Sunday, May 3, 2009

Who Are Our Veteran Teachers?

At the start of the school year, I purposely front-load all the novice teachers for observations. They're new, and new teachers need immediate support and feedback in regard to teaching, managing student behavior, setting up classroom routines, and planning lessons. Then I work my way through the faculty to finally get to our veteran teachers at the end of the year. I do this because I like to end my year on a positive note. Let me explain.

Some of our veteran teachers have been with us for over thirty years. In my meetings with them of late, I press them to tell me why they continue to do what they do. I've gotten some beautiful answers.

They tell me that high school students make them laugh every day, and this keeps them young. They tell me that they love to make students laugh. They think this makes young people more likely to come to school. They tell me that they are passionate about their subject, and this is really important or else students won't see the need to learn what these teachers want them to learn. They tell me that they love these students as individuals and pray every day that each of them will succeed. They tell me that having students return after they've graduated to stop by to see them is one of the greatest feelings. They tell me that they get up in the morning and feel so lucky that they get to go to school and teach. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

All, not some, but all of these veteran teachers are teaching outside core areas. In other words, they don't teach math, English, social studies, or science. Many of them taught in the core areas years ago, but now? They're teaching life skills and family planning, drafting, physical education, culinary arts, art, business, finance, keyboarding, work skills, Spanish, French, Latin, and I could go on. Not one of our core area teachers talks the same language. Here's what I hear from them throughout the year.

They tell me that they're tired; there's little time to laugh. They tell me that when students are laughing in the classroom, most likely they're off task. They tell me that students don't come to class, and this keeps teachers angry because, well, how can teachers teach if the students aren't there? They tell me that they're sick of the standardized tests, and then they tell me that they can't teach what they want; they've lost their creativity. They tell me that parents aren't being held accountable and that they really wish students who aren't serious about learning quit and get their GED. And the students who stay? The teachers tell me that they pray they will pass their SOL's. They tell me that they're always surprised when a student who graduated comes back to see them. They tell me that when they get up in the morning, they feel like crying because they know that it's just one more day closer to the SOL test, and they're behind. I'm not making any of this up. It's all real and true.

It's not difficult to understand why certain teachers stay in the field of public education and why other teachers crash, burn, and die. In other words, the correlation between why teachers continue to teach and what they teach is obvious. Our teachers who are invested with teaching what many understand to be the basics, the most important subjects, are unhappy, stressed, disgruntled, and genuinely tired. They feel like they have lost their right to be creative in the classroom, they are assigned students who don't want to be there, and they really believe that students don't see the need for the basics. They feel like they are being held accountable for something that they can't necessarily control. They feel lost in an out-of-control system.

This is the toughest part of my job . . . working with these teachers. What can I offer them? A fresh perspective on a very old lesson? A creative way to reach their students? A shoulder to cry on? I guess each little bit helps. Our core area standardized test scores are progressively going up, but I'm not seeing the change in our teachers that I'd like to see. I'm worried. I'm having a tough time visualizing where all this is going. NCLB. AYP. Are we meeting our students' needs and the needs of our country? What about our teachers' needs? Where and how do these all converge?

Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to meet with our agriculture teacher. He's been with us for thirty-two years. I can't wait. I'll end the day with a positive teacher, one who can't keep from smiling because he loves what he does, day in and day out.

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