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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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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.

Ms.W's picture

I truly think this issue needs to be front and center in the educational reform debate. The dysfunctional public school environment with all it's complexities depletes me and I am a fully functioning adult who has many years of coping skills, a supportive family and advanced college degrees. If I am completely frustrated with the hypocrisy and double standards (i.e. politics) then I cannot fathom how frustrated my students are.

I grew up in a much simpler time and can't imagine how I possibly would have coped with what my students have to deal with in this environment. If I have difficulty sorting out who is truly being served by the public schools and how to be successful in this system, what must it be like for many of my students?
It is sad. I am mid-career and I just don't think I can afford the emotional toll this career takes on me, anymore. It doesn't have to be this way and my hope is, all of us who see the 'elephant in the living room' and are willing to speak up, will somehow make a difference.
Good Luck to all of us!
Ms.W

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Ms. W.,

Want to acknowledge your comment and situation. Trying to find something witty and inspirational to offer. Failing.

Sending love and hugs instead,

-kj-

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Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Ms. W., Your comments and so many of the responses to Elena's post are jarring to read. Everytime I get an alert from this thread, I brace myself as I read yet another educator who is ready to throw the towel in. You are absolutely right. This issue needs to be at the center of ed reform.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Ms. W., another thought.

Few people would argue that we are all our own best judges of our work situation.

However, something I heard yesterday at the Google EduOnAir presentation actually applies here. The conversation was about change, and the need to challenge assumptions.

We all go through life with assumptions about ourselves, our performance, our schools, our colleagues. Oftentimes those assumptions are spot-on. Often, too, they impact our perceptions incorrectly.

Have you considered teaching in another district? Or perhaps investigated opportunities to do so? You might be amazed at what you find - and learn about yourself and your situation.

In other words, you're more valuable than you think. You matter. We all do.

Wishing you the best,

-kj-

Spedmom's picture

I have been through two divorces. I divorced my husband after 17 years and my district after 20 years. I said at the time when I left my district I felt the same way as I did when I divorced my husband. It is good you can be positive and not take it personal. I live in a small town in the southern part of Sebastian County in Arkansas. I moved here for this job and my youngest daughter attended school here with the same classmates from kindergarten until graduation in 2009. I probably should have left then but because it was such an emotional time for me I did not. But it was personal for me. It was a very sad time.
I have read a lot about single women over 50 in education get bullied to leave because small district can hire 2 teachers for what they pay an experienced one. My principal sure fit the bill. It would have been different if I had done a poor job. But the fact is, I never remarried and I basically devoted my life to this district. I began new programs for the students in the Special Education program and received awards for my accomplishments. In a small district things are different; nepotism is rampant. They never fired anyone except those teachers who had had improper relationships with students. They couldn't because they didn't do the required observations. Neither the principal nor the Special Education Supervisor observed me teaching after the first 1-2 years. But, bullying is alive and well in this district. I finally decided to leave when I was told so many negative things about myself. I had actually decided I'd retire from teaching. I was advised by a friend to apply at a nearby district but honestly didn't think I'd get hired because of the salary difference in a beginning and experienced teacher. Not only did I get hired, I was told many principals wanted me! My reputation of being a good teacher was something I was unaware of. This was two years ago. I love my new job! My only regret is that I didn't decide until Summer so I didn't get a chance to tell my co teachers good bye. But they know how unhappy I was and with Facebook and other social media I have kept up with them. I have taught over 30 years. I too think you need to know when it's time to go but if you live in a small town it becomes more difficult. I lived within a few blocks from my classroom where I taught for 18 of the 20 years. I know drive 20 miles to work. But it is definitely worth it.

Donna M Babcock EdD's picture
Donna M Babcock EdD
6th Grade Math Teacher in Newport News, Virginia

I too have seriously been emotionally wrestling with my decision to continue in education. It is a very tough decision to make after having been a teacher for 27 years. Even though I went out and earned my doctorate in Administration and Leadership and am certified in two states to be an administrator, I find I am "not political enough" to play the political games with my kids and peers' lives. Maybe the time has come for the divorce for me as well. Sometimes as professional educators, we "see" so much and yet our hands are tied. This article has provided me much food for thought.

Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

Spedmom and Donna, thanks for contributing to the conversation on this difficult topic.

I wonder if our communities realize what theses work environments are really like.

Teacher's Work Environment = Student's Learning Environment

hmmmmmmm

KathyBriccetti's picture

What a lovely perspective. I, too, try to hold onto the positive memories from my nearly 25 years working in OUSD. Mostly I remember the people I worked with in scores of schools who were committed and hard-w0rking. At times, I felt such gratitude and fulfillment in my work. But the emphasis on measuring quantity over quality, poor systemic communication, and ineptitude in many of the people in decision-making positions drove me to divorce OUSD five years ago. I have wondered whether OUSD is just too large to be managed effectively. Big cities like San Jose have several districts operating independently, which can lead to better oversight and accountability. Is that something Oakland should move toward?

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?"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Kevin Jarrett's picture
Kevin Jarrett
Teaching Middle School 'Technology, Engineering & Design' in Northfield, NJ

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-

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