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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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Susan's picture

I totally understand why you are leaving. So many districts are caught up in politics and have forgotten what is important .... Teaching students! However many teachers and even administrators can not afford to quit , or even retire early or change districts because one would lose their pension years and salary that determines take home checks in retirement .. As a retired teacher who taught in three different districts due to spousal job moves , I lost place on salary steps since district to district doesn't always pay for years of experience .... And leaving altogether after 20 years instead of 30. Means your take home pension would be almost half .. Retirement is something many don't consider while they are making good money but you need to think about what you will live on in your 60s since most of us get no social,security .. So divorce isn't an option for many teachers with families.

(2)
Robin Ann's picture

You articulated a problem so many of us share. I've left the education field 3 times and went back for the simple reason I spent 8 years in college to become a teacher, hated to waste it, and out of financial necessity, I had to work. But my last year opened my eyes. I was hired as a co-teacher to share teaching responsibilities with a woman in her second year of teaching who knew way too much about teaching to share any instruction responsibilities with me (I have 18 total years, not including years I substituted). Administrators were cold and critical. The new testing system in Texas dictated we teach the test beginning on day one. I got a severe case of the flu in March, in bed for 3 weeks, which gave me ample time to think about the hostile environment I found myself in. I resigned the first week after I returned. Something has got to give or the entire system will implode.

(1)
Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey
Facilitator

Elena, your post is powerfully written, searingly honest and obviously heartfelt. You don't just walk away from a 19 year career without a crazy range of powerful feelings and mixed emotions. By now you've moved on and life is, I'll bet, insanely great.

That said, not sure if what I have to add will help anyone reading this, but, here goes.

The best career advice I ever got was from a ancient VP of HR I once worked with back in my days in the private sector. I had just explained to him that I was leaving the firm to go into I.T. Consulting (Oracle HR/Payroll, to be precise). I'll never forget his advice:

"Don't LEAVE a job. GO somewhere to continue your career and grow."

When the influences that drive you OUT of a job or organization are greater than those pulling you IN, say, to a new, exciting opportunity ... it's often a mistake. To be sure, a compelling opportunity may turn out to be a bust - the grass always being greener and all that - the point of his advice, as I took it, was to focus on the positive, the light.

I'll close with this quote from Michael Pritchard:

"Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed."

Onward!

Hope this helps,

-kj-

(2)
Debbie Schraeder's picture

Thank you for being so honest and providing LOTS to ponder. You are truly a gifted writer and an AMAZING person. I KNOW there are lots of students, teachers, schools and districts that will continue to learn from you; maybe we can get you back to Nebraska!
The importance of relationships to making the systems work is KEY; take care of you...

Grant Wiggins's picture
Grant Wiggins
Author, Consultant, Teacher, Coach

From one Grant to another: Grant L is spot on about these interesting private conversations in workshops. I have had many over the last 25 years. I usually ask the old Ann landers question: are you better with or without them? OTHER Qs: Are they ever going to change, really? Or is it just slow? Are the values rock solid or is it endless cutting of corners to get by? And finally: do they truly value what you do and help you do it? Or do you feel like you are fighting "them" and being marginalized every step of the way?

It is terribly easy to feel guilty for leaving. The culture and our own moral code reinforces those guilt feelings. But think of how much good can be done in a place that aligns with your vales and helps you do what you do best.

(3)
Nancy Yurko's picture

This is a topic that is rarely touched upon; which leaves many educators finding themselves in this position without tools to productively move through the situation. I now find myself in a similar situation, looking for a positive manner to honor my years of service and learning from a district, but finding that it is not an environment where I can any longer continue to contribute or grow as an educator. I will be applying this article as I too divorce my district; not my passion in the education. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

(1)
Carrie L. Patino's picture
Carrie L. Patino
Second Grade teacher from Modesto, CA

I wish I had the courage to do that six years ago. After starting out as "cover teacher" for the district handbook at the beginning of my career, and many shining evaluations and a move to the "very best school in 5 counties"(at the time), I had two horrible principals who harassed me relentlessly. Wanting to move me to make room for a friend who wanted my grade, and because I was a union rep. The second was a new administrator who had only taught 3 years and made a rude comment to me the first day she saw me (she was later arrested and is no longer with the district). I asked to move to another school, which involved 3 moves and 3 grade changes in 5 years (after 17 years in the same grade at my old school that I had hoped to retire from). It did feel like a divorce, I could no longer talk to my best friends and coworkers on a daily basis because of this one wicked person. I had a family to think of, so I stayed. Our district seems lost and without common sense or direction. I wish I had the courage to leave, to find a new career (after all, I'd had many easier jobs before as administrative assistant, office manager and more), but my students kept me there. It felt like I would be betraying them when they were in desperate need of someone to be a buffer from the absurdity of it all. It's taken a toll on me, worn me down, affected my health. I'm not hoping I can make it to retirement, but sometimes it feels like I'm riding a train that's about to wreck. I'm glad some of you have had the courage to jump off that train. I guess I'm still trying to protect the younger passengers. At some point they need to hit the brakes, or they will all start throwing themselves off.

