Published Online: March 12, 2008
Published in Print: March 1, 2008, as Embracing Your Practice

Interview

Interview

Embracing Your Practice

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An author and 31-year educator says making connections with students and colleagues is the key to vitality in teaching.


Coleen Armstrong, a 1996 finalist for the National Teachers Hall of Fame, is the author of
The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me, and a sought-after commentator on the teaching profession. Armstrong taught at the secondary level for 31 years and says she never found the job dull. “Teaching exists in two separate planets,” she says, “The education planet where it’s about teaching math or science or writing, and the relationship planet where kids can feel safe and secure enough to bring you anything that comes to mind.” She believes it was her ability “to live easily and comfortably on both of those planets” that kept her practice fresh. Armstrong spoke to us about how teachers and administrators can work together and independently to create the best possible environment for a rewarding practice in an increasingly demanding field.

—Ryan Kurtz for Teacher Magazine

How would you describe the life cycles of a teacher’s career?

As more random than you might assume, since regardless of your level of experience, many weeks feel like three steps forward and one (or perhaps four) back! Also, every school year is different, depending on your assignment, your mix of students, and even what’s happening in current events. The Columbine shootings, for example, in April of 1999, turned what might have been a buoyant spring into a very dark one, with many classroom discussions about bullying and random violence— instead of what students were planning for the upcoming summer.

Of course teachers pass through various career levels, ranging from shy neophyte to dedicated soldier to incendiary boat rocker to master/sage. But what’s odd is that a teacher often drifts in and out, back and forth among all of the above. And unfortunately, some sink into a depressed slump— and then stay lonely and isolated indefinitely. More often, though, as a seasoned teacher, you just learn to bide your time until the “climate” changes.

Drs. Mark and Pam Littleton of Tarleton State University have created a fascinating graph which traces a single school year’s stages from a beginning teacher’s viewpoint. Anticipation and survival take place in the fall, disillusionment in the winter, rejuvenation and reflection in the spring. So it’s tempting to apply that same graph to one’s entire career—except that even a veteran teacher can experience several mini-stages during a single weekend, and mapping 30 years can look less like ebbs and flows, and more like the zigs and zags of some hyperactive brain scan.

When I was a teacher, I was continually astonished at how often I see-sawed in my views, or else needed to relearn the same lessons in tolerance, understanding, and acceptance year after year. Similar challenges, like the need to question my own assumptions about my students, kept appearing in different forms, and I didn’t always recognize the pattern until after an episode was over. In the end, I reached the same solid, powerful conclusion that had inspired my career in the first place: Warm teacher interactions with individual students were what truly fueled my vitality and propelled lasting changes—and therefore, transformations.

What are some of the greatest dissatisfactions that teachers express and why?

You might expect me to mention salary first—but frankly, I don’t think that even ranks within the top five. What does? Being held accountable for things that we don’t control, like attendance and student dropout rates.

"The realization that we can't solve all problems can come as a crushing blow ... The trick is to look at the big picture and [see] what you do have control over. Find your strength there."

The biggest frustration, however, is the unrealistic workload, which involves one person’s becoming an executive manager in charge of a hundred or so others, while also serving as his or her own secretary, scribe, accountant, researcher, career motivator, and gofer. It’s no longer enough to keep mere records of grades, attendance, and completed assignments. Now you need to log in excruciating detail every intervention (and there had better be plenty) for every student who’s in academic jeopardy, file and store all papers in case a student claims you “lost” his essays, write up every disciplinary altercation in case there’s a question later (and there usually is), and chart your own professional goals and to what extent you’re reaching them under the watchful eye of your building administrator.

Then, rest assured, you’ll still hear newspaper columnists and armchair quarterbacks huffing that schools aren’t doing nearly enough to help children. They don’t realize that we’d embrace the luxury of concentrating solely on the kids.

There is a lot of discussion in the profession about a perceived mid-career slump. Why is this, since teachers tend to hit their stride around the same time?

This is actually an easy question. Just about the time you’ve gained a good grasp of your subject matter and your assignment’s vast scope, and your little webbed feet are kicking up a storm underwater where nobody else can see them, you’re also hit by the disturbing awareness that your job has not gotten any easier. The sheen of the new has worn off but the pressures and mandates only grow.

For a mid-career teacher the realization that we can’t solve all problems can come as a crushing blow or worse, a career death knell. And yet, we’ve all come to realize that universal education is our only level playing field, perhaps our only hope of remaining a civilized, equal-opportunity society. The trick is to look at the big picture and be realistic about what you do have control over. Find your strength there.

What practical advice can you give to teachers to help them get out of the mid-career doldrums?

You must establish a few permanent, reliable connections. Friendships—with fellow teachers and administrators, with supportive parents, and most particularly with former students now grown up— are essential. Surround yourself with people who respect and admire you, and whom you respect and admire in return. They can soothe and reassure you that the situation is far from hopeless.

Attitudes Towards Teaching During First Year

Cultivate a private passion. Perhaps it’s reading historical fiction. Maybe it’s sail boating. Do as much of it in your spare time as possible. Think of it as a mini-vacation. You owe yourself time away from work.

Get healthier. I know it’s such a cliché, but a brisk walk every evening will clear your head faster than endless bellyaching to your spouse. Eat more salad and less meat loaf. Go to bed super early on Wednesday nights. Putting yourself first in some fundamental way will make you far less defensive and angry.

