What I miss


A few months have passed since May, when I was last a teacher. I ended my 15th year as a high school English teacher by starting this blog on the last day of school. Then I spent the summer in varying stages of grief before finally feeling free of it, for the most part. People – my mom, in particular – kept asking me what I was going to do next. But all through June and July I didn’t know.

I actually had no idea whatsoever what I was going to do next.

I wanted it that way on purpose. I thought that if I completely emptied my mind, that eventually some way forward would emerge. So I purposefully spent those summer months allowing myself to feel whatever. I reflected a lot. I focused on my family and friends and fun times. Sometimes I had to force my mind to be blank.

At times, I was angry about what was happening in public education. Like how teachers are leaving the profession in droves. And how maybe the resulting teacher shortage was a concerted effort on behalf of the reformers so that we would come to rely on inexperienced teacher drones who have been “trained” by TFA or fake teacher schools (I’m looking at you, Relay!). Or how what may be coming next is the bold (read: scary and ridiculous) plan to incorporate “adaptive” technology into the classroom so as to diminish the role of the teacher, otherwise known as Personalized Learning or CBE (you can read all about it on this blog). And don’t even get me started on standardized testing and the folly of the accountability movement (see herehere, and here for some insight). Then there’s the group of billionaires who seem hell-bent on destroying our system of public education (see here and here for some background). And when you see how schools are underfunded and inequitable and how teachers are underpaid and not respected, it’s beyond frustrating. Or locally, here in Nashville, there’s an awful lot going on (hmm, grrr, argh) that makes me angry… Wait, my blood pressure is rising… Frankly, there are a LOT of things to be angry about in education. Take a deep breath. I’ll write about those things at length in other posts. But for now, relax. Count from 1 to 10 slowly…

At times, I was worried about what all that meant for my 8-year-old 3rd grader.

At times, I was anxious: Did I do the right thing by quitting? What will I do know? What will I do to fight for public education? Will it be enough? 

And at times, I felt like a failure of sorts, as in I spent a lot of time and money in school training to be a teacher and now I’m just walking away?! But that decision clearly was not that simple (see here, here, here, and here).

Mostly though, I tried to enjoy this period of “empty space” in my life, this time of transition, and tried to make peace with it.

Sometime in August, a light bulb went on for me. I had established some loose criteria about what I wanted to do next in life: 1) I like to help people, 2) I like working with people, 3) I want to do work that is meaningful and/or brings joy to others in some way, 4) I need something with flexibility in scheduling and work hours, and 5) After years of making my own decisions as a teacher, I want a career where I am in charge. #controlfreak

And since my mind was really open to all possibilities at this point after several months of wandering and grieving, when I saw a friend on Facebook post about getting a massage at the Mind Body Institute, a massage therapy school here in Nashville, I suddenly had an idea. I started researching the field of massage therapy and talking to people I knew who were massage therapists, and I realized that this career met all of the criteria that I had for what I wanted. I was sold.

I made an appointment at the school to talk with the owner, and I immediately felt at home. I had that intuitive feeling that this was right. I applied, got accepted, and started school in early September.

So now, I am a student. The tables have turned. It’s kind of funny – this program is a 9-month program that goes from September to May, pretty much the same time frame I was used to as a teacher. So that was an easy adjustment. Only now I’m the one taking notes, studying for tests, completing homework, and anxiously awaiting my scores on class exams.

Those first couple weeks of being a student were full of revelations and little in-jokes for me. Like laughing on the inside the first time I had to show my teacher my completed homework and thinking so this is what it feels like to wait for the teacher to come to you to check your work! Hope I did it right. Or when I was preparing to take my first exam – on all the bones in the body – and I made note cards and studied and felt confident, and then when I got the test and freaked out for a second – this isn’t what I studied! Oh no! – before realizing it was all going to be okay. Hey, I got a 91 on that test, and I was pretty happy about that. Or when my teacher is teaching, and I am making mental notes and critiques about how the subject is being taught. Or when some of my fellow students and I stay after class to study together, and I find myself talking in my “teacher voice” as I review concepts.

It’s definitely been interesting. I guess on some level, I will always be a teacher.

I have to say, I’m loving being a student. Even as a teacher, I always felt I was learning new things, like having new revelations about literature I hadn’t had before or seeing things through the eyes of my students, so that part isn’t new. But having the space to only be a student, where I can really focus on what I’m learning, is a luxury. And what I am learning is all completely new to me – anatomy, Swedish massage techniques, therapeutic massage techniques, business principles, Eastern theory, ethics related to the massage industry, etc. – but it has been fun and challenging. (This weekend I’ve got to study 19 muscles of the body, where they are located, proximal and distal attachment points, how to palpate those muscles, and their movements within the body. It’s hard! There’s a test Monday.)

My experience thus far has also made me reflect on what I miss about being a teacher.

In August, when the new school year began, I felt sentimental. On Facebook, I saw teacher friends preparing for the first day, and I felt a range of emotions – mostly nostalgia with a tinge of sadness – about not having my own classroom to prepare and new students to meet.

I found myself reflecting a lot on my years in the classroom. Was I a good teacher? Do my students remember me fondly? Or at all? Did I make a difference? Could they see that I cared about them and their education, their future, their possibilities? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I realized what I was going to miss the most about being a teacher.

I will miss my interactions with students.

That is what I loved most about my own experience as a student back in the day (I shudder to think about how long ago that now seems). I loved coming to school each day and learning new things from my teachers. Sure, at times I was driven to find out more on my own about things I was interested in, but for the most part, I loved learning from my teachers. I loved that Mrs. Luckey made donuts with us in kindergarten, that Mrs. Moore encouraged me to put on these silly one act plays for my class, that Mrs. Fox gave us weekly spelling tests (and oh how I loved when I got a positive written comment from her on my test!) and cool options for our book reports (I remember making a very detailed movie poster with a plot synopsis about an Agatha Christie book I had read during my Agatha Christie phase in 7th grade)(I still have that poster), and that Mr. Moseley told us all about his travels and how they related to our study of US History. I could go on and on with examples. These experiences have stayed with me and ultimately inspired me to become a teacher because they touch upon the most important thing in life – relationships.

So now, I miss that I have no students, no classroom, no knowledge to share, no a-ha moments to be experienced as a classroom teacher. I feel a great sense of loss about that.

Even though I am really excited about my new career choice and feel good about my decisions that got me to this point, I can’t help but look back at my teaching career. That feeling of mattering to someone, of being a part of someone’s life (even if it’s only for 9 months), of caring about them and their well-being and all of the possibilities that exist for their future, of feeling proud of them and their big and small accomplishments – that teacher-student dynamic – that is the essence of teaching. The heart and soul of being a teacher. It can’t be taught in teacher preparation programs, and yet it is the single most important thing about teaching. And I miss it.




And so it begins…

I had planned to start this blog in April of 2015. Having recently attended the 2nd annual Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Chicago, I was really motivated to start writing. But… you know… the daily things that occur regularly in life just kept happening, darn it! and I never found time to actually do it. I may have also been a bit nervous about actually hitting the Publish button. Now that I’ve quit teaching – you can read all about it here, here, here, and here! – I have some time to think.

