I get asked quite often why I decided to make a move from college-level work to teaching in a k-12 environment. There was the obvious fact that I could not find a college-level teaching job. I had nibbles, interviews here and there. I even had one job pan out, but I turned it down because of distance and work load. There are plenty of practical things about the hours, the pay, and the type of work that made me choose to leave college work. But I think much of my decision was based on intangible things that had to do with the way I interacted with the institution.
It can be summed up with a phrase that I uttered to a colleague the other day, “We are the school.” At every place I’ve ever worked, I’ve always taken that attitude. I am part of the institution. I represent it out in the world. I contribute to it. I help keep it going, improve it, etc. and I feel that my colleagues do the same. I expect in return remuneration, of course, but also a general appreciation of my contributions to the institution. That appreciation does not have to come from the top, i.e., the administration. But I do need it to come from my colleagues first and foremost, but also students and, in the case of a k-12 school, parents (all of whom are also the school). I need to feel a sense that what I do matters, even if it’s just to a handful of people, and I need to have some semi-tangible evidence of that–appreciative emails, a thank you in the hallway, a student who lingers in the class to chat or who says hi every day in the hall. And I try to pay these things forward as well.
I guess I would classify this as a sense of community, and I suppose a collaborative work environment, a sense that we are all in this together. I get that from where I am now, even as I am aware that not everyone may feel the way I do about it. I feel it’s my job to help them feel that way about it (or alternatively, just to recognize that some people aren’t happy and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I will ignore them).
Almost every institution of higher education I’ve worked at, save one, has been the opposite of this, to the point where I just decided that the one, my graduate school, was the exception, not the rule. What I’ve found at many colleges is an air of competition, of differentiation into us and them, of a lack of empathy or even a lack of desire to understand what people across the campus do. There’s a rigidity to most places that is stifling and unproductive. Faculty get appreciated and recognized by their field and not their colleagues within their institution. Faculty may build relationships with students during a class but almost never outside of class. Staff are invisible to both faculty and students and their work goes unappreciated, and unnoticed except when it goes badly wrong and then it’s suddenly “all their fault”.
It’s a toxic environment that’s hard to fix, especially in a place with lifetime employment on one side and comings and goings among both staff and students on the other. And I am vaguely aware that such issues exist on a smaller scale at my current institution. But they are not what defines it, which has been the case at too many places I’ve been involved with.
I guess I feel that institutions of education should encourage a feeling of working toward the greater good, a common cause of educating citizens of the world. Even at research-heavy places, there should be a feeling that your work could lead to the betterment of society, whether that’s through finding cures for diseases, building the next great app, or helping people understand how literature creates a view of the world around us. Instead, many places seem to foster a dog eat dog world of fighting over scarce resources, of claiming some kinds of work is more important than other kinds (based on funding models), of a focus on looking out for oneself rather than for the institution or its members.
I could say a lot more, but I’ll just end with saying that I’m grateful for my job, for my colleagues, for my students, and their parents, all of whom make me feel like what I’m doing is worth it, even when they’re challenging me. And that’s a really nice feeling.