And resist falling into the same-old, same-old morass. If you have the courage, request an abrupt change of assignment. Move from teaching sophomore biology to 7th grade science. You’ll be surprised to see how much of your material translates just fine; only the approach will be different. A fresh slant will nearly always reboot your enthusiasm.

What sort of professional development opportunities are most helpful to teachers to advance their careers or deepen their satisfaction?

No matter how outstanding you are as a teacher/juggler, you’re unlikely to find much spare time to research career growth options. Another example of putting ourselves last! We’re all more likely to attend workshops scheduled by our administrators. So take a couple of shortcuts. Scan resources like this Sourcebook; you’ll stumble across offerings you never knew existed. Talk to fellow teachers. Ask about postgraduate courses they’ve particularly enjoyed.

A superb one that I heartily recommend is sponsored by The National Writing Project, a nonprofit that promotes K-16 teacher-training programs in the effective teaching of writing. The emphasis is on teacher growth, and then it’s up to him or her to pay it forward. Even if you aren’t a writer (let alone a writing teacher), you will become one after four weeks of journaling, discussing, and reading aloud your own work. Don’t object, “But I teach Social Studies, not English.” The insights and the camaraderie gained, not to mention the validation of having peers shouting “Yes!!!” to what you’ve put on paper, can jump-start the soul and leave you walking on air for months. Some universities also offer two-week advanced seminars, which you can take again and again for additional credit hours. Move outside your own comfort zone. You could grow to love it.

What can you suggest for teachers whose districts or school administrators can’t or don’t send them for professional development?

Your district’s grant writer may be able to alert you to funding and scholarship opportunities that are otherwise overlooked. Universal rule: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ditto, local universities’ education departments. You can’t count on school officials to apprise you of such offerings; they may not know about them.

Call on civic groups. Every community has a quiet philanthropist who might be delighted to establish a teacher development fund. Write a heart-tugging letter. Some PTA/PTO groups fundraise for teachers’ trips. An art teacher, for example, might request one to New York’s Metropolitan Museum. A history teacher might visit the Tower of London.

Read, read, read absolutely everything published about teaching and education, including Web blogs like those at inspiringteachers.com or edweek.org. You won’t agree with everything that’s said; that’s okay. It will still keep you in touch and up to date—and also give you something cool to bring to that next faculty meeting discussion group.

The Truth About Teaching

In her book The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me, Coleen Armstrong offers these suggestions for keeping your practice on an even keel:

• Bring your principal a solution rather than a problem.

• Be careful what you say; someone may still be repeating it 50 years later.

• Never pass up an opportunity to convey a compliment to a colleague.

• Beg for chances to observe the most talented veterans.

• Don't feel the need to resolve every problem.

• Get enough rest.

What role can administrators play in improving teacher satisfaction?

Listen. Teachers are rarely asked their opinions on educational issues, perhaps because they already offer them so freely! But if your staff has a genuine concern, it’s wise on many levels to hear them out. I witnessed a number of changes in procedures based solely on faculty input.

I’m also a huge fan of staff meetings that focus on small group discussions about educational issues, rather than listening to announcements read aloud. Caution: Don’t assume that only administrators can be group leaders.

In addition, mentoring programs not only offer plenty of help to beginners; they also make veterans feel valued. Getting opportunities to coach (not just football, but also debate teams and chess clubs) has long been cited by teachers as extremely rewarding. And organizing parent volunteers to assist with tasks like duplicating materials is appreciated by teachers more than many administrators (who generally have secretaries) realize. An entire prep period can be forfeited just by standing in line at the copier.

As far as teacher retention goes, just asking why someone is leaving can be illuminating. Something that sounds innocuous, like traveling between classes (I know from dismal experience), can pretty much annihilate a young teacher’s zeal.

It all falls under the same heading— creating an atmosphere which encourages open dialogue. For a teacher, being heard is just as important as witnessing change.

Teachers often feel they face a glass ceiling unless they go into administration. What kind of career-advancement opportunities should a teacher take advantage of to prepare for a leadership position?

That glass ceiling is an ongoing teacher irritant. Not only must you leave the classroom in order to earn more; there’s added professional status in telling outsiders that you’re now an administrator. So the prospect of moving up that ladder can be compelling. But you owe it to your school and your district to become a leader with both vision and compassion.

First, give yourself enough time to become a truly excellent teacher. That probably means seven to 10 years. We’ve all known administrators who deliberately put themselves on a three-year fast track in order to abandon the classroom ASAP. These folks do the profession— and themselves— a terrible disservice. They will neither learn from or remember their teaching experience, and therefore fall prey to the ivory tower syndrome, where they view every complaint as a situation where the teacher just isn’t working hard enough.

Second, don’t just watch effective administrators; study them. Who gains the respect of students, teachers and parents—and why? What, exactly, do they do right? Tweak the best approaches to suit your own personality and make note of the little things. An outstanding administrator sees his primary job as being a teacher facilitator, even when his time is largely sapped by tasks which seem to have little to do with the classroom.

Third, always remember that you began your career as a motivator, so make sure that’s the driving force behind your climb. Educational leadership should be precisely that. Your university course work will focus on building management, but you’ll also need to think about effective ways to inspire teachers to strive harder and become better.

Many in education say we need a teacher “ladder” of success, so that accomplished teachers don’t have to go into administration. I think efforts in that direction have so far been incomplete and based too heavily on quantifiable data. It would be nice if we had an advancement program that recognized uplifting teacher-student relationships. But that sort of magic is not measurable.

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Pages 12, 14-16

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