(1)
Katrina Gonzales's picture

Once an educator tastes leadership at the school/community level, it is difficult to turn back to the archaic methods of public ed. I was privileged to be a part of a movement in Texas schools, during the time of Education Commissioner Skip Meno. Selected schools were charged with developing plans for their schools based on distinct needs of the school community. Teachers, parents, students, and community members worked side-by-side traditional leaders such as principals and superintendents to select professional development, school schedules, and other aspects of school often relegated only to traditional leaders. It was an empowering time in my career. Never again have I felt that collegiality and freedom to dream within the school setting. I'm at the 30 year mark in my career, and those years were more than 1/2 way into my teaching journey. Since that time, I've searched for an elusive dream where students, teachers, community members, etc. all work together to build a functioning school community; I'm chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I don't believe it exists anymore in our current public school systems. Elena, I have "divorced" a district recently; now, it may be time for me to divorce public school completely. I will know when that time comes.

cfebles73's picture
cfebles73
Teacher of English Literacy

My last day at the School and district I currently work in is June 8th, I appreciate and grateful for the opportunity I was given, but it's time for me to move on, politics and an unwavering sense of dissonance amongst teachers has shown me that where I work is not a good fit for me and my teaching style, I'm a believer of EDUCATING not training students to perform for state and standardized to esting(which has nothing to do with the students but $$$). It's been great but this divorce is FINAL.

Julia Frascona's picture
Julia Frascona
Knapsack Consulting, LLC

You spoke beautifully to the emotional complexities of leaving your district. I made the same decision a few years ago and it was most difficult. It was time. My message and practice are not in sync with what is going on in schools today. We are in crisis on so many levels. My hope is to work with one teacher, one special education program, one school at a time to stop the current education trends that harm our students. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
K-4 Technology Facilitator from Northfield, New Jersey
Facilitator

Elena, your post is powerfully written, searingly honest and obviously heartfelt. You don't just walk away from a 19 year career without a crazy range of powerful feelings and mixed emotions. By now you've moved on and life is, I'll bet, insanely great.

That said, not sure if what I have to add will help anyone reading this, but, here goes.

The best career advice I ever got was from a ancient VP of HR I once worked with back in my days in the private sector. I had just explained to him that I was leaving the firm to go into I.T. Consulting (Oracle HR/Payroll, to be precise). I'll never forget his advice:

"Don't LEAVE a job. GO somewhere to continue your career and grow."

When the influences that drive you OUT of a job or organization are greater than those pulling you IN, say, to a new, exciting opportunity ... it's often a mistake. To be sure, a compelling opportunity may turn out to be a bust - the grass always being greener and all that - the point of his advice, as I took it, was to focus on the positive, the light.

I'll close with this quote from Michael Pritchard:

"Fear is that little darkroom where negatives are developed."

Onward!

Hope this helps,

-kj-

(2)
Susan's picture

I totally understand why you are leaving. So many districts are caught up in politics and have forgotten what is important .... Teaching students! However many teachers and even administrators can not afford to quit , or even retire early or change districts because one would lose their pension years and salary that determines take home checks in retirement .. As a retired teacher who taught in three different districts due to spousal job moves , I lost place on salary steps since district to district doesn't always pay for years of experience .... And leaving altogether after 20 years instead of 30. Means your take home pension would be almost half .. Retirement is something many don't consider while they are making good money but you need to think about what you will live on in your 60s since most of us get no social,security .. So divorce isn't an option for many teachers with families.

(2)
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Middle School Integrated Curriculum-Aspiring Leader-Lifelong Learner

I follow this blog to understand the meaning of leadership! Curiously over the years, I find a culture of misgivings, within the micro educational communities such as School districts.
Global Leadership extends to thinking, reflective thinking to create a unified philosophy beyond the walls of ethnocentrism. Why is it so there is this is a sticky mess or quagmire?
This blog started because one global leader was growing beyond the walls of her district!
How many good teachers, teacher leaders transfer quietly!
Where are the ethic hotlines pertaining to the codes we all value so much? Why do great teachers go quietly in the name of the profession as to not " burn bridges" ??? Is that not going against the best form of education? As Dewey named the
" freedom of Education" is a philosophy where by all those involved have the responsibility to question the value of growth within the doors of this institution! We all know when things are just not fitting.
Another phenomena I have noticed - are the amount of so called experts being paid to walk into classrooms- district, state personal- why is all that money being spent on experts to come into a classroom? They really do not know the students, parents, culture- so why are we allowing this misuse of funding- this abuse of the teacher in the classroom, and the detriment of the basic preamble of "freedom of education?"

(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)
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)
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.

(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/

(2)
Grant Wiggins's picture
Grant Wiggins
Author, Consultant, Teacher, Coach

From one Grant to another: Grant L is spot on about these interesting private conversations in workshops. I have had many over the last 25 years. I usually ask the old Ann landers question: are you better with or without them? OTHER Qs: Are they ever going to change, really? Or is it just slow? Are the values rock solid or is it endless cutting of corners to get by? And finally: do they truly value what you do and help you do it? Or do you feel like you are fighting "them" and being marginalized every step of the way?

It is terribly easy to feel guilty for leaving. The culture and our own moral code reinforces those guilt feelings. But think of how much good can be done in a place that aligns with your vales and helps you do what you do best.

(3)

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