Posted in Personal History, Teaching Career

Keeping a Beginner’s Mind

Someone commenting on another blog wrote:

…younger teachers have a tendency to be more creative than more seasoned teachers.

It is possible, but it’s not necessarily true. Being a younger or beginning teacher is no guarantee of creativity any more than is experience. It seems that many “reformers” believe it to be fact that beginners are somehow cheaper “better” than experienced teachers. That’s why Indiana “reformers” were so anxious to adopt REPA 2 and “reformers” nationwide are sold on Teach For America and other quick, alternate routes to teaching. That’s why “reformers” nationwide are so anxious to break unions, do away with tenure and support so-called “merit pay plans.” None of those things improve education. Their goal is not to get better teachers into America’s classrooms, the goal is only to lower costs.

It’s true that some younger teachers don’t have preconceived notions about what to try…and many are very creative in the activities they plan. However, the same can be said of experienced teachers. It’s also true that an activity may sound great, but sometimes things don’t work as planned. The experienced teacher may not “try something new” because they have already tried it or they can see it’s flaws…or they know their teaching style and their students learning styles and can predict that it wouldn’t fit.

I support effective innovation, but trying something just for the sake of being creative is not always the best way to meet a child’s needs. The secret to a long career is to understand what it means to be a student – whether the school provides inservice or not. It’s our job as teachers to get as much experience as we can so that when it comes time to problem solve how to help a child we can choose among options.

I returned to teaching kindergarten at the age of 58…after a 30 year gap (during which I taught grades 1 through 6). The young teacher across the hall from me (who was in her mid to late 20s) had a lot more energy at the end of the day. I learned a lot from watching her teach…but perhaps she learned some things from me along the way as well. We each had something unique to share with our students. For example, I didn’t have the energy to do everything she did…so I didn’t try. On the other hand, when one of my students was struggling with reading skills I had 30 years of classroom experience, including Reading Recovery training, at my disposal. I had decades of experience at working with students on differing achievement levels, helping children cooperate and get along in a group and using classroom technology. I had experience teaching students with learning difficulties and students who were working at gifted levels. I knew how to relate to children, knew what books to read to them, and knew how to guide them in learning. I had been doing those things for 30 years.

I’m still teaching…volunteering. My background gives me the knowledge I need to help students with a variety of needs…from a high ability math student in third grade, to a first grader struggling to make sense of the printed word. I’m working with 3 teachers who have, respectively, a little over 10, a little less than 20 and and a little more than 30 years experience. All three of them have something unique and valuable to give to their students.

Schools need young teachers…and they need veteran teachers as well. The fact that the average years of experience of America’s teachers is dropping is not necessarily good. Good schools need a mixture of beginner’s energy and experienced caution. Young teachers need mentors to help them through the difficult times. Experienced teachers need fresh ideas and enthusiasm.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” A beginner is willing to try new things…learn from others…and learn on their own. This doesn’t mean that an experienced teacher doesn’t have any value. What it does mean is that all teachers, new and experienced, must continue to understand what it means to be a learner. All teachers must continue to grow personally and professionally.

The trick to being a good teacher throughout your entire career is to keep a beginner’s mind — be open to new possibilities, be a lifelong learner…for however many years you teach.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.

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