Experience Is a Teacher–Let Us Learn

In a recent post, I portray experience as an unequivocally good thing, representing adeptness, strength and style. And why wouldn’t it be?  Meanwhile, in many of today’s narratives about education, a premium seems to be placed on younger teachers with “fresh ideas.”  This is a bit of a cliché that is often used to gently conjure up an opposing stereotype: the experienced, older, out-of-touch and burnt out teacher (Beulleranyone?). While there have always been teachers who live up to each of these stereotypes, I think the binary opposition they represent is fading these days.

Recently, I wrote about the value of experience, in a world where we seem to have access to so much so quickly—the difference between feeling like you could do something if you tried, and actually being experienced at it.  In this post, I portray experience as an unequivocally good thing, representing adeptness, strength and style. And why wouldn’t it be?

Meanwhile, in many of today’s narratives about education, a premium seems to be placed on younger teachers with “fresh ideas.”  This is a bit of a cliché that is often used to gently conjure up an opposing stereotype: the experienced, older, out-of-touch and burnt out teacher (Beulleranyone?). While there have always been teachers who live up to each of these stereotypes, I think the binary opposition they represent is fading these days.  Urban schools are flooded with new teachers, who often (and understandably) experience burnout as they take on too much too quickly, and find they are not necessarily as in touch with students’ needs as they expect to be (depending on the amount of prior experience they have with the age group or specific population of students).  More experienced teachers often hold down the forts at their schools and are often the ones students turn to for support.  (I’m now drawing a counter-stereotype, which also has exceptions.)

Beyond these teacher archetypes, I’d like to ask the question, is experience necessarily a good thing?  Can it be a bad thing?  And, can you be experienced and “fresh” at the same time?

Experience as a concept is probably neither good nor bad, but it has the potential to be a teacher. Experience should be a teacher.  As long as we reflect on and learn from our experiences, experience is a good thing. With practice and critical thinking we learn to be better and better at what we seek to do—teaching, for example.

Teachers who continually learn from each experience will be prompted to try new things in response to new questions that come with each group of students and changing times.  This is how we remain fresh.

Critical thinking, then, is the key to learning from our experiences, so that becoming experienced is a good thing.  I find the website criticalthinking.org and these stages of critical thinking described there to be a fascinating and helpful framework for understanding critical thinking, both personally, and as a teacher and learner.

Schools need to create space for teachers to reflect critically on their classroom practices and make decisions in response.  Otherwise, we are setting teachers on a path that won’t lead to mastery.  Teachers also need to claim this process as our right.  Jose Vilson just wrote this great post, describing a conflict he experienced between his own critical thinking in response to his students’ needs and the decisions about best practices that had been made by others and had become tradition at his school.  He “put his foot down” and claimed his right to learn from experience and try something fresh.

[image credit: Boetter]

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