Who I am: Chris Lehmann
What I do: Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA (Opening 9/06).
What I did: Technology Coordinator / English Teacher / Girls Basketball Coach / Ultimate Coach at the Beacon School, a fantastic progressive public high school in Manhattan.
Email: chris [at] practicaltheory [dot] org.
Matt Skurnick about Sustaining the Teaching Life
Mon, 25.03.2013 14:05
Jon Goldman was both my
English Teacher in 9th
grade and Advisory Mentor
for my four years at
Karen Greenberg about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Tue, 14.08.2012 11:13
Perhaps a more apt term
would be "altering
physics - two objects in
Amethyst about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:51
I really appreciate this
blog entry. Our roles as
teachers require, at our
best, a deep [...]
Mark Ahlness about The Long Haul
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:33
Chris, thanks. Pete is my
hero, and has been for a
while, but now that I'm
retired, after 31 years
Gary Stager about Saving Lives v. Changing Lives
Mon, 13.08.2012 22:15
No need to worry about
Others all around us are
debasing our [...]
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Thursday, February 28. 2008
I don't remember where I read it, but I was reading another article that mentioned the oft-quoted stat about how many teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and I was thinking about how many really amazing young men and women I've known in my career who fell into that category, and I was thinking about a conversation I had with an old colleague at Beacon and how she said, "Yeah... that year three or four mark, that's a dangerous time, because that's when you think you know so much more than you actually do." And I was thinking about my own progression as a teacher and how true that was... And I was thinking about some of the things people who stayed with the profession seemed to embody that the ones who left didn't. I was thinking about what I want to say to all those teachers who, right around year three or four, start to leave the profession...
Dear Young Teacher Thinking of Leaving,
You've stuck with this job for a few years now. You have made it past the hardest few years, but it's still a really hard job. And you're at a point where you know a lot about the job, but there's still a lot to learn. And the things you haven't learned yet are the some of the things you need to stay with this job. I don't know for sure that you should stay; after all, people switch professions these days. But here are some of the things it takes longer than three or four years to really, really learn. Some of these are things I've had to learn the hard way, some of these are things I've seen others learn the hard way, and a lot of these ideas are things that I keep having to relearn all the time.
This job is a marathon, not a sprint. As much as we don't like to admit it, we have to acknowledge our need to pace ourselves.
However, you learn something in time that makes that easier. You aren't their only teacher. You aren't the only adult in their life. And even if you were, you can't be everything to every kid.
You learn that perfection is a lousy goal because it is unattainable.
You learn that excellence is a better goal, but even that is a moving target.
In other words, you learn that the perfect really is the enemy of the good.
You learn that it's just not about you. And it's just not about the kids either. It's about the space between where the meaning happens.
You learn that you can't reach every kid. And you never really learn to be o.k. with that.
You learn that you know a lot less than you think you do.
You learn that your colleagues know a lot more than you think they do.
You learn to find the teachers who can prove to you that you can do this job for thirty years, and you learn to go sit in their classroom when you need to.
You learn that you don't have to be young to relate to the kids.
You learn that teaching is both an art and craft, and that it is something you get better at.
You learn that the more you document what you do, the happier you are the next year.
You learn that retooling a unit takes less time than creating one....
You learn that the more you get good at the basics, the more you can experiment with new ideas.
You learn that you can't grade everything.
You learn where you can compromise and where you can't.
You learn that not every kid is going to major in your subject and you accept that that's o.k.
You learn that you aren't perfect... and neither are the kids, and sometimes the best thing you can do is forgive... yourself and the kids.
You learn that taking care of yourself is important... and that the kids know when you do... and want you to.
You learn that you shouldn't idealize other jobs.
You learn that the worst thing you can do is think of yourself as "just a teacher."
You learn that the second worst thing you can do is think that being a teacher is the hardest job in the world.
You learn that the best things that happen in your class weren't wholly because of you.
But you learn that the worst thing things weren't wholly because of you either.
And you learn that, in both cases, your presence did matter.
You learn that every time you are feeling like really know what you are doing, it's important to find the thing about the job that humbles you.
You learn that every time you feel like you have no idea what you are doing, it's important to find the thing that reminds you how much you have learned.
You learn how to ask yourself, "Did I give what I had to give today?"
You learn how to look at that question over time.
You learn that life is hard... that the teaching life is hard... that the movies rarely get it right... and that being a young teacher means being the adult in the room, and that's o.k.
You learn to find that teacher's voice inside you that is real, authentic and effective.
