Friday, November 21, 2008

What I know now....

If I am going to pretend to be an edublogger, I need to toss an explicit post on teaching now and again.

I've been observed 3 times this past week; either I'm wowing them or they're looking for the bodies. This is my third year. I'm up for tenure.

One of the tragicomedies of American education is the tenure system. This year an innocent comment misinterpreted by a 14 year old can get me looking for a commercial clamming license. Next year, once tenured, anything short of a felony in the classroom (and even then it's even odds) won't warrant the time needed to get me booted.

So I enjoy the parade. Worst comes to worst, I sling a stethoscope around my neck and start succoring the afflicted again.

So, a list. Bloggers love lists.

Here's what I know as a 3rd year teacher I could not possibly have known as a greenhorn.


1. No matter how much you sweat you put into a lesson, it is not the students' obligation to appreciate it.
We've all been there. We put together the lesson of the century, a lesson that would make John Dewey misty eyed.

You spent $126 on the materials.
You have an anticipatory set that could waken your long-dead great grandmother.
You spent 27 hours preparing the lesson, the glow of the monitor highlighting your maniacal grin as you fantasize about the anticipated eagerness of your lambs eating up your lesson.

You forego tickets to the 7th game of the Rangers/Devils Stanley Cup playoffs.
You turn down Willie's invitation to travel for a week on the Honeysuckle Rose.
You even stop playing solitaire.

You are a freakin' professional!

And the kids yawn. In your face.

Welcome to teaching. It's not about you.

2. Stay out of the teacher's lounge.

No, really. It's a trap. If you need to complain, you need to get out.

It's a great field. You get to teach children. You mold future citizens. You get to see a side of children even parents never see.

It's a gift, an honor, a raison d'etre. ( Feel free to add the circonflexe--I'm a Luddite.)

It's easy to complain about the hours (no longer than a laborer picking grapes) or the respect (no less than the security guard sitting in the lobby of your school) or the students (you want to work with humans, you're going to get human behavior) or the pay (hey, I make more per hour as a teacher than I did as a doc).

The lounge kills hope. You need hope to teach.

3. Textbooks are like crutches...wonderful if you need them
Textbooks can save your life (but not your soul) that first year, when even the mere act of micturition requires three weeks of planning.

It gets better by the third year. Really. So much better you can now pee without consulting your calendar.

Textbooks are written by committees. Students don't need committees. They need you. Wean yourself.

If you don't believe this, go join a committee.

(A confession: I still spend too much time using textbooks--I'm working on it.)

4. Teach to the child, not the test.
Turns out the test just isn't that good, at least not around here. And I hear from other bloggers, it's not so go around there, either.

Ben Wildeboer (Sustainably Digital) notes that lousy tests "perhaps do serve a valuable purpose...."

When I start to feel myself get stressed about falling behind and not going over all the required content, remembering that the standardized tests will be poorly written and not do a great job of assessing the standards makes me feel better about not covering everything I’m “supposed” to.
Ben Wildeboer

The child will remain reasonably intact for the next few decades, barring a motor vehicle accident or HIV, or one of the amazingly rare reasons young adults die (but get great press when they do).

Tests, on the other hand, change all the time.

New superintendent? Reform.
New governor? Reform.
New President? Reform.

Kids are fairly stable--a couple of billion years of evolution are not influenced by the thoughts of the newest Administrator in Charge. Keep things in perspective.

5. Use what works, ignore what doesn't.
During my formative years, I had a couple of diametrically opposed adjunct professors. One was an elementary school teacher by day, the other a principal.

(Despite having a career in the "real world", I didn't go the alternate route. I took education classes before I tortured young adults as a student teacher. Nothing--and I say that without apologies--nothing can replace the student teaching experience for folks arrogant enough to believe they can teach.)

The principal had the proper accent and a better command of the language. She preened, she preached.

The teacher knew her stuff, but was not nearly as polished. Here's what she said.

If it works, use it. Put posters over the door to prevent snoopy administrators from peeking in, play the game, but teach your students. That's why you're there.

Never forget you matter.

Not all folks grasping the administrative brass ring are in it for themselves, but enough of them are that you need to interpret motives.

So I teach.

I see what works, and (painfully) dissect what doesn't. Tomorrow is another day. Keep plugging, keep analyzing, keep working, and keep your sense of perspective next to your Excedrin.

6. Keep your educational philosophy within an arm's distance.
I was warned.

There will be days when you wonder why you quit your day job to become a public school teacher position. There will be days when others wonder the same thing about you.

And there will be day's when your biggest doubter will be yourself.

So write that philosophical statement. Read it. Soak it in. Allow yourself to believe it matters. It does.

Keep it handy.

Read it again in November, when the words are blurred by tears, by sweat.

The day you stop believing what you do matters is the day you should quit.

7. Goal directed exhaustion is OK at times (if you don't make it a habit).
You chose this field.
Your field matters.
A hundred years from now, what you do today can matter.
Make it matter.

A few colleagues (usually found in the lounge) may tell you that you are working too hard, that you will learn the hard way, that you will burn out. A (very) few will even brag about never bringing home work as they physically fly out the door 10 minutes after the last bell, a door they flew out of spiritually years ago.

They're right--a lot of us will flame out. Honeybees work themselves to death, but they do worthwhile work.

You are going to die, too. Might as well do something special while you're here.


The Honeysuckle Rose shot is from an avid Willie fan, Linda, innkeeper of the
Stillisstillmoving blog. Wonderful pictures there!

