Experience is not the enemy

As the Republican Party maintained its control of North Carolina’s legislature, I considered the future of experienced teachers in my state. One year ago, lawmakers tried to end tenure based on research that shows classroom experience matters initially but levels off quickly. This summer, they created a salary schedule that ends pay increases after 25 years, based on research from organizations like the John Locke Foundation:

A significant number of studies of teacher experience found that it did matter at the front end, during the first few years of a teacher’s career, after which it leveled off. In other words, while teachers with seven years of experience are often more effective than teachers with two years of experience, the difference in effectiveness between teachers with seven years of experience and those with 30 years of experience is often negligible.

I agree wholeheartedly that I’m a better educator now than when I first entered the classroom 2007. But the research doesn’t show why. Seven years of writing and executing lesson plans, grading assignments and interacting with students and parents taught me much about my own strengths and weaknesses. Even more important, however, was the mentoring I received from the experienced teachers in my building. Their time and advice remains invaluable to my career, and disregarding the value of experience would ruin the development of new teachers and, in turn, student performance.

Consider a personal example of the impact experienced teachers had on me this past year:

It was a Tuesday in April, 2013, my sixth year in the classroom. My freshman English students had just finished 15 minutes of silent, sustained reading. The large amount of time I commit to unstructured silent reading comes from 18-year veteran Jeff Lang, who helped me understand why my students need to read high-interest texts independently for long stretches of time to build endurance for their high-stakes tests.

I had reason to believe my students had used the time productively. When I paused my own reading and scanned the room, their books were open and seemed nearly all were reading quietly. Still, I didn’t trust my eyes. Margie Harrison had shown me her data from 30-plus years of reading assessments, so I knew that there may be reluctant readers looking the part but not actually reading at all. As I modeled good behavior and read my own book of choice, just like 14-year veteran Matt Smith does in the classroom next door, I decided to hold them accountable.

I closed my own book, asked everyone to reach a good stopping point, put away their books and take out a piece of paper. Then I projected a follow-up assignment on the wall:

“For the next five minutes, write about what you read. Or, what you’re thinking.”

The purpose of the first sentence is obvious, but I added the second because of 24-year veteran Kathie Davidson. She taught me that students won’t work if they do not believe they can succeed, and it’s my job to provide the opportunity they need. The writing samples that answered the first question helped me see how carefully students had read, while the samples that answered the second question gave me a loose estimate of who hadn’t.

I typically read students’ answers minutes later and quickly returned them, but that Tuesday I saved Maria’s (not her real name) work. She had written one sentence about her book, then digressed.

“It was hard to focus on my book today because my Mom’s trying to get me to move out of my foster home and live with her again. She says my brother misses me and that my school is turning into a bad person. I love my foster mom and want to stay at school here.”

Sharon Hackelman, the 12-year veteran who mentored me through my student teaching in Winston-Salem, taught me how to form positive relationships with my students, especially those at risk of failing and misbehaving. I had no idea Maria’s life outside school was so complicated and I didn’t know what I could do to help, but I’d seen Sharon work under similar circumstances and knew to speak with her immediately.

“I read the paragraph you wrote about your book,” I told her after class. “Your living situation sounds complicated. I had no idea you were going through that because you’ve done such a good job in class.”

Maria was an attentive and respectful student. She worked hard during and usually completed her homework. She repeated what she’d written during class and apologized again for being distracted. I told her to let me know if there was anything I could do to help.

Nothing more came of it that spring. At the end of the semester I called her foster mother to praise her excellent work and mentioned the details she’d shared with me. She agreed that Maria did better in school while living with her, thanked me for the call and wished me a relaxing summer.

Then, last October Maria visited my room wanting a new book to read. She told me that she was taking honors level classes for the first time, and it was going well. She borrowed a book and went on her way. We had a similar conversation in February, when she returned the book and borrowed another. Then, one Thursday in April, she asked for a favor.

