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Monday, May 25, 2009


@MaryKayG There is that question...
Will you teach for 30 years 
or will you teach 1 year 30 times?

One of the many questions to come across my Twitter screen this evening.

In my own case, the answer has several levels of depth.

I started out 23 years ago as a bilingual kindergarten teacher. It wasn't the position I was looking for, but it was the one I was offered after what must have been an interesting interview (I can't imagine what I would have said to any number of questions about teaching and learning). I took the job with excitement and (I imagine) some sense of confidence that I could make a difference.

I delved deeply into the kindergarten world. I spent the next 5 years teaching kindergarten or first grade, all in bilingual settings, including a year in an international school in Italy. I passed through the freshman idealism, the sophmore over confidence into a comfortable sense of what I should teach and how I should teach it to any group of 5-6 year olds.

Upon returning from Italy, I decided to take a chance and move up a few grades to the fourth grade. I am not sure what impulse I was working on, but I knew that I did not want to come back to the US and take up exactly where I had left two years earlier. 

The students seemed big, many of them couldn't read or write at the levels I thought I had been preparing them for in kindergarten, and there were many of them. The migrant community in which I taught meant that while I ostensibly had a class size limit of 34, I effectively came to teach upwards of 45 students who move in or out of the community.

I moved up to San Francisco and interviewed for a 4/5th grade multiage classroom in a Spanish Immersion school. I was offered the job and entered the school imagining that all I had learned from the migrant communities and teaching abroad would have informed me well. 

As it turned out, this was the first time in my career that I had worked with middle class white families. They expected quite a bit of me and the class, but at the same time, provided amazing support both academically as well as financially. At the same time, there were immigrant families who had steady jobs and whose children had attended pre-school programs.

I once again delved deeply into the meaning of language immersion education, multiage classroom curriculum and in particular, I became intensely involved with the math reform movement. I eventually became a teacher trainer in math and finished my masters in math education. 

After 10 years and countless teaching partners and several administrators, I found myself getting bored. I started feeling like I was on a treadmill. In the multiage setting we had divided our curriculum goals over two years so as to not repeat major units. I no longer was sure when such and such had been covered. I had to rely on documents instead of memory. It all started to blur.

As luck would have it, I was unhappy enough to search out alternatives. I interviewed for a private school position as 7-8th grade math teacher. I felt very prepared and excited for the change. I was sure I that knew what I was doing. In the interview I remember a question about dealing with the adolescent mind and how I naively answered that I felt prepared given that many of my 5th graders go through similar stages (partially true but woefully off the mark in terms of the adolescence I have since come to meet). 

I was offered the job and have been teaching 7th and 8th grade math for the past 4 years. This time around, I have found myself to be quite qualified to develop a coherent math program and institute significant changes in how math was being learned by our students. I have the many years of early childhood and upper elementary to inform me as I make instructional choices on a yearly basis. In addition, my experience in Spanish Immersion gave me the perspective of how to work well with involved parents. Overall, the job has been a good fit.

So, on some superficial level, I have refused to teach the same thing 30 years in a row. That is obvious.

But underneath my resume lies a more subtle truth: I have always been a teacher of high expectations for my students. I always want to push the envelop in what my students see and do in school, but along some very academic lines. I have been a mix of informal (I have never been called Mr. Kenyon professionally in all these years) and the formal (I do believe in academic teaching standards and have struggled with the theme of student responsibility for their own learning since I remember). I have a very calm and serious demeanor that has usually been a point of distinction when I am compared to others.

I consider myself entering the next half of my career and while I don't feel "old", I am beginning to see signs that I am perceived as "older" by students and some colleagues. I am wondering if a serious "older" teacher is who I want to be. Aren't I comfortable enough with who I am and what I know to let loose a little and allow for playfullness? All work and no play is not what my students want, and I find I struggle with the perception that I am "mean" by not allowing for a more lax environment. 

The bottom line is that I am investigating what it takes to grow older gracefully as a teacher in an environment that questions older teachers' vitality and gifts (I did the same many years ago). I still have a good 15-20 years in the profession. My past would indicate that I find renewal in changing jobs, but that is not an option easily taken by teachers with my experience level. My hope is that through new technologies and new virtual colleagues I can find the inspirations and sources for renewal that I so crave. 

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