Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Self-Efficacy; Or, Why Doesn't Anyone Ever Tell Teachers, "You Can Do It!"

When I was in school and in college, I was a super-hyper-high achiever. There was an almost unstated expectation in my family that I would do well all the time at everything. This, of course, led to some heartbreak when I plateaued in math at pre-calculus, or when I effectively gave up on my 11th grade physics class and devoted myself to my unfinished novel during 5th period for the better part of four months. Still, I graduated high school in the top ten percent of my class and went on to a small, private college thanks to a large scholarship. There I also graduated very highly ranked in my class, in charge of a number of student organizations, member of several honor societies, you name it.

Now, before you puke...

Shortly after I graduated, I was doing...not very much. I worked as a nanny, a tutor, a secretary, a temp, a freelance writer and editor, whatever I could to keep some money coming in. I didn't want to go to grad school or law school, didn't want to join the Peace Corps or the Army, didn't really know what I wanted to do. I had a few vague notions about some careers I thought I might enjoy and eventually got an entry level position in one of them. It didn't take long for me to realize that I was unfulfilled, and I chucked it all to join the Teaching Fellows, move to New York City, and start a brand new life. I liked kids, I liked reading and writing, and I had some small-time teaching experience, so it seemed like a good fit.

Needless to say, my high-achieving ways went by the wayside for my first couple of years of teaching. Most teachers suck at most everything in their first year. Maybe they suck a little less their second year. It was only in my third year that I developed any sense of believe in myself at all, and now I am bemused (though certainly pleased) by the fact that I've been asked to join a committee for professional development at my school.

On my way home today after our first committee meeting, I got to thinking about why this seemed so strange to me. It's just one committee membership, after all. I used to run organizations, sometimes more than one at a time. I used to helm a publication at my college. I was a class officer at my high school. It would have been natural for me, at one time, to be very active in whatever environment I found myself. But I find myself having to get used to that feeling again.

So often, teachers' opinions are either implicitly or explicitly discouraged. And, if anyone wants them at all, a few teachers sometimes dominate the discussion, which is certainly how things are at my school (until, perhaps, now). And, most crucially, the neverending tide of fads and directives at school makes even teachers who have taught for decades doubt themselves in the classroom. No one ever tells us, as Dr. Benjamin Spock said, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do." No faculty conference ever ends with, "You're doing a great job."

It's not hard to understand why, then, so many young teachers burn out. It's not hard to understand why people who are smart, motivated, and high-achieving don't even want to go into teaching in the first place, let alone stay there: it's hard work, with very little opportunity to advance if you don't want to become a principal, and doesn't offer much in the way of recognition and leadership. Forget the money for a minute (though the money is certainly nice). There is not enough opportunity for teachers to be creative, collaborate, and build curricula and methods themselves.

I'm not saying that committee memberships are the only answer or the best answer. But something like this can turn a person's career in a whole new direction. It can make her believe that she can do it, or make him believe that his voice is part of the conversation. Teachers, like kids, need to be encouraged to believe that they can do it--that, indeed, in some or many ways, they are already doing it.
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