Friday, March 27, 2015

On Not Being a Jerk To Young Teachers

In one of those moments that tells you where you are in your career, I had an inquiry recently about what it might take to get me to retire early. Several folks on staff did. I replied that I didn't really see myself leaving the classroom any time soon. But perhaps that made me more sensitive to some of the news that I noticed last week.

One story, widely circulated, was the one-two punch of Nancie Atwell receiving a justly deserved award for teaching awesomeness (and handing it over to her school), followed by her advice that young people aspiring to teach should avoid public school and only go into teaching if they can find an "independent" school to hire them.

I also caught wind this week of a group called the Young Teachers Collective, a new group that includes Stephanie Rivera, who over a year ago penned an instant classic post, "To All The Teachers Telling Us Not To Go Into Teaching, Stop." The group has a facebook page, where you can go watch various folks be jerks to them.

I understand the frustration and anger and frustration that leads many veteran teachers to check out, and I respect those who choose to quit rather than stay in a job they hate just to draw a check. I've looked into that particular abyss, and I know how dark it looks. I also know that I'm working in a little corner of the world where I am not subjected to a fraction of the abuse and beat-down that my professional sisters and brothers go through in the real education war zones. So I don't judge people who decide to get out. You can only take as much as you can take.

What I don't get are my present and former professional peers who decide to be jerks about it to aspiring teachers.

I don't know. Maybe the thinking is "I have to believe that this is an awful profession for everyone in the world because then my frustrations won't in any way be about me." Maybe the thinking is, "I could not have made it if the person I was way back then were trying to get started today." I do get that one-- I'm not sure the teacher I was in 1979 could hack it today. Lucky for me I'm tougher than that guy.

Maybe there's the impulse to offer a reality check. Back when we old farts started, teaching was an easier profession; you could stay in your room, work with your students, trust the leaders in your profession and state capitol, and know that while nobody was ever going to treat you like a rock star, society at large offered a sort of grudging low-level respect and support. Granted, it didn't seem that way at the time, but now that we've seen what a full-on assault on professional ability and personal character looks like, we can get nostalgic for the Old Days. So maybe new teachers are a proxy for our younger selves-- "Open your eyes and look at what is really going to hit you, you foolish, naive child!"

Nor will I ignore the fact that as the products of a decade of reform-mandated malpractice make their way through college, we have teacher grads who Really Don't Get It. Download lesson plans from a website, line up all your test prep materials, get out the door at the last bell-- how hard can it be, they seem to think.

But that's not close to all of the new and aspiring teacher material out there. Because it has been a decade of educational chaos and stupidity run rampant in legislatures and boardrooms, many of the next wave of teachers have a far clearer idea of the cost of test-driven, privatizing, teacher-ignoring reformsterism. They may not be the cavalry, but they are certainly solid, knowledgeable reinforcements in the fight to restore the promise of public education.

So can we please, please stop being jerks to them?

Can we stop talking to them as if they're stupid? They're in their early twenties, which means they do know some things and don't know some other things (making them exactly like every twenty-something person in the history of ever). They want to be teachers, despite the ravages of reformsterism which is pretty much all they've ever known, so we should probably stop suggesting they have no idea what schools are like since No Child Left Behind started unraveling the fabric of public ed-- actually, that's the ONLY idea of schools they've ever seen.

But I don't want to spend a bunch of time speaking about their perspective for them, because I am not a young aspiring teacher and therefor if I want to know what it's like to be a young aspiring teacher I should shut my mouth and listen to one.

I teach high school, mostly the older students, so I get lots and lots of What Shall I Do With My Life inquiries. I tell them nobody can decide for them. I ask them what they want to do, why they want to do it, what they like about it. I ask if they've done some research, shadowed some people in the field, studied up what the job requirements are. And I try to get them to talk about it, because they mostly have the wisdom they need to make the decisions that best fits them.

Yes, teaching is hard to break in to. Yes, teachers are working upstream against all sorts of opposing forces. Yes, teaching often feels like a job nobody actually wants us to do. Isn't that all the more reason to do it? When somebody says she wants to be an ER doctor, why would we say, "You don't want to work there-- sick and injured people keep coming in all the time." We don't tell future welders, "They'll keep giving you metal to stick together." We don't tell lawyers, "Try to practice somewhere where people won't come to you with legal problems all the time."

A time of great challenges is a time of great need. It's true that I don't plan to retire soon, but that means I want to spend my time working side by side with strong, committed professionals, and someday, when I do pack it in, it would be nice to know that somebody strong and capable will be there to take over. Those people have to come from somewhere. And with all the forces arrayed against teachers, why would we want to create more obstacles?

We are in the business of supporting and fostering the dreams and ambitions of young students. Why we should forget all about that when talking to aspiring teachers is beyond me, particularly when we frame it in a disrespectful "You don't know what's good for you" manner. We should not need anyone to explain that it's uncool jerkitude to treat any humans, particularly young ones, with a default assumption that they are too stupid to know their own minds or exhibit decent judgment.

If teaching is not for them, that is for them to find out, in their own way and in their own time. 

It's awesome that the Young Teachers Collective has come together and has begun the business of finding a mission, direction, set of priorities. I hope that lots and lots of young teachers find their way to the group, and I hope that we old farts stop trying to kill the spark before it can fully catch flame. Teaching is a big field and it needs a full supply of strong and vibrant voices.


  1. As always, enjoy your comments. I think that people are making too much out of one comment. From her other writings, it is clear that she is extremely frustrated by how common core has influenced and changed how to teach reading and writing.

  2. I was once a young teacher. It is not so far into my distant memory that I can't vividly remember exactly what it felt like to be nervous about teaching a new reading strategy. Those days were exciting and passionate and the work of the Young Teachers Collective should be heralded as a great way forward for a great many aspiring teachers.

    I can't help but feel, though, that in my current role of supporting teachers in a large urban district we have fetishized new teachers in a lot of ways. While we may insult their knowledge or experience and talk down to them in PD, it is the veteran teachers that I believe we are writing off the most. We hold new/innovative practices of the new teachers (at least those who have made it past their first year), on a pedestal, even if those practices are not sustainable or do not have the research to back them up. But the veteran teachers, the ones we are asking to retire early to bring down the budget, that end up receiving a lot of the "Jerk" rhetoric.

    In saying things like "they won't change" or "we just have to wait until they retire", we are underestimating veteran teachers and their ability to be learners. I believe that anyone will change if you give them a compelling reason to do so, and because of the experiences that veteran teachers have gone through, many of the reforms are just not compelling.

    Suffice it to say:

    1. We should not be jerks to new teachers for going into teaching. We should also not fetishize new teachers as the hope of all mankind. I trust all teachers to build this together.
    2. We should not be jerks to veteran teachers for staying in teaching. We should not denigrate their experience or stereotype them in a fixed mindset. I believe that most teachers want to grow, but they want to build upon their years in the classroom.
    3. We should not be jerks to teachers. At all.

    P.S. This comment is a part of the #C4C15 project. Find out more here: