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Escape From Public School Nation
I would like to thank Pam Slim from “Escape from Cubicle Nation” for the inspiration for this post. Slim penned her now famous blog post in which she wrote to CEOs, CFOs, and the like, as to why she was fed up with the corporate culture and how it sucked people’s souls from their bodies.
The intent of this post is going to be in the same vein but will focus on why I left the United States’ public school system. Yes, it could be considered a “rant” of sorts but I’m allowed to do that from time to time. It ain’t all rainbows and unicorns all the time, folks. Just note that this is not a rant on current U.S. public school personnel, as they are doing the best job they can with the resources they are given.
I will start with the big picture items:
Now, I’ve been out of the U.S. for four years and I don’t watch much TV but do I even have to mention the situation in Wisconsin? There are many good articles about that and how teacher’s livelihood is being threatened. Please Google “Wisconsin” and “collective bargaining” and see what comes up.
Those teachers that were protesting should consider going overseas.
School boards… so, let me get this straight… someone who once sat in a classroom is going to tell me how I should do my job. To the doctors out there, do I diagnose patients for you? To the lawyers, do I tell you how to write legal briefs? To the business people, yes, schools have budgets but our costs affect your children but you are in no position to say that things should be cut.
Currently, a large recurring problem in the United States education system is the cutting of valuable sports and arts programs. Isn’t getting up in front of people and speaking to a large group of people a very valuable skill (hint: drama)? I know the nation needs engineers but not everybody is a math and science student. Did members of Congress read Daniel Pink’s book called “A Whole New Mind”? Maybe they should. Do members of Congress read anything at all that pertains to ordinary people?
Basically, it says how jobs like accounting and law, even medical jobs are being outsourced to places like India. So what will emerge is an economy that relies more heavily on the creative people. He gives the example of how Target hired an architecture professor from Princeton to design a $5 toilet brush.
Reason… people want their everyday, ordinary things to be prettier and the creative types will fill those roles. This pertains to cars, chairs, houses, toasters, cell phones and not just for toilet brush market.
Considering the disconcerting and rather unsettling state of education in America, how could I possibly be expected to stay – or work – or live – in such a tense and unstable environment? And the fact that my government is seemingly doing very little to change things makes my decision to work in education overseas that much easier for me.
Not to mention that Greenspan and Bernanke’s fiscal policy flooded the economy with more money, thereby making my small paycheck worth less and less each day.
Recently, I read an article from “PostMasculine.com”, about working overseas, in which the author discusses how our ancestors came to America because of opportunity; opportunity for a better life, a more secure life, democracy and so on and so forth. I love this article.
Ironically, opportunity is the very reason I left the U.S. and synchronously, its public school system.
What opportunity could that be?
Well, since you ask… the opportunity for a better life… for ME.
I chased opportunities. Better opportunities.
And now for the small picture items…
At first, I chased the money because I needed to. While working in the U.S. public school system, I had a mountain of student loan debt that was not getting anywhere close to being paid off.
I admit it… I know now I was foolish for taking out those loans. Like many other hopeful college students, I hoped for a greater salary and increased earnings but that was not the result for me.
It wasn’t always this way. When I got into the profession after working on Wall St., I had ambitions to make a difference in the hallways, cafeterias, athletic fields and class trips of American schools. But over time, the soul got sucked out of me for a variety of reasons.
Currently, there is a major assault on school personnel in general in the U.S. I am sure you are familiar with these arguments, and I hear them all the time: “You only work 9 months out of the year”, “you are overpaid for the amount of work you do”, “automatic pay raises”, “you get a pension, I don’t”, “you get holidays off”, and the ever popular “you only work till 3:00” (many days we work much later than that).
Typically, these are the people who have never worked in a school so I would invite you to please come and see what we do, sit in our chairs, grade our students’ papers, comfort the kid who goes home and gets beaten on a daily or weekly basis.
People love it when teachers shield students from gunfire or tornadoes but then they want to take away collective bargaining rights or vote down initiatives to give a salary increase, and then calling us greedy in the process.
When I graduated from my school counseling program in 2005, my classmates and I coveted that seemingly well paying job in a Long Island school district. However, if there was one job opening there would inevitably be 400 resumes from candidates that would eagerly apply. My chances were slim and none, so I left the building.
I found another way
I didn’t want to have a string of leave replacements or short term school counseling positions, so I went to South Carolina in search of a job. Fortunately, I found one right away (I chased opportunity). Some of my classmates couldn’t fathom leaving their home state to find a job and held onto hope. Oh well… I hope they were prepared for the long road ahead of not finding a school counseling job.
