Opinion
Teaching Profession CTQ Collaboratory

Looking Back on 30 Years of Teaching: What Have I Learned?

By Cindi Rigsbee — June 28, 2017 5 min read

Something keeps happening more and more often these days: I’m the oldest person in any school building I enter. I don’t feel like the oldest. When colleagues address me as “ma’am,” it stings. Surely, I’m a peer who could “hang out” with my fellow teachers outside of school! But other times, I’m aware of my veteran teacher status when I realize I have information in my head that novice teachers most likely don’t have yet.

Recently, I shared a story from my first year in the classroom with a beginning teacher: One of my students was disrespectful early in the school year, yelling obscenities and throwing a book across the room. Exasperated after weeks of this behavior, I dumped the story in the principal’s lap and waited. He barely looked up from his desk and asked, “Did you call his mom?” At the time, I didn’t even know I could do that. One phone call changed my entire relationship with that student; he offered a sincere apology for his behavior and transformed his attitude for the rest of the year. This experience taught me a lesson I’ve carried with me throughout my career: Parent-teacher relationships can make all the difference.

Today, as I watch new teachers manage their classrooms or communicate with parents, I think back to my first years of teaching and realize that somewhere along the way things got a little easier. This leads me to the question: In my more than 30 years in education, what have I learned?

What Goes Around Comes Around

In my second and third years of teaching, I noticed the same struggles from my first year surfacing again and again, only with different names and faces. As I continued to teach, I started to reflect on what worked in these situations and what didn’t—and gradually, I collected an arsenal of strategies.

When I look back over the years, curriculum programs, testing practices, and disciplinary procedures all seem cyclical. I’ve observed numerous initiatives resurface with a great deal of energy surrounding the “new” solution. When presented with these solutions, I often look at my fellow veteran teachers and nod with an unspoken, “We’ve been here before…”

However, as we continually reintroduce this initiative or that teaching strategy, there is one variable that always changes: the people. With fresh energy, enthusiasm, and passion, new educators can help shape old practices into innovative work that inspires us all.

Technology Changed Everything

I miss chalk. I do. We teachers could always pick each other out at the grocery store in the afternoons with that telltale chalk across our backsides!

The sensation of writing with chalk has never been replicated—not by markers sliding across a whiteboard or pens tapping an interactive board. To teach my students about personal pronouns, I used to start at the left side of the chalkboard and continue all the way across the room, conjugating the verb “to be” in six tenses and persons; this took an entire class period and half a box of chalk. New teachers today might consider that activity tedious; I loved it.

Today, a quick glance around any classroom in my school provides a picture of 21st century learning: students emailing work and sharing documents on their devices and teachers providing interactive instruction using websites, virtual learning games, and videoconferencing. Hour long lectures and desks in rows have been replaced with student collaboration and teacher facilitation.

Students aren’t the only ones impacted by new technology. I reluctantly released a handwritten attendance ledger and grade book from my death grip in 2008. Luckily, a first-year teacher on my hall was there to help me navigate our new online system and embrace the miracle of not having to average grades by hand!

New technology is constantly, rapidly reinventing our profession, and this means our jobs are different every day. It’s amazing to think about what teaching might look like in 30 years, as we continue to learn about new teaching tools that make learning more interactive and relevant to our students.

We Became Global

As a mid-career teacher, I learned about other cultures for the first time and broke free of the four walls of my classroom. In 1990, I had my first student who hailed from beyond five miles of my childhood home: a young person who had just emigrated from Germany. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak German. I was told he’d learn so much from merely sitting in my classroom, observing and listening. I refused to accept that idea and worked hard to actually teach him. At the end of the year, he wrote me a thank-you note in English.

A few years later, as my community started to become more diverse, stereotypes went out the window when people who were different from me became people I knew, and children who struggled to learn English were masters at being patient and kind to the teacher who struggled to find the best ways to teach them.

My career has brought me a long way from the segregated classrooms of my childhood. I have known and loved teaching children of all different cultures, races, and backgrounds. Time and experience have helped me discover strategies for teaching all students. I have learned lessons of acceptance and understanding in that magical place called a classroom, where my students know we are a family and where I work tirelessly to help them feel safe.

What Now?

While it may be easy for us veteran teachers to feel like we’ve paid our dues and fall into a comfortable routine, this is actually the time when we should work the hardest. Reflecting on our years in the profession can help us feel even more energized and passionate than we did in our first year of teaching. This is the time to embrace leadership opportunities as we mentor others and share our expertise. It’s also a time to seek opportunities for personal growth as teaching and learning continue to change.

Not long ago, as I sat thinking about my looming retirement from the profession I love, I sent a message out over social media: As I look back over the past 30-plus years as an educator, I realize that maybe I was the one who learned the most.

I’ll miss it when it’s over.

And I’ll continue to wait for chalk to make a comeback.

Related Tags:

Events

School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion What Can We Do to Help the Well-Being of Teachers?
A Seat at the Table focused on the social-emotional well-being of teachers during the pandemic. Here's what we learned from the guests.
1 min read
Sera   FCG
Shutterstock
Teaching Profession Nearly 9 in 10 Teachers Willing to Work in Schools Once Vaccinated, Survey Finds
Nearly half of educators who belong to the National Education Association have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site set up for teachers and school staff in Reading, Pa., on March 15.
Matt Rourke/AP
Teaching Profession Q&A Nation's Top Teachers Discuss the Post-Pandemic Future of the Profession
Despite the difficulties this school year brought, the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award say they're hopeful.
11 min read
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
Courtesy of CCSSO
Teaching Profession Teachers Are Stressed Out, and It's Causing Some to Quit
Stress, more so than low pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. And COVID-19 has increased the pressure.
7 min read
Image of exit doors.
pavel_balanenko/iStock/Getty