New Teachers Must Be Brave Professionals
A few days ago at Stanford, I had the opportunity to address, oh so briefly, a crowd that included perhaps a couple hundred teachers and future teachers. We had just listened to a panel discussion that included current and former teachers, along with Larry Cuban, Stanford professor emeritus and one of the foremost scholars of American public education. The topic was the nature and status of the teaching profession in America – in particular, the pay and working conditions that drive so many teachers to leave, or consider leaving.
The portion of the audience most on my mind during all of this was the incoming class at the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP). They had just begun graduate school two days earlier, and I can still recall the heady feeling of being in their exact situation when I entered STEP in June of 1994. I had just moved to Palo Alto from Los Angeles, had just settled into a small apartment next to a gas station, and I was on a constant high – not from any gasoline fumes – but from the incredible rush of meeting so many smart and wonderful people, from the feeling of crossing the threshold of a major shift in my life and career.
It was an intense period of significant learning and growth – but about my career choice and my chosen field, there was no sense of doubt that I can recall now. Sure, I doubted myself, doubted some portion of my work almost every day, when I reflected on my student teaching and recognized all that I needed to improve. I did not doubt that I had made the right choice, or that schools and teaching would be what I hoped they would be. I don’t recall any state or national focus on educational issues or controversies. Yes, there were debates about bilingual education, “whole language” approaches to reading, and in California, the specter of dealing with Proposition 187 which might have put schools in the untenable position of enforcing immigration law (an idea now confronting my colleagues in Alabama).
That was also the year that I created my first email account, first used a web-browser, and learned about something called Yahoo!, which had a searchable index of tens of thousands of web pages! That was the year that Netscape went public, and O.J. Simpson went on trial.
Now, for these new “STEPpies”, the Class of 2012, the field of education must seem much more tumultuous, and the prospect of entering the profession must seem much more uncertain. The swirling education debates of our day hardly need a review here, but I wouldn’t want to be trying to navigate those waters while starting off graduate school.
So, we had just heard this panel discussion that seemed to cast more doubt in a situation where I feared it would not serve these individuals well. Greg Peters, one of the panelists and a former principal at San Francisco’s Leadership High School, later suggested that I was wrong to worry about these students, and needn’t apologize to them for my part in their experience that afternoon; Greg suggested and that people entering our profession must come into it with eyes wide open, familiar with all of the challenges and problems we face – and I do agree with Greg overall. I guess I just thought Day 3 for these new graduate students might not have been the ideal time to delve into this complex and unsettling reality with an unprepared audience. For better or worse, I felt protective.
I was mainly speaking to audience about Accomplished California Teachers, our mission, and our interest in promoting teacher leadership for the benefit of the profession, and by extension, the benefit of schools of students. Though the audience was only partially made up of these soon-to-be teachers, in my few minutes at the microphone, I improvised something like this:
I want to say something to the incoming STEP students in particular. I feel like we should apologize for springing this on you right now. There was some grim stuff there. But you’re going to have to be brave. We all have to be brave. Use this experience as your armor, and go in to schools, and ask the hard questions. Ask why teachers are paying for their own supplies. Look out for yourself and don’t take on all the extra work you don’t have to. That just puts you on a path to rapid burnout. Some people will tell you to keep your head down and go along until you get tenure, but you saw the numbers up here, how many teachers are retiring soon. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t just complain either. Help come up with solutions, and be an excellent teacher. If you’re doing a great job in the classroom, they’re not going to fire you for questioning the way things are done. [At this point, I probably should have added some kind of qualifier, like “probably” – and I could have also added that anyone who fires you for speaking up about working conditions is just helping you out of a situation you should leave anyways].
It was not the first time that I’ve advised new teachers to do something that bucks conventional wisdom by establishing a professional identity through speaking out rather than keeping quiet. I’m trying to take the long view, too, looking at the long-term trend of retiring teachers and insufficient replacements coming in.
What do you think? Did I go too far? Or is it reasonable to tell brand new teachers to be brave, perhaps braver than many teachers currently in the field? What brave actions can we take to improve teaching in your school or district, or in the profession overall?