Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Thoughts on Being a "Late-Career" Teacher

Thoughts on Being a “Late-Career” Teacher
by Melody Schneider,
Faculty, High School Completion Department and Faculty Professional Development Coordinator
Edmonds Community College

This month I turn 60.  It’s hard to believe I started teaching over 30 years ago.  Recently, I was thinking back to my first “job” in education.  It wasn’t really a job but it led to a career. In the mid 1980’s I signed up with Literacy Volunteers of New York City to be an adult literacy tutor.  After a few days of training I was matched with a small group of four adults – all older than myself and all of a race different than mine.  What they must have thought of me.  I was in my late twenties.  I was an actor by profession.  I had never taught anything.  Did I really think I could teach these four experienced adults to read and write?  Did they return home after our first meeting wondering if I had any idea what I was doing? 

As I think about our group, I wonder if any of them are still alive.  Mr. Hobbs was 80 when I met him.  Mary and Dora and Cleat in their 40s and 50s.  I want to believe that on some level our community enriched all of our lives.  It surely did mine- in fact, it changed my life forever.

Twice a week for three years, we met.  We became friends, developed trust in each other, got mad at each other, grew annoyed by the slow pace of learning, and cheered for each other - amazed by our breakthroughs.

I remember at first being so afraid of making mistakes, of hurting feelings, and of being seen as a know-nothing imposter.  But in time these gracious, kind students became my teachers.  Once I opened myself up to their responses, needs, goals and ideas - I learned to teach.  Their feedback inspired the next lesson, their challenges pushed me to be resourceful - to ask for help, to investigate new techniques and different strategies.  I learned how to teach because they needed me to learn how to teach.  By the end of my three years, all the students were reading and writing, and I was on my way to the next 30 years of my life.

Today as I near the end of my career, I think about those early lessons from students.  Of course, they still apply today:

  • Listen to students’ needs; the fears, the goals, the dreams.  

  • Pay attention to how the students respond.  

  • Search for ideas, ask for help, develop new techniques and try various strategies

I know now, there is no such thing as knowing it all.  There is so much to know about teaching and learning and so many ways to apply the lessons you learn.  Students are always the best informants – the best teachers.  I experience that in my classes every day.

Although the endless bureaucracy of teaching wears me down, the act of teaching still invigorates me 30 years later.  The art and craft still demand that I create new approaches, change plans mid-course and always look for a new way to connect. 

In my job, I work with teachers at all stages of career.  What I’ve come to understand is that all teachers - no matter the career stage - need opportunities for meaningful learning.  And so it is critical that our institutional structures support and structure faculty development systems to help meet this need.  We should not assume that “late-career” teachers with years of experience are done learning.

We are never done learning.

30 years ago I had so much to learn.  Today, I have so much to learn.

I will be learning until I teach my last class.

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