Bob Shepherd is teaching in Florida after a career in education publishing. He left this comment on the blog about his teaching experience in Florida. His contributions to the blog are consistently brilliant. On a personal note, Bob reached out to me and offered to edit my new book. We have never met. Knowing how amazing he is, I happily accepted his offer. For weeks, Bob and I exchanged chapters and emails, sometimes in the middle of the night. His edits were excellent. His sensibility, his deep knowledge of education, and his feel for language are incomparable. He made the book much much better. Publication is scheduled for January. I am in his debt forever and in awe of his knowledge and skill.


Bob Shepherd wrote:

Life as a Teacher in the Age of the Ed Deform Hamster Wheel

Many years ago, I got a degree in English from Indiana University (Phi Beta Kappa, with High Honors) and completed the education requirements, including student teaching, to get my certification to teach English in that state. I also took the Graduate Record Examination in English and received a perfect score on this. I was awarded a “Lifetime Certificate” to teach English in Grades 6-12. I taught high-school English for three years.

When I started a family, the pay simply wasn’t enough, so I took a job in educational publishing. In the course of a 25-year career in educational publishing, I planned, wrote, and edited over 50 highly successful textbooks and online instructional programs in reading, 6-12 literature, grammar and composition, and African-American literature. I also wrote a widely used book on writing the research paper, designed standardized tests, and wrote tests in ELA for many of the large textbook houses. I worked for a while as educational director for a major foundation and ended my publishing career as Executive Vice President for Development at one of the country’s largest textbook houses. At one time, it was almost impossible to find a K-12 English program, anywhere in the country, that wasn’t using one or more of my books. Throughout my career, I immersed myself in studies in my field. When I wasn’t working at my job, I was studying linguistics, rhetoric, literature and literary criticism, prosody, stylistics, educational statistics, assessment theory, the cognitive psychology of learning, pedagogical approaches, the history of education, and so on.

Then, at the end of my career, I decided that I wanted to go back to teaching, my first love, for a few years. I had spent a lifetime designing, writing, and editing materials for teachers, and deepening my knowledge of my subject, and I wanted to finish my working life sharing the accumulated knowledge of that lifetime with kids in class. So, I decided to renew my certification, in Florida this time, and go back into the classroom. Little did I know the insane hurdles I would have to go through to make this happen.

In order to get my certification in Florida, I had to pay $750 to Pearson and take seven different tests:

General Knowledge Test, Essay
General Knowledge Test, English Language Skills
General Knowledge Test, Reading
General Knowledge Test, Mathematics
Professional Education Test
English 6-12 Test, Multiple Choice
English 6-12 Test, Written

The Professional Education Test, in particular, was an obscenity. Basically, it was written from the point of Ed Deformers, and to get a good score on it, I had to adopt the Ed Deform point of view and pretend that the Common Core wasn’t a puerile joke and that standardized testing in ELA wasn’t an unreliable, invalid scam. I did that and passed. The reading test was also a complete joke. The questions were so poorly written that one had to choose the answer that the test preparer thought was correct, not one that actually made sense, if there was such a thing.

Then I had to complete 400 pages of documentation, over the course of a year, as part of something called the TIP program, that contained samples from my teaching showing various kinds of compliance (that I diversified my instruction, that my instructional appealed to multiple intelligences, that I used ESOL strategies, that I analyzed my students’ data, and so on. An enormous amount of busy work.

I also had to complete 300 hours of online ESOL instruction. The instructional materials were riddled with errors in grammar, usage, mechanics, sense, and fact and appeared to have been put together by remedial students with no education in linguistics or in English. In my responses to the materials, I took to writing long lists of the errors in grammar and usage and fact in the instructional materials. They passed me anyway. All this busywork taught me nothing that I didn’t already know. 300 hours! Mind you, in most undergraduate programs, 60 hours of instruction is sufficient to graduate with a major in a given subject.

I also had to complete a number of state-mandated “trainings” (roll over, sit up, good boy) on gangs, drugs, medical emergencies, and much else, from which, again, I learned nothing that wasn’t common knowledge.

Twice a year, I had to complete a lengthy Individualized Professional Development Plan, an inane, useless exercise in educational gobbledygook and bs.

