Some thoughts on teaching, professional development…and bird watching
By Marianne Ramsay
This is the second school year where I do not have my own classroom of students. After 33 years. It was my dream to be a teacher ever since I started kindergarten, and possibly even before from watching Romper Room on TV. Each year, I imagined that I would some day be a teacher of the grade I was in at the time. I received a blackboard—green actually—for Christmas when I was 9 and I would prepare and teach lessons to my dolls and stuffed animals every day after school. Even through Junior High, a couple of my friends and I would make up tests to prepare for those we’d have in school. I guess we were 1960s nerds. I also belonged to the Future Teachers’ Club of New York City. We met once weekly in Mrs. Coffey’s classroom during lunchtime. Although I don’t recall what the sessions were about, I know the Club made me feel like I was on the way to realizing my dream. I still have the Club’s badge with the magic lamp embroidered on it.
I suppose my dream pays tribute to the many wonderful teachers and experiences I had in school in NYC. Mostly though, I could always hear my Father’s voice, “Education is something no one can take away from you once you have it.”
I always loved going to school and continued to do so even after I earned my first Master’s Degree. Although that degree was primarily to earn permanent NY State Certification in teaching, I loved the journey. Others would often comment that I was too serious about my work. Guilty as charged. But teaching children is serious business.
Education and teaching evolved over the years and so did I as a teacher. The teachers I so admired in the early grades had a strong impact on my own teaching, but with each year, there were changes—some for the better, some not. Current trends are reverting back to the phonics programs and basal readers of my early school days. There is no shortage of pre-packaged programs and standardized tests.
What do children today think when they say, “I want to be a teacher when I grow up?” Or, do they even have that dream? Sadly, I was not so surprised to read a comment by a child in the November 2010 Sunday New York Times Week in Review. Children wrote letters to First Lady Michelle Obama and one child said she wanted to be a teacher so she could give tests. How awful. Children are getting the wrong message about what teachers do, but more critically, about what school and learning can and should be about.
I have witnessed the decline of morale in friends and colleagues over the last decade in particular. I felt it myself. We are professionals and should be treated as such. Yet, in recent years, we have been undermined to the point of being debilitated. There has been a shift from meaningful activities that engage students, integrate curriculum, and foster critical thinking to test prep practices. The journey of learning has been reduced to filling in answer keys on a test.
I know there are still many good teachers, but even they are forced to give up what they truly believe in to use the prescribed programs and teach to the test. Assessments should inform and support instruction, not drive it.
Over the years I have had the pleasure and honor to work with many talented professionals who worked harder than anyone can imagine. And yes, there were certainly those who did not belong in the profession at all. But that is another story. Those of us who are passionate about our work go above and beyond what is expected— certainly beyond the hours of a school day or school year — always striving to meet and exceed the needs of each student. We differentiated instruction and used best practices long before they were buzz words. We were accountable in ways no standardized test can measure. Yet, we are slowly being stripped of decision-making that means the best for our students. How can we teach our students how to think if we are not thinking?
Last year, my first year in retirement, was a bit strange. I felt a sense of withdrawal. Yearning. How should I respond when people ask, “What do you do?” Am I still a teacher? Of course, I will always be a teacher. It is my life’s work, my passion. During my last year in the classroom, when I knew I’d be retiring, I would take out books and other materials and then pack them away with a different sense. Would this be the last time I opened this book, read it aloud to students, make it come alive for them? In other years, I’d make a mental note of how I might do things differently next time around. Revision was constant.
Now that I have more than a year behind me — nearly two years of reflecting about what it means (whatever that means!) — I think I know more certainly what I miss about all those years. I miss melding the science of teaching with the art of teaching. I miss books and making magic happen with them. I thoroughly enjoyed finding the best books to illustrate an idea. Days off and vacations were times to browse book stores and add to my collection. Designing a rich and integrated curriculum was truly rewarding. And then seeing students’ responses to what was created was the greatest reward of all. For most of my professional career, I loved my work. Actually, it didn’t seem like work at all. I would often say, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
I am very sad about all the books — my own personal books that I bought with my own money — that I left behind. I did take some very treasured ones, of course. But I could not take them all with me — there were just too many. Over the last year, whether working with teachers or students, or just thinking about what great substantive literature I had collected over all those years, I began to feel a loss for those books and the connections they had to each other, to the content area, and to the students—hundreds of students. How many times have I checked my bookshelves or the box in the garage? Did I take that one? I can’t believe I didn’t take it!