I was ambitious and excited. I went down there from New York because there were positions open and schools that needed the services of a male school counselor.
However, the pay was absolutely dismal. How was I supposed to survive on this? I didn’t get in this job for the money but jeez. I felt bad for the police and firefighters in that state. It seemed that the lawmakers of South Carolina did not care much about its public employees or its schools. I heard the “you only work 9 months” spiel one too many times.
Then, I left for what I thought were greener pastures, and they were greener for a time – I got a job in the richest district in Colorado and it was great.
However, it was short lived. Plus, I still didn’t make a dent in those loans. The balance was creeping higher and higher for me each year.
Then something happened that I knew was going to happen: the financial meltdown, which contributed to a failed budget in 2008. My head was now on the chopping block. It was then that I started to become very disenchanted and disillusioned with the system: the lack of support from the government and elected officials, the lack of financial stability and the cutting of benefits.
The parents said they supported teachers and I believed them. I formed some great relationships with a few of them and I’m still in contact with them today.
But, a small percentage of them placed blame upon me and my colleagues as to why kids failed classes; parents unrealistically expected me to teach motivation to their kid, who didn’t want to do homework or even go to school.
That’s another thing, parents. Why did some of you make me feel like I was your indentured servant, that “my taxes pay your salary?” Well, if we actually broke out the numbers and pinpointed the percentage of your property taxes that actually go into my salary, and not the electricity of the school building or buses, not to mention the other thousands of teachers in the district, then your contribution to my salary would actually be quite minimal.
The point that I’m trying to get across here is the tone in which you spoke to me. You made me feel like I owed you something and that I was not paying up. From my experience, I have found that the parents I have dealt with in the two international schools in which I have worked have not once held the “I pay your salary so you must do A, B, & C!” over my head.
Ron Clark wrote an excellent letter to parents on CNN.com. Google it.
Could it happen in the future, in an international school? Of course, but I’ve been overseas for the same amount of time as I was working in the states and it hasn’t happened once here.
Oh, and if you’re going to berate me for “interrogating” your son or daughter for very valid reasons or tell me that “the school is doing nothing for my child” then I want a raise. I didn’t get paid enough to take some of the demeaning things you said to me.
No person that is trying to help your child succeed should be treated the way you treated me or my colleagues. It was wrong and shame on you for modeling that behavior for your child.
Also, I now see why your kid talks to me and his teachers the way he does. Apples don’t fall far from trees.
If I spoke to my teachers, administrators, or counselors like that, I would have been scared to go home because I would feel “Killers'” wrath. And “Killer” was not my father’s nickname. “Killer” was the nickname I gave to my mother when I was twelve because she would not let me go to the bathroom while at church!
I once made the mistake of telling my Dad that my teacher might call home that night. He replied, “I hope you told her that you were an orphan”.
Maybe It’s A Sense of Entitlement?
Do these points speak to a sense of entitlement in the American mindset? Yes, you are entitled to a free education, no argument there. To me, it seems like some young people see that we have become the richest nation in the world and want a part of it but don’t want to do the hard work to get it. I’m not talking about the high achievers, and even some of the middle achievers here either.
When I was getting my master’s in school counseling, I worked in construction and we would go to Home Depot for some materials and there would be dozens, maybe hundreds, of Latino day laborers. Yes, many were illegal but they were hungry for the work (and they were damn hard workers).
Why were there no American kids in the crowds (white or black or whoever)? To stand amongst “those people” was seemingly below them.
I heard many kids in the schools say that they would never work at McDonalds. It’s a means to an end and they won’t work there for the rest of their lives.
If I was hungry for money I would work at nearly any place that would hire me. My grandparents and parents called it opportunity and they jumped at it.
The rise of international schools all over the world speaks to the mindset of the emerging countries. They want education because they want a better life and will do anything to get it. They’ll climb the hill both ways in the snow to get to school on time and treat teachers like gold because they see that that person has their best interests at heart.
But I digress…
How do you expect me to live in the same or similar neighborhood as you if you don’t pay me a solid wage? If I’m not able to achieve financial stability then I will flee to greener pastures. I want to get ahead financially just like you.
Teachers should not be relegated to the segment of society that is financially just above water. It’s a noble profession… or at least it used to be.
Why are more and more of our best and brightest kids going into investment banking and learning how to create and sell “financial products”?
It’s because they know that teaching doesn’t pay well and it’s not prestigious anymore (they also don’t have to go through years of schooling and sleepless nights to become a medical doctor… or take out soul crushing loans that will take years to pay off).
