Teaching is a Giant Hairball

Today is the first day of school for local kids, and it has been more than a year since I stepped away from teaching. To mark the first day of school, I thought that I'd re-post a piece that I wrote explaining why I resigned from teaching to pursue my own path.


I could rant and rave about all the reasons that I stepped away from a twenty-year career as an art teacher in the public schools, but that would be just self-satisfying whining and complaining. I could simply say that it was to follow my dream of being an artist, but that’s just part of the reason. Instead of ranting and raving or giving a simple answer about following a dream, I want to show how teaching had changed during those twenty years in order to give people a little perspective into what teachers face.

Why I left a salaried position with good benefits to be a self employed artist boils down to one thing.

Teaching is a giant hairball.

If you're not a teacher, you might be scratching your head right now, thinking, “Huh?” My teacher friends probably already understand. Let me first say, that this is not my own idea. I am blatantly stealing the analogy from Gordon MacKenzie who worked for Hallmark Cards for thirty years. In his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, MacKenzie describes how he survived working for Hallmark as an artist by orbiting the giant hairball that was Hallmark. By staying disentangled from the bureaucratic, corporate mess he was able to survive. He describes Hallmark as a giant hairball, and how every new decision, policy, and procedure added another hair to the hairball, and over time, Hallmark grew into a massive tangle of hair because hairs were never taken away, only added.

I read that, and I thought, “Teaching is a giant hairball!” But there’s no way to orbit around it like Gordon MacKenzie did. As a teacher, you can’t stay on the fringe and not be pulled into the mess. You have to dive into that mass of tangled hairs and fight your way to clear a path to teaching. Simply put, teaching is full of rules, procedures, protocols, policies, regulations, and expectations that get in the way of teaching, and it has always been that way. But it has grown worse steadily with each passing year. It has become a bigger hairball, and that is why I left. I grew tired of fighting the massive tangle of hairs that obscured why I was there — the teaching.

Let me extend MacKenzie’s analogy a bit to illustrate this to the fullest extent that I can.

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Let’s imagine that teaching is a red rubber ball. Visualize that bright, bouncy ball. In it’s purest and simplest form teaching is about the connection between the teacher and the student, and there isn’t anything that gets in the way. You see the red rubber ball clearly and there are no tangles, no hairs, no impediments. The teacher has ready access to the red rubber ball of teaching. This pure teaching is rarely the case in public school, but there are instances that come close. Tutoring an individual one-on-one or teaching a class to the general public at an art center or community center might be the closest, but it’s not the usual case in public school.

In reality there have always been rules and regulations in public schools, so that bright red ball of teaching has always had a few hairs wrapped around it. There is no way around it. There have to be policies, procedures, and expectations in a school, or there might be anarchy. There has to be some kind of bureaucracy, but ideally, it shouldn’t hinder the teaching. These hairs shouldn't take much time to deal with allowing the teacher to quickly uncover the rubber ball and dive into teaching. That would be an ideal situation in today’s world of teaching.

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And that’s kind of how it was when I started teaching twenty years ago. There wasn’t much that got in the way. I had a schedule to contend with, meetings every now and then, planning to complete, grading to do, and a few phone calls to make. But those things were pretty easy to deal with, and I felt like much of my time was really dedicated to that connection between the students and myself. I was pretty much left alone, and the administration checked in occasionally to see how things were going. So, yes, teaching was a hairball, but it wasn’t daunting and overwhelming.  It wasn’t a giant tangled mess yet.

Over the years, however, more and more and more hairs have been added to the red rubber ball of teaching. It’s interesting to note that this corresponds to a rise in the use of technology, and each year many of the newly added hairs have dealt directly and indirectly with technology. But I digress. Nowadays, the tangled mess of hairs obscures the essential core that is teaching, and it takes increasingly more time and energy to deal with these issues. Remember hairs are always added, but they are never taken away. Some people might think, “So what, every job is like that. Bosses always add more things for you to do. Deal with it!”

But let me try to show the scope of things that were required, but are not necessary or even productive to teaching.

During my last few years of teaching, I had to deal with an increasing number of things that were handed down by administrators, and I had to do them. I had to untangle this mass of hairs that left little room to focus on the actual teaching, and administrators were constantly hovering and micro-managing to make certain that they were done so the appropriate boxes could be checked off on my end of the year evaluation.

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Let me share a few specifics.

