For a little over a decade, my life has been dedicated to the growth and success of students of all ages - university students, high/middle school students, and for the last eight years, elementary students.
Through my adolescent and young adulthood years I had to grapple with the dreaded question from family, friends, and respected mentors: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As I grew I had many professions come and go from that ‘short list’ of prospective future careers: doctor, lawyer, physical therapist, business owner, finance, engineer -- but the mainstay was always education.
Every person with whom I had this conversation would applaud all of these career paths, with the exception of education. When I had conversations with others about education, I invariably heard a list of reasons I should not follow that career path: long hours, lack of pay, misbehavior of students, parents, administrators, school boards... Despite consistently hearing these these warnings, my decision to pursue a career in education was ultimately motivated by my observations of a great teacher, mentor, and role model -- my father.
I watched my father work with children of all abilities, and I saw him explain, demonstrate, encourage, and, when necessary, demand the level of effort that is required to achieve success in the classroom and throughout their lives. Students would often scoff at his passion as a way of avoiding the effort, accountability, and positivity he pushed for, but over time, I saw something remarkable take place: In the years after these students left his classroom, they would continue to call, visit, arrange dinner meetings, and (more recently) text, so they could continue to share their lives with him. Former students have lived at his home between jobs. They rely on him for marital, parenting, and life advice. He’s been best man at a former student’s wedding and a godparent and mentor for former students’ children.
My dad could have had better-paying jobs. He could have worked fewer hours. He could have spent less time with students who misbehaved or parents who criticized him. But these turned out to be small prices to pay for what he has gained: Relationships with students that continue to grow long after leaving his classroom. This doesn’t happen in other professions. I have been inspired to pursue a career in education because I know that through education, I can have a positive effect on young people that will last into the future. If I can do for students even a little of what my dad has done, I will be fulfilled. When people focus on the drawbacks of being an educator, they discount the most important benefit: Making a better tomorrow for young people -- something my dad and other great educators have done for generations.
I have been an elementary principal for three years in a rural district in west central Wisconsin and have had the joy of working with both students and staff to create an educational system that has rigor, positive expectations, and accountability to student learning. My path to a principalship was certainly not a linear trip. I spent three years working in post secondary education at two different universities. I then became an elementary teacher, a coach, a middle school teacher, and an athletic director before finally landing as an elementary principal.
As the elementary principal, it is my goal to provide a positive culture that holds all students accountable for their learning in an intellectually safe environment where they can safely take risks, and where teachers work in a professionally safe environment where collaboration is an expectation they couldn’t imagine working without. This positive culture is created through purposeful use of the Professional Learning Community (PLC) idea. As the school leader, I work to ensure that the teams of teachers in each PLC work together, are willing to bring their various perspectives to the table, and respect that their individual differences can be a source of group strength. We do not focus on hiring a particular teaching style, but instead, on people who have a growth mindset and a team-first attitude, because they are likely to work well within the PLC model.
PLCs and other models of collaboration are vital to creating the best possible education for our students, and true collaboration relies on diversity -- diversity of ideas, diversity of personalities, diversity of backgrounds… Diversity of gender can be an important part of all of these, but men make up less than 9% of elementary teachers. Unfortunately, this means that our collaborative efforts are missing this aspect of diversity. Additionally, and as importantly, it means that our elementary students are missing the chance to form positive relationships with men. For our younger students, this can mean a lack of males role models demonstrating the traits of respect, perseverance, and valuing education. Male students are missing a vision of what they can be. Female students are missing a vision of what males can be.
While gender in itself may not define the differences between two educators, gender is important to consider in creating collaborative teams because gender adds another layer of diversity. We all assume men and women are different, and we have a huge number of books with titles such as Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Communicating Gender that explore these differences. A man and a woman may have many similar characteristics -- both men and women can be disciplined or not, stern or friendly, big-picture or detail-oriented, etc. But the added layer of gender diversity means that each of these may be expressed or manifested in different ways -- and those differences are beneficial in our PLCs and for the students served by those groups of teachers.