You learn how much good you can do... and how important it is to find ways to do that much good over a whole career, not as a martyr to the job, but as a healthy, clear-eyed teacher.
You learn patience.
You learn how much you have to keep learning.
Most of all, you learn that once you stop trying so hard, you can listen better, and then you can hear what the kids are saying back to you. And then you can learn that they change you as much as you change them.
It's a hard job, it's a frustrating job, and the vast majority of our schools are underfunded, understaffed and swimming upstream to teach the adult values of hard work, sustained effort and sustained focus when there is very little else in teenage life that reinforces those values. And you realize that the kids are hearing your message, even when you think they aren't.
Our schools need so many more of those early-career teachers to stay in the profession so that they can become the master teachers of the next generation. We need you to stay and figure it out. It's never easy, but it does keep getting better as long as you are willing to continue to learn.
And you do learn that, in the end, so many of us love our jobs more than the rest of the world does.
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I reallly appreciated this post. I think there are many new teachers who need to be reminded of these things you put into words so eloquently. I was lucky enough to have mentors who were telling me these things when I had doubts during my early years, but I know that not everyone has that blessing.
Thanks for reminding those of us who have been here a while that we need to continue to encourage and support those newbies.
I am currently an education major and will be student teaching soon and I worry about the very thing you talk about. In our classes they say that 50% of urban teacher leave in the first three years. I am planning on teaching the social sciences in high school. Although I do love history the kids are what makes me want to teach. When you said that you can’t reach every kid and that will never be easy it really makes me think. I know as a teacher that you are not likely to be the only adult in the kids’ lives, but you still can’t help but feel responsible. There are a growing number of kids growing up in single parent and dual earner home where parents can not afford to spend the time they would like at home. I wish more schools had some kind of sponsor program, with students being pair with a teacher for all four years. This of coarse could help the student with education goals but serve also as a life coach if the student was in need of other kids of support. I personally don’t worry so much about the new N.C.L.B. policies that are placing so much pressure on teachers but more about having my heart broke my the kids who do truly get left behind.
Thank you for this. I'm in my fourth year of teaching and it really hit home.
In my 7th year, and my first being out of the classroom. I still have duties that take me into the classroom and it pains me to walk into classrooms where it's obvious that the teacher has succumbed to the feelings of "I give up". I've passed this along to all of my faculty. So thanks again.
I enjoyed reading your letter. I can retire on Aug. l6th! One thing I have learned about teaching: always BE KIND TO YOURSELF. Take the time to get a massage, smell a flower, read a book, take a walk. If you don't do this, you'll burn out too quickly. Teaching is intense and exhausting. In order to teach and do it well, one has to include some down time.
You learn that some students enjoy coming to your rescue.
I'm learning that every time I put my big toe in the 21st century by using new technology, that technology is on the verge of becoming obsolete;)
I think one more thing to add to the list is that as teachers, you need to learn to develop thick skin. When it comes to education, we do it all. Unlike other professions who can pick and choose their clientele, we take whoever walks through our door. When it comes to "arm-chair" experts in society, how many of them have taken us up on our offer to come in and observe for the day? When we look back on people who made a difference in our lives, teachers are among those few who find themselves on that elite list.
Yes thick skin is a good idea but please keep the heart in all you do as an educator.
That philosophy helps our students make real learning connections between their two MAJOR Learning Organs, "Brain & Heart".
As a future high school teacher, this article really was touching. Though it was not meant for me, it will apply to me within the next five years of my life. It truly does worry me even now hat I will not be satisfied with my profession once I get done with ALL this schooling. I want to be one of those people that do love their jobs more than the rest of the world. Honestly though, your statements are moving and I plan to print them out myself and keep them for when the day comes that I feel like this. I’m sure it will. I agree with you 100% when you say that school do need those early-career teaches to stay in the profession so they can help out the next generation. Being involved in the C&I class that I am currently enrolled really makes me wonder, do I want to do this? Are we all just swimming up that stream in the opposite direction and how will we make a difference? Or will I be one of those who give up? I think I can do it and when I get to point of wanting to quit, I will hopefully be able to remind myself of this article. It seems the sooner you realize that there is more learning than there is of teaching once you become a teacher, the better teacher you will become.