So now, I present my original first blog post. At the time, my 14th year in the classroom as a high school English teacher was winding down. Here it is:

APRIL 27, 2015

I have been tossing around the idea of blogging for quite some time now. There are several reasons why I haven’t started this blog earlier. One reason is time. Or lack of time, to be exact. But when I say that out loud, it really just sounds like a lame excuse. Another reason is anxiety. I’m a little nervous about putting my thoughts onto paper (or screen) for all the world to see. Even if only three people end up reading this, it’s still anxiety-inducing. The fear of being judged isn’t so easy to shake off, it turns out. But I’m over 40 now, so I’m trying not to give a damn. The final reason I haven’t blogged until now is that up until this weekend, I didn’t really think I had anything original to say.

I mean, I’m just a teacher. I’m just one of thousands of teachers who do their best and work hard to reach their students. But I’m fed up and tired of wanting to bang my head against the wall every time I read another article about the current state of public education.

A few years ago, I started getting upset about what was happening in education. I started teaching in 1998, so I’ve see the pendulum swing from no standards to state standards to Common Core standards and the testing frenzy we have now. And around 2008, I was starting to get frustrated. Maybe it began before that, but by 2011 I was downright angry. And that’s when I started researching educational issues online and realized there were many others who were feeling the exact same way.

Only I didn’t personally know many of those teachers. I seemed to be the only one I knew who was angry and aware of what was happening in education on a national level. I found like-minded people online, in the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) on Facebook and in the comments section of Diane Ravitch’s blog. But where I worked, I wasn’t encountering many who felt the same way I did at that time.

Even now, there are still so many teachers around me who have no idea of the struggle we are engaged in for the future of public education. They are content to close their classroom doors and shut it all out. Maybe they know but don’t want to face it. Maybe they are quietly seeking a way out of the profession so they won’t have to get involved or be here when it really gets bad. Or maybe they know but don’t know what to do. Many don’t speak out because of fear, and still others just have no idea what is happening outside of their own school or district. But I believe a lot of it is just purposeful ignorance – that they don’t want to know. But once you know, it’s hard to ignore. It’s hard not to be angry and frustrated. Not knowing could be their way of coping. I get it.

I think it is because of all this that I realized I do have something to say. I want to add my voice to the national conversation and help people understand the struggles we are facing in public education.

I’ve been in way too many conversations lately where we are discussing issues in public education, but the person I’m talking to doesn’t have a basic understanding of the problem. Like all they know about this issue might be their two-fold opinion that A) their child’s school is pretty good, but 2) we’re in big trouble everywhere else according to the news (or some other faulty assumption).

In other words, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “I read Diane Ravitch’s blog daily and frequently find myself wanting to bang my head against the wall in frustration about what is happening with the massive and concerted effort to privatize public education” and a 1 is “Who is Diane Ravitch?,” the majority of people I come across are in the 1-2 range. On this scale of mine, I’m a 10. But there aren’t many other 10’s around me.

Let me be clear – this is not a criticism. It just seems to be what I have encountered. I’m not looking down on anyone. After all, unless you are a teacher or a parent with kids in public schools at the moment, public education may not be in your top ten list of big issues right now. I completely understand that.

So once I realize I’m talking with someone who is a 1 on my made-up scale, I don’t know where to begin. Is it, “So, let’s begin by going back to 1983 when A Nation At Risk was published…” or “Well, basically everything you think you know about public education today is wrong“? I mean, there’s just a cavernous amount of background information and topics to choose from when I’m in these conversations. Most of the time, I try to relax, take a deep breath, and try to quiet the voices in my head (How can you not know what is really going on?! Don’t you see what’s happening?). Then I’ll do one of two things: change the topic to something simple (“Hasn’t it been raining a lot lately?”) to avoid even having to continue the conversation because I don’t want to overwhelm the person (or have them think I’m some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist), or take a chance and continue the conversation.

I might try to ask a probing question to see what part of the iceberg we can start chipping away at first. Charters and school choice? TFA? High stakes testing and the opt-out movement? The role of the Gates Foundation or ALEC or other education reformers in public education? The effort to privatize public education? Teacher’s unions? And then, maybe, I’ll begin educating. I say maybe because I am frequently hesitant to begin a deeper conversation.

Once this happens, the person I’m talking to usually looks at me in a bewildered way, like Really? I had no idea! And if they are interested, I’ll keep going. At some point, I suggest they get Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error or her recently updated The Death and Life of the Great American School System. And sometimes, I see the fire being lit in their eyes that shows me they want to know more. This doesn’t happen often (though it’s been happening more and more lately), but when it happens, it’s awesome. That’s what knowledge does – it lights a fire that will keep burning so long as you keep feeding it. And I’ve got plenty of firewood to add to that fire.

So that’s why I’m starting this blog.

I’ve never written publicly before. Actually, I can’t say I’ve ever really written like this privately either. I’m not usually a journal-keeping kind of person. So I know I will struggle to find my voice. But I hope to hone it over time. I teach English, so when I write I have a tendency to have my English-teacher-voice speaking in my head, making me a little more cautious than I hope to end up being.

I’m hoping this blog will be a collection of my thoughts about public education. It will include my own thoughts and insights, reflections on my experience as a teacher, and a collection of what other great writers have to say about issues in public education. Over time, I may develop a more singular focus, but for now it seems like this will be a hodgepodge of things related to public education in some way.

I am a little scared of putting myself “out there.” Of inserting myself into the conversation. Of being exposed on the interwebs. So this blog is also a leap of faith in the hopes that I’ll gain more confidence in my own voice. But I’m at the point now where I’m going to explode if I don’t get in the game.

And so it begins…

Teaching, a love story: PART 4 (the final chapter)

With this post, I wrap up my reflections on my 18 years in public education. To recap, Part 1 is where I discussed why I became a teacher and those early years of my career. Part 2 is where I delved into my experiences from 2000-2008. It gives some insight into how we got where we are today in public education. Part 3 focuses on 2008-2013, which covers my time off from teaching and the first two years back in the classroom after becoming a mom.

And now we begin the final chapter.


We moved to Nashville, Tennessee in June 2013.

I knew what I was getting into. This was the birthplace of VAM. The use of value-added measures (VAM), is called TVAAS here. This magical mystery formula has some roots in Tennessee, created originally for agricultural purposes (no joke!). The bottom line was that 50% of my evaluation AND up to 25% of my students’ grades in my class were going to be based on standardized test scores, and that included both achievement and growth scores. If I thought the emphasis on data in California was bad, Tennessee was much, much worse. It’s liked they worshipped data. After all, Tennessee was one of the first states to win money from Race to the Top. Nashville was, in many ways, the epicenter of education reform. Kevin Huffman, Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, was the Commissioner of Education. They had Chris Barbic and the ASD for the bottom 5% of schools. TFA has a strong presence here. There are charter schools galore, and the really ugly fights that went with them. School board races where spending huge amounts of money had begun to be the norm. This is one of the states with the lowest amount of money being spent on education. Teacher pay ranks 16th from the bottom of all states, well below the national average. There are some crazy legislators who don’t know a darn thing about education making laws about education.