I was required to sit through countless “professional development trainings” (roll over, sit up, good boy) of such mind-numbing stupidity that one would have thought the presenters were talking to second graders about My Little Ponies.

I was required to submit Byzantine two-page lesson plans for every class that I taught and to have a copy of these plans available for inspection at all times. One year, I had five preparations and had to prepare 15 of these (30 pages total) every week.

Each day, I had to write on one of my whiteboards, for every lesson, for every class, an enormous amount of material that included bellwork, student outcome, vocabulary, higher-order thinking skills addressed, an essential question, and homework. This alone took between half an hour and 45 minutes each day. In the year when I had five preps, I had to use two whiteboards for this.

I had to submit to three separate formal evaluations and countless informal pop-in evaluations every year, each involving a lot of paperwork. (In my nonteaching career, I always had one formal evaluation per year.)

I had to maintain and regularly update a student “data wall” in my classroom.
I had to update, weekly, a “word wall” in my classroom.

Half of my students had IEP plans, 504 plans, gifted student plans, ESOL plans, or PMPs, and I had to do regular reporting on all of these and to keep an enormous binder of all this material. I also had to attend parent meetings on all these.

I had to maintain a separate binder with paperwork related to every parent contact and yet another binder with paperwork related to any student disciplinary action—even something as minor as marking a student tardy.

I had to keep both a paper gradebook and an online gradebook and post at least two grades for every student every week. In addition, I had to record attendance for every class on paper and online.

I was required to proctor standardized tests and do daily car line duty at no additional pay. (When I taught years earlier, car line was handled by people hired and paid for this purpose.)

All of this was an enormous waste of time, effort, and money. Almost none of it had any positive effects, and the opportunity cost, in terms of time taken from actually doing my job, was enormous. When I taught years before, almost none of this was required, the teachers were no worse, and the kids didn’t learn any less.

The other thing that had changed since I taught years ago was the general attitude that was taken toward teachers. When I taught at the beginning of my career, teachers had a great deal of autonomy in choosing their materials and in planning their classes. Today, they are treated as children, not as professionals, and are continually micromanaged.

Basically, in the job as it exists today, I spent so much time doing administrative crap that I had very little time left over for doing my job. I literally spend all day, every Saturday and Sunday, simply completing paperwork. And somewhere in all this I was supposed to do grading. I taught 7 classes, with an average of about 28 students in each. If I assigned a single five-paragraph them, I would have 980 paragraphs to read and comment on—roughly two large novels’ worth of material.

So how did we get to this place? Well, I suppose that over the years, every time some person at the district or state office got a bright idea for improving teaching, it was implemented, and the requirements kept being piled on until they became literally insane. Hey, you know, we’ve got this state program that provides teachers with $70 a year for buying supplies, but we’re not doing a very good job of tracking that, so let’s create a weekly “Whiteboard Marker Usage and Accountability Report (WMUAR). It will only take a few minutes for a teacher to prepare. Great idea! You know how these teachers are. They will just run through markers like crazy unless you monitor this.

In the teacher’s bathrooms in my school, there were literally posted instructions on how to use the toilet. You know how teachers are, they can’t use the toilet properly without instruction in flushing.

Interestingly, NONE of this crap had anything to do with whether I actually knew the subject that I was teaching. Oh, I forgot. I also had twice-yearly “evaluations” by the District Reading Coordinator. This person approved the novels that we were allowed to teach. She thought that “classical literature” was anything considered a classic and that The Odyssey was a novel. So, one had to deal continually with such people—ones who were profoundly ignorant but a) made the major curricular decisions, b) did evaluations, and c) treated teachers in a profoundly patronizing and condescending manner.

Yes, we need professional standards. But these should start with teacher and administrator training programs requiring that these folks demonstrate, via studies outside those programs, mastery of the materials that they are going to be teaching or that are taught by those whom they manage. A person overseeing English teachers ought to know something about literature, grammar, and so on.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that the secret to getting something done is to hire someone who knows how to do it and then get the hell out of his or her way. The best publishing manager I ever worked under, a fellow with the altogether appropriate name of Bill Grace, once told his assembled employees, “I’m a successful guy. And I’m going to tell you the secret to my success. I hire people who are smarter than I am and leave them alone to do their jobs.”

We need a lot more of that.