As a teacher, I spent my first couple of years eating at the “kids” table at lunch. I worked in a very veteran department where many of the teachers had been around for 10 or 15 years, if not more. The couple of us who were new hung out on the periphery seeking some mentorship, but for the most part, went forward on our own. I look around me and notice that the “kids” I came into the district with are now the veterans. They are among the most experienced teachers on the staff. I left the classroom six years ago because it was time for me to do something different. I loved my classroom, but the idea of making digital masters of all my soft copies and transparencies was too much (true story). I loved my kids, but when I could actually think about working at school and not being a teacher without tears, I knew it was time. I stopped telling myself that only I could teach civics as amazingly as I taught it, and off I went into administration.
I still like to fancy myself a teacher, but the truth is, I am not. I skipped out. I decided to interview some of my district’s most veteran teachers to better understand their take on education today and how we can do a better job keeping the best and the brightest in the profession. I interviewed ten teachers with between 18 and 40 years of experience in the classroom. Some teachers have taught their whole careers in my district; some have taught in schools around the world. Here is what I learned.
Students are what keeps teachers in the classroom. The love of watching students learn and grow is a love that never dulls for veteran teachers. Having a career where every day is different and every year is a fresh start with new challenges and opportunities keeps teachers intellectually stimulated. Having a career that is embedded in purpose is something that many people do not have. The veteran teachers I interviewed shared the excitement they feel in coming to school each day and the value they have in knowing their purpose.
Veteran teachers have a great understanding of what has changed in schools: everything from the impact of technology on teachers (there was no email when some of us began, and we totaled grades by hand) to the impact of technology on students. One teacher describes a time before standards or state testing where teachers drove the curricular decisions based on student needs. Teachers devoted time to in-depth reading with students and fostered a love of learning. A first-grade teacher I interviewed shared that she has seen what first graders know as they walk in the door steadily increase. Interestingly, another elementary school teacher at an upper grade commented that the soft skills that kids come with are decreasing.
Veteran teachers, across the board, had the same bit of advice for school leaders – hold staff accountable! The veteran teachers all talked about the damage that is done by allowing ineffective teachers to continue in the profession. It is detrimental to other staff and students. They encouraged administration to hold teachers who are doing good work in high regard and to let them know when they are doing a great job. There are times veteran teachers may have considered leaving the profession, but it was reassurance of their value that encouraged them to continue. Leaders must remember that veteran teachers want to keep learning. The best veteran teachers will continue to grow throughout their careers. School leaders must support their love for learning and growth. It is easy as an administrator to redirect focus from veterans to newer staff. Novice educators may have more needs, but all teachers are learners.
Veteran teachers have seen a lot throughout their careers and have expert knowledge in what can truly make an impact in school. If they had a magic wand, some of the things they would do are decrease class sizes so they are better able to serve the needs of students in their class. They would ensure that teaching is a respected profession and communities valued what teachers had to say about teaching and learning. One teacher shared that literacy is the most important tool a student will leave school with. It is the tool that allows learning throughout a lifetime. Literacy is work that all of us must engage in with young people. Another teacher would ensure that all students came to school with all of the foundational resources they need to have a successful school career.
Our veteran teachers are often paired as mentors, and the advice they share is powerful. Experienced teachers have a strong impact on our profession, and we should look to them to better understand how we can bring people into education and how we can encourage teachers to stay in the classroom longer. One teacher shared that planning is an essential, but not especially exciting reality for teachers. In order for teachers to be successful, they must plan. New teachers should not judge their entire profession based on their first few years in the classroom. Recognizing that the impact you make may not be apparent for years, but that the impact is tangible, is important advice. A last key for those entering the profession is to ask questions and ask for help. It is okay; we were all in your shoes.
I spend a great deal of my time as my district’s HR Director thinking about bringing teachers into this important work, and I love that aspect of my job. But a challenge for all of us, whether we are a policymaker, community member, business leader, or administrator is to think about how we support our best teachers, so they choose to remain in the classroom. Highly effective veteran teachers play many roles within our schools and have so much to offer students, families, communities, staff, and leaders. Let’s learn from them.