“I have a meeting with my social worker and my mom on Tuesday,” she said. “Can you be there?”

They were meeting to determine her residency for the following year and she wanted a teacher to vouch for her improved grades and good behavior. “You’ve known me longer than my current teachers,” She said, “and you know about my situation.”

I knew nothing about her “situation,” other than she preferred living with her foster mom and school seemed to be going well. I’d known her for less than a year and, outside of our interaction during class, we’d simply spoken about books and grades a couple times between classes. Regardless, Maria had, for some reason, reached out to me for help. But 35-year veteran Ray Rose reminded me that this doesn’t happen every day, and I didn’t want to let her down. I agreed to help, but needed details.

What I thought would be a school-based meeting turned out to be an off-campus appointment. I still wanted to help, but needed a lot more information before proceeding. 17-year veteran Amy Pine taught me who to turn to for help as I stumbled through my first year of teaching. I could hear her voice in my head as I met with my principal, who spent many years in the classroom himself before shifting to administration, and school social worker to make sure my involvement in Maria’s meeting was legal and appropriate.

I also spoke to her guidance counselor, reviewed her transcripts and met with her current teachers. 25-year veteran Mary Foster, in numerous hallway chats between classes, helped me understand why it’s important to know the student’s perspective, so I pulled Maria’s cumulative file from the records office and found a barrage of medical reports, legal notices, restraining orders and psychological evaluations. Finally, I corresponded with her current teachers and gained a more complete picture of her academic performance.

By the time I took my seat at the table for Maria’s meeting, I knew a bit more about “her situation.” I knew that she needed to stay at my school. I arrived ready to defend my conclusion because 28-year veteran Steven Unruhe had shown me on numerous occasions how to stand your ground and fight for what’s best for kids.

At the meeting, I told the group about how her B’s and C’s had turned into A’s, and that she surrounds herself with a more focused and well-behaved group of friends now. I told them that my school was the best place for her, and moving her now would negate the great progress she’d made this school year.

The psychologist, social worker, translator and parent sitting with me at the table agreed that it was best not to mess with a good thing and decided to leave her in the custody of her foster mother and worked out an unconventional financial agreement to keep her in the foster home through the end of the school year.

“Thanks,” Maria said the next day. “I don’t think I would have stayed in school without your help.”

The meeting felt like a success, but the agreement between her foster care and mother felt loose and I worried it could fall apart at any moment. From my time working with 9-year veteran Fernando Campos I learned that the link between our school community and students’ home lives were closer than most think. So I reached out to the district’s dropout prevention specialist and asked him if there was another way to solidify her place at my school. He met with Maria and her mother and helped them file paperwork that, given her circumstances and strong academic performance, would grant her permission to attend her current school regardless of her residence. That way, she could stay even if she left her foster home.

Maria’s back at school this year and doing well. She hopes to graduate early and live on her own. I’m proud of the time and effort I contributed, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the time and effort numerous experienced teachers dedicated to supporting and developing me.

Ultimately, it took my experienced colleagues seven years to turn me into the educator I needed to be to help Maria. To award any one teacher credit for her “performance” wouldn’t tell the whole story. As the debate over performance pay rages on, experienced teachers will, thanklessly and dutifully, continue to develop the young colleagues in their buildings. Student performance belongs at the top of everyone’s priority list, but to truly understand the value of experience, researcher must look beyond test scores. If they listened in on the conversations teachers have in the hallways between classes, read the emails we send about students and studied the ways we spend our non-instructional time sharing materials and strategies, they’d and understand the impact the most experienced staff-members have on the school’s culture. They would see how and why the veterans grow the young and the beginners lean so heavily on their advice and support.

And perhaps they’d better understand teachers like myself, who hover somewhere in between. As I approach a decade in the classroom I’ll continue searching for ways to improve my students’ performance while I also embrace the transition from impressionable novice to proficient vet, passing on the lessons I learned to those navigating their early years in hopes that someday, years from now, it will help another Maria.