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So You Want to Work in a Charter School

Here in Boston, charter schools are expanding. Which means they'll be hiring new teachers! Actually, they started the hiring process before they got the okay to expand from the state. It's almost as though they knew what the outcome was going to be before there was a public meeting and vote!  Weird!

So they're hiring. Maybe you'll work there. But if you don't wind up at one of those schools, don't worry: charter schools are always hiring. You'll definitely find a job in a charter school if you want one.

Having worked in an urban charter school, I thought I'd give you a taste of what your experience will be like. This is a composite portrait based on my experience and that of others.

First: the indoctrination. Regular public schools are the enemy. In fact, those hacks who have devoted their entire professional lives to working with urban students are not just clueless; they're evil. There is simply no other way to describe the way they fail the children they are supposed to serve.  Fortunately for the children, they have you.

Are you on board? Well, you're going to be working VERY long hours AND a longer school year than those public school hacks, AND you'll make less money. All of which will prove your virtue. You do this work not for the perks, like those union dinosaurs, but because you want to save children's lives.

And you care. And everybody around you cares. You all care really hard and you work really hard, and you'll probably go out and get hammered with some of them a lot because you don't have any time for your other friendships and nobody who doesn't work with you wants to hear you talk about work all the time.  You'll get close with them, in the way only people who are going through something incredibly difficult together do.

So you'll be working really hard, but so will the students. You're all in this together.  A lot of the students will stay very late. "They just don't want to go home," one of your colleagues will say with a mixture of sadness and pride. Sadness that they have to live in these situations--who knows what kind of horrors go on in those neighborhoods! (Not you--you didn't grow up there, and you don't live there now.) And of course they don't want to go home: if that family knew what they were doing, they wouldn't be poor! Nobody at your school will say this out loud, of course, but they won't have to. 

Sometimes you'll feel bad about the extremely punitive disciplinary policies. But, you'll tell yourself, shaking your head, such policies are necessary in order to have a school that works. Without them, you have the anarchy of the evil regular public schools. And this school has to work. You owe it to the kids.

Well, you owe it to the kids you can serve. Sadly, you're just not set up to serve everyone, so even though it's painful to sit through those meetings with the kids who are getting "counseled out" because of their special needs or lack of English proficiency, it's the right thing to do. You've got to sacrifice these kids for the sake of the ones who actually have a chance of being saved.  

Still, it will feel a little weird when you sit there in the meeting with the administrators talking about the great special ed program they have for kids like this at one of those evil regular public schools. You might start thinking that those evil regular schools might actually be better if schools like this that aren't set up to serve everyone weren't getting so much of the public money and most of the private money.

But you'll shrug that off because you're just too busy, and there are kids who want your help, kids with grit who are prepared for the rigor of your classroom who need your help.  So you'll put your nose to the grindstone.  

And sometimes you might stop and think, "was my high school like this?" And you'll realize no--you had a bunch of sports options and some arts and maybe even music classes, and being able to succeed in those areas really kept you going when the academics were tough. But, sadly, those kind of "enrichment" activities are frills. And you've got no time for frills. Your students are behind (thanks, evil regular schools) and they'll just have to do twice as much work as their wealthy suburban counterparts.  Not fair, sure, but it's tough love. It's what they need.

One night you'll be working really late, trying to help a kid who's having trouble, and the kid will just be such a ball of stress, and you might find yourself wondering, as you sit alone in the room after they go home, "is this worth it? Is there any joy at all in this place?  Is joy really a frill that we can't afford to give these kids?"

But you'll brush those thoughts aside, because you've got kids to save.

Some kids will leave during the school year. Usually after the date in February when the state counts the students to figure out the funding, but before the date in March when statewide testing starts.  A lot of those kids will be the ones who are struggling academically. What a strange coincidence!

And it will not have escaped your notice that your graduating class is about half the size of your incoming class. Because, it turns out, you can't save everyone. Not everyone is worth saving. Only those with the grit to persevere deserve the middle-class life you're promising. Inexplicably, a lot of kids choose mediocrity when you offer them excellence.  You wonder what is going on in their minds, but you probably don't reflect on what, if anything, this says about your school.

Because you've got kids to save. Kids who deserve saving.

