Years or degrees? Experience matters.

I came into teaching ten years ago via “alternative licensure” through a program sponsored by the state and a major local university.  As part of the program, I received only tiny bits of compressed instruction in educational psychology and pedagogical theory.  I was never a student teacher, working under the supervision of a veteran educator.  In fact, I had never set foot in a classroom as a teacher until I interviewed for my current (and first) education job.

Ironically, I began my career with a higher salary than most of my cohort of novice teachers because of a happy coincidence: I had earned a Masters Degree in Botany prior to embarking on this new career.  My nearly complete lack of preparation notwithstanding, I earned a reward for an achievement that had very little to do with my effectiveness as a classroom teacher.

I learned over those first few months, and the decade since, that there is one truly effective way to train an educator: experience.  I was lucky enough to have a supportive team that taught me more than any course could have.  I developed a sense for what is normal when it comes to adolescents and what to do when things go wrong.  What I learned about my students helped me to be a better teacher.

As a result of my “upbringing”, I am a big proponent of on-the-job training for teachers.  I have seen first year teachers struggle, not so much with their content as with their classroom management and assessment skills.  And, I have learned much from veteran teachers who know the ropes.  While advanced degrees, particularly in education, can be helpful, they are no replacement for good, old-fashioned, classroom experience.  Despite Matthew DiCarlo’s recent lukewarm assessment, those of us in the classroom see the benefits of experience every day.

That’s why it’s so disconcerting to see major school systems, like New York City, hiring superintendents who have absolutely no public school experience (not even as students or parents).  It’s worse than school leaders who left the classroom before mastering teaching, because these corporate-minded leaders lack fundamental understanding of our vocation.  Along with the effect that current economic conditions are having on class sizes, the direction of our school reform efforts appear to be in jeopardy.

How do we help those with the power to effect change that this is not the way to do it?

One thought on “Years or degrees? Experience matters.

  1. Interesting that I was just thinking about this very idea today. I’ve written on my blog (off and on) since I started teaching. This is my 4th year to teach. I also came late to the teaching game and it has been really interesting to see how my ideas about teaching have changed as a result of a little bit of experience under my belt.

    I’ve certainly grown and I feel like I am better prepared to meet students needs today than in 2007.

    As far as your question goes, I’m not sure we can tell them this isn’t the way to effect change. A large part of that is because they don’t usually listen to teachers. But this is due in part to the immensity of the disconnect between politics and the real world. I tend to think of many politicians, even at the state level, as living a somewhat isolated life. No, not isolated, insulated would be better.

    I’ve long said that legislators should come spend a day or two with a teacher to see what kind of things we need. It seems that sometimes they are a bit like a doctor who never actually sees the patient and give a diagnosis based solely on hearsay.

    Is this idea realistic? No. It’s not. Will it ever happen? I seriously doubt it. However, if we don’t try, nothing ever going to change, is it?


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