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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Have You Been Teaching the Same Grade Too Long?

By Peter DeWitt — July 14, 2015 4 min read
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We may think the best grade we ever taught is the one we are teaching in now, when the best grade we ever taught may end up being the one we were afraid to try.

When I was teaching my principal came to me to say he was moving me from teaching 1st grade to 2nd grade. My first reaction was, “Can I teach 2nd grade?” I had never taught second grade before. That lasted for all of 30 seconds for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t have a choice. Secondly, of course I could teach second grade!

The issue was that my identity was wrapped up in teaching first grade. Instructional coaching expert Jim Knight writes a lot about identity. As an instructional coaching trainer who works with Jim, I understand that our identity is about who we tell ourselves we are. I taught 1st grade for 4 years in another city school and was hired as a 1st grade teacher in this particular district. For 7 out of 11 years my identity was wrapped up in the idea that I could only teach that grade level.

However, we are certified to teach much more than we do. We spend tens of thousands of dollars to be certified to teach multiple grade levels, but we are put in a position, or are resistant to being any other position, of teaching one grade level for multiple years. Some teachers teach the same grade level for decades.

At some point, that does not foster growth. It fosters comfort.

I am not suggesting that principals move teachers to different grade levels every year. As crazy as it sounds that principals would do that, it does happen. That kind of constant transition is not healthy for teachers. They need to spend a few years in the same grade to continue to grow with that particular age of students, especially in a time when the curriculum demands are so heavy.

Unfortunately, there are teachers who want to spend numerous years in the same grade level, and of course, in the same classroom. There is a fine balance when this happens. On one side teachers should be careful to believe that the particular grade level is the only one they can teach. On the other hand, how do school leaders make sure that they are challenging teachers in a variety of ways? New experiences, with support, foster growth.

There are at least 3 reasons why a teacher’s identity as a teacher of a specific grade stunts their growth as a professional. They are:

We Deny Ourselves a New Challenges - We talk with students about taking on challenge all the time, and yet we prefer to stay within our comfort zones. As Melissa Weatherwax, a former teacher I was fortunate to work with once said, some teachers live their lives in a box, some poke their heads out of the box, and others, like Melissa, don’t even know where the box is because they spend so much time working outside of it.

Leaving a grade level that we know is important, but life is short, we should take on a new challenge and step outside of our box.

We become complacent - When we spend too much time in one grade level we sometimes go through the motions and are not challenged as much as we should be. Sure, there will always be students and parents who may challenge us, but that’s not the same as jumping into new curriculum, in a new classroom, with students who are either younger or older than the ones we are used to spending our days with.

We Feel Entitled - Yes, entitled. When teachers teach the same grade level for a long period of time, they begin to feel entitled. Sorry, but entitlement is a not a good thing, especially when it comes to growth. Teachers begin to feel as though they own the curriculum, know more than everyone else when it comes to everything in their grade level. It’s great to have security and confidence, but (and this is a generalization) at some point teachers who have taught the same grade level enter into each year forgetting that teaching is about learning something new.

In the End

We need to grow, and our identities usually prevent us from doing so. I get it! I was a teacher for 11 years and identified as a teacher...even with specific grade levels. After leaving the classroom to become a principal, I identified as a principal for 8 years, and it was hard to identify as anything else.

As a consultant, and I have not always been kind to consultants, I have tried to figure out my new identity, but it all comes back to being an educator. We may not be in the classroom every day but we still teach adults, and that’s not always easy. Many of us work hard to make an impact at the building, district, state or national level. As much as it was scary, the challenge is brought a great deal of growth.

When it comes to grade levels and who should teach what, it should be about the team at each grade level or curriculum area. A healthy mix of diverse thinkers needs to happen. Teams that don’t work together and end up being toxic is not helpful. Administrators allow this to happen because they do not always feel as though they have options. I have been guilty of this issue.

New grade level options do not always come up, but if one does, teachers should go for it. We may think the best grade we ever taught is the one we are teaching in now, when the best grade we ever taught may end up being the one we were afraid to try.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.