Seriously, what was I thinking?

I got a job as an instructional coach in Metro Nashville Public Schools, and I stayed there for a year. I was frustrated because there wasn’t freedom to speak up, ask questions, and stand up for what is right. There was a real culture of fear present, and it was hard for me to work under those conditions. So I quit and applied for a job as a high school English teacher with Williamson County Schools. I was hired the same day I had an interview, and I taught there for two years.

I knew being a teacher here would be rough. But we moved here anyway. And we love it here. It’s a great place to raise a family. We love the schools in Nashville. Great things are happening here in spite of all the BS. However, as a teacher, I tried to do my best while biting my tongue. But ultimately, I couldn’t do it.

I saw my colleagues, unlike me, seemingly more able to not worry about these issues so much. Maybe they were used to it? Or maybe they felt like I did but didn’t dare speak up. But I hated it. I hated that 50% of my evaluation was based on my students’ test scores. I hated that we talked about the damn tests almost more than anything else. This was definitely not the reason I became a teacher. I didn’t want to be a part of that culture. It really weighed on me.

One reason teachers don’t speak up much is because Tennessee is a right-to-work state. Several years ago, the state legislature gutted the provisions of the collective bargaining process. Essentially they wiped out any power the teacher’s union had to bargain on behalf of teachers. In a right-to-work state, you can be fired anytime for any reason. There is no due process. What that translates to is a high amount of fear – fear of losing your job, fear of being looked at as an instigator, a troublemaker, someone who sticks out. When I so much as asked a question, I was looked at as someone who was aggressive, trying to stir the pot; this was a characterization I did not like. Coming from California, where the culture is decidedly different, and asking questions and speaking up is something that is respected or at least considered the norm, I felt very out of place. I also felt stifled.


All that aside, we loved it here. That whole Southern hospitality thing you hear about? It’s real. People are friendly, for the most part. They start up conversations when you’re in line. They smile and say hi. They let you in when you’re in traffic and trying to change lanes. They stop to help. It’s noticeable. And no, not everyone does those things, but it was very obvious to me as an outsider that things were friendlier, slower, kinder in Nashville, and I really liked that a lot.

Over the past three years, we’ve decided that this is home. We’ve met wonderful people, established connections, laid down roots. It’s not hard to do here, to feel connected to this place. I was born and raised in California, but I hardly ever thought about state government and policies that affected me every day. Here, though, within months, I became acquainted with members of the State Legislature and the school board and learned a lot about local and state government, especially with regard to public education. I feel that legislators, school board members, and other elected officials – and the process of democracy itself – are more accessible here in Tennessee. Perhaps because it is a smaller state than California, but also because of that Southern hospitality.


Teaching in Williamson County was like being in some kind of fantasy land in some ways. I grew up somewhat poor in south San Diego. We lived in a trailer park. My mom worked two jobs to make ends meet. I never felt poor, but looking back, I knew we struggled. Then I went to work in that same school district in two of the neediest schools. Well over 70% of the student population there was non-white. We had a very high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch as well as a large number of English learner (EL) students. So there was a lot of need. I frequently provided supplies to students and extra support as needed.

But things were very different in WC. First of all, there is a serious lack of diversity. I worked at the most diverse high school, and that meant that only approximately 20-25% of the student population was non-white. Secondly, the students are mostly middle to upper class. I noticed very quickly that my students did not have a lot of the needs I was used to seeing. Did anyone need paper? Pencils? A binder? Not really. When I assigned a book to be read, many students bought their own copy. Every student had a phone. Most students had a car.

Not every student was privileged, of course. And they are teenagers, so no matter what their socio-economic background or ethnic makeup, they all have those typical teen issues – emotional roller coasters, does he like me?, no one likes me, I’m an outcast, etc. In fact, I saw more and more anxiety in my students – no matter the school, district, or state – as the years went on, and I bet it had to do with access to technology and social media. But that’s a subject for another post.

On the whole, I was dealing with less stress and fewer in-class problems in WC. However, there was a lot of pressure to keep test scores up. WC was known for having “good schools” (meaning high test scores) and that was a HUGE selling point for realtors. The overall attitude was that WC had GREAT schools and everywhere else, not so much. But teachers weren’t doing anything special in WC that wasn’t happening anywhere else. It’s just that these kids didn’t want for much. They had resources. They were generally well-fed, supported, and prepared. They had engaged parents who demanded A LOT from them. Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state AND has the highest test scores. There’s definitely a correlation there.

I was frustrated by the emphasis on test scores. I initially thought that because WC had high test scores, there wouldn’t be as much focus on them. But that just wasn’t the case.

One time, at an English department meeting, a colleague was talking about the upcoming state tests and how we were under pressure to be practicing for the test. So as a result, she said there just wasn’t time to teach any poetry. She said we needed to skip it and teach what was on the test, and since it wasn’t on the test at the time, buh-bye poetry. I was aghast. And there was no way I was skipping poetry and “teaching to the test.” I was uncomfortable by all this emphasis on the test. But because the stakes were so high, that’s the way it was.

And what about the tests themselves? They were a mess. First there was TCAP. Then there was supposed to be PARCC. But TN pulled out of PARCC, so we had TCAP for one more year. Then there were huge debacles over test delays, quick scores, cut scores, and who was going to be grading the tests, which gave the impression that these tests didn’t really mean anything other than what the State wanted them to mean. They were worthless.

And then came TN Ready this year. So much has been written about TN Ready and the absurdity of it all this year, but the bottom line is this: it was a fiasco. Everyone knew it. Teachers, parents, and especially the students. The test was worthless and a complete waste of time and money. And for what? Added stress? Lost time in the school year? Money spent on technology that could have been better spent? Arghhhh…… I was done.



I think I knew I was done around December 2015 during winter break. I felt it. I knew this was going to be my last year as a teacher, but it took a few months for me to say it out loud – then it became real.

My career as a teacher was over. The profession I had loved so dearly was changed and dead in some ways. The way I had defined myself (Hi! I’m Mary, and I’m a teacher!) was finished, and I would be starting over. I felt angry. I felt sad. I grieved. I felt weak. I felt like a failure. I felt insignificant. I felt frustrated. I spent the last few months of the school year grieving the loss of my profession, of my identity. And then, finally, in the last week of school, I reached a sense of peace and relief about it. A dear co-worker, who was retiring, told me I needed to give myself “permission to be free” from the stresses of the job and from the pressure I put on myself. And she was right.

That idea of having permission to be free was what ultimately allowed me to let it go.

I read this essay from a former English teacher and cried. Because every word of it was true for me.


And now, what? On my last day as a high school English teacher, my classroom was empty and bare. My students were gone, already enjoying the summer. My belongings were condensed to two crates and a bag. Everything else had been given away or thrown out. I sent out an email to everyone saying bye and launched this blog on that day.


