Two Years Is the Worst Amount of Time to Teach
I'm reaching the end of my second year writing this blog so I think it's about time that I move up in the Education Week world. I have been doing the week-to-week work of writing and have a sense of the kinds of stories the magazine publishes and who reads them. Move over Michele J Givens, time for President John Troutman McCrann to take the EdWeek reins.
This is, of course, a joke.
I have certainly learned a lot from my two years of writing this blog. I've received advice from the professional staff. I've gotten feedback from engaged readers. It is a fact that I have a better sense of the kinds of writing that will engage and energize EdWeek readers today than I did back on Sept. 1, 2015 when I posted my first post.
Yet, I've come to believe that this knowledge actually makes me less qualified to run the organization or an organization like it today than I would have been two years ago.
The issue is not with what I know, but with the confidence that one gains identifying and addressing what Donald Rumsfeld called "known unknowns." You spend two years doing something and you realize: "I'm way better at this than I used to be...there's all these things I used to not know which I know now." This is a great starting point, but not a good place to end. Rumsfeld continues:
"But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."
(One might rightfully wonder from today's historical position which category of "unknowns" lead to Rumsfeld's disastrous handling of the war in Iraq. I'll leave that for another blog and blogger.)
Doing something for two years and then setting out to make policies or change practices in that arena is a bad idea. Two years is not enough time to fully understand the complexities of a complex system. Sure, I know some stuff now that I didn't know about my own blog and the folks who read it, but there are millions of things about the running of Education Week that I don't even know to ask about. It turns out that those are the more complicated problems that make Givens's job difficult.
I came to this understanding as I transitioned from my first two years of teaching into the next stage of my career. Like many, I had a hard time even putting one pedagogical foot in front of the other as a first year teacher; however, by the end of my second year, my students were working productively and learning. I got a high rating from my principal and my students did quite well on end of year state standardized tests. Teaching? I got this.
Fortunately for me, my teaching career didn't stop there.
As I started my third year, I realized that while I had been busy trying to get students to function in basic ways I had been missing a whole set of deeper, more difficult problems.
The fact that I no longer had to devote huge portions of my cognitive bandwidth towards basic functioning allowed me to understand the classroom ecosystem more fully and to realize just how complex the acts of teaching and learning are. Furthermore, I began to realize that some of the "solutions" I'd developed to address basic issues were creating stumbling blocks or barriers to this deeper work. Forcing students to copy and execute steps in a specific order for a problem set involving linear equations can help class flow smoothly but it also leads to over-generalizations and misconceptions about linear relationships.
We had a group of interns at our school this spring from an elite Northeastern college. The young people, most of whom had just finished their first year of college, came with a confidence and passion for which I have a deep appreciation. I could see myself in their idealism. I also recognized my own younger, more naive self in their assertion that they would like to "teach for a couple years before going into education policy" in order to create "systemic change."
Of course, I understand that the idea for this career path doesn't come out of thin air. Teach for America turned 25 last year and continues to treat teaching as more stepping stone than career. This organization may be the most explicit in articulating the "teach for a couple years then move on" career path, but it is certainly not the only place that young teachers-to-be are getting this message. Early in my career, I remember hearing this sentiment from a variety of professors, teachers, and principals.
Instead of accepting the premise that high achieving young people won't be engaged by teaching for an entire career we ought to attack it. Share stories of the ways in which our 10th or 20th or 30th year teaching has changed our thinking or challenged ideas we used to hold. Work to make teaching the kind of profession that is sustainable and sustaining. Think creatively about ways to engender "leading without leaving." Maintain and ameliorate the kinds of external motivators (like job security, benefits, and pensions) that make the career attractive.
Two years is the worst amount of time to teach.Years 3-12 of my career have been so much more rewarding for me as a thinker, problem solver, and learner. A two year classroom teaching career is also likely to lead to an overly-simplistic view of our work and what kinds of policies would make things better for young people. Young idealistic college graduates with an interest in doing engaging work that promotes social justice ought to make a real investment in a community and career.
Photo by Mary Conroy Almada of author teaching in the 10th year of his career.