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  The foil in this caricature is the crusty, hopelessly outdated teacher who is standing in the way of educational progress.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.




  • DavidCohen

    The value of experience


    Thanks for sharing this. As a student of Lee Shulman’s in 1995, I wrote a case study about my student teaching. Mine was titled “A Case of Mixed Messages,” and I dissected how, despite my prior experience in educational theater, utterly failed to inspire interesting dramatic interpretations of Macbeth when my students performed scenes. It would be a fascinating exercise to return to that approach – but oh so many competing good ideas and demands on our time!
    As for the value of experience, I just wrote about that on my blog. I was prompted to write by the observation that over 90% of the new hires at my school are experienced teachers. I think that’s what employers tend to look for, or favor, when they have options. I’m not saying it’s the most important thing, but I think efforts to discount the value of experience (and continuing education) are actually efforts to deprofessionalize us. I did get into an interesting Twitter exchange with an Illinois superintendent (and blogger) named Mike Lubelfeld, who argued that “talent” can be assessed through certain reliable indicators, and that talent is even more important than experience, that talent is the determining factor for whether or not experience is productive or not. He definitely challenged my thinking. Here’s a site he suggested to support the idea of talent assessment: http://www.humanexventures.com

  • ReneeMoore

    The Wisdom of Lee Shulman

    Thanks, David. Lee has inspired and helped so many of us and the profession in general rethink our practice.  I’ll be checking out that discussion over at your blog, as I definitely have some questions about talent vs. experience.

  • SusanGraham

    Managing human capital

    Education is the ultimate knowledge industry.  It invests the vast majority of its funding in human capital and yet pays minimal attention to capitalizing on that investment. There is no career path that does not lead the most passionate and committed teachers out of the classroom. There is little differentiate in the responsibilties or opportunties between the most and least effective educators in the building. As a result expertise remains siloed rather than disciminated. And unfortunately, while there is a protocol for retrieving keys and staplers when a teacher retires, there is minimal thought put into how to capture the content, pedagogical, organizational and institutional knowledge that resides in the  that teacher’s experience.

    Maybe the saddest and silliest part of this is that most teachers are eager to offer  that expertise, and too often there is minimal interest or ineffective conduits for sharing it. We could do better.

  • JoseVilson


    Thank you, Renee, for sharing your piece here. I shared it on my site.

    Also, you’re right: we owe a large debt of gratitude to those who came before. Unfortunately, too many alt-cert programs promote the idea that older teachers might want to segregate themselves from younger teachers. A surefire way I combated that was by staying silent about my associations, keeping a straight face, and always visiting others’ classrooms whenever I got a chance, even when I had to annoy a couple of them to do so. I learned a lot from the elders, and by the time I had that respect from elders, I got to speak up and out about my vision for approaching math pedagogy.

    In any case, we as teachers need to fight the ageism in our profession, and you’ve provided a primer for why. Thanks.

  • ReneeMoore

    Learning from Each Other

    Thanks for the re-post, Jose. While I always give honor to my mentors and elders in general, I do realize that ageism can cut both ways. We can learn from those with more and less experience than ourselves, if we are respectful of each other’s strengths. I’ve found that to be true in school and here in the Collaboratory. I believe if we practiced more of that among ourselves as teachers, we’d see more of it towards and among students.