Why I quit teaching

Teaching ate me alive, writes Peter Hirzel, an architect turned math teacher, on Salon. After 10 years teaching in Los Angeles, he quit.

It wasn’t one single incident that made me quit teaching in a public middle school. It was the steady, moldy accumulation of dehumanizing, lifeless, squalid misadventures of which I was a part.

One day, he said something — he’s not sure what — to upset “Carlos.” The next day, Carlos’ father and several uncles came to school with baseball bats looking for his classroom.

My friend the Dean of Students had diplomatically suggested (they) . . . accompany him to his office, where the matter could be discussed at leisure. My friend the Dean assured me that the bats were for dramatic effect only; that they did not intend to use them and that they only wanted to put the whammy on my head in a metaphorical sense.

“Mission accomplished,” I said. But you can’t suspend a kid just because his dad and an assortment of uncles threaten to metaphorically beat you to death with baseball bats. So the next day, there was Carlos, in class. No notebook, no pencil, no homework, no nothin’. Just a metaphorical baseball bat poised over my head. And the distinct sense that I had to mind my p’s and q’s with Carlos because the folks at home cared about him, after their fashion.

He couldn’t take it any more.

Hirzel started teaching to “make a difference,” he writes. “I thought I could save humanity from its ignorance, cupidity and deceit one youngster at a time.” His failure is his own fault . . . But the administrators didn’t help.

First, there are far too many of them. Far, far too many. A lot too many. A toiletful too many. Put ‘em out to pasture. Paying for early retirement has got to be cheaper than paying for their mistakes. As they say about the government in general: If you hate the problem, wait ’til you see our solution!

Second, they are all, in my experience, more or less the same interchangeable, vaporous nonentity. Drifting through the halls with a walkie-talkie, unburdened by care or shame, hurrying off to some monumentally inconsequential three-hour off-site meeting, with nothing but a pot of coffee and two brain cells between them, where a plan will be hatched with no purpose, no effect and no follow-through. Leadership begins at the top — simple as that. Schools drift in the fog as a direct result of the log-rolling incompetence of our erstwhile captains and their first mates.

He hates politicians too. And the LA Times.

Via This Week in Education.


About Joanne


  1. Florida resident says:

    Article “The Dream Palace of Education Theorists”:


    From there:
    “Similarly with “incentives to bring the best teachers to the worst schools.” Setting aside the fact that you are dealing with a line of work whose labor union is armed with thermonuclear weapons, even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools — inner-city schools serving black neighborhoods — ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those “best teachers”? And how many “best teachers” are there, anyway? As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of “saints and masochists” — teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.”

    • The reason that KIPP and other dedicated teachers work so many hours is that their administration is not spending 80% of their time trying to prove the teachers are no good, and the rest pretending they know what they’re doing.

      Hurt much, useless admins? Tough.

      There ARE good, even excellent admins – their staff knows it, and will walk through fire for them.

      Want to find out which schools have good admins? Which schools don’t have a constant turnover of teachers? Teachers know – they’ll stay when the boss is good.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    I think I’m in love. This guy sounds dreamy.

  3. He lasted as long as I did.

  4. I lasted 37 years.

    Teaching had many challenges. the greatest one being bureaucratic administration.

  5. The article included much that rang true to me, a nine-year veteran of middle school teaching (in a somewhat more sedate suburban setting). However, one thing that I’ve never witnessed in the schools I’ve worked in is an overabundance of administrators. In fact, I usually feel that there are too FEW. It’s always seemed to me that one reason teacher evaluations are so bogus is that principals are so busy they simply don’t have the time to really see how the teachers are teaching.

    The author indicts Prop 13. To some extent I think this is right. Asia and Europe give their teachers a lot more time during the school day to plan, grade and collaborate. If we’re going to boost quality of instruction, we have to hire more teachers to lessen the teaching load of each teacher so that this work time can be built into the school day. You can’t expect teachers to kill themselves doing power teaching (and policing) for seven periods a day and THEN go home to a huge stack of papers and two hours of lesson planning –every night for forty years. It’s unsustainable. What happens is that either housework/family/exercise gets neglected or lesson quality suffers.

    • The admins have time – they just choose to prioritize it so evals come dead last.

      • There are also reams of useless admins at the central admin site, where they are totally disconnected from real students, classrooms and teachers and free to dream up idiotic, time-consuming rules, regulations and practices. One of this lot, EdD prominently displayed on the wall, assured me that allowing my incoming freshman to take keyboarding in summer school, as opposed to September, was educationally unsound “because he wasn’t in HS yet” but, since he had taken honors algebra I in 8th grade, he could take summer school geometry. He assured me that having my gifted son prepare for an extremely rigoorous honors/AP HS math sequence by taking non-honors geometry with kids who had failed it the previous year was pedagogically sound. For this, he was being paid over $200k – twenty years ago.

    • The author indicts Prop 13. To some extent I think this is right.

      The people who were no longer being taxed out of the homes they’d lived in for decades would disagree with you.

      The lede in this story is well-buried, but if you dig deep you’ll find it.  “another student who categorically refused to do as he was perfectly reasonably asked — open a book, pick up a pencil, hand in homework” and “he ran into Carlos’ father and a couple of his uncles; they were looking for my classroom. They had baseball bats.”

      In other words, things that simply would not be tolerated when California had the school systems which were the envy of the world—because the state gave little mind and zero tolerance to the likes of Carlos and his uncles.

      • Yes, things are different and far from better. Both my DH and I grew up in communities and at times where any kid getting in trouble in school received a double punishment at home. And, ALL teachers had rulers or yardsticks – both publics and privates, although the corporal punishment was milder in the public schools. Being shamed for misbehavior was the same in both places. For the most part, that was still true for my kids, although not to the same extent. At my public school, serious and repeated misbehavior from 7th-12th graders (there was no violence) was handled by a session with the HS coach, either behind the school or in the coatroom – that was only needed once every few years. Nowdays, kindergarteners who hit, bite, throw books and chairs and attack classmates with scissors are not even removed from the classroom. The inmates are truly running the asylum. When the revolution begins, eliminate (most) lawyers.