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Why Teachers Pay Teachers, Teachers of Instagram, and Teach Your Heart Out Are Not the Signs of the Apocalypse You Think They Are

TYHO Merch.pngI had breakfast last weekend with an amazing, award-winning teacher I adore. We talked shop with all the gusto and excitement characteristic of a tent revival. As tends to happen with me, I didn't realize I'd stumbled onto a minefield when the subject of the Teach Your Heart Out conferences came up--and boy, did she go off. Even my pancakes trembled under her reaction.

"These weekends are problematic for me," she said angrily. "Yes, they might be inspiring, but it's painting a picture of teaching as this Pinterest-perfect, little Instagram thing that millennials can dabble in and make their fortune. I mean, it's one thing to sell the rah-rah, isn't teaching great, come be a teacher fantasy, but the real work of teaching is damned hard. Where are the strategies? Where is the quality instruction? Are they sharing best practices? Are they learning to be better teachers? Is it more than merch and dance moves? Is this what our profession has become?"

I put my fork down. We were going to need a minute for this one because although I could relate to her frustration, I see it a little differently.  

The State of Education

I've been teaching for 25 years. In the decade spanning 1995-2005, I could name one edu-hero: Ron Clark.  His book, The Essential 55, came out in 2004 and it changed everything. I saw my young teacher self in the pages of his book. I felt validation and excitement about new things I might try to keep my classes humming along. What a refreshing bolt out of the blue! I lived off that book for years.  

In the decade and a half since 2005, the field has changed significantly. Today,

  • I can name nearly one hundred edu-heroes.

  • I can follow incredible educators from every continent on Instagram and Twitter.  

  • I can see inside classrooms for ideas and inspiration.

  • I can connect with teachers over strategies and solutions.  

  • If I need teaching ideas or materials for a unit on rhetoric or Steinbeck, I can find them online, many shared freely, a whole lot more for purchase.  

  • If I want to see great teaching, there are dozens of videos just a click away.  

  • If I need a quick read on one of the many topics that continue to vex me (like giving and grading homework), all I have to do is scope out Dave Burgess's (Teach Like a Pirate) website to find over 60 different titles--and all for a price this teacher can afford.  

It's a wonderful and brave new world for teachers and I love it.  

Back in the day, we had so little in the way of resources and inspiration. It was so very hard to teach well, stay inspired, and continue learning. It was lonely. I had to send away for expensive curriculum materials and save up for an entire year to attend just one conference and meet others who did the work I do.  

Today's teachers have so much more.

  • We have teacher rockstars and a network of support in the palm of our hands.

  • We have National Board certification spreading widely across the land, doing important work in maintaining teacher quality.

  • We have the equivalent of edu-evangelistic tent revivals inspiring young teachers across the country and televised award ceremonies where great teaching is celebrated.

  • We have over-decorated, way too perfect Instagram classrooms to ogle over and a Pop-Ed publishing sector.

  • We have teacher millionaires. OK. The truth is maybe we only have one or two of those, but hey... where there's one, there can be more. And we finally have merch for Pete's sake!  

I'm here for all of it.  

Stay Hopeful, But Ask Tough Questions

This splashy new normal is creating all kinds of change, most of it wonderful, some of it troubling.  

For my entire career, teachers have craved a professional legitimacy that has never come. But as long as we continue to work in a way that isolates us from one another--hiding good teaching and making it mysterious and unknowable--it won't come.  As long as we treat each other as equals in the craft and protect the worst among us--it won't come. As long as we refuse to allow the great teachers to rise and be seen, as long as we refuse to learn from them--it won't come. And as long as the work of teaching burns out the newcomers and allows itself to be so widely disparaged, our profession deserves life support, not legitimacy. This brave new world is disrupting all those old norms and might be a good part of the cure for what ails us.  

As my friend and I moved on to new topics, I reminded her to do what we always do: stay hopeful, but ask tough questions.  

If you're the real deal, then you still have what we've always had: a hopeful heart and a shrewd sense of what works. Not every lauded rockstar teacher out there truly knows what they're talking about, but it sure sounds good and it sells. And we see you. Some of the lessons available online are super, and I mean SUPER, problematic and possibly violate ethical, moral, and legal boundaries. And we're spreading the word about that to all who will listen. We have hucksters, scam artists, and sell-outs. We have teachers realizing how damn hard true teaching is and leaving it to find their way as designers, TED-talkers, and influencers. And that's OK. In a sea of mediocre, it's a whole lot easier to spot the gems--wonderful signs of life for our profession that didn't exist a decade ago.  

Nothing will replace mastery of kids and content. Period. Passion, dedication, and skill are still the coin of the realm in education and you can't fake it, no matter how easy Instagram makes it. But despite what the "teacher mafia" might have you believe, there is no one right way to teach--no one right way to learn to be a better teacher. There are many.  

If you're like me, you're in search of exactly what you need, the moment you need it to make you better, happier, re-energized. I'm thankful and relieved to have diverse places to look for content, mentors, materials, and inspiration. It's made what's arguably one of the toughest jobs in America just a tiny bit easier. And that's something wonderful.  

If you want to keep this conversation going, you'll find me at the revival. I'll be the older woman in line waiting to buy the "Love First-Teach Second" sparkly shirt.  

Until then, find me on Twitter @mrsmieliwocki.

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, Calif., district.

Photo courtesy of Teach Your Heart Out Conference Instagram

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