I spent the summer relaxing, trying not to think about it all.

Since moving here three years ago, I have gotten to know a host of education activists and now, friends. First through the BATs. Then with TREE and the Tennessee Education Association. There are some great bloggers here, like the Momma BearsDad Gone Wild, and undercoverBAT. And there are some wonderful teachers who are rising up to run for State Legislature (Vote for Larry and Gloria!) because we need actual educators making the laws about education. Together, we forged alliances like Mid-TN CAPE and TNRefinED, fought against dark money, worked hard to get people elected to the school board, and stood up against bad legislation. There are good things happening here in spite of everything else.

I am so grateful I met these people. But I just can’t continue to teach with integrity. I just can’t do it. I know as a public school parent, I will continue to be involved. I will never stop caring and fighting for public education – an equitable, high-quality public school education for every student in this country – but I’ll be doing it now as a parent and former teacher.

So what will I “do” now? When someone asks me what I do, what will I say? I know I’ll figure it out…




Teaching, a love story: PART 3

Catch Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed it.

Part 1 is where I discussed why I became a teacher and those early years of my career.

Part 2 is where I delved into my experiences from 2000-2008. It gives some insight into how we got where we are today in public education.

In my 15 years in the classroom as a high school English teacher, there were ups and downs, and over time, it seemed there were more downs than ups.

Here’s the continued saga of my career as a teacher.


After about eight years as a teacher, I felt led to be a leader. I thought of becoming an assistant principal and ultimately, a principal. Because of the role models I had as a teacher and the administrators I worked with, I knew the kind of leader I wanted to be: a transformational leader who empowered teachers to be their best, who led with compassion and an attitude of servant leadership. I never wanted to forget what it was actually like to be a teacher in the classroom. My role model was Dr. Karen Janney, the current superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego, where I worked for 12 years. I met Karen when she was an Assistant Superintendent, and then when I was a student at SDSU, she was my professor. I got to know her personally, and I am so proud to call her a friend. She is the epitome of what a school leader should be – intelligent, caring, compassionate, charismatic, dedicated, and a good listener. She is a genuine person and leader. I wanted to try to be like her.

I had it all worked out. Earning my administrative credential was the first step, and I completed that in 2007.

And then I got pregnant.

When I got pregnant, I was ready for a break from the classroom after teaching for 10 years. It was good to step outside and relax. Things were really starting to change in education. It was 2008, six years away from the magical year of 2014 when 100% of students were going to be proficient according to NCLB.

I took one year off from teaching, with the full intention of going back to teach after that.

One year later, I discovered two things: 1) I really loved being a mom, and 2) I did NOT want to go back to work. So I took another year off.

And then another.

During my time off from teaching, I was still very much interested in what was happening in public education. All the feelings I had about the state of things and the growing emphasis on testing and accountability that had started to bother me as a teacher were still there, only now I was reading about it instead of experiencing it first hand.


In 2011, when my daughter was three years old, I felt ready to return to work. Only things had changed in several ways. First of all, though I was working in the same district as before, I was at a new high school. So that was an adjustment in terms of learning where things were, who was in charge of what, what my new boss required of me, and what I was going to be teaching.

Secondly, Common Core was now in place. So I had to make a shift in terms of what I was planning to teach. My initial thoughts about CC was that the standards were kind of blah compared to the previous CA ELA standards. Like, we were already doing these things before CC came along! In other words, when we had the CA ELA standards and backwards planning was what was expected – starting first with what and how we were going to assess students – I feel like the standards were clear (or at least clearer than CCSS) in terms of what was to be assessed. But with CCSS, it was not at all clear what was going to be assessed. Many of the English standards were vague and some of them couldn’t even clearly be assessed at all, and others were so very specific. So I was frustrated by that because I had become well-versed in breaking down a standard and determining the best way to assess mastery of it myself. But now I saw that these standards were part of a bigger plan, and I didn’t like it. I was also dismayed by the influx of informational text and the resulting decrease in literature, as well as CC developer David Coleman’s insistence on how we teach literature. I was becoming increasingly bothered by all of this. This was not why I became an English teacher.

But fine, now we had CCSS, and I needed to get on board. We were also going to be transitioning to a new assessment, the Smarter Balanced test, in a few years, so I knew that was coming. And that it was a big deal.

In fact, a big change I saw was that there was now a LOT of emphasis on DATA. We looked at students’ test scores a lot more, trying to find out how we could improve them. We gave benchmarks to students and then, in grade level planning groups (or PLCs), reviewed the data to see how we could improve. And it’s not necessarily that this was a bad thing, but I strongly felt that there was a big emphasis on test data that hadn’t been there three years ago when I left to have a baby. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t really put it into words at that point. I missed talking about what we were going to teach and how to best assess it and how to really make our lessons engaging for our students. I missed talking about our students in a personal way as opposed to just talking about the data. You know, conversations about why Juan wasn’t doing well in class and how it might have to do with the fact that his beloved abuela had just died and what we could try to do to help him. I feel like we weren’t having those kinds of conversations anymore. It was just data, data, data all the time. I felt overwhelmed.

I’m sure some of my feelings of being overwhelmed came from me being a mom as well. After I had a child of my own, I feel I gained a sense of empathy for my students that I didn’t have before. It’s not that I didn’t care about them before, it’s just that I saw things differently as a parent. I was seeing them as a parent might see them, and not just in terms of a test score. So now that there was such an emphasis being placed on their test scores, I felt uneasy about it.

I was also looking for a job as an administrator. There weren’t many job openings for assistant principals at this time. And when one popped up, there were many applicants. I spoke with three different superintendents in San Diego who all told me basically the same thing: there were few openings, and when there were openings, there were a ton of very qualified applicants. In other words, a newbie like me didn’t stand much of a chance at that time to get into an administrative position. After two years of looking, I was deflated and starting thinking that it just wasn’t in the cards for me to be a school leader.

This also coincided with my growing frustration as a teacher with what was happening with the test-review data-make plans-test cycle I felt I was unwillingly stuck in as a teacher.


It was at this time that I had an a-ha moment and saw the big picture: that this was happening all across the country! That there were teachers who felt the exact same way I did! And we were all starting to find each other slowly online. Sometime around 2011, I discovered Diane Ravitch. I can’t remember exactly how I found her, but I think someone on Facebook posted an article she wrote in 2010. Then I found her blog, and I heard her speak in 2012 in San Diego. In 2013, I found the BATs. It was a big relief for me to see that there were other teachers – many others! – who were feeling the same way as I was.

I knew I had to do something. I wasn’t happy as a teacher. I couldn’t find work as an administrator. And there other things going on as well – the 2008 mortgage crisis hurt us and we lost our house. We had been renting a house, but rents in San Diego are high just like the home prices there, so we started looking at other options. My husband traveled a lot for work, and one place we traveled to frequently – and that I had visited several times and really liked – was Nashville, Tennessee.


And into the fire, pretty much. We moved to Nashville in 2013.

More to come soon in the final chapter, Part 4.