Professional development was always something I valued and craved. During my eleven years working in the NYC Public Schools, I was fortunate to have professional development through Teachers College. I continued to attend their open seminars, even when I began teaching in the Rye Neck Schools.
I also participated in the New York City Writing Project housed at Lehman College, as well as the summer institutes there that were given by educators from Australia—then the cutting edge of the Whole Language movement. I then applied those credits towards a second Master of Science degree. The educational philosophy of all these experiences, and encouragement from a wonderful administrator in the Rye Neck Schools, increased my desire to attend the Summer Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire. It was something I had wanted to do for many years since reading the work of Donald Graves and others.
I began taking classes at UNH in the summer of 1998. I thought then that it was a one-time experience, but found myself drawn to it each summer, waiting for the arrival of the brochure in the mail just about in the middle of the school year. The brochure itself served to energize me. The classes each summer were not only energizing, but sustained me for a good part of each school year. The classes supported me in developing and refining a sense of community, reading and writing workshop, and multi-genre work. I was drawn to the Summer Literacy Institutes for twelve years, returning for a few weeks each summer to renew myself. Each summer there gave me the energy to teach.
Upon retirement, my husband and I moved to New Hampshire and I was quite fortunate to be invited to be part of the Learning Through Teaching Program at UNH. It is an in-service graduate program that supports teachers in literacy education. Being a part of the Learning Through Teaching Program helped me in making the transition from decades of being a classroom teacher and team leader to being retired. It gave me the opportunity to maintain a connection to education, and to work with students and teachers. It also supported me in sorting through my ideas about the teaching profession.
I feel much better this year than last about being retired. When I hear former colleagues complaining, or when I read or see something negative about education in the news, I am truly grateful I am not in the midst of all the politics. However, it is still difficult not to feel personally assaulted when educators are under attack. Nevertheless, I still feel the passion and commitment to what I know teaching is and can be.
I have things to keep me occupied and I feel less guilty than last year about not being busy doing something constructive. “Constructive” has taken on new meaning. Watching the birds at the feeder is a luxury I no longer feel guilty about. After all, isn’t that what I tried to instill in my students over the years — to slow down and pay attention to the details, whether in nature, mathematics, art, or written language?
As I continue to reflect upon my professional life, I know more than ever how important professional development is. Of course I’ve always known that, which is why I continued to go to school and attend workshops throughout my teaching career — primarily self-funded, I might add. It is why I presented so many workshops to staff and teachers within and beyond my own school district.
The various workshops, courses, and programs had a definite impact upon my teaching and helped me through many troubled times in education. It is quite unfortunate that in difficult economic times, professional development is one of the first things to go in a school district. And it is ironic that politicians claim they want the best and brightest in the classroom to prepare students for the future, and then make cuts to education. Most people outside of education have little or no idea of the complexity of teaching.
Ultimately, we want only the very best teachers in classrooms. Teachers, I believe, are born, not made. However, if we depended upon that criterion, classrooms would be void of teachers. So what needs to be done is improve teacher training programs and support teachers throughout their careers. Substantive professional development is one way to retain — and sustain — effective teachers. Teachers need good professional development. Not just for the content, but because it carves out a designated time for dialogue with peers and gives teachers a time to reflect. This is vital to the educator’s craft. This is what sustains us and continues to give us the energy to teach. Even more than that, substantive professional development serves to confirm our beliefs and stand up for what we know is best for the children we teach. They deserve no less. Let them dream of all they could be and let us be part of making those dreams come true.
(Marianne Ramsay is a retired member of the Rye Neck Teachers Association)