a “bad” student and understanding how they see the classroom. What, specifically, would push me to disengage? What did I hope for or wait for to reinvest? How did attitude influence the quality of my reading and writing for this class? How did I behave to signal my discontent? What did I do to cope? Certainly, I will never truly appreciate the deep sense of failure and hopelessness that befalls some of my students after years of struggle, but knowing how it feels to be on the margin, to lean and teeter off the edge of focus and effort, was a valuable experience.
Now, I’ve found myself similarly pushed to the margin and past, into the realm of being an apathetic and nonproductive worker. First, my time and place in the school was devalued. Without any explanation, my yard duty times were quadrupled, in a land where labor costs are almost insignificant. Then I was moved from a desk in the library, a hub of our school, to the basement. The rationale was solely and admittedly one of aesthetics, despite its damage to my routines and effectiveness. Requests for administrative help in encouraging teachers to try the new, potent tools I had developed were rejected. I was instructed to help the teachers do worthless projects, if that’s what they wanted. Soon after, my workload was doubled and my time halved, as my partner teacher was moved back to the classroom and I received new and contradictory mandates. Coaching relationships with struggling teachers, built carefully across the first quarter of the year were instantly destroyed. My time to team-teach and innovate, the most enjoyable and effective part of my job, disappeared. Soon, most of the curriculum I had produced last year was shelved, as teachers' confidence in and enthusiasm for technology inevitably waned to the bone. I tired of asking for support and saw that, among the many issues of our school, mine were just never going to be addressed.
Like a child not turning in his homework for the first time, I slowly stopped working so hard. There was no encouragement nor reprimand, no comments from teachers nor administrators, no one has even seemed to notice. In short: it became clear that my work and place had been marginalized in everyone else’s eyes, and then it inevitably did the same in my own. Now, I satisfy the requirements of my job, I meet only with the teachers who want to work with me and I offer only the resources they want to use. The creativity, the urgency and the joy of my work are largely gone, yet everyone except me seems quite satisfied.
I’m trying to take as much “professional growth” as possible away from this experience, to employ if I become a leader of teachers. I understand, much more deeply, the importance of offering all teachers an environment of transparency and consistency, honest and explicit communication, support and validation in pursuit of their goals, and, most of all, the confidence that their work is urgent and important. While working for the Man helped me appreciate many of these lessons, I only understood them as aspirations. Now, having worked without them, I realize that they are absolute requirements.
More importantly, I have come to realize that hiding among the ranks of the apathetic and discouraged there may be great workers, innovators, and leaders, anxious for a new job, another opportunity to stride, to lift themselves out. I don't think I ever could have believed this until it happened to me.
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