It is these kinds of messages that remind those who are teaching right now and those that are in the process of becoming a teacher, that all of us have flaws and those flaws are acceptable so long as we continue to not let them stop us from teaching and enriching the lives of our students/future-students. Being a college student and working on becoming a History/Social Science high school teacher, hearing more of the specifics of what the life of being a teacher is like eases my mind of the unknown. The letter that mentions "[y]ou learn that you can't reach every kid. And you never really learn to be o.k. with that." I always had the assumption that a teacher had to find some kind of connection (talk about class content, sports, technology news, art, etc.) with every student, but reading that had me realize that such notion is really more of an idealized notion, and some students just don't want that connection with their teacher. As a student now, I realize now that I wouldn't want one of my teachers who I was unsure on how to talk to him or her and have that teacher suddenly start talking to me so casually. Maybe it's because that I, as a student, had treated that teacher as a "teacher," an authoritative figure that is to be obeyed and somewhat feared, and not as a person. That was what I grew up learning from society, and perhaps that was probably intended to allow teachers to get more students to do their homework and listen in class. Any opinions to that line of logic?
Another thought dawned on me that I wouldn't be by myself in teaching to those students, because there are other teachers besides me whom are different from me and may reach to those students whom prefer to not chat with me as their teacher. I believe I really need to work on the "you never really learn to be o.k. with that" part, because of my notion that it's better to at least acknowledge that student is noticed and welcomed rather than have him/her feel neglected and/or feel like an outsider in the classroom. I do appreciate you posting that letter, as everybody else commenting had agreed as well, and that's just one more inspiration to remember as I become a teacher and make my career last until retirement.
You might not know it, but you're speaking to me. This is my third year in the classroom and the year when I'll finally get my full-fledged professional certificate (I went an alternate route for certification, majored in Spanish in college, not education) so I've been thinking about the future.
I can't continue to live on such little money.
With a Ph.D. in a few years I'll be looking to teach college, I think. I'm not sure what I'll do without these kids, though.
Anyway, my future plans aside, thanks for the encouragement, I needed it.
Now if I could just go ask for a raise...
Chris,, as I said on the phone the other night to you, you're one of the very few voices out there that continues to zero in on what this profession truly needs to hear.
Yes, other things matter and grab attention, but at the end of the day, we have to shift the attention to what will make the biggest difference over time:
The human component: core.
There is a reason why people are listening to every word you type/speak, my friend. And something tells me that when you finally manage to find the time to write that book of yours, that it'll be a pretty popular Amazon link.
As I said the other night to you, these are the 3 list points you wrote that continue to hit home for me most of all:
1. "You learn that it's just not about you. And it's just not about the kids either. It's about the space between where the meaning happens." I've always found myself a bit weary of people who say that teaching is a) about the kids or b) about the subject. No. It's about the friction when those 2 things crash into each other. But I like your words even better.
2. "You learn that you can't grade everything." Amen. But everything -- without exception -- is still treated as though it matters to a real audience!
3. part 1: "You learn how to ask yourself, "Did I give what I had to give today?" part 2: "You learn how to look at that question over time." Without exception to either part, this is spot-on!
Again, well done.
Seems like I can feel the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke sitting up and smiling at your suggestions. So would a decent hand-ful of book publishers!
Wow! Reading this blog I caught myself with the goose bumps several times. I will be student teaching next year, and then on to reality where no one is holding my hand any longer. I have often thought about some of the things you have written about. Whether I will be good enough? Can I handle it? Will the kids like me? Will my knowledge that I am teaching the students be good enough? I don’t know any of these answers and I probably never will. Just like you said it will be something I have to stick with long enough to find out. My whole life I have wanted to be a teacher, I feel it is my passion. I hope I can say the same thing in five years. You blog was very inspiring to know that I am not alone in uncertainty. It helped me realize that it won’t always be easy and fun, but frustrating and hard. But that is okay, because it will all be worth it. I may not have an impact and be able to change every kid. One will be good enough for me. If one student can later go on to college and write about me as an impact on his life, or influential I will be satisfied. With your letter I feel like that is enough. So…thank you!
Thank you so much!
A very powerful and eloquent post. Useful I think not only for those new teachers who are considering leaving the profession but for any teacher (regardless of experience) who is questioning their career choice.
Personally, I have grown significantly from my so far short teaching career and have learned a lot from colleagues and students alike.
A wonderful comment, and a completely unfair comment, all at the same time. I mean, it's the right thing to say. Really right. But why should the 60% or so bear that heavy message? When we know 1 in 6 or 1 in 5 or whatever just won't make it? See, there's a guilt-job aspect here as well.
We don't pay teachers enough, we don't treat them well enough, we don't provide them good enough working conditions to draw the people into the profession who can last for a career. Or pay or treat or provide well enough to keep those we do draw.
