Education Opinion

Not Ready for a Rocking Chair

By Susan Graham — April 15, 2009 3 min read
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As Colleague and Mentor Program coordinator for my school, I love working with new teachers. The only problem is that I don’t get much business because we don’t have much turnover. When teachers leave our school, it’s usually because they are moving, pregnant or retiring. I barely make the top 10 senior-teacher list in terms of tenure with a mere 21 years. But at 58, I easily make the top five in terms of age.

I have this weird sensation that theNational Commission on Teaching and America’s Future has been reading my mind. While they may not know me, they have been looking closely at teachers like me. Learning Teams: Creating What’s Next looks at the problems and possibilities emerging from the reality that as much as one third of America’s teaching force is within four years of retirement.

Here’s a finding worth mulling over:

At the end of their careers, accomplished veterans who still have much to contribute are being separated from their schools by obsolete retirement systems.

I’m one of those highly accomplished Baby Boomer teachers. I love working with my students. I love working with new teachers. I love working with colleagues in staff development. I love writing and researching. I love being a keeper of institutional knowledge for my school and my school system. I love developing my professional skills with experiences such as the Santa Cruz mentor training. My own children are grown, my personal life is in order, my professional network is strong, my knowledge is current, and my skills are refined by practice. I’m not ready to quit. I’m ready to do more.

I’m ready to take on new challenges, but I find that there are few options at this point in my career.Those of us who chose to stay in the classroom in our 30s are now expected to stay in our classrooms in our 50s. But by limiting how we are used, school systems fail to realize the full return on their investment in skilled classroom practitioners.

...It is a faulty and costly assumption to allow accomplished veterans, who have been the beneficiaries of a substantial, long‐term professional development investment, to walk away from their careers just because they are in their fifties. We must develop selection criteria and processes that enable veteran teachers to contribute to schools according to their expertise and level of commitment.

I have no intention of walking away, but I do wonder how long I can keep up my current pace. While my contemporaries are retiring or scaling back, I’m taking on more. Because there is no option for anything other than a full time teaching load or a full time administrative role, I regularly work 12-hour days. I’m not complaining; I do it by choice. But I don’t know how much longer I can work with teachers, address policy issues, and write without shortchanging the students in my classroom, and ethically they are my first responsibility.

In the meantime I dream of being a teacher coach. I fantasize about using those mentoring skills to support new teachers in their classroom as they find their teaching stride and teacher voice. I dream about working with practicing teachers as they move from competent to accomplished. I imagine being there on the sidelines as other teachers discover the excitement and satisfaction of professional leadership.

It is time to build the capacity of teachers to function like professionals whose preparation, practice, and career advancement are seamlessly aligned around a cohesive knowledge base that is focused on improved student learning. We must become explicit and intentional about our efforts to build a seamless continuum of professional growth that begins with teaching apprenticeships and extends to multiple roles for accomplished teachers.

Stakeholders are bound to have concerns about implementation of these Learning Teams, and they are legitimate. I have some myself. Higher ed will worry about being displaced from their role in teacher preparation. School administrators will worry about chain of command and authority over part-timers. Teacher organizations will worry about impact on seniority and pay scales. I worry about who will worry about whether the teacher who was effective in a classroom with children has the skills to facilitate adult learning, because pedagogy and androgogy are not interchangeable.

In the meantime, think of all those gifted veteran teachers have much to offer but have no framework in which to share their expertise. Think of all the fine young teachers who give up because they don’t have a support system to help them develop their skills. Think of all the potential career switchers who walk away because there is no alternative to a traditional teacher prep program. And, most of all, think of all those kids who need all those new, flipped, or veteran teachers to help them learn.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.