Friday, June 27, 2014

"Old Ain't Dead": Thoughts on Teaching Experience & Teaching Artisans

This week I saw narratives that have provoked me to reflect in this space on being an old a veteran an experienced a seasoned a teacher in a world that often devalues and marginalizes the expertise lifers such as myself bring to the classroom. 

See my dilemma? I don't even know what moniker to attach to myself and to my un-novice colleagues. The word veteran also bothers me because it, too, can imply that such a person no longer belongs in the classroom. Consider that we refer to retired military and those no longer on active duty as veterans

Writing in The Huffington Post, Nancy Barile addresses a common lie purported about teachers with longevity: We lack energy and enthusiasm for our work. Barile quotes a guest presenter at her school as saying, "the faculty is young and vibrant. It's such a breath of fresh air." In my own school, it's often veteran teachers who volunteer to work sporting meets, for example. We're the ones who typically understand how to find unique professional development opportunities and who seek out national conferences. Schools also need experienced teachers to help the newbies navigate the schools culture and traditions. 

I'm the oldest and most experienced in my department, and a veteran colleague and I are the ones who actively seek opportunities to present at conferences. Additionally, I had already taught more than 20 years when I decided to navigate the rigorous NBCT certification process. Another colleague, with over 15 years experience, and I are plotting a major project that we see as a way to challenge ourselves and energize our practice while contributing to the professional conversation among ELA teachers navigating the changes and challenges we all face.  
Me w/ Story, a veteran English teacher and expert on teaching Native American
students. Story teaches at Shoban High School on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.
As Barile argues in addressing another lie associated with being an experienced teacher, the ability to use technology effectively in the classroom isn't the exclusive domain of new teachers. Indeed, I've had to teach several student teachers how to use technology in the classroom. Many of the more seasoned teachers I know are the most adept at using technology. This past year I had to remediate my college level speech class after allowing a new person to teach them how to research for their speeches, and this is someone who should have known the skills at least as well as do I. 

Youth does not guarantee technological prowess because often young people use technology more as a social medium than as one for learning. Rarely do I see students in my classroom who understand technology as well as I do. I teach them how to use Google docs, how to create Pecha Kucha presentations, how to blog and include links and embedding in their posts, how to annotate YouTube videos, how to research using databases, how to annotate online, how to use Evernote, etc. 

I follow the Free Technology for Teachers Blog and learn about new tech tools from both experienced teachers who have vetted the tools in their classrooms. That said, I also look to tech savvy young teachers for lesson ideas, such as the infographic lesson I found via Chris Kervina's blog. 

However, the most savvy tech folks I know are teachers with more than ten years teaching experience. Often I share my knowledge with veteran and novice teachers. At a conference earlier this summer, I was one of the few attendees who used Twitter and tweeted during the conference; yet I was one of the oldest teachers attending the conference. This past school year, I shared my knowledge of Diigo in a session of my district's technology integration classes. 

I just finished my 33 year teaching and began using technology very early in my career. The first big tech project I taught was how to create a filmstrip, a lesson I found in an issue of Notes Plus, a NCTE publication. My favorite uses of technology in the classroom marry close reading with artistic expression. Many platforms, including screencasts, Prezi, YouTube, Toon Doo, Animoto, etc. offer me a way to teach students how to create artistic analysis of texts. 

Being around young teachers and teachers new to my building energizes me and motivates me to continue honing my craft. Drue, my superb student teacher this past year, taught me "find someone and ask" and how to make my delivery of instructions more visually appealing. Her eagerness to learn infused me with hope. She offered me collegiality, and we soon developed a fabulous synergy to our relationship. We experienced a valuable mentoring relationship. I nicknamed her mini-me after she told a colleague (and students) that we finish one another's thoughts and that we are really in sync with one another. We decided that we're interchangeable. So in sync were we that it's hard to explain the exact nature of our mutual mentoring of one another. 
Drue: She's in the back seat during a lunch
break to Sonic because she's young! 
There's a sinister undercurrent at work in efforts to abolish teachers' due process rights (a.k.a. tenure) and in rhetoric that attributes a school's improvement to ignoring seniority. Students recognize that experienced teachers often have more stable classroom environments than do novices. On many occasions my students have shared their desire to avoid both student teachers and new teachers in the building. They perceive teachers with whom they're family has had experience as offering a sense of comfort and belonging. 
All in the Family: Kadee, E.J. mom and colleague Angie, and Steeli.
I taught all three kids, two in more than one class.
Celebrating Steeli's graduation from college. 
This past year I taught several students whose siblings had been in my class as well as students who had me for speech or Communication 1101. I've often had parents of special service students request me as their child's teacher because they know I'll work diligently for their kids and implement the accommodations in an IEP or 504 plan, something many new teachers struggle with. As has been noted by others, familiar teacher faces in a building bring stability to a school. 

Those who privilege youth and inexperience over age and experience seek to create a schism among teachers. It's incumbent upon us to protect our profession from efforts to divide and conqueror. Novice teachers need to recognize and acknowledge that a lack of experience necessitates they open themselves to learning from those who have amassed a repertoire of expertise. We who have taught for many years can learn from the newbies, but I won't go so far as to say they bring more to the table than do the veterans. Nor will I concede that they are equal in terms of their contribution to a school's culture. Our respective contributions are different and valuable.
Celebrating Gina's hooding. She'll be working on a PhD. in speech pathology at the
University of California in Merced this fall. I taught her brother Billy this past year.
I am not an athlete whose ability to perform peaked in my 30's. In contrast, a teacher's cognitive skills increase over time, with experience, and through continuous study and reflection; we hone our craft as we nurture both it and our careers. Indeed, we are like artisans because teaching is both art and craft, and like artists whose styles evolve, we too change and refine ourselves throughout our practice. 

The teacher as artisan may be old, but we're not dead. We are masters who have created classrooms that serve students in unique and inspiring ways as they craft their futures. 


  1. This is brilliant, Glenda. Well said. You reminded me I need to talk about Animoto with the Folger participants this summer. I would like to do things like Prezi or Haiku Deck, but time is precious, and I know they are more interested in getting into the text.

    1. Dana, check out my Macbeth Animoto in the unit I created for the MTP. I got the recording from the Folger "Shakespeare's the Thing" exhibit.

  2. Well said, Glenda. Older teachers know stuff that took years to learn. To ignore that expertise is wrong.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I agree. I suppose, however, the pseudo-ed reformers like the young and inexperienced is better narrative. Easier to control those who haven't been around the block a few times.

  3. I agree too that unfortunately the powers that be have a nasty habit of criticising older teachers for their lack of technological knowledge and hanging on to old teaching methods - I too am always looking for new ways to improve lessons and new ideas in research far more than my younger colleagues who tend to follow the planning either of new bought in schemes or older planning inherited from older teachers!! I also agree that it us older ones who will doggedly fight any change if it is not for the benefit of students whilst the younger ones go with the flow!

  4. Thank you for your post on this subject. I feel there is an small, but growing undercurrent in my district telling educators that "good" teachers move up to administrative positions and out of the classroom. If you are more experienced and still in the classroom you aren’t seen as an advantage, but seen as not having any drive and determination. I'm a mid 40's teacher with "only" 11 years of experience. I still feel that I have a lot to give... and plenty to learn. Fortunately, I work at a school that values experience and the extracurricular activities that I sponsor and attend. I never want to be a stale educator! I’m constantly looking at opportunities to stay green and growing. I don’t want to be the teacher with the room full of technology covered with spider webs and dust.
    Jackson In The Middle