I remember my first year in the classroom. I taught choir, introduction to music, pre-algebra, algebra 1, and algebra 2. I was teaching at a small school with only one part-time and three full-time math teachers. Like most first years of teaching about which I have heard from other teachers, it was rough. Looking back, I did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong. But the general consensus was that I had done well enough, and that after a few years of teaching things would get easier. Which they did.
However, during those next few years I taught a few other subjects and switched over from half-day music and half-day math to full-day math. I taught geometry, statistics, and pre-calculus, and since I was teaching something new pretty much every year I was never really able to get into a groove and get comfortable with the material. Of course, switching schools didn’t change this, and within my first 10 years of teaching I had taught everything from pre-algebra through AP calculus and AP statistics. What I gained from all of this was a solid feel and appreciation for the scope and sequence of a math curriculum. I got to experience how the different pieces fit together, and today I see that as a personal strength. For all of the instability at the time, I wouldn’t trade the experience of those years for anything.
My current experience is completely different. I have been at my current school for 13 years, and for the last 12 I have taught at least a few sections of honors pre-calculus. There were even a few years, including the last two, where I have taught nothing but honors pre-calculus. This has given me the time to delve deeply into the material contained in the course, so that at this point I can all but second guess where the kids are going to have trouble and find the mistakes they make much more quickly.
All that being said, I have never, in either experience, felt that I have had my best year of teaching. I have never reached a point at which I felt things were “good enough”, that the materials I was using were “good enough”, and that I could sort of coast for a while. Sadly, I have seen this “I can coast” attitude in many other teachers. They seem to think that a teaching career should, in the long run, consist of coasting once things settle in. Once they have been teaching the same course for a few years, they should be asked to teach nothing but that course for the remainder of their career, and they shouldn’t be required to do anything differently than that which they have been doing. There is no improvement necessary, no reason to do anything differently. They are comfortable, and after this many years of teaching they deserve to take it easy. This, of course, is the stereotypical tenured teacher, and while it certainly doesn’t describe all of the teachers I know, it certainly describes enough of them to make the stereotype reasonably valid.
I completely disagree with this attitude. I want my best year of teaching to be my final year. I want to constantly look for ways to improve what I am doing in the classroom, ways to help the kids learn the material more effectively and more completely. I never want to be so comfortable with my teaching that I simply walk in each day, set the “auto pilot”, and go. And it’s easy to tell which teachers feel this way and which ones don’t. Mention “best practices” to a group of teachers, and then spell out the practices that they should be incorporating into their classroom. Those who are open to at least vetting the practices and trying out those they see as being a good fit for their classroom are the teachers I want to work with. Those who immediately conclude that their personal practices are the best, regardless of any research, are those that frustrate me.
We talk a lot about ways to improve education. One of the steps necessary is to humbly admit that we have yet to have our best year of teaching, and to constantly look for ways to make this year the best year yet.