December 31, 2011. I set a goal. The first ten years of the new century were a bit stressful and unfocused. The dot-com bust hit me hard. I found work but had a lot of down time. New Years’ goals helped force me to use the downtime in search of some other goal. in forcing me to me structure the year. In 2001 I vowed to follow through on grad school, a goal I achieved, but left me with more down time. The ironic outcome of meeting that goal was a radical and permanent career change in an direction utterly unrelated to my field of study–no surprise, really, given that my first degree was in English and I went into tech. On December 31, 2007, having spent five years comfortably living as a test prep instructor and tutor, I decided to get a teaching credential. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach full time, but it’d be a good thing to have in the back pocket. I got my applications done in a week, entered a program in June of the same year. Six months later the 2008 crash revealed that “tutor” is a luxury item that the rich cut when their stocks tank, so I decided I may as well use the credential I was studying for. Six months after that I got my third college diploma and second master’s that, for the first time, was actually related to my future career plans.
In 2010 I left off professional goals and decided to lose weight, and did, and kept it off until I started sharing a house with my brother five years later. He was like an invasive species on my eating habits and it took me another five years to recover.
My track record with New Year’s resolutions having been pretty successful in the oughts, I decided to see if I could set a goal for my writing. By this time, I was deeply cynical (although certainly adequate to the occasion) about the prospects of regular publication. Most teachers who get published do so by singing the song someone else wants to hear: union advocacy, education reform, school choice, merit pay, anti-union. Find a think tank who needs a shill. That way wasn’t going to work for me. Some teachers get published because they write deeply and well about their topic (Ben Orlin, Michael Pershan), but I don’t drill down on any one thing. I had been published, and that pathway was clear: write an 750-word op-ed with an uncomplicated narrative and easily grasped data and hope it captured some editor’s eye. I did this successfully twice, and three other times came close. But “750 words in an uncomplicated and easily grasped op-ed” doesn’t describe me very well.
By that December evening, I hadn’t even tried to write anything for publication for a year. I missed writing. But I also acknowledged another truth: getting published in the traditional sense would require endless attempts and eternal rejection.
Consider one of the more popular teacher writers, Roxanna Elden. She became a teacher in 2003, came up with her book idea in 2005, spent four long years workshopping her book in writing conferences while looking for an agent. She started a standup routine to increase her name recognition. Her book got published in 2009 by a publisher that abandoned her category shortly afterwards, picked up again in 2013. Then she quit teaching.
I wouldn’t call Elden a teacher. She’s a writer who spent every waking hour outside of her teaching job working on getting published. Hey, more power to her, but I actually want to teach, not spend ten hours a day building a writing career.
Besides, it’s not just that I don’t want to take Elden’s route, but I actively find it….repellent. I love my job, and that means I don’t want to spend 80% of my time outside of work shilling and planning for a career in which I pretend to be an expert at a job that’s just the venue to what I really want.
By 2011, I’d long since accepted that a constant in all my careers was my disinterest in selling my wares. Fifteen years as a consultant and eight (by then) as a tutor had revealed a life path that didn’t requir active promotion. As a consultant, I got work through interviews for open positions, great references and an awesome niche resume. As a tutor, I got work because parents thought I was fantastic and told others. I never had a website, never did outreach. (The teacher hiring process came as a huge shock to me, and I still count myself lucky I found work, considering all my disadvantages and the lousy hiring environment in 2009.)
People who want excellence or experience and don’t care about niceties find me via word of mouth. You don’t build that sort of reputation by spending all your outside time focusing on an entirely different objective. Besides, if endless marketing and pitching repels me, rejection outright horrifies me. So if my goal was to continue writing, I had to accept that my past two years of failure to publish would probably continue. I wouldn’t be capable of making the changes in my writing, focus, or behavior that might–just might–get me more recognition.
That night, I thought hey, why not a blog? I could write what I want, develop ideas, find an audience–and more importantly, find an audience my way, find people who liked my ideas without having to sell a middleman.
The first three years of this blog were successful beyond anything I’d ever imagined. I joined Twitter in June 2012, which did a great deal to build my immediate audience, but the vast majority of my referrals came from search engines. In 2016, something changed. Despite the fact that I was writing as much, my traffic dropped dramatically. In the years 2013-2016, I got between 50 and 60 thousand search engine referrals–the vast majority of it for older articles. Starting in 2017, search engines dropped to 30K and then kept going down. My writing output didn’t decrease dramatically until 2020, so that’s not the reason. My Twitter referrals have actually increased over that time, with a slight dropoff in referrals in the last two years, but nothing drastic.
I’m pretty sure my blog got hit by Google’s recency bias, which really hurts writers like me who aren’t super well known but have high data value posts.
(For an example of recency bias that anyone can understand, try a one word search, without specifics. Like recently, I googled “Aladdin” and got hit with a billion entries for the 2019 Will Smith version. The Disney 1992 animated version is just out of the top 100 movie box office hits adjusted for inflation, and was the 8th biggest moneymaker in the country two years in a row. The Will Smith version had crap reviews but did hit #8 in the box office in 2019, disappearing from sight the next year. And as long as we’re being thorough, there’s a pretty famous book in which Aladdin made his first appearance? Nowhere to be found. Brave’s results (shoutout to Brenden Eich) are better–still top heavy for Will Smith but does include a lot of results for 1992 film and even a Time article on the character Aladdin.
