In a recent professional learning session I was leading with colleagues the discussion turned to the years of service educators in the room had accrued. I framed the questions as: How many of you have been in school most of your life? I suggested that the years of going to post secondary would be included. In my case I started kindergarten as a five year old, which leads me to having 52 years (and counting!) of connection to a school. As others shared their totals, mine was not the largest, and it was evident that my almost lifelong connection to school was not unique.
So what does this mean as far as our professional practice? As the title of this post suggests, the more connection time to schools, the greater the propensity for schools and their structures to feel familiar. Any school I walk into today immediately feels comfortable, almost like home. The more we talked about the comfort, the more it became apparent that some of the things that contributed to the comfort level might also be some of the things that need to change if schools are to reflect the needs of students’ futures and not parents’ pasts. If I just use my years as a reference point and I think of what else has happened in the world during those 52 years, it becomes apparent that schools must also change what’s happening inside. Would you visit a doctor who practiced the same way as they did 52 years ago? Would you rely on maps created that long ago, or use the information recorded then as completely relevant today? While comfort zones are great places to visit, nothing ever grows there.
As the conversations continued, I asked the participants to think back to their first day of teaching and to reflect on what was going through their heads, and whom they were trying to be like as a teacher. The range of emotions went from elation to being a nervous wreck, from anticipating being the best teacher to hoping that the day would flow as imagined. As far as models they held in their heads, many referenced an inspiring former teacher they were trying to be like. This was my experience as well with my inspiration being a teacher I had in grade eight. As I thought about that it meant that I had four more years of high school plus five years of university, a total of nine years, before I began teaching, and my teaching practice was therefore, nine years in the past! Others in the room had identified an elementary teacher, so the lag time was even greater. This is not meant to indicate we were all wrong, and should, instead, serve as a talking point on how we welcome new colleagues and assist in bringing them on board.
Participants also spoke of how they adopted practices of those in their schools or departments. These comments reflected some incredibly positive attributes like building strong relationships, to some negative ones like yelling. While it may not have been the intent of new teachers to adopt practices that were not part of their original plans, the “busy-ness” of the new role meant sometimes surviving and wanting to fit in. The adopted practices became routine fairly quickly and entrenched without examination. As I thought about my own entry into the profession, I recognized some of this, and particularly in my grading practice. I found myself assigning zeroes to student work, as that was the norm in my department. Wanting to fit in, reflecting on my long ago experiences as a student, and being overwhelmed meant doing things I never thought I would. Only years into my practice, and being asked to defend it, did I realize that some of my efforts were not aligned with the teacher I thought I would be. I couldn’t defend the practice without getting defensive, and it was time to reconnect with the educator I had set out to become.
The play on words of a familiar saying (changing contempt to content) reminded me that it’s easy to continue to do the same, comfortable work. The challenge is to do the hard work in addition to the easy work if we want all students to grow. Honouring and keeping the best practices of the past while incorporating new methods to improve outcomes for all students will ensure that we continue to grow as educators, role models, and leaders. In doing so, our students will also grow.