Thursday, August 16, 2018

30-Year Teachers and Old Dogs

I've been in several situations very recently in which people have said, right in front of my face, that 30-year teachers are resistant to change. It's the same thing as saying old dogs can't learn new tricks, I guess. Nonetheless, dogs aren't quite as sensitive to stereotypes as, say, I am. You might argue that's just one more thing to love about dogs.

I don't actually teach my dog tricks. I have taught him, mostly, to sit, to go down, and to come. I'm reinforcing those commands on a daily basis, mostly using treats, and he follows them enthusiastically. I teach him those commands because they could easily save his life one day. Otherwise I probably wouldn't fret over them too much. 

I am the best teacher I have ever been, for better or worse. Every day that passes I learn something. Every time I see a situation I've seen before I respond faster and smarter. The year before last I worked with a teacher who could be thirty years my junior. You wouldn't expect this, but I handled everything tech-related in the classroom. I also wrote a whole lot of stories and vignettes to motivate lessons we gave, almost daily. I have this terrible writing habit. I can't stop. I figure it must be reflective of an equally terrible thinking habit, or where would I find the words?

I've been a UFT chapter leader for nine years now. I can hardly believe it. I can tell you for sure that if you're looking to just sit down and take a nap while you wait to drift out into the bay or whatever, you ought not to take a position representing 300 people. My job is insane and I'm absolutely fine with it. My only real regret is I didn't realize how much I'd thrive on an impossible job earlier. On the other hand, you could argue being a New York City teacher is an impossible job and I'd be hard pressed to disagree.

How do you deal with an impossible job? Some people have trouble. There are those who move to "get out of the classroom." They find other jobs, mostly in administration. To my mind, this is the single most prevalent cause of those Boy Wonder supervisors who don't know their ass from their elbow but are nonetheless fully empowered to tell you how badly you suck, and how you don't meet the high standard they themselves changed jobs to avoid facing.

I can't tell you how many times 30-year-old teachers have approached me and told me how lucky I was. I can retire if I want to. What they wouldn't give to be able to do that. I feel really bad when I hear that. I think, oh my gosh, you have to do this for another 30 years and you want to leave now. That's nothing short of tragic. You'd rather be as old as me than come to work? You'd give up a few decades of life to be able to spend more time watching Judge Judy? Hardly seems worth it. Maybe you're thinking about exotic vacations. Who knows? Will you spend every moment watching Judge Judy wishing you were in a Caribbean resort sitting on a beach with a piña-colada? Will you sit on that beach wishing you were on a better one?

Meanwhile I can't retire. I am just right in this thing and I don't want to stop. I see things I haven't seen before. I do things I haven't done before. I bring ELLs to Broadway every year. I figure out ways to reach kids I suspect no teacher has reached before. I work with smart people every day, and I meet others on this page and all over the place. Not only that, but I work with UFT in various capacities. I notice things I've never noticed before. I have ideas I've never had before.

The very first day I taught was at Lehman High School in the Bronx. This was in October 1984. I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, on my ninth day I was written up by someone who told me I had no idea what I was doing. I was good with that, though, because I'd told her that my first day.

Another thing that happened on my first day was that I went into the lunchroom. Several older teachers pulled me over and told me I was making a big mistake. They said I should move out to teach in Long Island. It was better there. Do it before it's too late, they said. Otherwise, I suppose, I ran the risk of ending up like them. On the other hand, I still didn't know what I was doing. Why would I presume to move someplace else when I didn't know what I was doing where I was?

More importantly, those people were kind of bitter and cynical. I decided right then and there that, as a teacher, I was never going to be like that. Almost 34 years later, I'm not.In fact, if I'd ended up like that, it wouldn't be because I had 30 years. I doubt those cynical teachers became that way simply because they worked 30 years. What I suspect is these are the same people who, after five, ten, or fifteen years, envied those old enough to retire.

It's really not about age. It's about attitude. Give old dogs a break. For all you know, they could teach the puppies a thing or two.
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