Welcome to Nashville, Dr. Joseph

My daughter attends elementary school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Public schools in Davidson County tend to get a bad rap, and that’s a shame because there are some wonderful things happening here.

Recently, MNPS hired a new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. To say that the expectations are high for him would be an understatement. Also, the process of hiring a new director was not an easy one. My friend TC Weber wrote a thorough analysis of that process here, as did the Tennessee Education Report here and The Tennessean here. Still, I feel hopeful about what Dr. Joseph will do here.

Back in April, I, along with other parents and teachers, spoke at that month’s school board meeting (during the public comment portion of the meeting) about what I would like to see in a new Director of Schools. Here were my remarks then:

“Good evening, members of the School Board:
My name is Mary Holden, and I am a teacher and MNPS parent of a 2nd grader. I want to talk with you tonight about what is needed in our next director of schools.
First of all, we need someone with solid experience teaching children and leading schools. I believe it is important for our director of schools to have truly walked the walk when it comes to being a leader in public education. In other words, an applicant from the Broad Academy or someone who was a business leader but not an actual teacher, principal, and/or superintendent shouldn’t make it past the first cut.
Second, we need someone who 100% supports our public schools and views them in a positive light. Someone who understands the role that our public schools play in our communities and who will work tirelessly to build up these schools rather than parcel them out to competing charter schools who would instead work to divide communities and destroy our public schools. I want someone who knows the difference and will work to strengthen the public schools we have while trying to stop the expansion of charter schools. We need someone who understands the concept of community schools and will continue the work of building partnerships with local businesses and organizations who can provide resources and services for our neediest families through community schools. Someone who will ensure that our neediest schools receive equitable resources and the support personnel they need.
Third, we need an advocate to lead the fight against harmful state policies. For example, we need someone who understands the need to have fully funded schools and will fight for that at the state level. Also, someone who recognizes that we need to de-emphasize the role that standardized tests currently play. Someone who knows that we shouldn’t be evaluating teachers or students based on their test scores, especially when the test itself is a joke. We need a champion of a parent’s right to refuse these tests for their children, someone who understands the harm being done and the time that is taken away from learning by these tests.
Fourth, we need someone who is a strong supporter of our wonderful MNPS teachers and the hard work they do every day. They need to know that our director of schools has their back and has walked in their shoes. We need someone who seeks out feedback from teachers, parents, and students – and not business owners or others who don’t know anything about actually having children in public schools.
Finally, we need someone who understands and fights for the best interests of our children, especially as it relates to the role of play in learning; the importance of a well-rounded education that includes history and civics, science, art, music, PLAY, and of course, English and math; and the appropriate balance of technology in the classroom where I believe less is better.
Thank you for your time. I have confidence that you will make an excellent choice on behalf of our children and teachers.”

Dr. Joseph was hired in May, and his first day in the district was July 1. He wasted no time in getting down to business. One thing I am very impressed with so far is his desire to listen and learn from the community in which he now lives and works. He is currently hosting a series of evening gatherings, one at each high school and its cluster of schools, for the purpose of the community to get to know him and share their concerns and questions with him. I attended one recently and was pleased to see the turnout and hear what Dr. Joseph said in response to questions he received. I hope he continues to seek input from those he serves and works with in MNPS.

At this month’s school board meeting, I spoke again to welcome Dr. Joseph. Here were my remarks:

board meeting
A packed house at Dr. Joseph’s first MNPS board meeting (7.12.16)
“Good evening, members of the school board and Dr. Joseph.
My name is Mary Holden, and I am an MNPS parent and former teacher. Dr. Joseph, I want to welcome you to MNPS. I’m glad you’re here and happy to see the direction you’re taking so far, which seems to be that of someone who listens and learns from those around you.
Recently, I spoke to the school board about what I would like to see in a new director of schools. One thing I mentioned was that we need a champion for our schools. Many great things are happening here. However, the inequity that exists in our neediest schools is unacceptable. They need extra resources, funding, and support in order to make them equitable. I support the community schools model. What we don’t need is more charter schools. I have heard you talk about equity, and I am pleased to hear that this seems to be a priority.
Another thing I mentioned was the need to truly listen and respect the teachers in this district. When I worked in MNPS, I noticed the culture of fear right away. It’s a real thing. Teachers feel intimidated to speak up for fear of retaliation. I hope you are able to dismantle that culture of fear quickly, and I believe your approach so far has been effective.
There is an important issue I want to speak about. Over the last year, the human resources department apparently enacted a policy wherein any teacher who is going to be non-renewed will also automatically be made ineligible for rehire. This means if a principal feels a teacher is not a good fit, instead of simply non-renewing that teacher and letting them go back into the pool of eligible teachers, that teacher is basically fired and not allowed to apply ever again in this district.
I know of an experienced kindergarten EL teacher fired under this policy for low test scores – in kindergarten! A first year middle school English teacher told to teach math instead and then fired under this policy for low test scores. Teachers who speak out and ask questions and suddenly that principal doesn’t like them, so they’re fired under this policy. The careers of these dedicated teachers are now over and done with in MNPS. This policy is harmful to teachers and students. I have three requests for you: 1) that you get rid of this current “policy”; 2) consider a new written policy where more than one person must sign off on teachers who are specifically recommended to be ineligible for rehire, and 3) please consider reviewing the files of those teachers from this year whose careers are, for the moment, effectively ruined. We have lost good teachers because of this, and yet there are tons of open positions. It’s not right, but you can make it better.
Diana board meeting
My daughter gives me a thumbs-up after I spoke at the meeting
Another concern I have is your 47-member transition team. I understand the need for a transition team. But 47 is an awfully high number, especially when I don’t see teachers and parents well represented. There are charter folks, TFA, business people, and complete outsiders, but not a lot of actual MNPS stakeholders. It’s disappointing.
Overall, I am excited for your work to begin here in MNPS, and I sincerely wish you the best. Thank you.”

I will try to keep my sense of optimism as Dr. Joseph now begins the real work in MNPS. I hope he recognizes the great things that are happening here and becomes a transformational and inspirational leader. Hopefully he’ll read the copy of Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch that I gave to him if he hasn’t already read that book.

Welcome to MNPS and Nashville, Dr. Joseph!

Teaching, a love story: PART 2

In case you missed it, here’s Part 1, which describes why I became a teacher and the early years of my career. Let’s continue the story…

If I were to think of my teaching career as a love story of sorts, then there are bound to be ups and downs in the relationship:


In education, there is always something new happening. The higher ups are seemingly ALWAYS looking for the next new thing, strategy, idea, or way of doing something. It can be overwhelming for those at the low rungs of the ladder – i.e., the teachers who are actually supposed to be doing the new things.

I started teaching high school English in 1998, and as I mentioned before, there were no academic standards in place just yet. There were “standards” set by teachers, to be sure, but they weren’t yet set in stone by the Overlords of the State. Well… actually there were standards, factually speaking (see below), but they hadn’t yet gotten to the place where they were deeply ingrained into what teachers were doing in the classroom. These things take time, which is something that education reformers and lawmakers don’t always seem to understand.

