[A]fter watching the grizzled American history teacher for an hour, I saw why the girl had asked me [to be her teacher].
He’d been on the job for about 35 years, and, as he told me later, he’d passed up a buyout offer because he was at the top of the union scale, and didn’t want to give up his paycheck. The man was apparently having a rough year, though—they’d finally replaced the old textbook he’d been relying on for years.
The students who needed an A or B to get into college—mostly girls—sat up front and quickly filled in the blanks of a Louisiana Purchase worksheet the teacher had passed out. The rest of the class—mostly boys wearing jeans and black T-shirts—played cards in the back, but he didn’t appear to mind.
Minutes before the bell rang, a girl raised her hand. There seemed to be two possible answers to one question on the worksheet. The teacher looked confused as he tried to find the correct one in the textbook. Finally, he pulled out the old textbook, flipping through pages before shaking his head and saying he’d give credit for either answer.
It was a required course, and the students were stuck with him. Even the ones who did the work weren’t really learning anything. Knowing very little about me, a few of them quietly told me as I wandered around that they wished I could be their teacher. Not that I’d done much more than walk into the room: I simply wasn’t the burned-out guy up front.
My first year teaching in a poor, rural school, I worked with a few guys like this. One took all his days off as he earned them. Every month, like clockwork, Mr. H. took his day off. We had a history teacher who retired the year I started. The only thing I ever saw him carry out of the building was his hat. He left right at the bell and never did his bus duty. I immediately thought of that man when I read the above excerpt. He was all but phoning it in at that point. The fact is, though, I can’t say the majority of veteran teachers are like the guy in this article. I don’t think most teachers like this guy last long enough to be “grizzled veterans.”
I was thinking about it the other day, and it occurred to me that for the first time in my career–this year–I have thought of myself as a veteran teacher. This is my tenth year teaching if you count the year of pre-K I taught (neither employer I had after the preschool counts it, however). I mentioned in my first post about teaching Romeo and Juliet that I am currently teaching it for my seventh year. I don’t think I teach the play exactly the same each time. I have also taught works such as The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, The Crucible, and To Kill a Mockingbird many times, and my approach varies each time, but I don’t get tired of any of those novels. Part of the fun of teaching those books is rediscovering the literature each time with new students. This seems to be the lesson Steven Drummond drew from his observations of good teachers over the years: “What I learned is that none of them does quite the same thing in the classroom twice, and none teaches like the other. But they do have one key trait in common: they’re self-propelled.”
One of the things I find frustrating about some teachers is their lack of willingness to change. I am passionate about new technology. My SMART Board projector has been flickering. When the technician came in and checked it out, he told me they could loan me a projector while they fixed mine. He must have seen me blanch, and I told him in no uncertain terms that I can’t teach without the thing anymore, so I have to have it working. He laughed and said it wasn’t the first time he’d heard that. It’s true, though! I didn’t have a SMART Board until September of this school year, but now I am so addicted to it that I can’t be without it. The possibilities are endless–if I know of a website students might be interested in, I can pull it up right then. I can pursue teachable moments. On the other hand, learning how to use new technology is intimidating for some. I know how my classroom has transformed through my use of the SMART board, blogs, and wikis. I know it could transform others. I also know not everyone is patient enough to really learn how to use all of this technology, and that fact makes me sad.
I consider myself an autodidact when it comes to technology, and I actively pursue learning opportunities. I admit to being shy of podcasting and digital video editing, but I have just started getting my feet wet in both areas, and I was so excited to learn something new that can help my students. As Drummond says, “fresh [teachers'] best source of professional development isn’t a mandated chalk-and-talk or some perky pep rally, but their own curiosity.” If you really don’t want to learn how to do something new, and you know who you are, you won’t. Instead, you will grumble about the new requirements/book/class you have to teach, and you’ll likely wind up like the teacher in the quoted passage above.
One the other hand, it isn’t as though you have to constantly do things differently. As veteran teacher Mathias Schergen said, “I guess that’s part of the reason to stay excited and stay geeked up about it,” he explained, “because I see the progress in my own teaching. I just like the idea of always refining and expanding what I’ve done already.” I think I might be able to plan some parts of my curriculum in my sleep. I have a trusty file cabinet repository of ideas, and I remember what worked before. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time I teach. The difference is that I try to stay excited and look for new angles. I like to “stay geeked up” about teaching.
I think there is great potential in technology to allow teachers to connect and grow professionally. One point Drummond makes in his article is that teachers have been expected to work in a degree of isolation. With the explosion of the edublogosphere, many teachers now have a voice and a place to throw out ideas and learn new things. I personally think it is unfortunate that some teachers tend to use their blog as a platform to complain. We all need to vent sometimes, but if that’s all your education blog consists of, what sort of message are you sending–perhaps without realizing you’re doing so–about your satisfaction with your career? Shergen noted, “We have our little powwows and cry on each other’s shoulder, [but] I learned very early on from a very wise teacher that you can get caught in the blame game and you don’t go any further. It’s a way of abdicating your responsibility in the situation.” Barnett Berry, founder and president of the Center for Teaching Quality in North Carolina, calls those teachers “lounge lizards.” I have been one myself at one point in my career, I think, but eventually I reached a point when I had to decide if I really wanted to teach or not, and if I wanted to, I needed to force myself not to do it halfway–for the sake of the students and for my own well-being, I had to keep it fresh, or I would not last as a teacher. How miserable must teachers like the history teacher described in the quoted passage above be? Ticking off days until retirement, grumbling about the students/parents/administration in the lounge? Who wants to live like that?
One of my wise colleagues said to me that one of the reasons she teaches is that it keeps her young. That’s because she keeps it fresh, she likes to learn new things, and she has a sense of humor. Teaching is exhausting. It’s challenging. I think you have to be willing to adapt in order to enjoy teaching after 20 or 30 years, but it is possible. I don’t have all the answers, but I know an open mind and willingness to learn is a start. Isn’t that what we ask of our students?