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Where honor is due

The end of the school year around the country has brought, what seems to me, a larger than usual number of teacher retirements. Granted, some of these will be greeted with cheers or sighs of relief. But many more will generate great sadness as we lose some of the best resources available to us in our resource-starved enterprise of public education.

For some time now, I’ve also noticed too much disparaging of veteran teachers, as if they are a homogenous group of ineffective, rigid, dinosaurs unwilling to change and unable to teach the new generation of students. Like all overgeneralizations, this one is also dangerously wrong. During my time as lead teacher in a small, rural high school, one of my duties was to work individually with teachers to help bring them up-to-speed on computer basics and utilizing various software and web-based programs. The two teachers who picked those skills up quickest and applied them with the greatest creativity and enthusiasm both had over 30 years in the classroom.

While I believe teachers should not be paid or assigned solely on the basis of seniority, I also believe in respecting the tremendous talents and experience accrued by accomplished teachers over their careers. Much of what the research and policy making communities are labeling as “innovative” or “best practice” in education today, has been around before—long before.  How do I know?  I’ve spent many, many hours listening and watching veteran teachers, great ones. Veteran teachers often have a great store of knowledge, not only about teaching in general, but also about the communities in which they work or the workings of school systems. Some of that knowledge is encrusted in hard-earned cynicism, but when it is carefully mined, it can produce tangible yields for student learning and school effectiveness.

Unfortunately, as my colleagues at Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching often point out, much of that experiential, field-tested knowledge leaves the profession with the retirees, and new teachers find themselves having to go through unnecessary years of trial and error. Some of what we lose when our veterans retire we may never get back.

When I started teaching, I was replacing a marvelous woman who had taught English in the same school/community for forty years. In fact, it was she who conducted my interview, (an hour-long question and answer session, that looking back was amazingly similar to the testing center portion of my National Board Certification process). I would not have been hired had she not given the principal her approval. What was truly wonderful, however, was that at the start of the next school year, as I stood in my new, empty classroom wondering where to find everything; there was a knock at the door. It was her husband pushing a dolly stacked high with boxes. She had carefully packed all of her books, lesson plans, and other materials, and saved them from the pillagers over the summer, so I could have them. I still have (and use) some of those items today, and they are precious to me.

One of the most touching events of my extraordinary year as Mississippi’s Teacher of the Year (2001) came after a speaking engagement when I was surrounded by a group of retired black teachers who were thrilled that I was going to be going to DC and LA (for the Milken award). You may not be familiar with this wonderful old African American tradition, but just like the old mothers at my church used to do when I was a child, the teachers gave me a handkerchief in which they had wrapped money for me to take on my trip. They held my hands for a long time and kept saying how proud they were. It occurred to me that because of the social and political situations in which they had worked, they would never even have been considered for honors or awards. I referenced them and all the Black veteran teachers of the segregation era whenever I spoke, particularly reminding new teachers of those who taught under conditions we could not imagine, and most of them did it with grace and power.

Many of them were my teaching models. My first day of my first school year, a group of vets in my department took me in the teacher’s lounge, warmly welcomed me to the school; then proceeded with motherly sternness to explain to me how a Black teacher should dress (and why it mattered to my students). They taught me how to become accepted in my new community; how not to give up on even the most resistant student; why I should always respect janitors and secretaries; they showed me how to teach and why.

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