What was definitely missing, however, is that there wasn’t really a discussion – among the teachers I worked with, anyway – of what we were collectively doing in our classrooms. But there was a very high level of trust given to us teachers to be doing things that were meaningful and rigorous (God, how I hate that word now!).

In other words, just because there weren’t official standards in place yet, teachers were still expected to be designing high-quality, engaging curriculum and employing various instructional strategies that met a diverse group of students’ academic needs. It just wasn’t coming from the top; instead, it came from us, the teachers. We had true academic freedom.

The state of California first introduced English-Language Arts Content Standards in December of 1997. That’s when they were approved, anyway. It took a couple of years for the word to trickle down the ladder to us teachers, and then a couple more years for students to actually be assessed according to their knowledge of the standards – this was the start of the accountability movement in education that is still with us today.

It was 2003, to be exact, when student performance was first assessed using the California Standards Tests (CSTs). We had standardized tests before that, but they weren’t tied directly to a common set of standards. And other than giving us a snapshot of how our students were doing at a given time (usually April), these standardized tests didn’t have any consequences for schools (there were no high stakes at this time). Students received their scores via mail at the end of the summer, and schools received their scores at the same time. We looked at them, maybe analyzed them for a minute – or an hour – at a pre-school inservice day, and then moved on. Nothing important to see here, folks! All this was fine with me. I, too, had taken standardized tests once a year in school. I liked getting my score report in the mail to see if I had done better than the year before. But I never put much meaning in them because they didn’t really count for anything. They weren’t high stakes.

Anyway, back to the standards. I liked that the standards provided some focus. I liked that we still had that academic freedom I mentioned. I also liked that we were starting to talk to each other more about what we were doing in our classrooms – we were even starting to plan together. I was involved in some pretty cool professional development around the time we were starting to work with the standards. From 2001 to 2003, I, along with a team of teachers from my school (Mar Vista High), took part in a program with the California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) and the Western Assessment Collective (WAC) where teams of teachers worked to develop standards-based instructional units. This site describes the program I was a part of, but sadly, the links to the units we designed aren’t working anymore.

What I took away from this process was: 1) real teachers (not faceless corporations) were the creators of these curriculum units, 2) we kept them student-centered and realistic, 3) we had in-depth discussions of what the standards meant (called “unpacking” the standards), how they could best be assessed (and guess what? the answer was almost always NOT by multiple-choice tests! Shocker!), and how they could be taught to a diverse group of students at different levels. We were covering all the important topics – teacher creation of high-quality lessons and assessments, differentiation, standards, planning lessons together (which would later officially be called a professional learning community) – we were far ahead of the game! And it was a fun process as well. We met for several days in the summer and then during the school year for three years doing this work with CAPP/WAC. Part of what made it meaningful was that it did take so long, because again, real change takes time to take hold. We became better teachers as a result of this process, and those skills stayed with us for our careers.

I want to clarify something about these new standards – this will be important later in my discussion, and maybe more so in PART 3 — Before they came along, and I’ll just speak for myself here, I was already doing good things in the classroom. And I was reflecting regularly on my teaching, looking at how I could improve it the next time. So when the standards arrived and I was told to start implementing them, I simply looked at what I was already doing and then matched up different standards to existing lessons, activities, and assessments. After I went through the PD I described above, I gained more focus on what I was doing and used the standards to refine my teaching. An example: pre-standards, I would “teach Romeo and Juliet” to my 9th graders. Post-standards, I would “teach characterization using Romeo and Juliet.”

So the way the standards helped me most was to give me and my colleagues more focus and refinement in our teaching. And I did actually like that, since I’m a rather orderly kind of person (and that may be a bit of an understatement). After this experience, my colleagues and I were doing a lot more planning together and trying to make our students’ experiences a bit more uniform with each other. For example, we agreed upon a list of novels that we would definitely teach at each grade level. And we designed common essay prompts. In fact, we designed common diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments and began looking at student work together, which was very beneficial for us as professional educators. I also liked that we still had plenty of academic freedom to teach how and, for the most part, what we wanted. We were just ensuring more equity in the academic experience each of our students had at each grade level.

From this point of view, the California ELA standards weren’t terrible, especially since I felt I had a good amount of time to adjust to them. (And compared to what came later with Common Core – they weren’t bad at all!)

But in 2001, California adopted AB 466, which established the Mathematics and Reading Professional Development Program. How this affected me and my fellow English teachers is that we were required to be trained in the new statewide ELA textbook adoption that occurred in 2005. This was new for English teachers in several ways – 1) statewide, districts had to choose the ELA textbooks from a state-approved list (a rather small list to begin with), 2) it is my understanding most districts chose the Holt textbooks, meaning that statewide most English teachers would be using the same materials, and 3) teachers were required to attend the training (we even got paid to attend the 5-day summer training) AND actually use the new textbook materials. We had to attend 40 hours of this training, and then told we must use these materials “with fidelity.” This was seen by the teachers I worked with as very harsh. We could no longer use supplemental materials we already had; no, we HAD to use the new textbooks. This was a huge change from my first year teaching when I was given a textbook and told to use it if you want. We lost a lot of autonomy with this bill, though I am not totally certain that was the intent. Or was it?

One big part of the problem was that we were supposed to stop teaching novels. Yep. Full stop. They didn’t fit into the “red line” of what we were supposed to be doing. The “red line,” as we called it, was from the Holt pacing guide. See, the publishers stuffed a whole lot of material into a school year that realistically could NEVER be covered, and then they selected the most important texts that must be taught and put them in RED – hence the name the “red line.” Now, there weren’t necessarily any objectionable texts in this required red line of texts we had to teach, BUT the point is WE HAD TO TEACH THEM. And we didn’t have time for anything else, really. And that is why we were directed to STOP TEACHING FULL-LENGTH NOVELS. In fact, we were told we couldn’t teach ANYTHING ELSE BUT THE RED LINE unless, of course, it was something else in the Holt materials. So… gone were the book projects, gone were the special things we did (like when I taught The Alchemist paired with Star Wars: A New Hope to learn about the Hero’s Journey), gone were any and all teacher creativity, originality, and freedom. Sigh.

It was frustrating. Many of us were upset. And we disagreed with the idea that we needed to give up novels. So we found a way around that, sort of. We assigned novels as outside reading, and then had SSR (sustained silent reading) time in class. It worked… sort of. After a year of this, the group of teachers I worked with decided to re-incorporate 1 novel per semester into the mix. We were rebels! After all, the district trainers who seemed to yell at us to teach this with FIDELITY! weren’t going around from school to school to actually check on us. And after a few years, it seemed the state or the district or the HOLT gods didn’t seem to care much about that fidelity anymore anyway, so we were able to have some freedom from the Red Line. We still used Holt and adhered to that red line, but we also made the choice to put our own touches on our curriculum. At least, that’s how it was at my school. I’ll admit, there are aspects of the Holt curriculum that I liked, like the structure and order of the curriculum, but I didn’t like being forced into it. And for the sake of what, exactly?

