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Fight or Flight

Tired of. . . Teaching? Looking for the meaning of life? Or just figuring out who I am for what job? Thirty six years of life traveled and the plane at altitude is on fire. The flames lick the engine jets on either side. Debating how my teaching acts so far might have mattered, survival takes over. I’m burned out. I jump. I took the DISC assessment, a behavioral profile. It was recommended to me by a former colleague. He was sure I would rate the highest on “supportive”, because that’s what teachers are I suppose to all those who imagine them. Supportive. My “supportive” and “dominant” traits were about equal, surpassed by “cautious”. That is an interesting outcome for someone who feels consistently thrust into the unknown, especially now as I am in the midst of turbulence, a professional transition after ten years of work in Guatemala. “What do you do?” they ask at the professional meet and greets.

“Education,” I say to some. “Nonprofit,” I say to others. The fact is I am in uncharted territory, no man’s land, blank spaces between the bold print on the resume employed to mark to which “club” you belong. I am left without a brand that could billow out mid flight as a backup parachute. I don’t feel very supportive nor dominant currently. I’m rapidly jerking on the ripcord as unconnected traits, “careful”, “focused,” “results-oriented” and “collaborative.” They are strings with no tension to create my desired outcome, next steps, a goal and a path to get there.

One of my part time gigs takes place at the local library. I sat at a library help desk with, Kari, a first year teacher who works primarily with teens on alternate weekends and during the summer. In the down time between patron questions we discussed her difficulty interacting as a change agent in her current school district, the next career steps she was choosing and an upcoming professional development session she volunteered to facilitate.

“Professional development is generally only organizing,” Kari observed. “Teachers are not hirable. Employers see them as someone who just wants to do things their way,” she lamented. “The staff doesn’t want to listen or try new things,” she critiqued. The breakdown was one of communication, common vocabulary. In the same way that my educational experience in a variety of contexts abroad was apparently not translatable on my resume, her observations and desires for next steps hit the same unevenness, the bumps between goals and the training to reach them. What is the difference between us? Kari wants to make herself a leader. I want to help her make each of the teachers in her school a leader. How can we both find a job? Satisfaction?

Destination: Who are you? At first glance, my teacher education background sees a lack of direction in those loose strings that the professional survey characteristics provide. They are seemingly not quite taught enough to pull open the parachute. Still, they are somehow easier to follow than the strands so tight on the primary chute, my reflection around educational ideology and decision making. What I refer to I recently found exemplified in a survey called, “Six Belief Systems”. The descriptions, “social reconstructionism”, “academic rationalism”, “technologist”, “self-actualization”, “cognitive process” and “religious orthodoxy” were taken from Robert Garmston’s book, Cognitive Coaching, and are intended to analyze personal priorities and belief systems for teachers. They are constructs deemed useful to understand “who” you are as a teacher.

In my blog post, "The Expertise Gap: A Bedtime Story for Adult Learners", I emphasized the importance of the adult learner taking on the “teacher” role and applying their knowledge of learning to learn as a facilitator of their own learning provided by teachers and caregivers in childhood. This is another example of the decentralization of knowledge but not of the deprofessionalization of teachers if “expert” may be redefined. Using my definition, “expert” would not refer to the individual with all the answers, but the individual with the ability to coach someone else, or him or herself. The “expert” teacher in this scenario, doesn’t teach learning; he or she teaches teaching to the audience at hand: child, parent, volunteer tutor, nonprofit staffer, first year classroom teacher, dog or personal trainer. Furthermore, the expansion of an educator identity using common professional descriptors allows for a larger shared identity. This perspective will make both Kari and myself more successful and employable, because the community we build, not the one we find, listens.

