How I Came Back to Beat the K12 System after Quitting Teaching 20 Years Ago?
A Real Comeback Story
If you would have said to me over 20 years ago, the day I quit teaching that I would come back to run my own K12 program and beat the K12 system, I would have said that’s impossible.
But that’s how I started my career in education as a classroom teacher and ended up as Superintendent and being recognized as a bona-fide expert in education by the NJ Legislature.
Both of my parents were life-long educators. My father started his career as a teacher in a high school in the South Bronx and my mother was an elementary teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Both my parents believed in the power of education to change lives and to change trajectories. That’s why my father continued to pursue his own education, earning a Ph.D. from Fordham University and becoming a professor in their Graduate School of Education.
Meanwhile my mother went back to school to earn a Masters in Special Education and became the first special ed teacher in her district.
You could say teaching is in my blood.
Struggling in the K12 System
The best way to describe how the K12 system operates is by pointing out that it’s backwards. For example, if the system cared about student learning, they would assign the most experienced and expert level instructors to teach the students with the most academic needs. Except that’s the opposite of what happens in reality.
The truth is the newest and least experienced teachers are assigned the toughest academic classes with the most special needs students and other students who are behind grade level standards.
Think of the K12 system as the school bully. This is what the System wants every teacher to know from Day One, “Don’t mess with it!
The other message the K12 system sends directly to every new teacher is asking for help is a sign of weakness. Think of the K12 system as the worst narcissistic, abusive and gaslighting menace you ever met.
The system blames teachers for every mistake they make, even though it’s impossible to avoid making mistakes as a new teacher. The system isolates all teachers and cuts them off from friends, family and any level of support — the backwards logic behind this tactic is, if we make teachers suffer, it will make them stronger.
Just think of the K12 system as the evil villian in any Superhero movie. If there’s a chance of doing good, the K12 system wants to do the opposite.
I studied American History in college, so when I followed in my parents footsteps, I wanted to be a History teacher. But my administrators didn’t have any confidence in my skills, so they placed me in a computer/tech lab for my first two years.
It was probably a blessing in disguise, since the K12 system doesn’t provide support or professional coaching for new teachers. For two years, I tried my best, made some mistakes and also made some improvement in my teaching skills.
“You Have to Learn How to Survive!”
Before the start of my third year, the administrators came to me and told me I was transferring to the high school to teach American History. I was excited and scared at the same time.
Although I would be switching positions, in reality nothing else had changed. No one inside the K12 system was going to give me any help or offer me guidance or show me how to become an expert Social Studies teacher.
Being a teacher, literally means — you are always on your own.
One day in mid-September, while I was teaching a lesson on the 13 colonies, one of my students began to growl at me from their seat. Every teacher learns that most student behavior in class is done to gain attention from others. That’s why it’s called “attention seeking” behaviors, and also why teachers are supposed to purposefully “ignore” those behaviors.
The theory behind this strategy is if you don’t reward the student with attention, they will cease exhibiting that specific behavior. This strategy works approximately 80% of the time, which is why millions of teachers use it every single day in class.
The problem I ran into was my “ignoring” wasn’t working. Instead, the student decided to drop to the floor and begin barking and panting under their desk. I wasn’t going to allow the escalation of behavior to rattle me, so I continued to “ignore” the student, while keeping an eye on them.
But this student was persistent. By this point, the entire class was watching as the student began crawling around the room, sniffing each student’s sneakers and shoes. Some of my students raised their hand to get the student on the floor away from them.
I stopped ignoring and called their name. But this didn’t stop the student from acting like a dog, instead it engaged them in an excited way. They began barking and panting with their tongue extended from their mouth. I was out of ideas, so I called the Main Office.
Looking back, I shouldn’t be surprised the Main Office literally asked me, “what do you want us to do?”
Please don’t forget the K12 system is your bully and your gaslighting narcissist boss.
When a student begins barking, crawling on the floor and sniffing student shoes that’s not a valid reason to call the Main Office. In the eyes of the K12 system, that’s a typical classroom situation that any “reasonable” teacher should know how to handle.