The smoking teacher, the crutch factory, and tired doc pics are from the Life photo collection available at Google.

12 comments:

Elona Hartjes said...

Thanks for sharing your insight with us. I can really relate to insight number 1. It really isn't about us, although I love teaching for what it gives me: the opportunity to make a positive difference.

Jenny said...

I have greatly enjoyed your other posts, but I appreciate this one in a different way. Don't give in to edublogger expectations too often, but I will look forward to reading your thoughts in this arena on occasion.

Jeff said...

I've been digging this blog for a few weeks now, but this post has gone above and beyond. I'm in my seventh year, but so much of what you write about rings true for me.

Keep it up...you're the kind of science teacher we English teachers can appreciate.

doyle said...

@Elona,
Thanks for the words. Your blog Teachers at Risk has been a wonderful resource for me to create opportunities to make a positive difference (without sugarcoating the issues).

@Jenny,
Thanks, and no worries--I blog for selfish reasons. This post felt too much like homework, and I never did like homework. I'd rather toss words on the screen and see what sticks.

@Jeff,
Thank you for your voice here. A few of us were chatting as students was being dismissed last week, and we decided that it's right around the 7th year you start to master this craft. (One of us had taught for about 9 years, the other for 25--I have almost 5 more to go before I reach 7.)

Louise Maine said...

Excellent post. Many teachers who have been here longer still don't get it. I have always had similar thoughts to yours despite losing my way for a few years after being beat down. I am glad I did not quit a few years back (even said it in an edutopia article). The reinvention of myself was worth it. I love that many of my students have contacted me later to thank me or let me know how they are doing. It is about them and I hope many more stay in touch.

Sean Nash said...

I think it is safe to say that I enjoyed this one...

http://nashworld.edublogs.org/2008/11/22/goal-directed-exhaustion-is-ok/

MaryLou said...

Your post is truth. Taught my first science class in 1987 & love it more today than I did then. The day I don't is the day I retire. While you may be in only your third year in the classroom, it's obvious you've been an educator your whole life. You are doing good things. Please post more & often.

doyle said...

@Louise:
I love that edutopia article--and I may be leaning on you sooner rather than later. I started getting nicks from the kids for the wiki space, and they are going nuts now. How do you successfully mingle the new methodologies with the old?

I feel like I am walking on the edge of a cliff. Once we jump into the wiki assignment, I'm not sure the kids we will want/need to hear me lecture on anything. (We'll still do labs, discussions, etc.--but the lecture may be dead.)

@Sean,
Thanks for the recognition--Clay knocked me around a little bit, and I've come to my senses. I need to practice graciousness.

I'm thrilled!

@MaryLou,
My dream is to keep enjoying this more and more, becoming one of those loving codgers in the classroom who never needs to retire.

I still get giddy when I realize I am actually in a classroom, teaching about things I love to share.

The Klepto said...

I have a close friend who just began her teaching career. She teaches 8th grade science to (by what she describes) little heathens. I will pass your post (and blog) along to her, in hopes that she does not get too bogged down.

Kerry said...

Wow -- I needed to read this post today. I'm a first-year Language Arts teacher going the alternate certification route (after a 20-year career in public relations). Lucky for me Sean N. is my instructional coach and I have two awesome co-principals. I thought when I started all this I was becoming a "teacher," instead I'm becoming a professional learner. I learn every day from my administration, peers and most importantly, my students.
Your post was refreshing for its honesty and its ability to reassure those of us who are on the uphill side of what appears to be a never ending learning curve.
Thanks.

Joel said...

Nice post. This is definitely NOT a 40-hour-a-week job, but the rewards are worth it. Some days I believe that more than others :)

doyle said...

@TheKlepto,
First year can be (will be) very hard, perhaps as hard as anything your friend will do, and 8th graders tend to act like they're 13 years old.

If they are truly heathens, though, they may be a bit more receptive to science than some pockets of our culture. (I love the word "heathen"--sounds like an agnostic pagan.)

@Kerry,
Coming from the outside in has its advantages--I'm glad the words helped.

I was blessed with a phenomenal cooperating teacher and a strongly supportive supervisor. Working with Sean must be the bee's knees!

A caveat, though, and this is going to sound like it's contrary to "goal directed exhaustion." You are working with someone who takes his profession seriously, someone with high standards.

Know that the standards worth reaching in teaching (or professional learning) cannot be met in the first year. If they could, this would just be another job, not a profession. Exhaustion combined with unreasonable personal expectations can kill beginning teachers. So allow yourself sleep, and trust yourself enough to make mistakes.

Student teaching is hard enough when you're 22 years old; for those of us with a couple more decades behind us, it might just be a tad harder in the physical sense. (There are advantages to being older, too--life outside school gives you a different perspective.)

One reason my CT was so wonderful was that she'd explain why something I wanted to try might not work, but would let me try it anyway without getting in the way. When it didn't work, she didn't rub it in, just let the results speak for themselves. I learned how to learn in the classroom.

@Joel,
Thanks for the words.

Yep, 40 hours is not going to do it, at least not in this stage of teaching, and I suspect I'll never be a 40-hour-week candidate.

The rewards are worth it, but a lot of the rewards will never be seen by you (though they will be seen by many others).

I agree it's easier to remember than others. I think that the invisibility of our rewards is a large reason why so many quit the field. If you're in it for the summer vacations alone, you're not going to be happy. There are, alas, a lot of unhappy teachers.