Being a man in education, specifically in elementary education, presents its own specific challenges. Men will be outnumbered by females in nearly every situation. Many people have preconceived notions about men in education: you will handle the discipline of all the students in your classroom and for other classrooms, you need to be a father-like figure to all of the students (especially in high-poverty schools where many of the males in the students’ lives aren’t positive), and you won’t be capable of putting up your own bulletin boards or creating anything ‘artsy’. For some males (and some females), some of these notions may be true while others couldn’t be further from the truth.
However, since we went into this profession to make a difference in the lives of young people, we can’t shun the opportunities to do so, even when the opportunities seem stereotypical. For instance, when we are presented with the opportunity to be a father-figure for the misbehaving boy or for the little girl that comes from a home without a positive male, we need to take on that opportunity and be the difference that child needs. Every day, we have the chance to show our students that they matter to us as people, and not just as students. Every day, we have the chance to be the teacher we want for our own children. This is why the teaching profession is so important and so rewarding.
Here is my advice to any college student preparing to be a teacher:
It is essential to prepare yourself for the situations and tasks that will be forced upon you the day you sign your first contract. Gain experience working with children in every way you are able: work at the YMCA; volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters; visit classrooms on a regular basis, even when you aren’t required to; introduce yourself to, and keep in touch with, teachers, principals, and other administrators that work in our field; but most importantly, enjoy your time assisting children. When you are in your college classes take the time to learn about teaching, listen about the craft of instructing children intently and start to gather what you believe might work in your future classroom. Gathering many types of teaching strategies will pay off in the long run, because likely the teacher you envision yourself being will change over and over again. With the changes it will be helpful to have other options to attempt.
Research instructional strategies, ways to collect and analyze data, and models of collaboration. This background knowledge will help you to be as prepared as possible when you walk into your first teaching position. It is essential for the learning of your students that you understand best practices for the grade level and subject(s) you are teaching. Yes, you will learn more as you grow as a teacher, but you need the best base possible to (1) stand out in an interview, and (2) slingshot your career in the right direction from the beginning.
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is this: Learn to be a great team member. When meeting with your team, you need to be a team player that is willing to accept criticism, offer suggestions, and come to a solution that will help the students in your class learn to their potential. When working with a team, every person has a role that they will fulfill based on their personal strengths -- and these roles may change based on the situation. This collaborative experience is much different than what starting teachers experienced only a few years ago (and unfortunately, in some of our schools today) where they were hired, it was exciting, but they got in their classrooms and the principal gave them their books, walked out, and said “Good luck.” This is a terrifying feeling, where you go from excited to confused, stressed and overwhelmed in almost no time.
In a collaborative environment this is alleviated. In a truly collaborative team, each member of the team is only satisfied if every member on the team is successful. Therefore, the members with more experience will be there for you in every way. The curriculum will be laid out for you by your team and they will have suggestions on classroom management, how to approach certain learning targets, and how to structure your time with students. Certainly, you have the autonomy to do things “your way” but the instant that your plan goes awry, you have that team to fall back on, as a safety net. This process has extended teachers’ careers as they found renewed fulfillment in teaching. One of the best things to happen in our collaborative teams is when I’ve had both the new teachers and the veteran teachers boasting about how much they are learning from the other and how much better their students are learning this year because of the collaboration of the team. When you truly collaborate, the real winners are your students.
Education is the greatest gift anyone could give or receive in their life. The power of the relationships that are built is undeniably the most powerful piece of being an educator -- those relationships enrich the education of the students, and add fulfillment to the work of the teacher. It is those relationships that convince students to invest their trust in their teachers. It is those relationships that help teachers work through all those negatives I discussed earlier. We currently have the best educators ever to walk this Earth teaching our children and with the increase of positive collaborative teams within our schools we will continue to impress our society with the successes we create for children. Our society needs to attract our best and brightest to the field of education to continue our upward swing in student success both with increasing the number of men and women entering the education world. Less than 9% of our teachers are men, our students and collaborative teacher teams need the variety of males and females to help us grow. Be the difference in the lives of the children in your classroom, every day.
Nicholas Hall - Stanley Boyd Area Schools Elementary Principal