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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't Become a Teacher

(photo by Eric Johnson)

I recently had the privilege of sitting down and talking with a Dean of Education, a Director of Graduate Education, and an Indiana Principal of the Year at a small reception hosted by my Graduate Degree Alma Mater. The purpose of the reception was to give Graduate alumni students a chance to re-connect, share ideas, and talk about their careers since receiving their Masters Degree. (MAT, M.Ed.)

Whether it was the timing or the weather that evening, the event was unfortunately not well attended. The event was not a total loss however, as it provided an opportunity for me to talk one on one with people who have very real interest in the direction of education. All three of these professionals were concerned about the flow of talent coming in to the profession and the increasing scarcity of top tier professionals within the field.

The Dean and the Director both talked at length about how this current academic year was the lowest enrollment in many years. The Dean had the perspective that the situation was a temporary lull and that they were prepared for it to extend up to 5 years. He felt that they would just have to find a way to "ride it out" and be prepared for the upswing in both undergraduate and graduate enrollments as educator retirements increase over the next ten years.

Our Indiana State legislature, following a growing trend, passed legislation that devalues an advanced education degree.  The change in the law does not require public districts to automatically to pay teachers a "Masters bump".  The Director of Graduate of Education stunningly stated that with the change "why, other than intrinsic reasons or if you were already close to getting 'it', why would anyone get a M.Ed or MAT?" I sat there, as he went on, and internally just went "wow!"

There certainly was some intrinsic motivation as I pursued my Masters of Arts in Teaching. At the base of the effort though, was that by obtaining an advanced degree was the opportunity to learn how to get better at my job. I wanted to get better at teaching. The change in the law however, was the factor that definitely made me accelerate the pace last summer. I took 9 graduate credits in 62 days, to get 'grandfathered' into a higher salary band before our district's contract ended at the end of this school year. My wife shared the driving on our 4000+ mile road trip out west last summer, while I banged out papers in the passenger seat or early in the mornings, to email to my professors who graciously allowed me to honor a 10 day family vacation commitment in the middle of the semester. 

The principal related a story about how he couldn't find a qualified high school Physics teacher. He struggled to find someone who was an expert in the challenging content (for me at least) and held the license necessary for the job. He ended up placing a science generalist in the position with the understanding that he would need to have patience as this teacher built his expertise over time.

In talking further about the decreasing numbers of enrollment and talent pools, all three agreed that current teachers are often the worst marketers for the profession. There were many stories where a perspective education student was advised "Don't become a teacher."

That advice might be coming from an increasing personal frustration from their jobs. The the seemingly ever growing restrictions on creative teaching and the corollary 'accountability' placed on those outside of education. There are a lot of reasons why someone shouldn't become a teacher. Teaching is hard. Teaching well, harder. I don't think one should become a teacher, unless a candidate has considered a few things.

Teachers are largely unappreciated. Teaching is the one job that everyone thinks they could do. They can't. Outside of the parents of the children in your classroom or your peers, most people don't hold what teachers do with a high level of regard. If you're looking for external validation and praise, don't become a teacher.

A teaching candidate should have a good understanding of the non-teaching elements of being a teacher. Superior organization skills are major requirement of the job. Committees, team meetings, multiple deadlines from multiple inputs, grades, assessment windows, intervention conferences, and on and on. There are a lot of non instructional tasks that demand your time. If you aren't ready to give time and attention to all of the tasks that have little to do with instruction, don't become a teacher.

Teaching is a grind. It takes a focused, year round, purposeful effort. I don't know of a teacher who has ever said that they have ever reached the end of their development. Teachers are a reflective bunch and are always looking back at what they could have done better. The great ones find a way to examine their past and apply meaningful adjustments to their future instruction and student relationships. The aforementioned Director always liked to tell the story of a newly enrolled administration student, after completing his first year of teaching in a tough school, said "that he had seen it all." The Director's reply was "oh really, have you ever chased a naked man through the halls of your school?" While there's no course that teaches the fineries of that situation, if you don't want to be involved in a state of perpetual professional development, don't wish to get better, and possess an inflated sense of self, don't become a teacher. The field doesn't need anymore know-it-alls. We need collaborators and change agents. We already have too many politicians and funderpundits trying to force their agendas on those in the field and who know a better way, but just have smaller wallets.