Here’s a reality check. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I didn’t know how to get the student to stop acting like a dog, or bothering the other students or from interrupting my lesson.
I wanted to know how to handle this situation and if someone inside the K12 system would have taken the time to walk me through safety protocols and best teaching practices, I would have felt more confident to handle the situation on my own.
But none of those things ever happened. In the three years I was a teacher, the K12 system never taught me anything.
The truth is the K12 system wants teachers to suffer and submit.
That’s why I ended up making my first mistake and first learning lesson. Note to self, when a student starts acting like a dog, do not approach them physically, unless you want to start chasing a student around the room. I had to realize that anything I did was just going to add to the spectacle. And what I wanted was the whole thing to end immediately.
I called the Main Office again and told them directly, “send someone to my classroom immediately.”
This is what I heard on the other end of the phone, “fine” and an audible exasperated sigh. That was learning lesson #2. Note to self, whatever happens in class is always your fault.
Since both my parents were teachers, I told them about the incident in class. To my surprise, they both laughed at me. Hearing the tale gave my father a reason to retell the story of his first day as a teacher, meeting his principal and being handed a roster of student names and being told, “good luck, I’ll see you in June!” And that was the last time he saw the Principal.
When I went to my mother for more sympathy, she just told me, “you have to learn how to survive!”
Learning lesson #3. Note to self, the mantra the K12 system wants me to repeat to myself over and over again — “if you want to be a teacher in my system, you better learn how to survive in the jungle — this is war!”
Why I Decided to Quit Teaching?
At the end of that third year of teaching, I decided to quit. What I thought it would be like being a teacher was far from the reality of teaching. My parents made it look easy. But the learning lessons I was taking away from the K12 system were not positive or healthy at all.
Realizing how alone and isolated I was inside the classroom started to give me anxiety. And it got worse every day after that barking student incident. Everyday my brain kept running what if scenarios until it was completely cluttered. What if this happens? What if that happens?
When I asked the Principal for help, they would pat me on the back and say, “you got this!” and “you are doing a great job!”
It felt like I was having an out of body experience. Had I discovered the Matrix? Was everyone around me completely asleep and I was the only one who had taken the red pill?
When I tried to talk to the other teachers in the school they just repeated the mantra my mother told me, “you have to learn how to survive.”
Was that the secret to success for teachers? If you developed thick skin, and immunity from caring, you could survive the war of attrition?
I was in my early 20s and thinking about what I would have to endure for the next 20 years of my life sounded like a nightmare to me. Looking back, I made the right decision, but also I should never have been put in that situation.
The purpose of the K12 system shouldn’t be to torture and torment teachers. The biggest learning lesson shouldn’t be “learn how to survive or quit.”
The truth is teachers can’t fight the system. The K12 system has an unfair advantage over every single teacher. Once I realized that I was fighting a bully, who was manipulating me, I had to quit.
My parents were very disappointed in me.
They were both life-long teachers. They both knew how to survive. And they looked down on me for not surviving as well.
But I wasn’t done with the K12 system. It may have won the first battle, but the war was not over and as John Paul Jones famously said, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
The Comeback Trail
Free from the bonds of teaching, I decided to become a reporter for a NJ newspaper and spend a few years writing. At the same time, I enrolled in a Masters program for Educational Leadership.
Going back to school at least made my mother happy.
It might shock you to know that graduate school programs for future administrators don’t teach would-be building leaders how to change the system. Instead, we learned management theory and other ways to supervise teachers “within” the system’s limitations. It was as if Graduate School threw in the towel and allowed the K12 system to win without even putting up a fight.
The K12 system wasn’t going to be so lucky with me. As soon as I was ready, I was going to stand toe to toe with the system and see who could win the war.
The First Punch
When I finally became an administrator, the K12 system sucker punched me. Every teacher believes their building administrator doesn’t understand what teachers go through, but the truth is the K12 system controls all of us. And part of that control is isolating each of us so we stand on our own, powerless to defeat the system.
