First Person

Demolishing the Myth of the Grumpy, Crusty, Burned-Out Veteran Teacher

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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We all know what veteran teachers are like. They’re fat, for one thing. Lazy, too. They wear ill-fitting sweatshirts stained by soup, and do crossword puzzles at their desk while students run riot around the room. They contaminate the staff lounge, grumbling and grousing about “these kids” while they wait for the microwave to defrost the frozen gray lumps of their lunch.

Am I right?

The problem with this image is that it’s conjured of more fiction than fact. Most of us have at some point come across a burned-out teacher who deserved the descriptor “toxic.” But we have also known hundreds of career teachers who are unfailingly kind, brilliant, compassionate, and innovative. The ugly stereotype of veteran teachers has at its heart the cruel-spirited flaw of all stereotypes: It fails to capture the truth of the group it demeans.

Consider these three career teachers. Their example does a far better job of capturing the portrait of those teachers who devote their lives to our profession.

• Josie Robledo was my mentor when I started at P.S. 192 in West Harlem after only six weeks of teacher training. She was tough but compassionate, and she would teach my class so I could observe almost every other teacher in the school. I was terrible at teaching math, and I once froze up mid-sentence in the middle of a math lesson. It was like a bad dream—these 32 4th graders watching me with patient bewilderment, waiting to see if I would finish my sentence. Ms. Robledo had to step in and finish the lesson for me. We met at lunch that day in the staff lounge. Blinking back tears, I beseeched her, “Just please tell me I’ll get better at this.” She looked me in the eye and told me with calm certainty, “You will get better.” That was all I needed to hear.

• Ms. Armendariz has taught art to my 6-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter since they began kindergarten, as she has to a generation of students. She elicits artwork from young children, like this painting of flowers my daughter did when she was 5 years old, that always makes me stare in amazement and ask, “Wait—you made that yourself?”

• For three years in college, I did my work study in Bill VanSlyke’s 4th and 5th grade classroom, where I witnessed his humor, compassion, and dedication to his students firsthand. I saw how significant it was for many of the children simply to have the daily presence of a gentle, kind man in their daily world. I hadn’t planned to become an elementary teacher, but I became one because of Mr. V’s example. He loved teaching, and he took it seriously. He also had time in his life to be a great father alongside his professional identity. His young son and daughter went to the school, and they would walk upstairs to his classroom as soon as the bell rang at the end of the day. In the summers, he dug up garlic on his farm outside town. He provided a model for me not only of the kind of career I wanted to build, but the kind of life I wanted to have someday.

These three remarkable human beings all love what they do. They get better every year. They are constantly seeking new ideas and honing their craft. Their influence on students and colleagues is like sunlight to plants; it nurtures and sustains everyone in their reach.

All three are “veteran teachers.” And yet, they don’t wear soup-stained sweatshirts. They don’t grouse about “these kids.” They don’t, in the words of our breathtakingly unqualified secretary of education, “wait to be told what they have to do.”

Those false stereotypes aren’t just inaccurate. They justify the budget-driven practice, in many districts, of trying to push experienced teachers out of the classroom in order to hire cheaper, less experienced teachers.

It’s no coincidence that these new teachers tend to be more pliant when it comes to following administrators’ mandates than teachers who have been there for 20 or 30 years. Not only are these new teachers cheaper—“two for the price of one!”—but they also tend to be younger, less established in the community, and less likely to rock the boat by challenging questionable rules.

The reality, of course, is that you don’t get “two for one” in these devil’s bargain buyouts. You lose wisdom, expertise, and the long-term relationships with students and families that give a school its very soul.

No one familiar with our profession would deny that burnout is a real phenomenon. But I have seen first-, second-, and third-year teachers who are burned out. I have also seen teachers beginning their 30th year in the classroom who are filled with joy and a spirit of perpetual innovation that makes them seem young beyond their years.

It’s a popular notion that teachers don’t improve much beyond five years of experience. The unspoken assumption is that teaching—unlike medicine, engineering, or law—is a profession in which mastery can be reached in five years. How hard can coloring, 2+2=4, and picture books about pigs in polka-dotted dresses really be?

Experienced teachers know differently. We know how much time it takes to understand individual children and the complexity of their ever-changing minds. We know that the process by which a child learns to read can be as complicated as astrophysics.

We know there is no substitute for the fusion of knowledge and intuition that forms expertise. We have honed that expertise through hundreds of thousands of interactions with children, combined with reflection that takes place in the moment itself or days later. We continue to improve long beyond that mythical five-year figure. As a result, what we considered to be good teaching in our first five years no longer passes muster in year 10, 15, or 20.

The scope of our jobs keeps broadening as we gain experience, expertise, and hard-won wisdom. We share what we have learned with colleagues throughout our school, district, or other parts of the state and country. We make policy work better for the children in our care by helping administrators, school board members, and legislators to better understand the impact of their policies on the world of the classroom. We learn to speak our truths to those in power, respectfully but with the clear courage of our convictions, when their decisions damage children’s lives.

We mentor new teachers. We tell them the things that aren’t always covered in teacher prep programs or Praxis exams. How to know when to give an angry child a little space. How to figure out whether a misbehaving student needs a hug, a steely-eyed reprimand, or both. How to put the pressure for high test scores in its place, far below the cultivation of a love of learning. How to push yourself to become a better teacher every year, while remaining gentle with the flaws and failures that are inevitable when you attempt something as difficult as the craft of teaching.

Our work is to help children to live the lives they dream. That purpose deserves a lifetime’s devotion.

So to all of you who have chosen to devote your days and years to this profession, who have put up with disrespect, meager pay, and absurd policies while making an oasis of compassion and creativity in your classroom for children who need that haven, bless you. Thank you. I never would have made it these 17 years in our profession without your guidance and example. Neither would the many hundreds of children, families, and colleagues whose lives you have made better in ways large and small.

You’ll never get the respect you deserve, let alone the material wealth that accompanies excellence in other professions that demand this level of expertise. But from those of us who have taught beside you, learned from you, and whose children you have helped to become better and happier human beings, hear this: We know your full worth. We stand amazed at your brilliance, patience, compassion, and dedication. Without you this remarkable profession, which makes all other professions possible, would be a shadow of itself.

Artwork by Ariana Minkel, age 5

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