Give Me That Old School

As soon as I saw the Facebook post, I knew I was in trouble.  My daughter’s 1st grade teacher was being promoted as a literacy specialist, and she was going to be replaced, mid-year, by a beginning teacher who had just finished her student teaching.

For some parents and educators, this might not be seen as a problem.  We live in a society that worships at the altar of youth, and this is perhaps no more apparent than in education, where new teachers are valued for their passion, energy, and cheap salaries.  Administrators often value new teachers  for their willingness to try new things, take on challenging assignments, and contribute to improvement projects without invoking the union contract.  Many education reform organizations base their entire theory of action for improving schools on the malleability and commitment of new teachers.

I have heard many school leaders and reformers say something to the effect of, “you can train for skills, but you can’t train for passion and commitment.”  Perhaps I’ll break that statement down in a future post.  As a parent, however, I want both skill and commitment, but mostly I want skill.

When I was in my third year of teaching high school Spanish, I received a surprising and perhaps unwarranted recognition.  Each year, the 150 teachers  at my school nominated and then selected the Teacher of the Year.  The list of past recipients read like an all-star list of educators whose impact on learning and dedication to students was both long and noteworthy.  Nobody with less than 10 years of experience at the school had ever been selected.  Certainly a third year, non-tenured teacher such as myself had never even been considered.

Here’s the problem.  I was neither the most dedicated nor the most skilled teacher at the school.  Not even in my own department.  I had passion in spades, and volunteered for just about everything.  I was the embodiment of youthful zeal and professional optimism.  Yet privately I was conflicted about the award.

Denice Morales, for example, was a long-time Spanish teacher in my department.  She was old school.  You didn’t mess around with Ms. Morales. She was even reported to have flushed a student cell phone down the toilet when the student made the mistake of pulling it out in class.  Not exactly tech-friendly.  She possessed that matriarchal steadiness and steeliness that gets results from kids, and she did it year after year.  Instructionally, she was very talented.

Now, I’m a futurist and believer in the power of technology to accelerate learning.  As a former principal myself, I recognize how zest and enthusiasm are key strategic elements for building a student-centered and creative learning environment.  Ms. Morales would probably agree that zest was not an adjective she used to describe her reaction to new initiatives.  Her default reaction was skepticism, although she could be convinced over time.

Ms. Morales’ skill, like that of all skilled teachers, was hard fought.  It took time to develop.  While I’m excited and hopeful that my daughter’s new teacher will bring new energy and innovation to the classroom, I also know that she’ll struggle.  It’s hard as a parent to swallow.

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