There are some magic numbers in education — two numbers often referenced are 90 and 35. A teacher can retire with an unreduced pension when their age and seniority equals to 90. If I continue teaching, this will come for me when I am 56. If I wait one more year I will have 35 years of teaching, and be able to retire with a full pension. And, why am I thinking and writing about this now? Because this month I am at 17.5 years — the halfway point of my teaching career. Yes, there are a lot of “what-ifs”, but if I continue to have a career in education, and the rules remain the same, I am likely moving into the second half of my career.
Reflecting on the first-half of my career, my first classroom was an old art room at McRoberts Secondary School in Richmond. The school was undergoing renovations and the art wing was going to be torn down — in the meantime, I set up my first year classroom. At 22 years-of-age, I was returning to the junior high I attended with my Social Studies and English background, teaching a load of junior Math and Science. I absolutely loved that first year. I can remember each of my seven blocks of students. We had chalkboards, no computers in the classroom, and criteria-based assessment was a huge focus. I was blessed with great mentors and soaked up professional development. I remember often defaulting to how I was taught, but I learned so much from some of the amazing teachers in the school. I have previously documented the change in my teaching here.
Flash forward to today, and I struggle with the question “so, what’s changed?” I was in three of our West Van schools last Friday and they definitely look a lot different from my first classroom. Physically, the chalkboards are gone and in many places the white boards are gone as well. All the teachers have technology. For me, technology in that first year was mostly email and mark calculations. Now, I see teachers regularly using video, encouraging students to comment on class blogs and engaging with students and parents as part of the school-home communication cycle. Classrooms are louder than what I remember from my first classes — I hear the regular buzz of active engagement. And, the teacher-student relationship is shifting. I could feel the shift when I started teaching — it was different from when I was a student, and it is different again today; there is a sense that students and teacher are all learners — in it together.
I also see some of the same challenges. Half a career later, we are still looking to improve the transitions from elementary schools and limit the number of different teacher contacts grade 8 students have during the day. We are challenging the structure of the traditional timetable limiting flexibility, to connect the learning experience to what is happening in the world. To say schools haven’t changed would be unfair. In some ways they are very similar — the calendar is almost identical to 1996, but in other ways there have been huge changes. In almost every class I visit I get a sense of increased student ownership of the learning. This was not really part of my thinking as I began my career; I definitely started teaching feeling I needed to be the expert, but that thinking has also changed over time. I also see far more choice in what students are learning, when they do their learning and how they show and share what they have learned. The access to technology for students is really shifting us from content providers in schools to those who make sense of ideas. And, it also needs to be noted, that the call for more resources to support our schools is very similar.
All that said, I do hope the second half of my career continues to look very different from the first half. I am one who thinks the speed of change will increase, but the school as the face-to-face gathering place will remain essential. It’s not that we haven’t been doing the right things, just that doing the right things is changing — as our world changes. I am excited by BC’s leadership around curriculum and reporting, heartened by efforts to encourage students to use their technology for learning, and continually bolstered by the fact that those of us who call ourselves “teachers” in this province are a committed, passionate and curious group of people.
Of course, I am also a little depressed — I have somewhat enjoyed the word “young” in the first sentence of descriptions about me, whether it was the young teacher, young administrator, or young superintendent. And, now I am coming to grips with being part of the “older” crowd. I am also asked if I am going to keep doing what I am doing? I hope so. I think public education is just about the most important work one can do. I am looking forward to the next 17.5 years working with everyone who, like me, are in the second half of their careers, as well as all who come after to keep rethinking and evolving our wonderful system.