And there will come a time when a student you've worked really hard with will fail. Either they'll fall behind academically, or they'll selfishly want to graduate on time when the sad reality is that most of these kids need five years in high school to catch up to their peers. Or maybe they'll run afoul of the many picayune rules and regulations and be kicked out of the school for disciplinary reasons.  And you'll mourn, of course, because consigning a smart kid to the regular public schools is the equivalent of killing his future life, but also you'll be angry and resentful. Didn't he see how hard you worked, how much you cared? How could he throw all that away over the refusal to tuck his shirt in?  Why can't these people get that you can have all the opportunity in the world if you simply do what you're told?

This may pull you up short. You may find that you've betrayed one of your deepest values.

On the other hand, you may find that you've just reinforced one of your deepest values.

You will leave, of course.

No one makes a career of teaching in a charter school. The hours are too long, the demands are too great, and the pay is too low. You probably won't examine what your failure to continue says about your own grit. You probably won't think about the fact that a student who attends charter schools for their whole academic career will be working this hard for twelve or thirteen years, and you couldn't even do five.

Where you go next depends on what sense you've managed to make of the gap between what you say is going on here and what actually goes on here. 

If you are still, in spite of the evidence, a true believer, you may become an administrator.  There's always room at the top, and even if you've only got three years of teaching under your belt, well, that's one more than you actually need to be an ed reform expert.

Or maybe, armed with your two or three years of teaching experience, you can now go become Senior Director of Teacher-Bashing, East Coast Region at some hedge fund manager's nonprofit--something like, Parents And Children United For Totally Awesome Education For All.

Or maybe you're burned out on education. Screw that. You put your time in. And now you put your law or business school application in.

Or maybe you still want to teach in spite of your experience here. In which case, it's off to the suburbs for you. You'll join the union, get a raise, be treated like a professional, and continue teaching for years. Sometimes you'll think about the regular urban public schools you used to disdain and wonder how those teachers do it for so long. Maybe, you'll think, they weren't quite the evil hacks you thought they were.

Well, that's about it. A bunch of you are about to get hired. Contact me in a couple of years and tell me if I'm wrong.

(If you'd like to read about my experience teaching in suburban, urban, and charter schools, you can check out my memoir about the first nine years of my teaching career .  You can also get it on audio. And if you'd like to know what it's like to put three kids through regular  urban public schools, just ask me or my wife.)

YA Tries to Have it Both Ways, and So Do I

Here is a thing that happens a lot:  some clod who clearly knows nothing about young adult fiction writes some dumb thing about how some big-name author has deigned to write young adult fiction for the first time, and the author of the book and/or the author of the article make a bunch of ignorant generalizations about YA, and then YA Twitter goes nuts for a few hours.  (Note: sometimes the article is not about a writer trying YA for the first time, and is more like, "I read 3 YA books, and here's my think piece about the problems with YA").

This will happen again soon. And I have two thoughts.  Thought one: who cares what some ignoramus says? If you're going to run around the internet reacting every time someone you've never heard of says something ill-informed and offensive, you're never going to have time to do anything else.  Also, you keep linking to these things and provoking lots of hate reads, and editors don't care if those are hate reads or not; they're just thrilled to get all those eyeballs on their page, and so not ignoring this kind of stupidity ensures that it's going to keep happening. 

Thought two: if you really crave the "respectability" that the larger culture confers, you're going to have to start saying something is crap when it's crap. YA has a reputation for being a supportive community, and for the most part it is, unless you piss off certain cliques of either authors or bloggers, and then THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU. I've seen many bloggers say they only want to review books they like, and authors generally don't want to say anything bad about another author's book because what if you meet them at a conference or something. And I think a lot of people feel protective of YA books, like to point out their shortcomings is to agree with the people who unfairly dismiss the entire category.

But there are certain things you've gotta put up with if you're going to read a lot of YA, just like if you read a lot of epic fantasy, you're gonna read a lot of stupid names.  To wit:

Didacticism. I think a lot of authors and/or editors underestimate the YA audience, and so there's very often a part where the first-person narrator applies the sledgehammer and tells you exactly what you're supposed to make of the story. I have to tell my beginning writing students to stop doing this all the time. Trust your writing, I tell them. Trust your audience. A lot of YA authors have trouble with this.