Hell, we're not even trying to address the 20 - 40% who don't make it to Year 4.
So, since we're not doing the right thing, can we really turn with a clear conscious and guilt trip those who, under these conditions, are just good enough to make it to Year 4?
This blog could not have come into a better time in my life. I am not a teacher in my first five years trying to find reason and understanding. I am actually an undergraduate student pursing an English Education major, searching for guidance. Your advice probably makes more sense to those who have started teaching already but I feel it has also helped me realize that I have the possibility of becoming a good teacher. I never questioned being a teacher I only questioned on whether I had what it took to be a perfect teacher.
“You learn that perfection is a lousy goal because it is unattainable. You learn that excellence is a better goal, but even that is a moving target. In other words, you learn that the perfect really is the enemy of the good.”
This piece advice caused me to pause and truly think of what it meant to me. Perfection is a word that is often used when things have gone extremely well, but I agree that perfection is unattainable. In order for everything to be perfect everything else in the world must be perfect: your students, peers, the parents, school etc. And we all know that this is never the case. You stated it perfectly “You learn that you aren't perfect... and neither are the kids, and sometimes the best thing you can do is forgive... yourself and the kids.”
To go along with this idea of perfection the next thing that struck me was your comment on what goes on in classrooms:
“You learn that the best things that happen in your class wasn't wholly because of you. But you learn that the worst thing things weren't wholly because of you either. And you learn that, in both cases, your presence did matter.”
People are always under the impression that teachers have complete control over their classroom when I see them as an influence rather then the only controlling factor. Being a role model rather then a dictator to a class would probably have a better effect on the students as a whole.
Wow, Thanks for posting this inspiring work! So teachers are facing pretty much the same situation all over the world! I'm a EFL teacher in Taiwan and I would really love to include this into a handbook for a TEFL workshop due in May. It is a nonprofit workshop for public school English teachers only. I'd state the source of this article so my fellow colleagues know where to look for more inspirational words:-)
Dear Chris, I find your letter to be very helpful and encouraging to those of us out there who are, or will soon teach the youth of America. As an education major I envision myself many times in the classroom doing what I know I'm meant to do with my life, and then I realize that the experience doesn't stop once I have a degree. The only thing I do not know is what exactly my experience will be. Many people have to embrace the fact that there will be continuous hurdles on the path to self-satisfation, but by being challenged, we should allow ourselves to cease the opportunity to grow from it an learn some more ourselves. I now have your letter saved and maybe someday I will be able to look back at it from another standpoint and still be just as encouraged as I am right now.
Sincerely, Alex Cozzi
Your writing really hit home for me. I am currently a teacher education student and have plans to be teaching in a classroom within the next 2 years and this concern of yours is one of mine as well. After listening to the statistics regarding educators leaving the teaching profession, I have been filled with worry regarding my abilities to be a “good” teacher.
Thank you for this writing because I felt that I could really relate to what you were saying and I actually heard your words. When you mentioned that the teaching career is not a sprint but a marathon I began to really listen. I am realizing after reading this that the embarking of this third or fourth year mark is just as you quoted it to be. “That’s when you think you know so much more than you actually do.” This made me question my thoughts regarding this issue of teachers leaving the profession. How and why would it be right for me to leave a job that I have not fully given a chance to? The development of a teaching career is endless in length and because of this the learning of the profession is never going to be complete.
The one idea that really resounds within me after reading this is the idea that throughout a teaching career, educators learn just how much they have to keep learning. To me this means learning about the job of an educator, about the students, the field of education and most importantly after analyzing these factors, myself, to become the master teacher that the teaching profession is in desperate need of.
I just came across this post. Thank you for sharing this. I taught for 4 years and I left. I do believe that with any career it's ok to try and if you feel it's not a perfect fit, seek the resources to try and stay and improve, or move on to try something else that may suit you better. I think it's all part of the journey. You should do what you truly enjoy. If the job isn't giving you the satisfaction you deserve, you have to choice to stay or leave. Life isn't difficult. Teaching isn't difficult. Just because you start teaching doesn't mean you have to commit for life - it's not a marriage - it's a beginning. The skills you learn from teaching will benefit you in anything you chose to do - from being a house wife to being a top executive! Stay positive and remember the world is your oyster! Find where you best thrive and encourage your students and loved ones to do the same!
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"The future will belong to those who have passion, and to those who are willing to make a personal commitment to make our country better"