by Todd Fulginiti
It’s 9:30am on a Thursday morning in September. I’m sitting at home, at my dining room table, writing and giving my dog too many treats. It feels great but not quite normal. Normal for me at this time of day would be standing in front of a room full of elementary kids, trying to teach them about music and life.
But I’m not doing that anymore. I quit back in June. And although I know I did the right thing, some others aren’t so sure. They wonder why I didn’t stay a few years longer to improve my retirement, or why I didn’t line up a new job before I quit my old one. But after 25 years, I could no longer accept what my once beloved profession and workplace had become. So I quit.
It’s hard to summarize years of frustration in one essay, or to boil a laundry list of complaints down to just a few. But generally speaking, I quit because I grew tired of trying to work in a system whose philosophy had grown into something markedly different than my own. Specifically, I saw the needs of the group increasingly crowded out by the needs of the individual, to the detriment of both.
Raising kids is like gardening. If you just plant a seed and walk away, you’ll end up with a confused mess (much like my backyard right now) where each plant thinks it deserves to grow into any space or height it desires, choking out other plants if needed, and taking their resources. The most productive gardens balance the needs of each plant with the needs of the garden as a whole. Plants need pruned and guided. In the end, you have a plot full of strong, healthy plants- each variety with it’s own distinctive traits, flavors and smells.
My school environment was focused on individual freedoms. Pruning was done with dull shears. There was a lack of discipline, and a lack of respect for others. Too often, issues with a few students were allowed to disrupt and effect the education of entire classes. In most instances, the group was devalued in favor of the individual, while the individual’s behavior was not improved.
In real life, inappropriate actions have negative consequences. In school, that often wasn’t true. I got tired of the same students repeatedly disrespecting staff and their classmates with little or no consequence. Teacher actions were often limited by building or district rules. I got tired of seeing defiant students rewarded for agreeing to do the most basic tasks, while more compliant students struggled to get breaks throughout the intense daily schedule. Students sent to the office for discipline issues were often returned to class after a brief talk. Sometimes they were given a few minutes to play ball in the hallway with a staff member to help them calm down and collect themselves. It took a long time for consequences to increase on repeat offenders.
Several times per week, a meltdown would occur. Meltdowns usually involve a student screaming, sometimes becoming violent, sometimes trashing classrooms, sometimes lying on the floor of a room or hallway. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour or more. Teachers take their classes out of the room to a safer place, while trained staff come in and stay with student until the episode is over. Often, these meltdowns were loud enough to effect several classes at once. Depending on where the meltdowns occured, parts of the building were closed off to staff and students. With each meltdown, the education of the group was disrupted, yet the school’s overall goal was to keep the individual in the classroom and not move them into a more appropriate classroom environment.
I didn’t like what I saw in education over last several years because a few kids were being allowed to negatively impact the whole group. The group didn’t deserve that. Our society can’t afford that either. We need our kids to grow up as bright and well-adjusted as possible- our world has a ton of problems to solve.
The misbehaving individuals weren’t being helped either. Weak discipline doesn’t teach the offender to change their ways. If a speeding ticket was only $5, would you slow down? The kids who needed to be placed in a different educational setting were often left to struggle in the regular classroom, despite the almost superhuman efforts of support staff. I know there are laws that govern this sort of thing, but I believe it’s time to reexamine them and their effect on education.
I’m not saying the whole school system is bad and I’m not necessarily intending to place blame. I’m just reporting what I saw and how I felt about it. Colleagues from other schools and situations have similar stories to tell. I think it’s time to take a hard look at the school environment and make some adjustments.
Those adjustments seem unlikely to happen any time soon. Approaches like mine are often labelled as harsh and old-school. The age of the individual seems entrenched in school as it is in society. So for me, it was time to move on.
I spent over two and a half decades as a teacher and had many wonderful experiences. But things change, and in the end, I just couldn’t continue to work within a system that had lost my respect.
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