If you think teaching is a great way to pad your résumé as the required community service requirement in your life's career plan, you might want to look elsewhere for your bullet point. Most teachers will tell you that they didn't feel mostly effective until they had taught for five or six years. A two year stint isn't enough to reach a level of competency that our kids need. The profession needs people who can commit their talents long term. If you think you'll have this "teaching thing down" in just a couple of years or you want to quickly move on to 'bigger and better' things, don't become a teacher.

But ...
If you want to become a teacher,
to help children reach their potential,
share your ideas freely with peers,
embed yourself in the community where your kids live,
take a long view towards getting better in your field,
and put in long hours with little recognition except maybe a crayon drawn picture at the end of the school year that says you were their favorite teacher,
then sign up, because our kids need you and I want you in my building.
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Not Suprising

I read this post by Lee Kolbert (@Teachakidd) while watching the Bastille Day Stage 15 of this year's Tour de France. I tweeted out the post and stated "that I couldn't wait to read the comments" she had asked for in the conclusion. I like Lee's writing and despite her encouragement to not "wait for the others, Lead", Mont Ventoux held my attention. Thank her for her post and for fighting against the nonsense that lead to the graphic.

I liked her post because it fired me up and got me thinking. It reminds me that aside from our peers, parents of my students, my students, and my wife & son, that teachers are not valued very highly. 

I hated this post, because it reminded me of the same thing. Like I've said before, 

"Teachers are like cops. You don't know how valuable they are until you need one"

We (the profession) have a very serious perception problem in regards to what teachers actually do. I certainly don't speak for the entire profession, but most teachers I know and work with are fairly humble by nature. They do great things in their classroom and are often times the only ones who know about it. The default position is not one of self promotion, but of nurturing. There still exists a wariness, within some school buildings, of someone who broadcasts what they are doing in the classroom. Someone who is blowing their 'own horn', in other words. 

I've take the position that we don't share what we are doing for our kids, who will? I'm going to share what I'm doing and what I've found I like. If that is not your thing, I'm okay with that. 

However, if we don't drive the conversation, someone else gets the microphone. Teachers, administrators, and other educators should have control of the conversation about what they do. If you are not communicating what's going on in the classroom, who is? 

My class and I are certainly not perfect (read this by @Michellek107), but I'm not going to let someone else confiscate what is going on in our classroom.

I take opportunities to make sure people within my reach know that I just don't work 9-3 and  August-September. I hope that at some point, perceptions will change. It's hard though, because the feeling that teachers are less than professionals is so entrenched. I almost always feel defensive and somewhat whiny when making my case. Even to friends.

What are some of the things I do in my classroom that people would find surprising? If you are not surprised, you're probably an educator.
  • I rarely sit down when kids are around. 
  • I spend about ten minutes in the morning on the playground where our grade lines up to try understand where each kid 'is at' that day. Getting a gauge on the room, if you will, so that I have an idea of their mood as they come in to learn.Chatting about what's going on in their lives, outside of school, while we're outside of the school. 
  • People might find it surprising that for a number of my kids, the time they are in our class is the safest they feel all day. Many live in chaos. You cannot learn in chaos, which is why even-though we may be noisy sometimes and a little messy, we're focused on exploring and learning. 
  • I help give them a voice, because they are so often ignored, shut-out, or out shouted at home.
  • I already know most of my incoming student's names, because I spend time talking, high-five'ng, and interacting with every student in the building. Because you never know.
  • I give them a snack when they are hungry.
  • My wife has bought my students clothes and shoes.
  • I sacrifice time with my wife and son sometimes, because I volunteer coach for basketball, track, science fair, etc. I'm a volleyball booster, choir concert/play videographer, and open house tour guide among other things.
  • I teach my kids how to talk to each other and express ourselves without trying to tear someone else down. 
  • I've taught blogging, digital citizenship, and keyboarding skills to 1st graders.
  • I meet them as strangers on the first day, but cry when they leave me at the end of the year.
  • At the end of the year I send a handwritten  note to every student who spent time in my class over the last ten month to remind them that someone is rooting for them. 
  • I send birthday cards to former students.
  • I listen to them.  
  • I read, research, write, present, and try to contribute to a community of my fellow educators, because they inspire me to get better at this thing that I do.
  • I make my kids feel they are part of our Room 216 family. Always.
What do I do that the public would find surprising? Almost everything.

Thanks for reading.

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