It’s more difficult to tie together the loose strings than to assume the tight ones will hold, but in reaching out and redefining audience, I find I have more balance upon hitting the ground than I predicted, as well as more cover letters to write. The question that matters is not the usual teaching question of “how” but “why”, “why me”. My answer is neither fight nor flight, but expedition


Destination: What do you want? “To help people,” is my immediate response. It has been tempered over the years with, “to reach what they decide they are committed to achieve.” Kari answers along a similar line of thought, “To make a difference, even a small one, even one that is insignificant when compared to the overall reality.” Neither mentioned money; although, the capital I expect we would appreciate is currency called respect, especially if that respect translates into greater employability. Outside of compensation, Matthew Lynch, a guest contributor on, cited working conditions, teacher education, and mentoring as the four biggest factors in teacher turnover. Good working conditions were defined as, “administrative support, availability of professional resources, freedom to express their opinions on matters related to their profession and the empowerment to influence policy.” Teacher education included programs that combined coursework with fieldwork training experience.” Mentoring specifically mentioned terms like “guidance” and “outside perspective.” None of these three factors are specific to one type of the educational ideologies listed in Garmston’s work. However, my loosey-goosey professional characteristics, “careful”, “focused,” “results-oriented” and “collaborative” very easily connect to the areas listed above that determine teacher attrition rates. Why? The tight strings should be cut and the loose ones retied so that the educational community determines professional image and action through the same professional development that “administrative” professions commonly mentioned, such as business, receive. All teachers should be coached as leaders. There should be more positions for teacher leaders. We resolve both questions, job satisfaction. Then my friend and I could happily pack our lunches to go off to work each day, not our parachutes.

I want professional development, both pre and post certification, to abandon the micro reflection and philosophy and admit to its teachers that employers are looking for characteristics as a leader and a learner, not as a mythical flag bearer of theory long buried in dusty books. Cited in Stephen Noonoo’s blog in eSchool news, The 7 questions every new teacher should be able to answer[2], “the traditional skill we have valued in teachers when paper as the dominant media—the ability to transfer knowledge of a subject—is becoming less important. Increasingly a teacher’s knowledge can be found online and in various learning styles.” Moreover, teachers should then demand a similar class of inclusive vocabulary for themselves, cutting the restrictive cords that limit personal development and growth within their educational profession. Understanding that there is value for all in “what is in it for them”. This is not selfishness. It is what Adam Grant calls, “otherish”. This means that “they care about benefiting others, but they also have ambitious goals for advancing their own interests.”[3] The rapid change used to motivate and propel us forward can be our own. We are the audience most impacted by our own work, and that is okay.

“I’ve already decided to leave so what can I do next year? I will be attending graduate school for library science. It’s like I already quit,” she whispers almost hanging her head. I want to comfort her and me. “Guatemala’s environment was not improved by my Peace Corps service, but it raised my level of comfort as an advocate. I left much of the literacy work in Guatemala attempted post Peace Corps still undone, but I blended my administrative and teacher persona into an agent for change in education.” Questions float by me gently as the parachute finally billows open. “You didn’t quit. You are still an educator. That job exists in a variety of forms and demands more than educational theory. Your skills not your job title define you.” I may very well feel like I’m falling now, but with a panoramic view versus one staring straight at the ground, DISC assessment[4] assures me the only characteristic I may actually be lacking is a bit of patience.


[1] This term is used by the National Outdoor Leadership school and teaches that your concern for others must equal your concern for yourself. Grant employs this example to explain the success of givers.

[2] If you are interested the seven questions are: 1) How do you manage your own professional growth? 2) How do you teach students to learn what you don’t know? 3) How do you teach students to become problem designers? 4) What are your expectations for students to self-assess their work and publish it for a wider audience? 5) What is your global relationship? 6) How do you give students an opportunity to contribute purposeful work to others? 7) How do you teach students to manage their own learning?

[3] He continues, “Selfless giving in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming. Being otherish means being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight, using them as a guide for choosing when, where, how, and to whom you give.”

[4] Recall that my characteristics were, “careful”, “focused,” “results-oriented” and “collaborative.”

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