Why I Left Education: I Can’t Be Part of the Problem Anymore

“Students will float to the mark you set.” – Mike Rose

Yesterday, I physically and metaphorically closed a door, a classroom door, for the last time. For 13 years, I’ve worked in higher education. That’s 13 Septembers and 13 Januaries of new students. That’s 26 semesters total. In those 26 semesters, I’ve taught, on average, 50 students a semester (sometimes less, sometimes more). I’ve seen 1,300 students walk out of my classrooms.

Memories flood back to me like fragmented images, like sentence fragments.

The kid who had never read a full book and did in my class…
The student whose children I watch grow on social media…
The student who threw a desk at me…
And the student who never left me alone with him again…
The email that students didn’t like my saying “I don’t care if you do homework”…
Brian, whose behavior caused 90% of my classroom behavior warnings…
The student who called me the summer after he failed out of school for emotional support…
The student who acted all bro and who I bailed out of trouble with character references at least twice because he was a hard-working kid…
The kid whose dad wanted her to be an engineer but who changed majors to writing…
The student who told me my class showed her she could write…
The kid who wrote “women are the catheter of life” and to whom I responded, “no woman wants to be called a urine tube”…
The kid who made gummi bear armies and wore a banana costume to class…
The kids who did Write Club…
The students with anxiety disorders with whom I shared my own struggles…
The kid who wore a “sausage party” t-shirt and chewed gum through a presentation… 
The kid who taught me about being genderqueer…
The kid who hugged me so hard upon leaving that I almost fell off a chair… 

Leaving education brings nostalgia for the 1,300 kids I’ve worked with over the last 13 years. Even the ones I hated (Brian, I’m looking directly at you) changed who I am. Parenthood made me a better teacher, and teaching has made me a better parent. Leaving this me behind comes at a cost, but I can’t be a part of the problem anymore.

How Learned Helplessness Causes Long-Term Economic Harm

Parents and educational institutions created and continue to create generation upon generation of graduates with learned helplessness. Parents want the best for their children. Traditionally, a college education led to the best. As more students gained college entrance, the entrance requirements became more stringent. More sports. More extracurricular activities. More AP classes. Better grades. More and better always.

Worried that their kids wouldn’t get the best, parents placed more pressure on teachers. The government created student-achievement based standards tied to funding. When one standard failed, a new, equally flawed one replaced it. With funding tied to achievement, teachers passed students who should have failed. Parents pressured teachers to give extensions, extra chances, extra credit. Administrations complied with parent requests.

Thus, several generations of high school graduates entered college unprepared for the rigor of working to a deadline. Thus, several generations of students expected colleges to pass them through. Colleges, increasingly competing for student tuition dollars, forced compliance with these requests.

College graduates now leave with papers proclaiming their preparedness for the workforce. Yet, increasingly students leave college unprepared.

Companies hiring college graduates spend money on recruitment, background research, and training. While the cost of a “good hire” averages $4,000, a “bad hire” costs approximately $25,000. In other words, between recruitment and training, a college graduate who lasts only a few years in a given job ultimately costs that company a lot of money. The time to train a new employee and the time for a senior employee to mentor a college graduate cost a company money. Theoretically, these investments should be an economic boon. Yet, they aren’t when that college graduate leaves the job within a year because they were poor workers or felt unappreciated based on over-praise by parents and educational institutions.

Enabling students to success, a false success, costs companies money. Those companies then impact the overarching societal economy.

Learned helplessness costs all of us money.

Why Lack of Accountability Furthers the Negative Economic Impact

Part of parents and institutions enabling learned helplessness is never holding kids accountable. This lack of accountability starts innocently enough. An overtired kid throws a toy, and a parent makes an excuse. A forgetful kid leaves a book at school, and the parent goes back to look for it. A school project is difficult, and a parent does part of it. A kid fails to submit work, and the administration makes the teacher offer extra credit when a parent complains.

Increasingly, society makes excuses for failures. The problems start as early as kindergarten and last right up to college graduation. The parents who complain the loudest get what they want for their kids. Not only are kids not allowed to fail, but they aren’t held accountable for their actions.

