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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Nineteen years ago I joined the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) in Oakland, Calif., and at the end of June I will resign. I've never been through a divorce with a spouse and I don't mean to precisely equate my experience with what I know (as a child of divorce) is an intensely painful experience, but it feels like the closest equivalent as I end the longest professional association of my life.

In OUSD, I taught second through eighth grade with middle school students being my favorite. I helped start the school ASCEND, a phenomenal school, and learned what is possible when a group of people put their heads, hearts and hands together. This experience catapulted me into the awareness that in order to transform schools we'll need to pay a lot more attention to professional development for teachers and leaders. I became an instructional coach, then a leadership coach, and finally an administrator leading a team of coaches.

The memories are a flood of emotions. What stands out are the faces of the kids I taught, the images of their faces as they learned something new, the conversations with their parents, the visits to their homes, the joy of being at their high school graduations, the love I felt for them (swells of gratitude for those opportunities). This is what I'll let be dominant and not the dysfunction.

I no longer feel that what I have to offer can be received in this district. For the last five years, many of the efforts at transformation that I have been involved with have been stifled, dismantled, or shut down without explanation. I live in Oakland, I love this city, and I wanted to retire from this district, but I have to accept that what I want to give -- in the way of school transformation -- can't, at this moment, be received. This was a difficult and painful awareness to land on.

I made my decision to leave in the early winter and since then I've been reflecting on this process of separation. I thought I'd offer some suggestions for how to divorce your district in case you're contemplating such a decision or leaving a meaningful professional relationship.

Know When It's Time to Go

John Gottman, a psychologist renowned for his work on marriage and relationships, says that for a relationship to be healthy, both positivity and negativity are necessary. The magic ratio is five-to-one: in a stable relationship there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative.

So how's your relationship with your school or district? When was the last time you received positive feedback on your work? Are there people who acknowledge your contributions?

In the last few years I've spent far more sleepless nights mulling over some work-related thing (often work-related drama) than over anything else in my life. I shed tears, invented new curse words, and spent hours in therapeutic coaching sessions with a friend trying to sort out my feelings about the district where I've worked. This year I recognized it was time to go. The magic ratio had tipped and there were a pile of other indicators pointing to the door.

Practice Systems Thinking

In difficult moments, we often blame to relieve emotional distress, at least this is my tendency. However, I also know that ultimately this doesn't make me feel better. As much as I'd like to blame a few people in OUSD for putting up barricades to what I'd like to offer the children, teachers, and administrators in this district, ultimately I can't blame any individual.

What relieves the emotional distress is practicing systems thinking -- a conceptual framework for seeing interrelationships and patters of change. (Here's a great resource on understanding systems thinking in education.) Systems thinking gives me perspective, insight, and understanding into the complexity of a large school district. It helps me acknowledge that nothing is personal -- not the barricades nor the lack of appreciation. It's a product of this dysfunctional beast of a system. I can stand back, far back, and say, wow, what a mess. I've seen this for years and have tried to work within it to change it but now it's time to leave.

Tell an Empowering Story

What will seal the emotional deal of my tenure in OUSD is how I choose to interpret my experience. I can tell a story in which I was a victim, unappreciated, and undervalued. Or I can say, "Right now, there isn't the kind of space I need here and so I'm choosing to leave." The way that we interpret difficult experiences is directly correlated to our emotional resilience, to how we bounce back from adversity.

Of my 19 years at my district, I'm going to tell a story in which my students and their parents appreciated me deeply, and in which I led an effort at transformation in one little corner of the district and created a healthy learning space for a group of coaches. I'm going to tell a story where I had agency and made decisions about my work and where I learned a tremendous amount and grew in ways I never expected. I'm going to spend many years telling this story.

Say Goodbye With Gratitude

The sadness I feel in leaving is tightly connected to the mountains of gratitude I feel for having been a part this district, for the people I've met, and for what I've learned. When I think over the years, I focus on remembering my beautiful, brilliant students, and the moments when we were both learning -- in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, as well as in our dingy portables and classrooms. I remember my optimism and excitement when we started ASCEND and I feel voluminous gratitude to those who led that effort. I think of the teachers and principals I coached and am grateful to have been a witness to their learning. I think of my colleagues who have generously pushed, counseled, and advised me; I've been incredibly lucky to have a continuous stream of amazing colleagues. And I think about the team of coaches I've led for the last two years: a group of people who have transformed the way I think about teams, what is possible when we work together, and who helped me discover who I am as a leader. I am so grateful.

When you leave your district, acknowledge the love and contributions.

