The Calm of Experience

This is a story of my own learning as a teacher.

During my student teaching, I particularly struggled with a boy I will call Aidan. He was a gloomy 7th grader, a social isolate with no particular sense of humor who regularly antagonized other students.

One day, when I was patrolling the hallways between classes, Aidan rolled by a row of lockers on his Heely’s, elbowing several girls along the way. Because I did not have much empathy for the child to begin with, this incident angered me, perhaps more than it should have.

I brought him to the Head of School’s office, ready for him to get his just desserts. After I relayed what I had witnessed to Teacher Celia (her real name — she deserves all the praise I am about to give her), she turned to Aidan with a calm look on her face.

“Aidan, is what Teacher Lani* said accurate?”

Aidan looked at his lap and reluctantly nodded.

“Can you see what the problems are with what you just did?”

Aidan was quiet. She waited, watching him intently.

After a pause that was longer than anything my 21 year-old self would have had the patience to endure, he looked up at her sheepishly.

“Well, yeah.”

In the remainder of the interaction, Aidan admitted to his poor judgment in both wearing Heely’s at school and elbowing the girls. He and Teacher Celia agreed to the consequences.

I no longer recall what they worked out, since I was so dazzled by her calm, accepting presence. I remember that it seemed measured and fair, giving Aidan an opportunity to repair his relationship with his peers and learn from his mistake.

Why am I writing about this now?

I have two reasons.

First, we are in an era that thinks that just because you learn so much about teaching on the job, there are those who would simply put new teachers in the classroom without much student teaching or mentoring.

Watching Teacher Celia with Aidan helped me see that I needed to move past identifying with the elbowed girls and reacting to Aidan as an annoying boy. I needed to figure out how to be his teacher too. Teacher Celia’s poise and humanity in dealing with him became my go-to image when I dealt with a child who I struggled with. I did not spend a lot of time with administrators in my own career as a student, so seeing the right way to handle misbehavior was critical to my own development.

Second, I am concerned that we are normalizing teacher turnover so that the calm presence of experience has become a rarity in many schools. Estimates of teacher turnover in the first five years range from 30% to 50%, with the rates being even higher among TFA teachers (about 80% leave after 3 years). The burdens of turnover are high, impacting everything from achievement to the cost of staffing and retraining.

I think there is another cost to turnover that involves the social well-being of children. When I see the disciplinary statistics in schools, I wonder if the calm wisdom of experience exists on the most afflicted campuses. Aidan was lucky that Teacher Celia was the go-to for the consequences of his misbehavior and that his discipline was not left to me. She was measured, whereas I surely would have been more reactive. Likewise, in the second school I taught at, we had an administrator with the same matter-of-fact calm when dealing with behavior issues; I was always grateful when children in my class had last names that fell in the first third of the alphabet so we could sort things through with her. I could trust her to preserve the student’s and my own humanity and help us arrive at a reasonable solution.

I am not trying to romanticize experience or say that all veteran teachers share this wisdom. However, I do think it is easier to muster a calm perspective when dealing with students from the vantage point of experience. This calm is certainly a rarity in barely-mentored newbies. I believe that the first year of teaching is often so difficult, in part, due to the steep learning curve and constant novelty of high stakes situations. As experience accrues, these situations become more manageable and teachers’ reactivity diminishes. But if we continuously staff our schools with minimally mentored novices, we take away an important resource from children and their development.

——

* This student teaching placement was in a Quaker school, where teachers are called “Teacher [First Name]”, showing respect and familiarity.

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