That includes principals as well.
Given the fact that I quit teaching after three years, should have made my staff realize that I understood how difficult it was to be a teacher. But that didn’t happen in reality. Instead, I was faced with the daunting task of supervising a group of stubborn, uncooperative and obstinate teachers.
The only teachers who were listening to me were the new teachers because they hadn’t been indoctrinated yet with the System Mantras.
But I wasn’t a typical administrator. I knew the dirty tricks and games the K12 system plays, so I didn’t argue or fight with my staff. My teachers were acting hostile, negative and toxic because the K12 system forces teachers to behave this way. It wasn’t their fault — they were prisoners who were suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
But the K12 system wasn’t prepared for my first punch. I was going to use the teachers against it. The K12 system had trained teachers to be WARRIORS, not teachers, and I was going to use these battle-tested soldiers to hit the system where it hurt.
In 2009, I threw and landed my first punch against the K12 system. It was stunned for a moment. No one had ever punched back in the last 100 years.
For two years, I had done extensive research on teaching best practices, classroom observation data, student data and education theories. All of that leg work allowed me to develop the Teacher Development Program.
This was a formal 2-year teacher support program that gave teachers the research and best practices that expert level instructors use in the classroom. If the K12 system refused to help teachers become expert level teachers, then I would.
If you want to read more about the Teacher Development Program, find this article in my Medium blog archives:
The Second Punch
As you can imagine, the K12 system wasn’t happy I threw a punch. I knew it was only a matter of time before it would counter-punch. Around 2010, US Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan became enemy #1 for schools and teachers across the country.
For eight years, the K12 system had been given legal authority to bully teachers, administrators and students through the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into federal law by former President George. W. Bush in 2002.
But Arnie Duncan took backwards logic and toxicity to a higher level. When it was time to reauthorize federal school legislation, Mr. Duncan urged President Barack Obama to create the “Race to the Top” initiative.
Under “Race to the Top” student achievement plummeted. And the Achievement Gap, the gap in scores between white and black students increased.
In Washington, Arnie Duncan and President Obama were praised, but on the ground, my students were suffering.
In 2011, I loaded up my second punch at the K12 system. This time I became one of the first Superintendents in NJ to implement a 21st century curriculum.
By 2011, all of my returning staff had completed the Teacher Development Program and were incredible teachers. Each of them was filled with full confidence in their teaching abilities, as well as how to handle the most precarious classroom situations.
If a student barked in one of my teacher’s classrooms — they would know what to do. But being a confident teacher isn’t the same thing as teaching the correct material in class.
It’s not teachers job to choose what students should be learning in class. That’s the role of the local community, the school board and the Superintendent and their curriculum team.
For the next 10 years, my students were exposed to a 21st century curriculum that expanded on their 19th century skills and helped them earn a high school diploma that fully prepared them for success in the future.
To learn more about the 21st century curriculum I used in my K12 program, find this article in my Medium blog archives:
The final outcome from implementing a 21st century curriculum was higher student achievement. In fact, my students were outpacing traditional public school students. The critics couldn’t explain what was happening.
My students were achieving at levels the experts said were impossible to reach. Read this inspirational story about a student who proved the experts wrong about his own achievement potential:
The Most Inspirational Story You Will Ever Read
Why is a story unforgettable? What makes it inspirational?
The Final Blow
My first two strikes against the K12 system woke up the sleeping giant. No one in the last 100 years even dared to challenge the system, now I had pushed the system back against the ropes.
The system mistreats teachers and forces them to spend most of their time dealing with toxic stress, so I beat the system by developing the most effective teacher training program in the country.
The system holds students back and laughs when student test score data comes back lower than the year before. So I created a 21st century curriculum and helped my students defy the odds and make the experts look foolish.
But if you thought it would take only two blows to knock the system out, you don’t realize how formidable the K12 system really is as an opponent.
Do you recall me describing my graduate school experience? Do you remember when I said that all of these future building administrators were learning how to manage “within” the system limitations and not how to change the system?
