I just finished my 25th year of teaching. As this year wound down, I found myself reflecting on my career and how much the students, the world, and I have changed since the early nineties. As a kid, I never imagined I’d be a teacher, much less that I would stay in any profession for 25 years. Through this reflection, I realized that I had a really good year this year, largely due to the wisdom of my colleagues and the effects of renewing my NBCT status last spring.
“Focus on your kids, and everything else will fall into place.” This quote, from Mandy Manning, NBCT and 2018 National Teacher of the Year, is currently affixed via a too small orange sticky note to my computer monitor. I jotted it down the other day from an article that I read about her – it deserves calligraphy and perhaps lamination, but, alas, it remains there in my less than legible scrawl to serve as a reminder that my career is truly not about me. Since I did renew last spring and spent a great deal of time reflecting on what it means to truly know my students, this year I really focused on the “who” of teaching above the “what” of it all.
We all come into this profession for reasons and rationales that are as diverse as we, but most stay in it because of the students. The people who take seats in our rooms, not our curriculum, are the main reason for our work. It’s equally true that no two people are alike. This means our work is filled with infinite possibilities and perspectives. I’m now even teaching the offspring of my former students – what a gift!
Even though I felt pressured to answer meeting notices, engage in detailed planning, or respond to the constant demand of updated grades, I made it a point to look up – from the papers, the screen, or whatever I was focused on – to simply, but mindfully, engage with each individual on a daily basis. I even went back to an old paper and pencil practice of documenting interactions daily with my students. This kept me energized and changed the environment in my classroom for the better. What surprised me the most about slowing down and emphasizing relationships over other demands is the fact that the other things still got done (on time) and I went home most days feeling really good about my work.
When I think about my professional and personal failures collectively, what most of them have in common is isolation. I made decisions without input, went forward without advice, and carried whatever weight it was on my own back rather than recognizing the shoulders and hands that others were offering me.
Through working with the National Board in both certification and renewal I learned, often the hard way, that my colleagues not only have my back, but they also see the bigger picture in regards to my teaching better than I do and their perspectives on the standards help complete my own limited understanding. In other words, just like I encourage my students to ask for help, I’m learning how much of a student I need to be as I go through my career and I find myself asking better and better questions.
Combining my NBCT groups with the professional learning community in the high school where I work, I am still learning how vulnerability and transparency only serve to strengthen my practice. When my only answer as to why I do something in my class is, “It’s just what I’ve always done,” I know I’m on shaky ground. But someone, somewhere can help me.
I’ve also learned that the best and most inspiring professional development comes from sitting in circles with several other peers rather than sitting in rows with hundreds. Seeking feedback from established veterans and even – gasp! – teachers who are younger than me (which if I’m honest, seems to be nearly everyone) helps me solve problems, address mistakes, and make changes in how I teach that help my students learn and thrive in my classroom. I feel like I could go 25 more years.