In Praise of the Experienced Teacher

This is an article that praises the wisdom and knowledge of experienced teachers. What is most starting about it is that it was written by Justin Minkel, who entered teaching with six weeks of training in Teach for America. TFA has made hundreds of millions of dollars based on the assertion that experience is unimportant and that their young corps members have the power to close achievement gaps and bring about the day when all children have an excellent education. No other organization has done as much to demean experience as TFA.

Yet here is Justin Minkel, who now teaches elementary school in Arkansas, writing in praise of the experienced teachers and blowing up myths about them.

He writes:

We all know what veteran teachers are like. They’re fat, for one thing. Lazy, too. They wear ill-fitting sweatshirts stained by soup, and do crossword puzzles at their desk while students run riot around the room. They contaminate the staff lounge, grumbling and grousing about “these kids” while they wait for the microwave to defrost the frozen gray lumps of their lunch.

Am I right?

The problem with this image is that it’s conjured of more fiction than fact. Most of us have at some point come across a burned-out teacher who deserved the descriptor “toxic.” But we have also known hundreds of career teachers who are unfailingly kind, brilliant, compassionate, and innovative. The ugly stereotype of veteran teachers has at its heart the cruel-spirited flaw of all stereotypes: It fails to capture the truth of the group it demeans.

Consider these three career teachers. Their example does a far better job of capturing the portrait of those teachers who devote their lives to our profession.

* Josie Robledo was my mentor when I started at P.S. 192 in West Harlem after only six weeks of teacher training. She was tough but compassionate, and she would teach my class so I could observe almost every other teacher in the school. I was terrible at teaching math, and I once froze up mid-sentence in the middle of a math lesson. It was like a bad dream-these 32 4th graders watching me with patient bewilderment, waiting to see if I would finish my sentence. Ms. Robledo had to step in and finish the lesson for me. We met at lunch that day in the staff lounge. Blinking back tears, I beseeched her, “Just please tell me I’ll get better at this.” She looked me in the eye and told me with calm certainty, “You will get better.” That was all I needed to hear.

* Ms. Armendariz has taught art to my 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter since they began kindergarten, as she has to a generation of students. She elicits artwork from young children, like this painting of flowers my daughter did when she was 5 years old, that always makes me stare in amazement and ask, “Wait-you made that yourself?”

* For three years in college, I did my work study in Bill VanSlyke’s 4th and 5th grade classroom, where I witnessed his humor, compassion, and dedication to his students firsthand. I saw how significant it was for many of the children simply to have the daily presence of a gentle, kind man in their daily world. I hadn’t planned to become an elementary teacher, but I became one because of Mr. V’s example. He loved teaching, and he took it seriously. He also had time in his life to be a great father alongside his professional identity. His young son and daughter went to the school, and they would walk upstairs to his classroom as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day. In the summers, he dug up garlic on his farm outside town. He provided a model for me not only of the kind of career I wanted to build, but the kind of life I wanted to have someday.

These three remarkable human beings all love what they do. They get better every year. They are constantly seeking new ideas and honing their craft. Their influence on students and colleagues is like sunlight to plants; it nurtures and sustains everyone in their reach.

All three are “veteran teachers.” And yet, they don’t wear soup-stained sweatshirts. They don’t grouse about “these kids.” They don’t, in the words of our breathtakingly unqualified secretary of education, “wait to be told what they have to do.”

Those false stereotypes aren’t just inaccurate. They justify the budget-driven practice, in many districts, of trying to push experienced teachers out of the classroom in order to hire cheaper, less experienced teachers.

It’s no coincidence that these new teachers tend to be more pliant when it comes to following administrators’ mandates than teachers who have been there for 20 or 30 years. Not only are these new teachers cheaper-“two for the price of one!”-but they also tend to be younger, less established in the community, and less likely to rock the boat by challenging questionable rules.

The reality, of course, is that you don’t get “two for one” in these devil’s bargain buyouts. You lose wisdom, expertise, and the long-term relationships with students and families that give a school its very soul.

No one familiar with our profession would deny that burnout is a real phenomenon. But I have seen first-, second-, and third-year teachers who are burned out. I have also seen teachers beginning their 30th year in the classroom who are filled with joy and a spirit of perpetual innovation that makes them seem young beyond their years.

It’s a popular notion that teachers don’t improve much beyond five years of experience. The unspoken assumption is that teaching-unlike medicine, engineering, or law-is a profession in which mastery can be reached in five years. How hard can coloring, 2+2=4, and picture books about pigs in polka-dotted dresses really be?

Experienced teachers know differently. We know how much time it takes to understand individual children and the complexity of their ever-changing minds. We know that the process by which a child learns to read can be as complicated as astrophysics.

We know there is no substitute for the fusion of knowledge and intuition that forms expertise. We have honed that expertise through hundreds of thousands of interactions with children, combined with reflection that takes place in the moment itself or days later. We continue to improve long beyond that mythical five-year figure. As a result, what we considered to be good teaching in our first five years no longer passes muster in year 10, 15, or 20.

Justin reminds us that even those who start in TFA may grow to become good teachers who respect professionalism.

Thank you, Justin.

from novemoore http://ift.tt/2vEstnc

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