That’s recency bias. No sense of context. If you don’t create really specific searches, then Google is going to reward whatever was in the news last.)
I am not blaming Google for my reduced output, nor am I terribly upset about the decline in traffic. The first three years of my blog exceeded my wildest dreams, but I’ve been happy with my audience and from a prestige standpoint, my Twitter audience is appropriately think-tanky, academic, and media-ish. But the impact of Google’s recency bias does bother me. In 2015, Amy Wax quoted my blog in a response to a letter. That was cool. I don’t think Amy Wax reads me (and if she does, someone should let me know!). She probably found the article in google, and that’s the kind of find that Google is making harder.
Coupled with my non-existent marketing and promotion department, it becomes quite possible that more and more of my work is just disappearing into the bowels of the internet, undiscovered by all but the most dedicated googler. That 2013-2015 had so many hits is proof of how many people found my articles through searches. A lot of my one-off audience isn’t finding me anymore.
By far the biggest challenge I face in keeping this blog going is not “google algorithms are biased against me” but rather “I quit writing.” Beginning in 2018, my work was more sustained and took a lot of research. I enjoy doing that, but it was definitely reducing my output. The real crash began in late 2019, when I took on the Bush/Obama era history of education. I don’t regret the focus, but the timing was terrible. The work on that, added to the rise of covid19, the closing of schools, a complete reworking of the daily tasks of my job, my rage at the whole idiotic response and not incidentally, the disappearance of coffee shops to write in for most of a year, all contributed to a profound drop in output. I couldn’t even write about classroom action, although I gave some thought to coming up with a Zoom chat session of my students and me. But the editing would have been brutal (removing names) and my god, in remote ed there was always grading to do or curriculum to change or Desmos activities to build.
Then, as I wrote recently, I’ve been having some trouble organizing my thoughts to set the groundwork for future writing. So nothing was easy.
I’m coming out of it. No promises, but I am back to thinking about writing and working on writing rather than having an idea float through my head but get overwhelmed by all the meta involved in crafting the argument and thinking ah, fuck it, I’ll tweet.
The last ten years have been a wonderful and productive era. I began my blog during my third year of teaching, just before starting with my current district. I have used all my credentials; my boss knows my value. If my teaching career has veered in directions I didn’t expect, it still has brought me tremendous satisfaction. My blog recounts many of the experiences during that time, but also thoughts and analysis of and on a wide range of educational issues, and I’m very proud of it. Consulting and tutoring are short-term gig jobs; I have largely floated through life; outside of family, the list of people I’ve held as friends for more than a decade is a short one. Not just people, either. Behaviors, habits, hell, even restaurants before 2010–I drifted away after a phase or three.
Since I began teaching, I’m a bit more settled, for obvious reasons. While my closest work friend, Bart, has left teaching (I still mourn him weekly, at least), I am now the fifth most senior teacher in my department (whoo!), and because of my multiple credentials I have contacts with colleagues throughout the school. I am known at the district, and for the right reasons. The tech guy, principal’s secretary, and attendance clerks all take good care of me, and I still give them presents. I even have more stable relationships with restaurants, particularly many local Starbucks and my favorite sushi bar.
I want to leave the area, but not teaching, in the next few years. That’s been a consistent objective, and I’m taking steps to make it happen. However, finding a teaching job as a sixty-something isn’t easy, and I’ve got backup plans in mind.
But for the blog, I’ve got one ask and some plans.
The ask: While I can’t make Google change its recency bias, I would like to make sure my articles are getting read and found. I’m one of those writers who is read but not mentioned by a lot of people with large followings. To those people, I’d ask: hey, mention my work more often. I love the notes and letters. But from an audience perspective, even a critical review of some of my thoughts would probably do me better. Retweet my stuff. Mention it in your own columns. I realize the problem–professional writers are bound by clicks, and my stuff is rarely timely. But if you could do it occasionally, I’d be grateful. It’s about the only productive step that might get Google to recognize me more.
- Write more about curriculum. A review of my most popular articles shows that the curriculum articles are doing very well. Teachers looking for curriculum are specific in their searches, and they’re finding me. I’ll give them more to find. Let’s say, three articles on math curriculum.
- Remind people of what I’ve already written. I’ve got about 350 articles on this blog. Hell, I don’t even remember all of them. So I will pick three topics and write the Ed equivalent of a position paper. My three identified topics: impact of Asian culture in US education, update on teacher credentials, and boy, wasn’t I right about how college admissions corruptions and fraudulent grades were combining in evil and awful ways.
- I want to produce a book on my articles–not really because I think it will sell, but because it’d be fun. I’ve started this. So my goal is to complete “Great Moments In Teaching” before next year, with at least two new articles.
Regardless, I will write more. I get too focused on one article that will take a long time, and resist putting it aside. The reasons for that are obvious (I have almost as many unfinished as finished articles on this blog) but it’s clear that unfinished articles are a price I pay for a reasonable amount of output. I hope to keep remembering that.
Thanks for reading.
Happy New Year.