Learning Teaching From Our Elders

In recognition of the just released book, Teacherpreneurs, in which I am one of the featured teachers, I want to celebrate one of the points I made when I was interviewed: The incredible debt we in the teaching profession today owe to our predecessors.

There is growing media-fed myth that the best teachers are young, Ivy League grads, who have had little or no taint of teacher preparation.  Oh yes, and if they are going to work in our highly challenging urban [code for Black or Hispanic] schools, it would be even better if they were former military–preferably special ops.  The foil in this caricature is the crusty, hopelessly outdated teacher who is standing in the way of educational progress.

This fantasized version of teaching and of the relationships across the generations of teachers could be dismissed as movie or sit-com hyperbole, if it weren’t clearly in the interests of some to promote these myths at the expense of children and teachers across the U.S.  One of the most dangerous errors a new teacher can make is arrogance, especially towards those who should and must be her/his mentors into the real world of classroom teaching.

Renowned educational researcher, Lee Shulman, wrote in 1996 that “the essential feature of teaching is its uncertainty and unpredictability. Teaching cannot be directed by formal theory and lockstep national syllabi, yet remain responsive to both student insights and misconceptions”  (The Wisdom of Practice, 464).  Shulman goes on to point out how teachers need to learn from the experiences of their colleagues over time. In most other professions, this is a common approach (often called case studies).  Based on his years of work, however, Shulman also adds this crucial caveat about the need for community: “Learning from experience is nearly impossible without the scaffolding of others, their alternative views, their complementary perspectives, their roles as active listeners and critical friends” (The Wisdom of Practice, 480). In other words, teachers learning with and from each other is an important part of our professional growth and work.

At the level of the individual classroom teacher, there is so much about teaching that can only be learned from other teachers; those who have done it and have added their own rich learning to the process.  For that type of learning, we teachers need mentors and networks.  In too many places, those essential connections are still left to fall in place haphazardly; more enlightened and successful systems create space and support for regular teacher-to-teacher interactions.

I had the privilege of being mentored into teaching by some great teachers, several of whom I mentioned in the Teacherpreneur interviews.  “We [today’s teacher leaders] are not necessarily the best and brightest; we are the beneficiaries and reflectors of the accumulated accomplishments of our profession” (Teacherpreneurs, 75).

While I will always remember and be indebted to Dorothy Grenell, Frances Isaac, Ruth Smith, and the many others who worked with me directly, I am also aware of a much larger body of work , particularly by African American teachers across the South who have fought relentlessly for generations to serve the unique needs of our students and communities.  Researchers such as have labeled what they did “situated pedagogies”  which are as Hilton Kelly points out, “how Jim Crow’s [segregation era] teachers worked against and around racism, inequality, and segregation.”   That legacy of teaching students to excel and expecting them to do so in spite of tremendous deprivation and discrimination compels me to pay it forward in their honor.