Looking back on this now, many years later, it’s hard for me to not get all conspiracy-theorist about this bill. Why was it passed? To make certain our test scores would go up? This was, after all, the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And the pressure was mounting to keep raising those test scores. And there aren’t any novels tested on the state tests; there were only short passages. So…. maybe by cutting out novels and practically forcing teachers to be using a mostly uniform curriculum statewide, then maybe we would be able to increase test scores?? Maybe? Sadly, it doesn’t sound too far-fetched to me now. These were just baby steps toward a bigger goal in the name of NCLB and standardized tests that were quickly becoming high stakes standardized tests.


With all the other things going on, there were also some incredibly cool things that I experienced in this middle-of-my-career period. We had implemented Smaller Learning Communities at my school because we were awarded an SLC grant from the federal government in 2002. As a part of this, we created smaller teams of students within our school, where they took as many classes together within the team as possible. One of those classes was called Crossroads, and it was designed by me and my soon-to-be husband, who was also an English teacher at the time.

We designed Crossroads as an introduction to high school, and it featured segments on college, careers, values, study skills, and the centerpiece of the course, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Our initial goal of the course was to change the culture of the school into one that was more positive, academically-focused, and proactive than it had been, and we believed teaching The 7 Habits was the way to go. And because of the SLC grant, we had the funding to do it. I love that we did it because we cared about the well-being of our students and not just their test scores.

For nearly 7 years, we taught Crossroads to the majority of our incoming freshman. As a teacher of Crossroads (I continued to teach English as well), I really enjoyed getting to know my students on a more personal level as we learned about how to apply to college and for financial aid, took field trips to local colleges, learned about various careers and took interest inventories and did online searches about various careers to pique their interests, talked about what respect and citizenship meant, helped them focus on study skills and organization, and discussed how to apply The 7 Habits to their lives. I thought it was a very helpful class, and certainly the feedback we received from students said as much.

We won awards for this course, like the California Golden Bell Award for Innovations in High Schools and an award from Stephen Covey himself and the Franklin Covey company. We presented to other schools. We were included in the 1st edition of The Leader in Me. It was exciting to feel like we were doing something that really touched on the social and emotional side of learning in addition to supporting the academic side.

Of course, once the funding ran out, which it did around 2007, the course died out. Like everything in education, money is needed to sustain things like programs, courses, and support positions.

Anyway, during the ten years I spent at Mar Vista High School, I felt like I was part of a team of dedicated educators who were really trying their best to ensure our students had the best and most supportive educational experience possible. I became part of the leadership team, felt empowered and energized, and more importantly, I felt valued. I loved that feeling.


Backing up a bit, in 2002, NCLB was passed. This was the most recent update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In short, the law stated that students in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school (we tested in grades 9, 10, and 11) needed to be tested, and by 2014, 100% of students needed to be deemed proficient on these tests. That’s right, 100% of students. Every. Single. One. I mean, everyone knew it was unrealistic, but it became law anyway.



In California, these tests had always been low stakes. They were a snapshot of how students were doing, and they were taken that way. Just a snippet of information to give an idea of progress – kind of like a poll. But the tests gained more importance and then more prominence each year after NCLB became law.

In the beginning of NCLB, there were lots of incentives to raise scores. And we didn’t need to raise scores that much in those first few years of the law, so we were fairly enthusiastic about trying to see if we could improve our scores. We also had money that had to be used for incentives to encourage students to do their best. From where, I am not sure. Federal money? State money? Wherever it came from, it didn’t last. And it went away after a couple years anyway.

It was almost fun to see if our students could improve their scores in those early years. I want to make something clear – these new CSTs had become high stakes assessments because of NCLB, but this concept was still new to us. Because it was new, it didn’t seem bad at first. I mean, It didn’t seem good either, but it was the law. At first, it seemed like a competition to see if we could get our scores up. We weren’t test prepping every day or letting it take over everything by any means. Yet. I mean, the test still only took up 1 week in the spring. No teachers were being evaluated based on their students’ test scores. And test scores didn’t factor in to student grades at all. We weren’t spending hours upon hours poring over test data. Simply put, test scores hadn’t become a monster yet in the early years of NCLB. I’m not saying this to defend the test; I’m trying to point out that when it started, it didn’t seem as bad as it soon became.

And so we did our best to encourage our students to do their best. We had assemblies. We had t-shirts. We provided healthy snacks during testing. One year, we decided to take our 9th-11th graders who took the test to the movies. That was a sight I’ll never forget – we chartered buses to the movie theatre where we filled up several theatres and watched The Scorpion King during the school day! It seems very strange to say that out loud now. But this money HAD to be used for incentives. So we tried to be creative. It was fun at the time, and now, looking back, it seems hilarious that we were allowed to do that. But we were really trying to celebrate our accomplishments in original and innovative ways, and we had this money that had to be used for that purpose. We even had teachers who wrote a rap about getting “3 more right” on the test because we realized that if students took the test just a little more seriously than before, that would result in big gains. And we were right! Our scores went up a lot in those first few years. We made our AYP! So much so that all the staff members at my school received a bonus one year! No kidding! We got a $5000 bonus!! Nowadays, I would call this merit pay, but at the time, I was pretty happy to get $5000 for not doing anything differently in my classroom except for encouraging my students to really do their best on the test. It all seems so ridiculous now. And it was.

Even though we were doing all these things to excite our students and try to get them to take the test seriously, I honestly feel like we weren’t taking away instructional time or overemphasizing the tests. That would come later – the closer it got to 2014, when the stakes were much higher. See the chart above – as the goal for proficiency spiked upward, we were spending more and more time on preparing for the tests. Suddenly, it seemed, I was incorporating test prep strategies into my daily warmups. Then we were teaching short lessons on test taking. Then we were giving practice tests and spending a lot more time looking at the data. It made me feel frustrated once I recognized what was happening.

On top of the requirements we faced from the federal government with NCLB, California added one more burden on our students with the law that required students to pass the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) in order to receive their diploma. This was supposed to go into effect with the Class of 2004, but there was some controversy over what to do about students who didn’t pass (and there were a lot of them), so it was moved to begin with the Class of 2006. This requirement remained controversial, and it was only recently that the state of California got rid of the exit exam and decided to award diplomas retroactively to thousands of students who didn’t pass it but did complete all other graduation requirements. I taught at a school with a high population of English Learners, and this extra requirement added a whole other heap of test-prepping stress onto students and teachers. We had separate classes for students who didn’t pass the first or second time around to prepare them specifically for the CAHSEE. It was sad and a waste of educational time that could have been better spent with meaningful classes. I’m glad it’s gone now.

So we had SLCs and PLCs. Students took CSTs and the CAHSEE. Because of NCLB, we had to make Federal AYP AND State API goals or at least make it to Safe Harbor — or else we’d be in PI, which is pretty much the same thing as SOL.

And this was in the 2000s… before we even had Common Core or SBAC. Geez.

