A LETTER TO EXPERIENCED TEACHERS, 2012

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Last year about this time I posted “A Letter to New Teachers.” I’m planning to update that soon, but I didn’t want to neglect those of us who have been at it for a while. So here goes:

Dear Experienced Teacher:

We know it’s important to pay attention to and support the men and women joining our faculties for the first time, and we always have lots of good advice for them.

But sometimes we know that the experienced teachers in our midst are overlooked or taken for granted. We casually accept one another’s quiet, competent work and maybe even quiet struggles. It’s easy for school communities to grow almost too comfortable with colleagues whose daily behaviors are familiar and whose work (we assume) goes smoothly and attracts little notice.

Of course it’s not always that way for any of us, veteran or new, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are always things we can do to make our work more effective and our lives more satisfying. We have stayed with this profession, sometimes through thick and thin, because we believe in kids and love things about our work—and because we believe in the old promise and old premise that teachers can make the world a better place.

With summer waning and the coming year gradually transforming from an mental abstraction into a concrete set of tasks, challenges, and opportunities, I have been trying to riffle through the pages of my own career and remind myself of things I can do—that we all can do—to make the year go well. Here’s my short list:

  • Be a “furtherer.” The late, great David Mallery used this term to describe teachers and administrators  who enthusiastically fall into the role of mentors and cheerleaders for others, inspiring and sometimes pushing other teachers forward because they see the potential not only in their students but in their colleagues. Most of us have a furtherer or two or three to thank for the teaching lives we live.

          Also: Be sure to thank your own furtherers!

  • Lean into discomfort—especially with challenging kids. Live the meaning of this phrase we have heard in workshops for years. It matters a whole lot when we find ourselves dealing with the kid who annoys us, challenges us, disappoints us, puzzles us, or even frightens us. The harder we work to find out what makes such kids tick, the more we try to discover the virtues masked by childish or adolescent behaviors intended to distance us, and the better our chances of helping these kids grow into the best versions of themselves.

  • Be true to your school—and yourself. I hope that you are content with your school, its culture, its values, and its prospects. I hope that its leaders and their vision excite you, and that the mission of your school aligns elegantly with your personal sense of purpose (and I hope that you have a personal sense of purpose). But there are likely to be areas of non-alignment, and perhaps even friction. This is when you have to find the moral and intellectual generosity to figure out how to bridge those gaps in the name of supporting not just “the school” but your colleagues and above all your students. You don’t have to love every practice and policy, but you have to understand them enough to live with them and, where required, to enforce them. 

Some institutional disagreement is necessary and healthy, and you should never back away from upholding a position you hold dearly. Be forthright, aboveboard, and work within whatever channels exist. If things reach a point where friction generates more heat than light in your life or your community, either 1) find a way to pursue your position more effectively, 2) consider that you might just be wrong or wrongheaded in the context of the school, or 3) understand that it might be time to consider a change of venue for your work. Falling into bitterness, underground politicking, backbiting, and passive-aggressive noncompliance won’t help your students—you know this—and it surely won’t help you. Be true to your school, and know thyself.

  • Embrace change. It’s upon us from every direction, and chances are that some of your administrators will return from break charged up about some new idea; I hope so. There’s no excuse for a teacher in 2012 to be living totally sheltered from the winds of educational change. Rather than wait anxiously for a buffeting breeze, it would make a great deal more sense to take some time to do your own investigation, by reading books, periodicals, blogs, joining Nings and elists, building PLNS, even by starting a Twitter account and following some of the smart inspirational tweeters out there. Pat Bassett’s May blog had some great suggestions for reading—and connecting.

Sure, not every great new idea is going to pan out as a silver bullet for your students’ learning, but a working teacher who wants to be considered a true professional has no defensible reason for not knowing what big ideas of our time are or for ignoring them. If you hear yourself saying, “But we tried something like that back in 1995 and it didn’t work out,” think about whether it really was “something like that” and why it “didn’t work out.” You’re older and wiser now; maybe you can make it work this time. Don’t hide out behind your anxiety—look around and see what you might do with new, better tools and new, more informed perspectives. It’s for the kids.

  • Lead up and down. The theme of the Summer 2012 Independent School magazine is “leading from the middle,” and the role of established teacher-leaders and “middle managers” and supervisors like class advisors, department leaders, and curriculum coordinators has never been more important. Use your excitement about new ideas to bring them both to those who serve with you or under your guidance but also to those who manage and lead you. Cultivate a strong, confident voice with which you can make your case for doing things differently, or perhaps even maintaining a truly effective practice. Age and experience give us wisdom, we are told, so seek to establish yourself as someone whose ideas and opinions matter.

For some teachers this doesn’t come easy; we got into this business to work with children and not because we necessarily felt confident or comfortable being a persuasive voice among adults. But times have changed, and gone are the old days when we could escape to our classrooms and create our professional worlds exclusively among kids. Teaching is no longer about each of us, ourselves, alone. 

We need to be faculties characterized by a rich flow and exchange of ideas and opinions—and by mutual respect. We need to be faculties in which castes and layers, based on seniority, who teaches what, who lives in what dorm, or who has whose ear, are gone, gone, gone. In 1968, when I was a senior in high school and Peter Prescott was working on A World of Our Own, faculty room stratification, posturing, and politics hadn’t much changed since Owen Johnson’s Lawrenceville Stories more than a century ago (and at least those were funny). But it’s decades later, and we have to recognize that each of us has something valuable to learn about our craft and our calling from each of our colleagues, no matter how young and how “inexperienced.”

You experienced pros (another David Mallery-ism)—that is, we experienced pros—have to appreciate ourselves fully for what we have to offer, and we have to make a point of offering it. We’re doing good work, and it can be a very good life; happily we share today’s “world of our own” every so much more widely and joyfully than we did 45 years ago. We honor our profession, our schools, and our students by our determination to do our best, and we give full meaning to our lives by our resolution to keep making the kinds of difference that we idealized when came into this profession in the first place. 

Savor the last weeks of summer, and have the best year ever—PG

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