Mary Sue/Gary Stu-ism. For those not familiar with the terminology, this is when the main character is the author's painfully obvious wish-fulfillment fantasy.  This comes out in the romance a lot. So the mini-Lizzie Bennets, all sarcasm and bookishness, always find their mini-Darcys, with great hair and abs, troubled enough to be attractive, not troubled enough to be actually dangerous.  And the geeky, always-ready-with-a-quip boy main characters seem to wind up with assertive, improbably-hot girls who are inexplicably drawn to geekiness and sarcasm. (I am totally implicating myself here, BTW. No need to go through my catalog and point out all the examples of this.  Actually, what I mean is, I am totally above this! Go ahead and buy and read all my books and try to prove me wrong!)  I'm just gonna go out on a limb here and say those of us who are good at making up stories in our head were not exactly killin' it on the romantic front in high school. But maybe we can put this one to bed.

Clunky exposition. Gawd, this one drives me nuts.  It may be because the convention in YA fiction is to have a first-person narrator, but the first ten or fifteen pages of a YA novel are often a struggle for me, because the narrator explains EVERYTHING.  "There's my popular best friend. She keeps saying I'm too much of a bookworm, that I should get out more. But ever since Mom died, I just don't have patience for going to parties and talking about stuff that doesn't matter. Although I do get tired of taking care of my little brother, what with dad's drinking and all."  This kind of thing is endemic.

And they show up not only in the work of also-rans like me, but also in the works of the titans of the category, the people whose books we shove at people and say, "Oh, if you think YA is crap, try this!"

Now, to be sure, people regularly mock YA tropes. I am by no means the first, or even thousandth, person to mention these things.  But it's usually "in the family" kind of stuff. It's affectionate mockery by fans for fans, but if someone outside the community raises these issues, we circle the wagons. 

I'm torn here. As a writer, I want people to show unreserved enthusiasm for my books, to cheerlead for them, to press them into people's hands and say "you HAVE to read this!"

 But as a reader, I want people to say, "I really enjoyed this book, but the exposition is clunky," or "we've seen this kind of romance before." I just feel like authors--especially those authors who are Big Names--are not being held to a high enough standard. It's not treasonous to point out the shortcomings in a book you liked. It's not disloyal to point out that your favorite author appears to be repeating her/himself. 

But, then again, chasing respectability will only break your heart. I see this happen with science fiction and fantasy all the time: if people who aren't fans find themselves enjoying a book in those genres, they either insist the author isn't really a science fiction writer (Margaret Atwood), or the book "transcends its genre." (Too many books to name.)

Welp. I've written myself into a corner here, so I guess it's time to sign off.  I guess I'll just end by saying I wrote a YA novel that could really use some unreserved enthusiasm, and the ebook is currently on sale on a pay-what-you-want (including nothing!) only on this particular site. Or if you prefer hard copies, you can snag one cheap here.


My Big Fat Dickensian Life

Hi folks! Without going into too many details, lemme just say two things: 1) nobody in my family has a life-threatening illness and

2) otherwise, my life has taken a turn for the Dickensian lately.

Which is to say, if I were to list all the shit that's happened in the last six months, you'd be like, "nah, that's a bit over the top."

Or, possibly, "how can I help?"

So, here's how you can help. Buying my books, of course, but more specifically, I sell my the ebooks whose rights I control on Gumroad.com. They pay the highest percentage to the author and also pay faster than any other site.  Which turns out to matter quite a bit in the current circumstances.

Which is why my YA superhero noir Enter the Bluebird and Seamus Cooper's Lovecraftian comic adventure The Mall of Cthulhuand EC Comics-style paean to the Jersey Shore Terror at the Shore are now all on sale on a pay-what-you-want basis. This means you can have one for free (and if you're tapped out, feel free to grab one for free! Maybe slide me a positive Amazon review if you want to help out, because those help too), or you can kick in any amount larger than a buck.

I am hopeful that the current difficulties will pass quickly, but, in the meantime, we're up against some pretty tough deadlines in the next couple of weeks, and anything you want to pay for any or all of these books will be a big help.  As will spreading the word for me if you've already read and liked any of these.