It’s a challenging time to be a teacher.
Coming off three years of teaching in a pandemic, children have enormous social, emotional, and academic needs. Many are struggling with trauma, the effects of prolonged isolation, and grief.
Teachers, too. For many of us, while our friends have been working remotely or in highly mitigated environments, we have spent our days in classrooms filled with children. Masked. Unmasked. Masked in highly unreliable ways. Some vaccinated. Some not.
Added to all of these pressures are the justifiably concerned, exceptionally anxious parents. Heightened emotions. Increased tension.
Many of my colleagues have also contracted COVID-19. Many of those infections undoubtedly came from students, since many of our students were and still are contracting COVID-19, too. Some of us have brought this illness home to our families. Many of us have struggled between taking care of our students and caring for our own sick children or children who are unable to access daycare or their own schools because of infections.
It’s all been incredibly, debilitatingly difficult.
It’s also been remarkably, joyfully, endlessly rewarding.
In the face of these unprecedented challenges and sweeping changes, I would like to offer this advice in behalf of my fellow educators:
If you are an administrator – principal, superintendent, or anyone else occupying some place other than the classroom – and you have not been a teacher for the past three or four years, please stop talking about what you think constitutes effective teaching and start listening to teachers. The pandemic has changed education – at least for a time – in deep and profound ways. If you’re not in a classroom – and especially if you’re not working in a school – your previous teaching experience has ceased to be relevant.
If you are an administrator who hasn’t been in the classroom for a decade or more – especially if you’re not working in a school – please by all means shut the hell up and start listening to teachers.
If it’s been longer than a decade since you’ve stood before a students on a daily basis, you honestly have nothing at all to say. You probably taught in an age before children carried cellphones. Maybe in an age before the internet became as ubiquitous as it is today. You’ve probably never had a class of students with laptops on their desks at all times. You probably didn’t teach during the extreme partisanship that has divided our nation. You may have been teaching in a time before Sandy Hook or Parkland or the recent murder of children and teachers in Texas.
If it’s been longer than a decade since you last taught in a classroom on a regular basis, your job is simply to support teachers by constantly and carefully listening to them and working like hell to meet their needs. Your own opinions on teaching are almost certainly irrelevant unless they have come from the people doing the job everyday.
Here’s the thing about teachers:
None of us went into this profession because we wanted to get rich.
None of us saw teaching as an easy job.
None of us want to fail.
If a teacher is asking you for a tool, it’s because we know – better than you could ever know – that we need that tool.
When we tell you that the curriculum is atrocious, it’s because we know – far better than you ever could – that your curriculum is atrocious.
If we tell you that an assessment is no good, it’s because we know – better than you ever will – that the assessment is no good.
When we tell you that a policy is not working, it’s not because we are trying to to make our lives easier. It’s because your policy sucks.
Plato Karafelis, my very first principal – who served for 25 years in the school where I am now approaching my 25th year – would often point out in faculty meetings that he had not taught in a classroom for 12 or 15 or 20 years. “How could I possibly pretend to know what your job is like anymore?” he would say. “I need you to tell me what I need to know. Tell me what you need so I can do to support you.”
My current principal – bless his heart – approaches the job similarly.
But that type of leadership is hard to find these days. Lots and lots and lots of administrators who once taught in bygone days – pre-pandemic days, pre-digital days, pre-computers in your pocket days, pre-murder in the classroom days, pre-social media days – think they understand the job. They think that their opinions on pedagogy and curriculum and assessment are relevant in today’s teaching environment. They spout theories and opinions and policies from ivory towers when they know nothing about the realities of a classroom today.
I was named West Hartford’s Teacher of the Year in 2006. If that same 2006 version of me appeared in my classroom today, I would be a tragically ineffective teacher for my students. It would take me at least a year and a lot of work to become highly effective again. The world has fundamentally shifted since my first few years of teaching. If you’ve been teaching in the classroom during that time, you, too, have shifted along with it.
But if you’ve spent your time outside the classroom, in some office or ivory tower, you know very little about classroom instruction anymore. You know lots of other things, I’m sure, and some are probably very important and useful, but if you don’t work with kids, you don’t understand the realities of the classroom in today’s world, and that, more than anything, is what teaching is about.
So in these challenging times, I implore administrators – especially those not working inside schools – to stop thinking that you know anything about what is going on in the classroom and start asking teachers, relentlessly and religiously, what they need to be successful. Ask them all – the compliant ones, the nonconformists, the rookies, the veterans, and everyone in between.
Every teacher has a list of what they need to better help students learn. Ask them for their list, and don’t waste their time explaining why the items on their lists are unimportant, too expensive, unrealistic, or not needed.
Stop assuming you know anything and ask them. Listen to them. Act upon their requests whenever possible. When it’s not possible, find a way to make it possible. That is why your job exists.
If you can’t bring yourself to do these things, then just be quiet. Don’t become an obstruction to good teaching. Stay the hell out of our way. Send your emails, push your papers, and answer your calls in your office of one while those of us in the trenches, doing the real work, battle on.
And please don’t make the mistake in thinking this is the opinion of one person. There isn’t a teacher I know who doesn’t feel similarly. Teachers tend not to be boat rockers. Many are rule followers. Still more are people pleasers. Most are simply too investing in their students to fight against blind, incompetent administrative buffoonery.
But they all are feeling these pressures. They all want more for their students. They all need more support. They all wish people who have not occupied a classroom for 5 or 10 or 20 years would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening.
It’s not just me. I promise you.
Happy summer, teachers. You’ve earned it.