A friend told me a little story that fits here: Imagine there is a giant pot on a stove with the heat on low. Inside the pot is a group of animals, relaxing and swimming around. There is no way for them to get out; they are simply enjoying the warm water. The problem is, the water is getting hotter over time. But it’s such a big pot and the heat is on low, so it’s taking a loooooooooong time for the water to get hot. But it is getting hotter. As the animals notice it getting hotter, they can’t really do much about it except try to get used to it. And they do. For a bit. And then it gets hotter. They are doing the best they can with the resources they have. They find a wooden spoon and try to climb it to no avail. I could go on, but this story is already kinda odd so it doesn’t really matter what happens next. The point it, it isn’t good. And the main point, if you can extrapolate one from that mess of a story, is that it took a long time for all of us to realize what had happened. To realize the prominence that the tests and the data were now holding in our classrooms. How they had slowly come to rule over us in the name of accountability. How we slowly lost control over what we knew to be sound instructional practices.

We handled it all with as much grace and compassion as we could, I think. But it was wearing on me over time.

I needed some space…

Stay tuned…



Teaching, a love story: PART 1

me last day

Today is my last day as a teacher. After 15 years as a high school English teacher, I am calling it quits.

I know I’m not the first to do so. Sometimes, quitting teaching seems like the trendy thing to do, sadly. I read this article and pretty much EVERY WORD rang true for me. Teachers are overworked and underpaid for sure, but there are definitely other reasons I’m leaving the profession I’ve loved so dearly for nearly two decades.

I’ve got a lot to say about my journey up to this point, and I’m starting now.

This is also my first blog. I’ve been meaning to start blogging for a while now, so here I go…

If I were to think of my teaching career as a love story of sorts, then I should really start at the beginning:


As a student, I’ve always had really great teachers. Beginning with Miss Luckey in kindergarten and first grade (We made donuts and fried zucchini sticks! She painted our names on visors that lit up and had rainbows on them! It was 1980, after all.), to Ms. Moore and Ms. Yandall in grades 2-4 (Both encouraged me to be creative. I remember putting on these wacky one-act plays for my class.), and Mrs. Davis in 5th grade (My all-time favorite!! She helped me rise above some bullying and teasing at a time when I really needed encouragement.), to Ms. Gulan in 6th grade (She pushed me academically, helped me stay focused, and was very supportive.) – I have some great memories of elementary school.

In junior high, I had mostly great teachers, but even the ones who weren’t great had something to teach me. In junior high, there was Mrs. Fox, Ms. Hay, Ms. Cappos, Mrs. Burks, Mrs. Montierth, Mr. Moseley, Mrs. Latham, and Mr. Medina who stood out to me as favorites. They taught me, of course, but they also encouraged me, helped me be a leader, inspired me to do my best. And in high school, there was Mrs. Zambruski, Mr. Lakin, Mrs. Syverson, and others who were invaluable in helping me reach my potential and encouraging me to be better than I thought I could be.

Mrs. Zambruski, my English teacher in 10th and 12th grade, in particular, really made me love reading and learning. I knew in 12th grade that I wanted to be a high school English teacher just like Mama Z (as we affectionately called her). English was my favorite class, and the time we spent in a circle dissecting the themes and symbolism in what we read was what I loved most. Looking for meaning and discussing what things meant to us had a strong effect on me. I came to see that literature held the keys to the secrets of the universe. That may sound a bit dramatic, but I truly loved learning and interpreting and being inspired by what I read. So much so that I knew I wanted to share that feeling with others by being a teacher.

Aside from loving English class, I also really loved the experience of high school. It was mostly a fun time, full of wonder and uncertainty and lasting memories. I liked feeling part of something special, even if I was the only one who felt it was special. I knew I wanted to be part of that something special again as a teacher. I wanted to help inspire my own students to live their own unique and wondrous life to its greatest potential. I wanted to teach. 


After college graduation in 1996, where I had majored in English, I had to find a job to support myself so that I could go back to school in the evenings to earn a teaching credential. There are many, many hoops one must jump through to become a teacher. But by spring of 1998, fresh-faced and ready at 24 years old, I was ready to complete my semester of student teaching. This was a big step for me, a chance for my career dreams of teaching students and inspiring a love of reading and writing to come true. It was also a semester of working full time and not getting paid for it, but such is the life of a student teacher. I made it through and felt ready for the big time.


After student teaching was complete, I was ready to look for a real teaching job. So I went back to the school district that I had attended and applied for a job. The idea of going back home into my neighborhood and giving back to the community that gave me my education appealed to me greatly. I was proud to be an alumnus of the district in which I wanted to teach. And I was lucky enough to score an interview in the fall of 1998 with Dr. Louise Phipps, who had been my principal back when I was in junior high and was now the principal of Mar Vista High School. She hired me immediately, and I was to start the following Monday.

My teaching schedule for that first year sounds completely crazy to me now, and I wonder how I managed to survive: 1 period of English 9, 1 period of English 10, 1 period of English 11, and 1 period of ELD 8 (that’s English Language Development, otherwise known as ESL). So 4 periods total (I was not quite full time for that first semester) AND in 4 different rooms. I had a big cart (my mobile classroom) that I wheeled with me to each room with all my supplies. My average class size was about 35 students. It was nuts, but I was super happy to be a teacher! I really was like Pollyanna when it came to teaching – nothing could upset me! By the second semester, I was only teaching 3 different grade level classes, or “preps” in teacherspeak, and I had my own classroom! I was full of such joy about my job at that time. I truly felt I was in the right place.

I stayed at Mar Vista High for 10 years, working with some of the best leaders. Dr. Phipps was selected as the California State High School Principal of the Year at some point in that 10 years, and that honor was well-deserved. What I realize about her now was that she did so much to encourage teachers to be leaders. She listened and empowered and encouraged and led from a place of wisdom and love, but boy, you definitely did not want to be on her bad side. Her gift was that of empowerment and vision – she helped teachers see what was possible and then encouraged them to go do it. I was so blessed to be part of her team for 10 years. From my vantage point now, I realize that her style of transformative leadership is so very valuable but unfortunately rare, and that makes me sad because we need more leaders like Dr. Phipps.

Another inspiration was Marieanne Perrault. She is the embodiment of teamwork and leadership. When you picture what a perfect coach should be – high standards, demanding, tough, inspiring, capable, caring, and on and on – Marieanne fits the bill and then some. She has this quality about her that feels like God is smiling at you through her when you do good work. She makes you want to do your absolute best. She was a joy to work with.

There were ups and downs during those ten years. But I was part of something special, which was that initial feeling I had wanted when I decided to become a teacher. I was part of a team, a family of caring educators who really wanted the best for our students. It was magic.

As an English teacher in the beginning of my career, I had the freedom to teach whatever I wanted. I remember asking my department chair what exactly I was supposed to teach and being told, “Here is the textbook we use. Here is a list of novels that we have categorized into grade levels. What you do with this is up to you.” That freedom was a little scary but also pretty exciting. In my classes, we were doing all these cool projects and reading a ton and engaging in all kinds of writing in those early years of my career. It was energizing. And also exhausting. 

But things were starting to change in education. 

Stay tuned for Part 2…