Another reason for me not coming back to the U.S. in the near future is my caseload of kids. I have about 80 right now. I used to have upwards of 350. That does not just mean 350 kids. It means that I had to deal 350 kids – plus 350+ parents.
Some kids had one parent and some had 2, some even had 3 or 4. Thus, more phone tag, more inconsistent parenting, and more kids that struggle, take drugs/drink or have low self-esteem. Yet you want the school to solve the problem? Cut the caseloads and students per class.
Some parents just want their kids looked after while they are at work. It’s funny when you can decrypt what parents say and do after working with them for weeks. They say they will take the advice we give them but their actions say something different.
Do you have any idea what’s it’s like to try to help 350+ kids get into their “dream” college or what they want to do if college is not for them when you have to coordinate junior conferences with them and their parents? There just isn’t enough time in the day or weeks in the semester.
Since I’ve left the U.S., the problems in the district that I was in have just gotten worse. My friends and former colleagues are being put through the ringer by the school board. They say they want to “fix” the schools and give people choice and whatever other lingo they want to use.
The school where I worked had the top GPAs for athletes in the state and the top ACT scores in the county. It was a wonderful school academically and still is.
So, why is there a newfound interest in “fixing” the schools in my old district? Is it because it is the richest county in the state? I don’t recall any failing schools in the county. If lobbyists are involved, then obviously a lot of money is involved and they will go along with anyone who is giving them money.
Maybe those that are so eager to “fix” the schools should head to rural South Carolina to fix schools that are truly failing. I’ve seen those schools first hand and they need fixing “right quick”!
Moving on to happier things… I Got Dreams!
Allow me to be a little selfish here. Pam Slim’s article asks CEOs to consider their employees’ dreams, so I had to ask myself… “What about my dreams?”
When I was working in SC I had money to do absolutely nothing!! I’m all for hard work, and so I worked two jobs for a good part of my life. But, when I have to save up for months just to be able to go home for Christmas break (by car), that speaks volumes.
A friend who I worked with overseas once said to me, “Ever since I worked in education in the U.S., I’ve always been broke.” Now, I know I will get those people that say “you chose that job” or “just quit and work in the private sector”.
I thought about quitting… I almost actually did it twice. But I found another way, I made a different choice and I still managed to keep the job I love.
I am currently working as a school counselor at an amazing international school in Shanghai, China and I could not be happier in what I’m doing and where I am living. I am currently living my dream. It might not be similar to your dream but please read on.
I’m chasing opportunity.
Each year, when I go back home to see family and friends, I undoubtedly get the question: “So, when do you plan on coming back home?”
My answer is always the same, just sometimes worded differently. Depending on my mood, it could be “Ummm… not for a while” or, if I’m feeling frisky, it could be “why would I? I love where I am and what I’m doing. If I was working in the U.S., I would not feel as appreciated as I do and I definitely would not be able to have this lifestyle, if I was even lucky enough to have a job at all.”
I always dreamed of traveling during my summers and the trips I’ve taken have been amazing. When I would go to the library in the U.S., I would always read “Outside” magazine (with all of the trip advertisements in the back) and wonder how I would ever be able to afford those trips.
Some of the countries I’ve visited since I’ve lived overseas include:
-Hong Kong, Germany, Philippines, Czech Republic, South Korea, Thailand, Bali, Poland, Switzerland, Portugal, Ireland, England, Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Japan, Monaco and the United Arab Emirates.
I’ve also had some amazing experiences in the aforementioned countries:
-I played in the World Ultimate Club Championships in Prague in 2010, something I never would have been able to do if I didn’t live overseas
-I snowboarded epic powder in Niseko, Japan
-I took a river boat up the Mekong Delta from Vietnam to Cambodia
-While in Monaco one night, I crossed a road and was in France. The next day, I took a train and went to Italy for lunch because I felt like it
-I won a free hotel stay at an amazing resort in Bali
-I experienced a major earthquake (not so fun though)
-On the agenda for this summer’s adventure (2013): the Trans-Mongolian Railroad & Trans-Siberian Railroad!!
I’ve had sooooo much fun… and met sooooo many interesting and fun people in this whole process. I’ve just learned so much about other cultures from this experience.
More importantly, I have also learned a great deal about myself.
AND… the knowledge that I have gained in my profession is top notch. I help students navigate university applications in many countries but that is the technical side of what do.
I’ve gotten to know students (and parents) from all walks life and from dozens of different countries. That is being globally minded!
What I Have Learned Since Being Overseas
I learned that I can figure things out by myself and that things are not as bad as they seem when in a sticky or uncomfortable situation. I’ve learned that people are generally very nice and accommodating and most will help you in the blink of an eye if you just smile and ask politely (not that I didn’t know this before but it works even when you don’t speak the language).
