On Experience (part one)

No matter how many books have been read, how many classes have been taken, how many educational theories have been analyzed, or how many inspiring TED: Education videos have been watched, nothing can fully prepare young teachers for the first year (or the first few years) of teaching. Teacher experience is something that is becoming less and less valued, particularly in many charter school networks. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase it would be to say that the definition of experience is often quite warped.

I recently began rereading the book “Letters to a Young Teacher” by Jonathon Kozol, a book in which he gives advice to one young teacher while also analyzing and critiquing the current trends in education. The first time I read this book, I was in the middle of my first year of teaching and was working in a “no-nonsense” charter school. Kozol’s book was a breath of fresh air and reminded me of why I had become a teacher and that there is a whole other world of education out there, although this other world is unfortunately shrinking each year.

While reading recently, I came across this quote that stuck with me and inspired what will most likely be the first of a few posts on the value of teacher experience and the seeming lack of recognition of its importance among many young teachers. Kozol writes:

“Some of the young white teachers I have met, several of whom came into public education through one of the “fast track programs…have subsequently left the public schools and gravitated into semi-private charter schools, or joined with others of their age to create a new school of their own, in which they give me the impression that they feel relieved at being liberated from the “oldtime” faculty and principals with whom they worked.”

Later in the chapter, when referring to his own experiences as an early educator, he writes:

“Looking back on my state of mind during that period, I recognize…. a brisk, smart-aleck certitude that within a mere ten months I’d somehow learned enough to turn my back upon the efforts of those tens of thousands of good teaches elsewhere in my city and throughout the nation…”

Both of these quotes struck a chord within my mind and validated a lingering thought that I have had nearly the entire time I’ve been working in schools where this type of mentality is the norm. Educators with a mere two or three years of classroom experience are often touted as “master teachers” and are promoted to school leadership positions with titles like “academic dean” or, in some cases, even offered principal positions. Though these teachers were often successful* in their given classroom settings, their promotion to a role of leadership after so little time in the classroom suggests a warped sense of the idea of experience – that two or three (or maybe four) years of teaching experience gives you the credibility to lead other teachers. What results, then, is that this cycle of inexperience continues to grow, as inexperience is attempting to guide inexperience. Or, put another way, it often ends up being a case of the blind leading the blind. As briefly argued in a recent post about Ms. Devos’ appointment, taking a role without the adequate experience should not fly.

Additionally, this warped sense of experience, to me, implies a lack of respect for the teaching profession. Taking teachers who are viewed as successful* out of the classroom suggests that teaching is merely a stepping stone and should not be one’s end career goal. When I was asked by my supervisor if I would ever consider applying for a school leadership position, my response in which I stated that perhaps after teaching for 10-15 years I would consider something of the sort was met with a confused look that seemed to ask why I would ever want to stay in the classroom for so long.

Teacher experience is an incredibly valuable and, in my opinion, increasingly overlooked tool. While I am not suggesting that all experienced teachers are excellent educators, and I am also not trying to imply that all young teachers in charter schools strive to get out of the classroom and into leadership roles as quickly as possible, I do believe that the importance of experience is becoming increasingly warped. The definition of experience in education needs to be reexamined, consistent, and recognized by young educators.**

Myself a young teacher, I recognize that I would have no business calling myself a leader in education. I challenge my fellow young teachers to recognize that, while I’m sure many of us are on our way to being excellent teachers, we still have so much to learn. I challenge my fellow young teachers to stay in the classroom, to gain years of valuable experience, and to continue using and sharing your own ideas and new ideas, but to also recognize that there are so many amazing teachers who have been teaching for 15, 20, 30 years who can teach us so much. I challenge my fellow teachers to recognize that three years of teaching does not make us experienced teachers.

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*  I hesitated to use the word successful because I often disagree with the definitions of success, often measuring only test results and classroom behavior and not taking into account student happiness, teacher creativity, or developmental appropriateness of classroom expectations.

** I hope to write another post on the path I’ve seen many take – persons striving to work in education policy without, in my opinion, adequate classroom teaching experience.

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