I am the one who keeps people’s spirits up when we face difficult challenges, not necessarily with cheerful “rah-rah!” but rather by embracing the unexpected. It is inevitable that our schools are going to develop in ways which we hadn’t anticipated. The world that actually arrives is never the world we expected.
The challenge is to respond creatively to the situations we confront. Creativity is not-knowing inaction, letting go of preconceived ideas, bearing witness, seeing directly what’s actually arising, who are the actual kids entering our schools, what are their needs, and then taking the emerging loving action, what we to do to actually help.
In order to open a school charter in New York State, we have to submit a charter application. Through the written application (authorizers also conduct face-to-face meetings with applicant teams), we need to demonstrate that we have the ability to design and operate a successful charter school.
To do this, we have to imagine a student body and describe how we will meet their needs. We make a case, based on demographic analyses and other data, that these are the students we are likely to serve. Often, at the time we write the application, we are uncertain where the school will actually be located. To some extent, we are guessing at the demographics — and demographics change. On Staten Island, demographics have been changing rapidly. Only when the charter is granted and the school opens do we find out who will actually attend. The challenge, then, is to adapt our proposal to the needs of our actual students.
This is our learning process.
Several years ago, becoming wary that a national teacher shortage was looming, we recognized that our own staff could be our greatest source of future teachers. Teacher assistants, already immersed in our culture and committed to our mission, as well as other members of our support team could, with aid and encouragement, obtain the credentials needed to become members of the faculty. We could also create entry-level school aide positions where community members who were often disconnected from job opportunities could begin their journeys to becoming teachers. Thus, our Futures Teachers Program was born.
This latter dimension also offered an additional benefit. It has always been our aspiration to build a faculty that mirrored the demographic profile of our students. But while the great majority of our students are people of color, the majority of our faculty members are white. So we look to our Futures Teachers Program to help solve both problems.
Of course, we had a plan in mind — some idea about how we might be able to help people who had been dealt a bad hand in life to become teachers, and at the same time serve as wonderful role models for our kids, many of whom have been dealt bad hands too (often struggling with poverty and racism, bad housing and bad healthcare).
It is easy to be discouraged by the difficulty of adapting to what is actually going on, or how much easier it would be if students and future teachers neatly fit into our systems.
However, how boring would this be?
The excitement of life, the joy of life, lies in its continuing unfolding novelty. We learn only from the unexpected. The expected is almost by definition the old and boring.
In our schools, we value lifelong learning. It is one of our core values.
Sometimes, people view lifelong learning as I imagine the Age of Exploration. The Europeans colonizers may have believed they were discovering a New World, but they weren’t really discovering anything new. They were simply “discovering” what had always been there. That is how some of us may think about lifelong learning and travelling to new continents of knowledge.
“I think I’ll take a course in ceramics.”
“I’ve always wanted to play the violin. I’ll take lessons.”
Not that that process of visiting a “new” place cannot be simultaneously a wonderful process of self-discovery, but in the bigger picture, the Zen picture, going “back” is always new.
The teacher walking into the same classroom each day still faces something new – something that no teacher has ever experienced before.
Teaching yesterday’s class is always a mistake today.
And every new year is radically different. That is the joy of teaching. This is why it can be a career and not a job, not a routine that is repeated mindlessly, day-after-day until retirement. (Despite some popular misconceptions.)
What can a new teacher learn from someone more experienced?
Really, if they are lucky, the might catch glimpse of the joy of being a teacher.
There are no “answers”. There are only questions that help new teachers explore the reality of their kids and classes, as well as the realities of their supervisors’ demands and expectations, the demands of the system, the demands and expectations of parents, and the demands of their own lives outside of school.
Experienced teachers share the joy, the terror and the fears of becoming teachers. Knowing that others have survived and thrived gives us hope of survival, and motivation to continue.