Point of View

As experienced NC teachers depart, the outrage should arrive

May 29, 2014 

“The biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.”

Charles Kettering

This quote from an early 20th century American inventor brought me back to my first year of teaching – a year that every teacher I have ever encountered will tell you she never, ever wants to relive.

I was a Northerner who had moved South with a friend from college to find a teaching job. I was thrilled to be offered one in a Virginia Beach school where most of my students had a parent deployed on a naval ship. I knew nothing about the lives my students were living, but my heart was in the right place.

I remember working until 6 or 7 every night and for hours over the weekend crying and wondering when I would ever get out from under “the pile.” Finally, late one night I was rescued. She was an experienced, no-nonsense, passionate teacher who loved her work and her kids. She stormed into my classroom yelling, “What in the heck are you doing here so late every night?”

She was not mad. She was concerned. She knew I did not know how to scream, “Somebody help me!” I was that new employee who was working hard and doing a good job, but slowly drowning. When she reached out to me, she shared some of her strategies. It was the first moment I thought I might make it through. To this day, I will never forget the relief I felt when Susan marched into my classroom. It was the beginning of my training on how to start over and keep on trying. Hmm … the value of experience.

“The only source of knowledge is experience.”

Albert Einstein

Because I teach in Wake County, I am well aware of the crisis we are facing as a public school system. It’s a crisis of loss. It’s the loss of teachers with years of experience moving to other states. They take with them the ability to build relationships with students without giving it a second thought. They take the credit parents give to them as experienced teachers. They take their years of working relationships with so many colleagues. They take their years of working on the school improvement team, the school leadership team, the school committee no one else can or will run, and the club students join because that teacher sponsors it. They take the ability to guide less-experienced teachers into becoming leaders. They take the ability to reach a student who seems unreachable. Hmm … the value of experience.

“And time for reflection with colleagues is for me a lifesaver; it is not just a nice thing to do

if you have the time. It is the only way

you can survive.”

Margaret J. Wheatley, behavioral expert

Today every new Wake County teacher is surrounded by colleagues during weekly grade level/department and Professional Learning Team meetings. During those meetings, experienced teachers lead and facilitate conversations about children and implementing curriculum. The conversations with colleagues lead to brainstorming. The brainstorming leads to solutions that help children.

No more are teachers sitting in isolation like I was, trying to figure it out alone. Teachers share responsibility for the learning of all the students. Teachers use the “reflection (time) with colleagues” to make a difference. It’s the experienced teachers listening to the extraordinary ideas of our outstanding young teachers, and together they make it work. Hmm … the value of experience.

As Wake County residents watch the experience relocate to other states, I wonder how long it will take until they feel outraged and cheated like I do. I know many are feeling it, but it’s obviously not enough.

Maybe more will feel it when another teacher leaves before the end of the year. Maybe more will feel it when a classroom does not have a teacher in August because teachers choose to work elsewhere. Maybe more will feel it when a business decides to relocate or open in a different state because their employees demand better for their children.

I don’t know what it will take for this crisis of loss to make an impact and cause change. Hmm … the cost of experience?

Dyane Barnett of Cary is a Wake County public school teacher.

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