By Sarah Blaine
Those who control education policy in this country these days talk obsessively about getting our kids “college and career ready.” They want our kids to succeed — but their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college- and career-readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.
As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.
I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.
My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.
After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.
Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.
I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.
If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reform’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.
So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.
I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill; I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.
For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me from family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five-day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.
I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.
But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.
I have time for some activism in the education world.
I have some time to write this blog.
I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.
I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.
I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.
I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for 20 or 30 years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.
I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.
I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.
I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.
I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.
Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world? It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest-ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.
The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.
So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I want my children to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.
And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.
These days, we live in a world in which some of the ultra-wealthy class — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms. The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, Connecticut hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely endowed philanthropic trusts, and devote some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren. They inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.
Career teachers scare some of these ultra-wealthy education philanthropists. Career teachers scare them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the wealthy tinkerers because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.
And so many of these wealthy philanthropists attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.
They don’t understand those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.
They try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.
So these ultra-wealthy reformers respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching. They try to strip away teachers’ benefits, and try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.