Find the Humor

Humor has long been my family's antidote for adversity and I drew on that legacy this year. I also find music to be therapeutic and last December I created a "Playlist for Divorcing OUSD" which included, "I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor. In my car as I drove to work, I'd belt out the lyrics, I'm saving all my love for someone who's loving me.../ You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die?/ Oh no, not I.

I also found breakup songs in Spanish to be cathartic. I highly recommend, "Me Voy," by Julieta Venegas, who sings, Porque no supiste entender a mi corazón/ Lo que habia en él / Porque no tuvieste el valor de ver quien soy...Because you didn't know how to understand my heart/ because you didn't have the courage to see who I am...What a shame, but good bye/ I'm saying goodbye and I'm leaving/ Because I know something better is waiting for me/ Someone who knows how to love me... .

These lyrics helped me access the deep emotions and grief that this separation brings up. I'm grateful for this too -- the access allows for release and after the melodrama diminished, I'd laugh at myself.

Step Into the Future

I know that many of us are or have been in unhealthy professional relationships. I've definitely seen a lot of dysfunction and toxicity in the district where I've worked as well as elsewhere. If we're going to transform our schools, we'll need to attend to our relationships within organizations, to the ways we communicate, and how we make decisions and how we recognize and acknowledge strengths and areas for growth. This is the work I'll be doing: developing coaching programs, helping schools and districts become learning organizations in which everyone is engaged in refining their craft, and cultivating emotional resilience amongst educators. I know that if we're going to transform our schools into the kinds of learning places where our children will thrive we need to attend to the culture of the adults who work in schools. It's to this endeavor that I'll continue to offer my services.

My final day as a district employee will be June 30. On that day, I am committed to stepping into the future telling stories of gratitude for the 19 years that we were together and acknowledging that this district will always be a part of me. I'm a much better educator, mother, and human being because of it.

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Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

cperryrun's picture

Elena,

Your story is well written and sounds like an autobiography. Just yesterday I told my "former" co-workers that I felt like I was going through a "divorce" as I am going through a similar process. I chose not to sign a renewal contract as the technology coordinator/instructor because I felt that the administrators' vision and my vision are not in alignment.

Working with technology is especially challenging because of continuous changes, and it can be really frustrating when school leaders are not willing to support technology initiatives.

It sounds like you are taking a positive approach to leaving, but it still must be challenging. Thank you for writing and sharing this insightful article.

Cindy

(1)
Ms.D PTTK's picture
Ms.D PTTK
Urban sixth grade magnet teacher currently in Los Angeles, Ca

I was beginning to think I was among a small number of educators who felt the pain you so clearly articulated. My working environment had become so toxic that my health suffered tremendously; I began to hate going to work. My students were my saving grave along with a small number of likeminded colleagues. Not caring that I was forfeiting District paid benefits, I retired from LAUSD after serving 8 years and moved to Charlotte, NC just this past June. Adjusting to a new teacher hiring system is frustrating and given that I'll be taking a pay and benefit cut, I know I made the right choice for me. Here, schools don't look like prisons and collaboration among staff and students is highly valued. I no longer fit in LAUSD and my students would have only suffered if I stayed. I left with my head held high, respect from the principal, counselors, parents, the Magnet Team, custodial staff, several general Ed teachers, PRIDE Academy (special Ed teachers), cafeteria staff, and most importantly, 8 years of beautiful children! I am educator, a child advocate, a learner... what I'm not and what I refuse to become is a unrecognized and unappreciated dart board!!

(2)
Cassandra Smith's picture

I thank you for your honesty and integrity. I will pass this article along to a young colleague who wants to leave our district but is finding roadblocks to
employment outside the district. You have confirmed my supposition that she has not completed her "work" inside the district. Again, thank you!

grteach05's picture
grteach05
Elementary Math Interventionist

Elena, I appreciate your insight and loved your perspective on this matter. I am a firm believer of a spanish saying "no hay mal que por bien no venga." I am certain by your blog that great things will certainly come your way. While I am not quite ready to "divorce" my district just yet, I found your perspective inspiring and refreshing. Thank you.

(1)
Robin Killoran's picture

I appreciate the clarity and depth of your reflections on all that has brought you to this point. Like you, I have seen the writing on the wall about this being the time to leave and understand that my reasons are rooted not with one (or even several) difficult people, but in a system that is fatally flawed. While I can believe that significant reform can still come, I know that I cannot continue to put in the mental and emotional energy required to continue in this environment. I, too, feel that the experience and skills I have to give, cannot be received (currently) in my district; it makes me very sad. But, I do --as you suggest-- have many positive and powerful stories to recall from my time here, as well as plans to move into a new role in the future. I'm grateful for this article for reminding me that I am not on the journey alone, but that many others are following similar paths.