Parents won’t accept excuses from their kid, but they make them for their kids. Teachers, pressured by administrators, give in and fix the situation. Even in higher education, an angry parent making the right phone call to the right person with the right threat can excuse their kid’s behavior.

In the real world, people are held accountable. Regulations hold businesses accountable. Lawsuits hold people accountable. When kids don’t learn to be responsible for their actions, they cost companies, and society, money. If we want to build a strong economy, we need to teach children, teens, and young adults the values of taking responsibility for their actions.

How Viewing Education as a Service Not a Social Good Costs Money

All of the above arguments relate to the idea that our society treats education as a purchased service, not a social good. Unprepared students time and again tell me, “I’m paying a lot of money for this.” Colleges cost more money every year using an unsustainable, out-of-date model. Tuition increases average 3% annually, more than the average salary increase.

Parents and students see themselves as consumers purchasing a degree. This view leads parents and students to see themselves as being owed something. Thus, many students assume that educators and educational institutions must deliver customer service similar to that of a four-star restaurant. Thus, when they call administrators to complain about the service provided, administrators who fear losing tuition money give in to the requests.

“Be nicer,” they tell educators. “Don’t make it sound like a punishment,” they say. Educators in higher education now spend as much time tracking student achievement through warnings as high school teachers.

When these young adults reach the workforce, they will not be prepared to face the consequences that consistent lateness, absences, and missed deadlines cause. A cold keeps them in bed, but they then want the work to be accepted. Some students treat a health services note as being the same as a hospitalization.

Our educational institutions are not preparing these students for the workforce. In their first jobs, they will earn poor performance reviews and be confused why their bosses put them on 90-day plans. Those plans cost companies, and society, more money.

How Academic Integrity Relates to Corporate Integrity

Learned helplessness, lack of accountability, and education as a service all lead to the devaluation of academic institutions and educators. Over the last 13 years, I have worked at five institutions. One story exemplifies diminished integrity.

One semester, I learned that one of my students had paid another student to do all the work for my course, which led to a passing grade. I learned this in a non-institutional, social setting. I had to choose between professional integrity and personal relationships. In the end, professional integrity won, and I prosecuted the case through the academic honesty board. The academic honesty board suspended the student who wrote the papers for a semester and removed them from a job they had at the institution.

The following semester, I learned that a higher power within the institution had overturned the suspension.

Somewhere in the workforce, right now, is an individual who engaged in the academic equivalent of insider trading. An educational institution felt keeping a student enrolled was more important than academic integrity.

When educational institutions refuse to enforce academic integrity, they refuse to send students with integrity into the workforce. Society collectively gnashes it teeth when CEOs embezzle or commit acts of insider trading. However, the institutions we entrust to instill integrity refuse to enforce consequences. Those students become executives who dump stock shares in advance of a public announcement that will hurt their value.

Why We Need to Set Better Marks

At the outset of this article, I quoted Mike Rose: “Students will float to the mark you set.” This quote from “I Just Wanna Be Average” encapsulates how we can make education better.

In my heart, I know I tried. The marks I set for my students? They were consistently high. I’ve had the genuine joy and pleasure to watch many students meet those standards. I’ve pushed students. I’ve guided students. I’ve mentored students. I’ve cared about students. I’ve brought students into my family.

Educators can only set marks that institutions and parents allow their children to strive for. Increasingly, parents and institutions fail precisely the educators who work tirelessly to create marks to which students must swim not float.

Increasingly, institutions and parents devalue educators, the ones in the weeds. They tie our hands. They strip us of our authority. They undermine our abilities.

Increasingly, institutions and parents harm society. They enable learned helplessness. They refuse to teach accountability. They forget that education is a social good, not a commodity.

I can’t be part of this problem anymore. I don’t know if I can help find the solution, but I can’t continue to work three jobs. I can’t continue the uphill battle of teaching while ignoring my family.

So, one last time, have a drink with me. Let’s teach them how to say goodbye. Let’s teach me how to say goodbye.