Each year new district-wide mandates and requirements and new school-based initiatives and expectations were announced, and each required hours and hours of professional development to learn about these new ideas and how to implement them, and planning to figure out the best way to implement them. The ideas had to be implemented, and of course, data had to be collected to support these multiple initiatives. To show that we had implemented them, we had to fill out and file reports that documented the progress and completion of the new initiatives. Each of these things added many more hairs to the massive hairball.

When I wasn’t dealing with these district-wide and school-based mandates, I had other issues to deal with, like the hundred emails that came daily. Most of them could be ignored, but a handful of the emails needed to be answered thoughtfully and diligently. Simple, quick replies wouldn’t suffice, and there was the expectation that a reply would be sent within 24 hours. I had to deal with rising discipline problems because students were stressed out from the regime of standardized tests and assessments they had to endure. Many students just couldn’t hold it together all the time, so there were referrals and reports and conversations with parents, teachers, counselors, and the principal about it all. Each of these added more and more layers to the hairball.

There were the constant disruptions in the schedule with assemblies, field trips, testing, parties, and special events. It was impossible to keep all the classes working at the same pace because of all the things that interrupted the flow of instruction and the sequences of learning. Of course, there were meetings. They might be a necessity of schools, but there were faculty meetings, and team meetings, and committee meetings that never really seemed to accomplish anything. I guess they did satisfy part of the School Improvement Plan. I can’t forget about duties, where teachers were taken out of their classrooms to cover the hallway, or to stand in a noisy cafeteria, or to stand outside in rain, sleet, snow, and heat for bus or car duty. All of these things just added more hairs to the giant hairball.

Grading was a whole other situation. It was never a simply task, but when grade books moved to the Internet so that parents and students could have access to their grades 24/7, a whole new layer of hairs were added to the red rubber ball of teaching. A simple task like entering an assignment to be graded (not the actual grading, mind you) could take an hour. That’s just for a single assignment. So, more hairs.

I list these things not to complain, but to illustrate some of the things that teachers have to deal with that have little to do with actual teaching. I know that I haven’t included everything, and there are many other things that I could add. I’m quite certain that other teachers could add things that I can’t even think of right now. I just want to make it clear that teachers have to untangled a whole lot just to get to the teaching, and it’s not like once all of this tangled mass of bureaucratic stuff is cleared, you're done with it for the year. No, a teacher has to deal with this on a daily basis. You have to go in and untangle the giant hairball each and everyday so that you can get to what’s underneath — that red rubber ball. After all, that’s why there’s school in the first place — to connect with students and teach them. The most important part of teaching is buried, and a teacher has to work hard to clear away the extraneous stuff.

It’s exhausting to struggle with that tangled mess everyday, and the only way to deal with it — to get it all untangled is to stay late, come in early, or take work home with you. There’s just not enough time in the school day to get it all done because school districts add more and more for teachers to do but never add more time, and there becomes an expectation that you will dedicate your own time to get it all done because, after all, it’s for the kids! Though the teacher’s contract gives specific times that the teacher is suppose to be at work, all the teachers I know, work well beyond the contract. The great teachers do that and more. They sacrifice time with family and friends in order to get it all done. They work hard going in on weekends and taking work home, but at the same time, there is a devaluing of the profession. Administrators and principals see that teachers will continually give of their own time, and so it becomes another expectation. But all of those extra hours of staying late and going in early and on weekends deflate the profession and the salaries of the teachers. And that’s what I couldn’t take anymore — the devaluing of my profession by the school board and the administrators by heaping on more and more every year, with the expectation that it will all just get done and, oh, there will still be outstanding teaching and learning going on in the classroom.

In the end I didn’t have the energy or the stamina to go in day after day and deal with so many things that had nothing to do with the core of teaching. I have always loved sharing my art and my passion for art. Teaching always gave me a way to do just that, but after fighting to untangle the mass of hairs day in and day out for years and years, I had no energy left for my students, for my art, for my wife, for my friends, or for myself. I was burned out, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d come home exhausted and worn out, and all I wanted to do was to sleep or veg out in front of the tv.

I used to love teaching, and there was nothing like seeing the look on a student’s face when they struggled and struggled with an idea or concept and then finally got it. But teaching had changed so much in the twenty years that I taught. It seems like teaching now isn’t about the connection between student and teacher, though administrators try to tell you that it is. Teaching seems to be about dealing with a tangled mess and checking off boxes to say that you’ve done it, and that’s why I don’t love teaching anymore. Teaching changed, and I just don’t love it. I’m afraid that it’s just going to get worse, and that’s very unfortunate and very disheartening.

Teaching is a giant hairball that keeps growing and growing, and I just couldn’t take untangling that mess anymore. That is why I left.