(2)
nobubele's picture

The timing of this article could not have been more perfect. Thank you for writing this. I am reminded that I am not alone. This year, I also made a decision to leave my district. It was incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing to make that choice. I sit with the words you wrote, "Right now, there isn't the kind of space I need here and so I'm choosing to leave." This absolutely resonates. I am reminded that in order to create the space we need to continue in the work and develop new possibilities, it is critical to allow ourselves to move on when it is time- with gratitude for all that we have experienced. Again, thank you.

(2)
stogsinthecuse's picture

Thank you for sharing this perspective. I am about to divorce my district after this next year. I never dreamed I would leave teaching, even after 30 years. But I feel the way you said it- the education system I work in no longer values and appreciates what I have to offer, and I feel I can make more of an impact from the outside, where I don't have to "be careful" of what I say or do. I will leave with a certain degree of sadness for sure. I had the honor of working in the same district, same school for my whole teaching career, with wonderful, dedicated colleagues over the years. With memorable students, some of whose children I have taught as well. But the focus in education now is not my focus, not my passion, and I feel like what I have to offer is not really wanted. So I will go. I will find new outlets for my passions, and probably not far from students. I am a teacher, and always will be. It's not just what I do, but who I am.

(2)
newvision4youth's picture

What an honest reflection. I thank you for sharing the 5 to 1 ratio of healthy relating. I've seen numerous colleagues leave the profession for reasons mentioned. I salute you for your dedication & years of service.

Kendra's picture

Elena,
I appreciate your story and you are most correct when humor is needed the most. I have experienced the most unhealthy relationship with my administrator and after being so emotionally drained, I too decided to resign this June. I do not blame anyone at all. This came as a complete shock to the district I worked in and I left with no real plan. It is a divorce. I loved my colleagues, students and all of my administrators, but didn't feel the love back when it came down to respecting the hard work and passion that I have for my students. I am now "stepping into the future" with a bigger and better purpose for our educational system.

Kelli's picture

Elena, this article was a gift to me. I am still suffering from my own recent "divorce" from my employer of 10 years, where I started my career and much of my philosophy was shaped. My reasons for departing were similar to yours and those of so many other commenters. I think I can really apply some of your thinking here to reshape my memories and appreciate the many, many positives from my time at that organization. Unfortunately I've allowed the negatives to play in my head like a CD on repeat for several months - even though I have departed and started at a new job! That's not doing me or anyone else any good.

On a related note, though it was such a hard decision to make, I've felt an unexpected sense of liberation and hope in having left. I am doing similar work in a new district, but my mind has been freed to think of even bigger or more outlandish possibilities for my future contributions to education and society since I don't yet have the same attachment to this district as I did to my former one.

(1)
grteach05's picture
grteach05
Elementary Math Interventionist

Elena, I appreciate your insight and loved your perspective on this matter. I am a firm believer of a spanish saying "no hay mal que por bien no venga." I am certain by your blog that great things will certainly come your way. While I am not quite ready to "divorce" my district just yet, I found your perspective inspiring and refreshing. Thank you.

(1)
cperryrun's picture

Elena,

Your story is well written and sounds like an autobiography. Just yesterday I told my "former" co-workers that I felt like I was going through a "divorce" as I am going through a similar process. I chose not to sign a renewal contract as the technology coordinator/instructor because I felt that the administrators' vision and my vision are not in alignment.

Working with technology is especially challenging because of continuous changes, and it can be really frustrating when school leaders are not willing to support technology initiatives.

It sounds like you are taking a positive approach to leaving, but it still must be challenging. Thank you for writing and sharing this insightful article.

Cindy

(1)
Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

Elena,

I just wanted to state the obvious a bit and say how I admire your courage for leaving and for sharing your experience. I can't imagine how hard it was to do but again, thank you. I'm sure this'll help many in your same situation.

(1)
Sea_trail's picture

This is a growing trend. Countless other seasoned teachers nationwide share the same story. However, most cannot find a way to "divorce their districts" because - 1) the economy is still pretty weak in most areas and job opportunities are limited, and 2) state and local districts simply don't care if seasoned teachers leave because this actually benefits their budgets as they replace seasoned teachers with others right out of college who will earn a much smaller salary. In fact, I'm thinking districts are hoping more seasoned teachers will leave because new, less experienced teachers not only earn less but are also less likely to speak up and advocate for the classroom teachers.

