Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back from Unplanned Hiatus

It's been more than a month since I've posted here, and the posts were few for a couple of months before that -- mainly in the "Acquisitions" series, which I enjoyed but am discontinuing because my personal library information is all available at LibraryThing under the "PatrickMurtha" name. It has been a busy several months, what with a move from Wisconsin to Nevada, and my getting used to a new job that, unfortunately, is a major bust. I wrote to my private web-group last week:

As the first quarter of the school year draws to a close, it seems a good time to give an update on my big changes of 2009. Unfortunately, the charter school job has proven to be something of a nightmare; I won't be returning for a second year. The school is very poorly run, with a one-day-a-week principal who's concentrating on his new PhD program, and several other part-time drive-by administrators who are worse than useless. I wouldn't recommend that my worst enemy send his kid to this school -- and that's a hard thing to say about a place where you teach 40% of the curriculum yourself! Nonetheless, I stand by it. If this is any kind of example of how charter schools function, the charter school movement is a failure. I haven't worked in any "conventional" high school that couldn't serve these students better.

I get along well with the students, because I always get along with students; it's a knack that I have, and one that I'm grateful for. But these students are the least academically prepared and motivated students I have ever dealt with. I can get a little bit of work out of them because they like me, but it takes a lot of cajoling. The African-American charter school students on the South Side of Chicago that I taught in the fall of 2000 were far more focused on making something positive of their lives; they saw doing well in school as a way out of their depressed, gang-run neighborhoods. If my current students are any indication, white rural students have simply given up. Their parents have no jobs, or are in jail, or are on meth (a big problem hereabouts); and they have no vision of what any other kind of life might be. The kids are deeply racist (you don't want to know how they talk about Obama), for which I try to cut them some slack because of their upbringing and influences; but it certainly makes them a little hard to love sometimes. If they guessed that I was gay, I doubt they would take it well.

My work-load is insane, comprising ten different courses -- four levels of English (9-12), journalism, American history, world history, American government, sociology, and a senior class advisory. I have 26 completely non-repeating hours of instruction in a week. Our part-time pedagogic observer, who's a real asshole, tells us we should spend an hour-and-a-half preparing for each hour of instruction, which sounds right to me except, where am I supposed to find 39 off-work hours per week to do that, and who is paying me for what is essentially a second full-time job? I'm pretty much working 24/7 as it is, even on week-ends, because I get very little prep time during the school day. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I teach six different hour-long classes with no time off except for a half-hour lunch (and on Fridays, I don't even get the lunch because I'm covering the student lunch for that half-hour). What prep time I get on my slightly lighter Tuesdays and Thursdays is very often co-opted by administration for other purposes. A teacher's union would never permit such abuse, but of course we're not in the local union. If the school couldn't abuse our time, it would have to shut its doors, since there's no money to hire additional staff. The economic model of the school is not sustainable.

On the plus side, my fellow faculty members -- four full-timers -- are a pleasant group. Four of the five of us are new, and all four of those are flight risks. Everyone is frustrated, but I think I may have it worst because of my double work-load and -- an entirely personal factor -- my depression and anxiety disorder, which has been kicking in big-time and revving up my OCD besides (little things are driving me completely crazy). Although this particular school is not a good test case, to put it mildly, I do think that any full-time high school schedule might be a bit much for me at this point. Students are very needy, these students especially so, and I'm pretty sure that I can't try to address all their needs without prostrating myself. I feel emotionally spent at the end of each and every day. All I want to do afterward is sleep, and that is not how I want to feel.

I do like the climate and geography here very much. Carson City is a pleasant home base, and it's nice having Reno a half-hour away. I haven't met any people outside the orbit of the school yet, for lack of time, but I'm also not as social as I used to be. It's a non-intellectual area, but so was Wisconsin. I can construct the intellectual life I need on my own, using books, DVDs, and the Internet among other resources. My apartment is great and I like my new vehicle -- a lightly used 2001 Isuzu Rodeo SUV -- a heck of a lot. Driving around here is a blast, and I enjoy that part of my day.