I may have won the battle for teacher development and student achievement, but the K12 system had one trick left up its sleeve. As long as building administrators continued to drink the kool-aid and deny my programs worked and could defeat the system — the K12 system would win the war.
What the K12 system didn’t count on is that building administrators are not just highly educated and intelligent people, but they are also honest and ethical people as well.
And the last thing an ethical principal wants to do is hurt their students.
When news of how incredible my students were achieving, I started to receive thousands of emails and phone calls from teachers, administrators and parents within a 50-mile radius of my K12 program.
We had students achieving at such higher levels, that the schools they originally came from started to wonder, what was going on? Since everyone is obsessed with test scores and boosting student achievement, the building administrators wanted to know my secret.
I became so overwhelmed with the volume of requests, I suggested to the principals in the Newark Charter School Network to meet at my school building after-school and I would sit with them for an hour and answer their questions directly.
After that meeting was over, I realized the K12 system had a stranglehold over building administrators and was going to squeeze the life out of them in order to beat me.
Let me paint a picture for you. Inside the Charter School, the building principal was running around all day putting out fires and dealing with student discipline. What they did not spend any time doing was helping teachers become expert instructors and ensuring the curriculum was being taught in class.
The K12 system had figured out, if you put the principal on a never-ending treadmill at full speed, they don’t have the time or energy to be effective leaders.
In the game of chess this is called, “check.”
I knew I needed to roll up my sleeves once again and deliver the final blow.
I told all the principals from the Newark Charter School Network that we would be meeting weekly at my building and I would walk them through how I run my K12 program. From how I develop teacher talents to how I push maximum student achievement.
They would learn everything I know and we would call it the Principal’s Academy. If you want to read more about the Principal’s Academy and what those administrators learned, please read Part Three of my series “How a Teacher Who Quit Came Back to Beat the K12 System.”
In chess, that’s called “Checkmate.”
Becoming a Recognized Expert in Education
My goal was never to be recognized for beating the K12 system. I was motivated by how the K12 system made me feel when I quit being a teacher. I thought it was unfair and someone needed to stand up and stop the system from its toxic and negative behavior.
When I started to receive thousands of emails and phone calls from people asking me about the success of my K12 program, I was pleased, but reticent. I wasn’t looking for the spotlight.
But word travels fast in education.
In 2017, the NJ Legislature invited me to give expert testimony before its Joint Legislative Committee on the Public Schools. I was also asked to join the Essex County Consortium of Schools and was recommended to join the NJ Governor’s Task Force on the Public Schools.
What I realized after receiving these accolades is that outside of NJ, no one cares. I beat the K12 system hand-to-hand, but in 49 other states in America, it’s as if nothing happened. The K12 system reigns champion over every school, every teacher and every student.
The Next Challenge
In 2020, I left the K12 system completely. I am no longer a teacher, no longer a principal and no longer a Superintendent. Now my time is spent running Leaf Academy and an education think tank.
My next challenge is helping teachers and schools across the country beat the K12 system in their neck of the woods.
Is your district facing a teacher shortage? Want to know how to develop teacher talent? You might want to consider implementing my Teacher Development Program in your school.
Can you measure an Achievement Gap? Are your student scores lower than last year? Want to know how to boost student achievement? You might want to consider implementing the 21st century curriculum I used in my K12 program.
Are your buildings out of control? Does student behavior dominate your day and schedule? Want to become highly effective leaders? You might want to run a Principal’s Academy in your district.
The bottom line is that I beat the K12 system.
The question you have to ask yourself is — do you want to beat it too?
About the Author:
D. Scott Schwartz, M.Ed. is the CEO and founder of Leaf Academy, an online school for 21st century skills. High School graduates can take courses in 21st century skills. In addition, schools can learn more about consulting services such as implementing the three knock-out punches he used to beat the K12 system. If you are a school administrator or leader in your community and want to implement a 21st century curriculum, the Teacher Development Program or the Principal’s Academy, follow the website link in the bio and go to the Programs page.