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

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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.

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