So, despite the disappointment of the school, I have no intention of moving again (and couldn't afford to do so anyway). For future employment, if I stay in education (which I always seem to be leaving and re-entering -- there's no doubt that I'm prone to frustration) , I may look at a combination of teaching part-time at local community colleges (there are several), perhaps part-time at a high school in Reno or Carson City (I think I could handle two classes a day or a similar workload), and in the burgeoning online education field.

I added some follow-up points as the exchange went on:

I ought to have mentioned that, although I have way too much material to prepare for my classes, I do have considerable academic freedom and take a real pleasure in working with the subjects that I teach, every single one of which I love -- and my students comment frequently about how strongly that affection for the content comes across. That has been helping to sustain me a little bit in the face of the insanity of the job, although as the year grinds on, I fear the insanity is winning. It's just simple burn-out.


Just airing the issues out helps a little. Among the faculty, our major theme of discussion is that we want to do a good job, but the conditions that are set up for us work directly counter to that. It's hard to see who benefits by the situation.

So my major goals are, get through the year, and start looking for other opportunities for 2010-2011 in earnest at Christmas break, when I'll have some time to devote to the search. I think the online education field does look promising, as it is growing so fast. In the meantime, I'll get my nourishment from small victories, such as that my American government students, whom I've been giving a grounding in political philosophy (Plato to Locke), actually seem to understand Thomas Hobbes pretty well. That's something.

I've long had a suspicion that the few jobs that are available in a bad economy tend to be bad jobs; so even if an unemployed person is lucky enough to land something, it is highly unlikely to be the job of their dreams, or even a lasting job for them. I think this situation is an example of that.


One of the key misrepresentations at this charter school is that it puts itself forward as an "alternative" school, and thus draws students with either official or unofficial special education issues. But in point of fact, we have nothing in the way of special education services to offer -- certainly less than the local district, although it offers little enough. I've been spoiled; I've worked as a teacher or educational volunteer in five of the eight top-ranked states for student outcomes: Massachusetts (#1), New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Nevada is ranked 46th for student outcomes, and the differences are instructive. On the special education front, far fewer students in Nevada have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) than in Massachusetts or New Jersey, and the plans in Nevada have no teeth, because very little money is committed to special education services. In Massachusetts and New Jersey, money is shoveled at special ed, but then, money is shoveled at everything: AP courses, extracurriculars, you name it. It's unsurprising that those top states can compete proudly with the most education-oriented European and Asian nations, while Nevada would be lucky to come out ahead of Mexico. It's also unsurprising that the top-ranked states (which also include Minnesota and New Hampshire) are all blue states, and that the bottom-ranked states are mainly red (with a few anomalies such as Hawaii and California). Trust me, red states are every bit as anti-intellectual as reputed. Apart from the differences in the schools and the funding, the difference in grassroots attitudes towards education between a Massachusetts or New Jersey on the one hand, and a Nevada or a Louisiana on the other, is enormous. In Massachusetts, even very poor, disenfranchised families tend to understand the importance of education and to harp on it; I have observed this first-hand. In Nevada, even better-off families train their kids better to party than they do to study. It's one long debauch around here.

So that's the story up till now. But I'll try to spin it positively: I think I can make it through the year, although it will be difficult; I think I can come up with alternative employment for 2010-2011; and I am sure that I will enjoy living here once I accomplish those two goals.

My criteria for new employment are three:

1) A lighter workload than my current round-the-clock workload.
2) More money than the $42,000/year I am currently being paid. I was paid $66,300/year in my last job, and $42,000 seems awfully tight to me, especially as my rent is $200/month higher ($750 compared to $550) and the overall cost of living here is also higher.
3) Much less F2F contact, which I am seeing that my nervous condition simply will not bear. This is why the online sector seems increasingly attractive. I am not looking to be a hermit, but I need to pick and choose my interactions. Five full days a week of high school students is unsustainable for me: That's a lesson learned.