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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Not Just a Beginning Teacher

By Cole Farnum — July 18, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Cole Farnum, a teacher in New York City, is guest-posting this week.

“Well, Cole, what do you think we should do next year?” an experienced colleague asked me regarding changes to the way our school approached behavior management. We were near the end of our school year, sitting together in my classroom and exploring out-of-class responsibilities in addition to my teaching role. This was a pivotal time for me as I tried to figure out my plans for the upcoming year as an educator in a high-performing school with a truly professional staff. I’d been thinking on my own how I’d develop as an educator for a few months; here was an opportunity. Despite setting up a successful management system in the same room where we sat, I found myself unable to answer. After a few moments, the topic, and therefore the opportunity, passed. I had a challenge to live up to, but I didn’t take it. Why?

True, I only had three total years of experience in schools, none of which dealt with establishing school-wide culture and discipline systems. The moment, however, became pivotal in another sense: I realized I had never before as a teacher been asked for such mission-critical advice that would impact scores of students, not just my own. So, was it my place as a relatively new teacher to give advice to a school leader? Was it the appropriate time, after three years, that I was invited to the decision-making circle? Or, was it far overdue that my perspective was solicited and, perhaps, valued?

To illustrate my background, and in reference to the great series last week by a fellow educator, I’d probably be what you’d call a “Zak Champagne"-lite. While Zak reveals he’s taught hundreds, I’ve taught about a hundred. He’s received numerous awards for his teaching; I’ve received numerous cardstock awards you can design on Microsoft Word. He’s completed an advanced degree; I began alternatively certified. Humbly, Zak believes he just began to master the craft of teaching; if he just reached that milestone, I’ve got another decade before I can say the same.

While still relatively inexperienced, I’ve already come to understand the opportunity that I lost. While I had many useful and creative ideas to solve the problems we faced, I felt as if I let my colleague down by, succumbing to my beginning status, shying away from the adaptive challenges in our school while instead offering simple technical adjustments. As a beginner, I never expected my perspective, knowledge, and skills I developed during my first years to be useful to my experienced colleague. Ultimately, I lost an opportunity to help our school improve its learning environment and, in that moment, failed the students we all served.

In a sense I feel like I’ve let Zak down, too, but this expression of failure is one that points to a new way of thinking about the challenges and opportunities I face. The core belief of this series is that as a beginning teacher I am a natural asset to a school. And, Zak, I believe I’m so important an asset that I could have led you to master the craft of teaching much earlier in your career (sorry). That’s probably counterintuitive to beginning and experienced teachers alike; it’s a mindset I’ve developed while thinking about the assets gained through inexperience, or not having the solution. Further, I am going to make a case that it’s possible for my colleagues and I to continuously grow as educators through relationships grounded in what we don’t know and, though mutual exchange, may discover or create. These relationships honor both the experiences of long-standing educators and those “just beginning” as they solve problems within school environments.

My perspective turns what I’ve internalized about school-based relationships somewhat upside-down. This week, I ask that we reflect upon what’s to be gained from beginning teachers, not just as instructional leaders with students, but also as professionals learning with more-experienced colleagues. I’m also calling out to beginning teachers, too, stressing that they re-think what they may gain from their experienced colleagues in the same ways. Most importantly, it’s a call to reflect on why all of this matters, not just to us as professionals, but for our students who must witness excellence within their teachers.

On a personal note I want to state that, as a beginning educator embarking on a career in schools, I am constantly reflecting on how I can improve what I do and, more deeply, who I am. I’ve failed my students and colleagues numerous times, for reasons known and unknown, and this series is an attempt to share why I feel this failure occurs, what I’ve learned, and what actions I must take. While I’ll reiterate this in various forms this week, there’s so much I have to learn; I can’t hope and nor would I want to have all the answers to the problems I face. Yet, I’m not just a beginning teacher: through you, colleagues, and other professionals working to serve students, I am change agent. Thanks to Rick’s generosity and faith in my intentions, we’re going to explore how we could be a change agent to each other.

--Cole Farnum

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.