We know that most new teachers will not remain in the profession for more than 5 years. The wonder to me is how any new teachers are able to stay on at all. I am in my 12th year of teaching in large part because I received something few other teachers ever get: a solid mentor. This does not mean a cooperating teacher with whom I worked while in college. It means a mentor who was there for me in the first years of my career, passing down tools of the trade gleaned over decades of experience in actual New York City public schools. Without a mentor in these crucial years, I probably would have went the way of most other young teachers and left the profession.
My college training had left me ill prepared to teach in the small, inner-city high school in which I began my career. Instead, I had to draw upon the memories of my best history teachers. Being a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, my best history teachers tended to be the traditional type, sitting their kids in rows using little more than chalk and a blackboard. The fact that my students in my first year did not totally rebel or eat me alive told me I was onto something. The only problem was we were regularly required to attend professional development where old fossils on F status or young hipsters who wanted out of the classroom ran sessions extolling the virtues of post-it notes, bulletin boards, “accountable talk” and word walls. They warned us against “chalk and talk” and “lecturing”. It was like going to a cult initiation where they told me everything I have ever done or believed in was wrong. Unfortunately, this is as much training as most teachers get. Why would people stay in a career that they are not prepared for? More importantly, why would people stay in a career that is made to look trivial and childish?
Fortunately for me, my principal at the time understood that these training sessions were unlikely to improve the quality of his teachers. That is when he hired Sue. Sue was a retired history teacher with 35 years’ experience in New York City. For the first year and a half of my career she passed down to me the most valuable tools of the trade I have ever learned. Twice a week she would come to one of my classes to take notes on my teaching. She would be writing pretty much every minute of the entire period. She would critique my every interaction with the students, every question I asked, every last piece of information I put on the board and the content I was teaching. After class she would replay the lesson, point out the things I did well and showed me where I could have improved. The lessons I learned from her were the nuts and bolts of the art of teaching.
First, she exuded a passion for the subject. She knew so many facts and was able to draw so many connections between time periods. It was the type of knowledge she did not get from merely having a degree. It came from a lifetime of reading, researching and immersing herself in history. I learned the joy of reading history, of being conversant with historical debates and constantly expanding my database of facts and interpretations. My lessons all come from this reserve of research, allowing me to cut out what is unimportant and weave the rest into some sort of whole called a curriculum.
But after one knows the subject they have to prepare to present it. Sue taught me the importance of planning units ahead of time and writing all the homework down on sheets that could be copied and handed out to the students. (In many schools, making copies is not possible and this would entail paying out of pocket for them.) It would give the students a sense of direction as well as show that I as a teacher was prepared. Each lesson within the unit had some sort of visual like a map or chart with questions of my own design. The questions climbed the ladder of difficulty so the students could extract as much information from the visual as possible. (They now call this “differentiation”.) After 12 years of compiling materials and questions I have now a treasure trove of activities and learning aides.
But the most important thing Sue taught me was how to deal with students. There are a million little things that I do now that are a result of Sue’s mentoring: calling on kids by name, praising good answers, walking around the room, writing clear aims and notes that align with them, asking follow-up questions to build discussion and just all around being humane. I found that when I was able to implement all of these into a single lesson the kids responded better to me and wanted to learn. Today these are things I do like breathing thanks to Sue. Many of them might seem obvious to the uninitiated. But when you consider that none of these things are exactly inborn human behaviors and that classes routinely have 30 or more students, it is easy to see why teachers do not necessarily remember to do all of these things all of the time.
Sue was teaching me the art of teaching. She knew that none of these things were necessarily easy or pleasant. I often would rebel against her suggestions because I considered it micromanagement. But Sue was very adamant about me doing every single thing. There was no room for laziness or refusing to do something because it was out of my comfort zone. Her job was to guard the keys to the teaching profession and she was not going to allow me to defile it. This was something for which I will forever be grateful. She raised my consciousness of what it takes to make a classroom run and my role in it. I was not a facilitator, I was a teacher. The buck stopped with me.
But the Sues of the world are the education dinosaurs. The deformers have stepped up their efforts to trivialize teaching, boiling it down to exam scores, buzz words and fads. They want to make new teachers think that there is nothing more to teaching than getting students through a standardized exam and using post-it notes and sparkles because they look pretty to kids. They want to trivialize teaching in order to make it easier. Do not think about the art behind teaching: the passion for content, the way you lay out that content and the millions of interactions big and small involved in the delivery of that content. Instead, sit the kids in circles and have them do “accountable talk”. Write comments on neon-colored post-it notes and make sure those comments never have a negative word. Use these methods because the “research” shows that it leads to “positive outcomes”. The message is clear: do not think for yourselves as teachers, we have done the thinking for you. And of course, how much should workers who have all the thinking done for them get paid? Sue showed me that I am not a fast food worker or a young idealist teaching in an inner-city school out of liberal guilt. I am a teacher and I hold the keys to the profession.
The worst nightmare of the deformers is an empowered teaching force with confidence in their ability to teach. Teachers who know how to share their passion for knowledge with students are able to see through the education fads. They see that things like charter schools are not the answer since they do not speak to the art of teaching and, in many cases, end up destroying teaching by working their staffs to exhaustion. This is why Bloomberg did nothing but declare all-out war on veteran teachers: they were the guardians of the teaching profession that the mayor held in such disdain. Those of us who are left have a duty to rebuild what Bloomberg tried to destroy. We need a new generation of gatekeepers more aggressive than ever before. We must declare firmly that we own the teaching profession, we know what is best for our students’ learning and that people who do not teach have no clue about how to do so. Just as a layman would not tell a doctor how to treat cancer, people like Bill Gates have no place in telling us how children should be educated.
Whether it is Bill Gates or the fly-by-night teacher training programs like Teach for America, the system is awash with people with at best a passing interest in a permanent system. Their interest in teaching will pass but the art of teaching will always remain. While many of our fellow teachers have fell victim to the erosion our profession has suffered at the hands of the deformers, the rest of us are holding the shore against the tide. Time is on our side. No matter how many schools they close or how many charters they open or how many fads they support, we will always hold the keys.