Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summertime Musings

Everyday I meet people who say they just couldn’t do what I do. They tell me how much respect they have for anyone who has the patience to teach, and many express great curiosity about how I handle difficult children, manage irresponsible parents, and assess mountains of student work. Even after I assure my admirers that working with middle school students is far more rewarding than they could ever imagine, I still fail to recruit them to the profession. But I know there is one thing about teaching that appeals to nearly everyone, and that’s summer vacation. When friends, acquaintances, and even my dear husband begin to turn a faint shade of green as they contemplate the fun I must be having as I lollygag through ten weeks of free-time, I wonder if I could ever explain that getting a little time off may be vital to the teaching profession.

I sometimes think of each new school year as being very much like getting a fresh chance to swim the English Channel. There’s no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead. When the swim begins, the pier is lined with cheering fans, wishing me well, but about ten hours into my swim, when I’m lonely and cold, my arms and legs start to feel like lead, and I know I have about twenty more hours of swimming before I get to the other side. As I fret over how I’m ever going to make it, I just keep pumping those leaden arms and legs until, miraculously, I find myself on the shores of France. For those of you who’ve gotten lost in this metaphor, in the teaching world, reaching the month of June is the equivalent of swimming ashore in France.

Just like making it across the English Channel, excellent teaching requires lots of training and preparation. Of course you must be physically ready for the challenge, but mental preparedness may be the key ingredient that propels both the swimmer and the teacher. Summer break is my prep time; a time to increase my knowledge of how to be a better teacher. And even more importantly, it gives me a chance to restore my mental toughness, renew my creative juices, and get ready for the coming school year.

Naturally, I begin each summer break with a family vacation. The summer trips my family and I take are determined by how much we can learn from the experience. Is there some historic, cultural, environmental, or otherwise educational insight we can bring home from our summertime journeys? I’ve scoured gift shops at Alcatraz, Harper’s Ferry, and the National Archives for books, videos, posters and artifacts that will make their way back to my classroom. My husband and children are my partners and experimental students on these trips. As always, their patience and love sustain me as we all share in the fun of learning.

Summer is not an “off” time for me. Along with many teachers I attend workshops and conferences designed to refine my skills and send me back to the classroom at full speed, ready to guide students through joyful learning experiences. The more I learn, the more I am helping my students become the life-long learners demanded by the 21st Century workplace.

I admit that not all my summer break is spent preparing to swim the English Channel. During the school year, I never have a free weekend. There is always work to be done preparing good lessons, evaluating student work, and keeping parents informed of student progress. In the summer, I have the time to reclaim my rose garden, paint my son’s room, read some great books, and sometimes just wander mindlessly through a day or two.

I know it seems unfair that teachers get a whole summer to work and play in the relaxed environment of their homes, surrounded by their families. I concede that ten weeks is a bit much, and I would surely be happy with a little shorter break But I trust that those who truly understand the strength it takes to be a good teacher will also understand how the extended summer break helps us be the kind of teachers they want guiding their children. And for those who are still green with envy, maybe I can arrange to have them spend the day with twenty-five thirteen year-olds.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Care and Feeding of Millennium Generation Teachers

I used to have my doubts about the new generation of teachers who are just beginning to occupy America’s classrooms. My first encounters with these young people were not positive. I found them to be noticeably self-centered and very sure they had sprung into the teaching profession fully formed. These teachers never sought the guidance of experienced teachers, shunned that guidance no matter how gently offered, and gave the clear impression that they had chosen teaching because the profession allowed them to live a more leisurely lifestyle with plenty of time off to travel and engage in pursuits other than teaching. I worried how the deadly combination of arrogance and lack of skill would impact the lives of our students.

In my search to understand this behavior, I began to look into the research on the Millennium Generation. I discovered that this generation, also known as Generation Y, is comprised of nearly 73 million people born between 1977 and 1994. In comparison, the Baby Boom Generation gave birth to a little over 78 million people. Those numbers are a pretty neat match. A new generation has arrived on the scene that can almost replace the one that is getting ready to drive its convertible Cadillac into the sunset of retirement. Research says the Millennium kids are technologically savvy, great team players, and full of social conscience. They are the first products of the “self esteem” movement, and have spent their lives being praised for every accomplishment and rewarded for their smallest acts of selflessness. They have been deeply loved and nurtured by their parents and teachers. All this information seemed to be in great conflict with my first-hand experiences, or shall I say clashes, with this generation. It seemed to me that far from being the new “greatest generation,” these youngsters had been spoiled, (a word used here to mean ruined).

I was wrong. I stick by my impressions of those first encounters with twenty-something teachers, concluding that those young teachers are simply not good representatives of their generation. They are an aberration and proof that every generation has its bad apples. But what caused my Millennium Generation epiphany?

In the past year, I have had the privilege of working with a group of Gen Y teachers who I believe are as good, and probably better, than any representative of my generation of teachers. These kids are gifted teachers. They work hard and are completely fearless when it comes to trying new ideas. They understand that their lessons must be relevant to the lives lived by their 21st Century students. They expect to use real world technology applications in their classrooms and are eager to show the rest of us the way. They respect and even seek the guidance of their more experienced colleagues, and they don’t even mind me calling them kids. I love them, and I don’t want them to give up on the teaching profession.

So how do we continue to nurture this priceless human resource? First, we must give them what they need. They will not wait twenty years to become teacher leaders. If they make a valuable suggestion and see it handed off to some other member of the faculty, they will take their good ideas elsewhere. Administrators must respect them and listen to them, and make every endeavor to allow the valuable input of these young teachers to come to fruition in the life of the school. These young people already know that wise administrators clearly communicate, not only in words, but also in actions, how much they value talented teachers. Gen Y teachers expect things to make sense. Because when they don’t make sense, they will shop their skills to the highest bidder. Every administrator should have a “Have You Hugged Your Millennium Generation Teacher, Today?” bumper sticker as a reminder of how intently they must pay attention to the growth of these teachers.

All of this behavior is consistent with the generation of children who grew up being securely buckled into the back seat of the family’s mini-van. Administrators and experienced teachers must recognize their roles in continuing the nurturing environment which produced this generation of teachers. Gen Y teachers have arrived in our classrooms just in the nick of time. They will provide the energy, skill, and intelligence our students need to be prepared to compete successfully on the global stage which awaits them. We must provide the support our young teachers need. If we fail to do this, we simply will not have the resources to deliver the education our students