With all of the debates about immigration, gay marriage and the like going on right now, the main theme that I hear is that everybody preaches open-mindedness and to be globally minded.
Well… here I am.
Now I can put myself in the immigrants shoes because I am the person that doesn’t speak the local language or know the precise history of the country in which I live (but working on both of those each day).
In the U.S., how was I supposed to tell kids to be more global in their thinking when I rarely experienced the globe myself? Going on cruises doesn’t really lend itself to becoming globally minded.
I was telling and helping kids to go achieve their dreams but I wasn’t pursuing my own. I really wanted to travel more. I’ve learned that achieving my dreams is entirely possible… I just have to make it priority number one and that it’s easier than I thought to travel the world and it doesn’t have to cost that much.
I also got to a point where life got very “ho-hum” and if I didn’t do something now, I’d blink and it would be twenty years later and I wouldn’t have done anything.
It’s not that I wasn’t open-minded before, but now I’m so open-minded that I’m becoming close-minded towards people that haven’t ever left their comfort zone of home. Going to Cancun or Epcot Center for the cultural experience is not getting out of your comfort zone.
Now, I am in an ideal school environment. Teachers are allowed to teach and I have the opportunity to get to know all of my students. I’m allowed to offer new and different types of curriculum if I want. I’m supported by my administration while also feeling very autonomous.
In a sense, I am competing with my colleagues. I have to step up my game and develop myself professionally. I need to have a lot more knowledge just to do my job on a daily basis and my school will support and help me get that knowledge.
My schools in the U.S. were supportive of me getting more credentials, going to workshops, or attending conferences but it was on my own dime and the payoff in terms of moving up the pay scale wasn’t beneficial at all.
Here’s a little tidbit for you: I once heard that South Carolina has the highest percentage of teachers that become Nationally Board Certified Teachers. You know why? They do it for the pay raise but they have to pay for it themselves. My school will pay the fees for you and give you a pay raise when you get the certification.
Yes, I know that I work at a well-funded international school and not some ramshackle, rural school with one white/black board.
A big change in my brain was that I also got out of the American mindset… I don’t have the chains that bind. I changed my American Dream. I don’t feel like I “have to” get that house with the white picket fence. Or drive that fancy car that is financed at 15% interest (I never financed a car at those rates though but other people do).
Now, I don’t need a car, I have way fewer possessions. It took getting out of the U.S. to realize the folly of my ways.
I paid off $50,000 in student loan debt in three years. Pretty soon, I will have it completely paid off. When that happens I plan to write a blog post about my experience there because I have opinions about lending money to eighteen year olds so they can finance very expensive colleges.
So, America, you lost me for an indefinite amount of time. This goes along the same lines as to why new teachers only last on average five years in the profession. You just didn’t do enough to keep me there.
Remember when Ford and GM almost went out of business back in 2008-09? They searched for more opportunities in emerging markets. The reason they are not out of business now is because of China and the Chinese, since they are (or were) the emerging market.
So basically, I chased opportunities to get into the emerging market where my services were more valuable. I am compensated very well for my services and am now able to afford a lifestyle that I want, whether that lifestyle is traveling or doing absolutely nothing.
Just note that I do not make more than $60,000 per year. There is more to my compensation package than meets the eye. I save more money per month than I netted when I was in the U.S. because of it.
The public school system has lost not only me but they are losing great people every year. There was a great article in the NY Times recently about how more and more teachers are competing for the overseas teaching jobs.
Something has got to give. Has the tipping point come yet?
I know I’ll face the people that will say to me to just “stay away” or “good riddance” and that’s okay.
Someone also once said to me that I should be helping the children of America. Well sir, I do help them… because we have American citizens at the school, along with fifty plus nationalities from around the world.
I’m here to help young people figure things out any way I can and I’ll do it anywhere that I’m treated with the dignity and respect I deserve and paid accordingly.
And I will do it while concurrently chasing my own dreams.
If I’m happier in what I’m doing in my life, that translates into me being happier at work which will translate into better interactions with my colleagues, students and parents.
So… I’m much happier helping the young people of the world chase their opportunities, whatever that may be for them.
For more background on the above, take a look at my post: “Why I Left Wall St. & Became a School Counselor” ( click here )
If you are a teacher, school counselor, administrator, school psych or any other school personnel, did you agree with some themes in this post? You can work overseas too… it’s pretty easy.
Thanks to Pam Slim for the inspiration for this post.
Thanks for reading my first ever “rant” until the end. Please share this with your teacher friends.
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