(1)
stogsinthecuse's picture

Thank you for sharing this perspective. I am about to divorce my district after this next year. I never dreamed I would leave teaching, even after 30 years. But I feel the way you said it- the education system I work in no longer values and appreciates what I have to offer, and I feel I can make more of an impact from the outside, where I don't have to "be careful" of what I say or do. I will leave with a certain degree of sadness for sure. I had the honor of working in the same district, same school for my whole teaching career, with wonderful, dedicated colleagues over the years. With memorable students, some of whose children I have taught as well. But the focus in education now is not my focus, not my passion, and I feel like what I have to offer is not really wanted. So I will go. I will find new outlets for my passions, and probably not far from students. I am a teacher, and always will be. It's not just what I do, but who I am.

(2)
nobubele's picture

The timing of this article could not have been more perfect. Thank you for writing this. I am reminded that I am not alone. This year, I also made a decision to leave my district. It was incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing to make that choice. I sit with the words you wrote, "Right now, there isn't the kind of space I need here and so I'm choosing to leave." This absolutely resonates. I am reminded that in order to create the space we need to continue in the work and develop new possibilities, it is critical to allow ourselves to move on when it is time- with gratitude for all that we have experienced. Again, thank you.

(2)
Robin Killoran's picture

I appreciate the clarity and depth of your reflections on all that has brought you to this point. Like you, I have seen the writing on the wall about this being the time to leave and understand that my reasons are rooted not with one (or even several) difficult people, but in a system that is fatally flawed. While I can believe that significant reform can still come, I know that I cannot continue to put in the mental and emotional energy required to continue in this environment. I, too, feel that the experience and skills I have to give, cannot be received (currently) in my district; it makes me very sad. But, I do --as you suggest-- have many positive and powerful stories to recall from my time here, as well as plans to move into a new role in the future. I'm grateful for this article for reminding me that I am not on the journey alone, but that many others are following similar paths.

(2)
Ms.D PTTK's picture
Ms.D PTTK
Urban sixth grade magnet teacher currently in Los Angeles, Ca

I was beginning to think I was among a small number of educators who felt the pain you so clearly articulated. My working environment had become so toxic that my health suffered tremendously; I began to hate going to work. My students were my saving grave along with a small number of likeminded colleagues. Not caring that I was forfeiting District paid benefits, I retired from LAUSD after serving 8 years and moved to Charlotte, NC just this past June. Adjusting to a new teacher hiring system is frustrating and given that I'll be taking a pay and benefit cut, I know I made the right choice for me. Here, schools don't look like prisons and collaboration among staff and students is highly valued. I no longer fit in LAUSD and my students would have only suffered if I stayed. I left with my head held high, respect from the principal, counselors, parents, the Magnet Team, custodial staff, several general Ed teachers, PRIDE Academy (special Ed teachers), cafeteria staff, and most importantly, 8 years of beautiful children! I am educator, a child advocate, a learner... what I'm not and what I refuse to become is a unrecognized and unappreciated dart board!!

(2)
Joetta Schneider's picture

Thank you! I've been a teacher-leader at my school for close to 10 years and have felt the same feelings and even come to a very similar conclusion. How validating. As teachers, we wrote for and received over $400,000 in grant funds for our high school of around 900 students. It really was never appreciated in the way we had thought it might or hoped. We helped develop new programs and new curricula; we increased the amount of technology by over 200% and hired a part time tech support person to support all the technology at our school (the county has borrowed her several times!) We brought in community resources all based on our research. We developed a middle school transition program and paid a coordinator to work in our four feeder middle schools. We worked countless hours and never received pay for it. We continued to teach and do our normal jobs. I have shared this with one of the other teachers that feels this same way. We eventually realized that no one sees the educational process the same way that teachers do. At our school, we realized that there are disconnects between departments and between administrators and teachers. There are disconnects at the county office and at the state department. For example, we were given a $300,000 grant by the state to reform education at our school based upon a competitive grant and our innovative ideas. But our county really didn't understand that the money we brought in had a plan attached to it that we were required to implement. It was a teacher devised plan that both school and county admin had signed, but now we think perhaps never read. There was no malice, they just never really understood how to support us. Communication is a huge problem in the educational system.

We've had many successes and opened doors for many of the people we worked with. The grant we wrote was based solely on what the teachers and students asked for in order to do their best work. As you say, hold on to the positive.

One leader in our state told us that innovation is disruptive (quoting Daniel Pink) and I would say that when there is a disruption of an institution such as education, there is no way to avoid casualties.

We have been soldiers, Elena, expending our lives for what we believe in. Our individual efforts may fail to make the impressions we hope, but collectively we will make a difference.

Thanks for the validation, and, chin up! :-) http://nminnovationzone.blogspot.com/

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