A school teacher closes the circle

The Baltimore Sun

On May 24, 2007, I sat on the stage at Towson University Center, wearing my commencement garb and my 1967 Towson State College ring and watching my nine interns from the Master of Arts in Teaching program clutch their diplomas proudly.

I had come full circle.

I am from the generation that was taught to change the world, to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. I made it to the era of No Child Left Behind. When I received my degree in The Glen, a wonderful wooded area on Towson's campus, Earle T. Hawkins was the school's president. Now his name is on the university's Hawkins Hall.

In 39 years with the Baltimore County public schools, I taught English in grades seven through 12, became an English department chair and evolved into an administrator. Last year, on July 1, I retired as principal of Pikesville High School, loving the public school education experience and wanting to prepare the next generation of teachers at the university level.

So I went right on teaching, returning to the institution that had trained me, becoming a full-time lecturer in the Towson University MAT program as well as a Professional Development Schools Coordinator in the Howard County public schools. In these roles I have had the opportunity to attain my dreams of preparing educators, gaining a better understanding of the making of a teacher.

To my interns last year - who were born a decade or more after I started teaching - I used to say, "I'm retired but not retiring." At times I probably scared them with war stories, surreal vignettes starring at-risk kids and my passion for teaching. It is important that they understand the way school culture works and how you can survive it. I figured out early that one of the most helpful strategies in teaching is having a sense of humor.

One day, when I was about my interns' age, teaching eighth-graders at the former Hereford Junior-Senior High School, I was chewed out by the head librarian for wearing unprofessional dress - I had been sporting school colors, featuring a white Irish linen blouse and a maroon miniskirt. A popular senior athlete rescued me. "Leave Mrs. Hardin alone," he yelled. "We need good teachers." My eighth-graders reassessed me and began paying more attention to our mystery literature unit, "Not For The Timid."

Last summer, when they began their master's program, many of my students wondered if their decision about teaching was right or just another stop on their way to figuring out what to do with their lives. They wondered if they could do the job well and enjoy it fully. Most were in the fast track, a one-year MAT in secondary education. Meeting all of the Maryland State Department of Education certification requirements, the program provides several courses embedding significant education topics, such as methods, special education and technology integration; pre-service teaching internships in middle and high schools; and mentoring support from master teachers and a university supervisor.

By this May, I knew they had the right stuff. They had learned that the world of tweeners, adolescents and teachers is scary, powerful, complex and rewarding. It's a tough job, but it is incredibly exciting work.

It was fascinating to watch the interns learn how to talk with young people who were alien in appearance and background, culturally diverse students covered in multiple piercings and flamboyant tats. At first, they were tentative, unsure how to chitchat. Then they connected through music, sports, fashion, films and the world of technology. The interns talked about their travels, families, and experiences in previous jobs, letting students into their lives and sharing their feelings.

Except for the computer banter, my own cautious conversations with the students of 40 years ago began the same way, with advice from a mentor who gave suggestions and modeled how I might find a pathway into kid culture. That's one of the best parts about teaching: the supportive interaction among colleagues and ultimately from one's students who, in the end, care more about us than we would have ever imagined. That's why my passion for teaching and learning remains an intense and integral part of my persona. Why wouldn't everyone want a piece of the classroom action? It is the place to be.

If the principles of teacher education haven't changed over 40 years, the language has. To obtain increased credibility, colleges of education have adopted the vocabulary of medicine. We have interns. They go on rounds in what are known as professional development schools, real schools with a laboratory context similar to that found in teaching hospitals. They work with mentors, who are exemplary teachers, and operate in the classroom theater.

But, in essence, teaching is - and is not - a profession. All the special vocabulary in the world will not make people view teaching with reverence. Most feel that because they attended school, they know school. The reality is that they don't, and they can't. You have to live the reality in the classroom and face its challenges full-bore before you can understand teaching. That hasn't stopped an army of critics from scrutinizing education practices and adding to teachers' responsibilities.

Nothing is being taken off a teacher's plate; the plate is now a banquet-service platter on the groaning board of expectations. In fact, it is amazing that people still want to teach. But they do, in large part because teaching continues to offer extraordinary life-enriching rewards.

At a Baltimore County career technology banquet several years ago, I heard my name called loudly. As I turned around, a balding man rushed toward me, his daughter in tow. "This is Mrs. Hardin," he told her. "She let me skin a possum as part of my senior independent project." His daughter looked as if she had heard the story before, and I felt that I was part of his family's oral history. Where else are you going to find a career with that in the job description?

My interns last year were bright, upbeat and caring young people with degrees in English, science and social studies. Most had experienced other careers. Some had wanted to be teachers but looked elsewhere. Others leaped into editing and consumer relations, thinking they were the perfect careers, and found them empty. In their adolescence, they were probably the "good kids," ones who did not misbehave and always took notes in U.S. history class.

The students they met in the classrooms of 2006-2007 were not quite the kids they remembered from their own middle and high school experience. I had thought these young people, being relatively close to the ages of their students, would not be shocked by boisterous behavior or nasty language choices. I was wrong. A couple of the interns were ready for life support after hearing a few kids exchanging profane words in the crowded hall. "Did they direct the profanity at you?" I asked. "Does it matter?" an intern replied. It does matter because each instance is handled differently. That's where the object lessons begin with interns, on the rounds in a high school hallway.

In the MAT program at Towson University, pre-service teachers are exposed to this philosophy: If you give respect, you will get respect. In the real world of adolescence, the respect quotient does not consistently translate for students who come from dysfunctional settings. It's essential for a teacher to give respect first, without the old-school routine of "I'm the teacher. Respect me or hear me roar!" or "Don't smile until December." Most students today don't play that game.

As professionals, teachers must prove themselves daily, inspire trust, remain upbeat, and make the challenge of learning irresistible while addressing instructional accountability and high-stakes testing. That's a lot to balance, and one wonders if, with all the challenges, teaching still attracts enough bright and capable candidates. My experience this year at the university level supports the stance that quality people are still drawn to teaching. My MAT interns already had earned their undergraduate degrees and typically had experienced success, but not satisfaction, in another field. Their eagerness to pursue secondary education as a favored career was fueled in part by their own earlier experiences with inspiring teachers.

As a principal, I liked career changers among my faculty, both young and seasoned. They have had other lives before teaching, bringing a richness, context and counterpoint to the job. They seem to appreciate the good things about teaching, negating the grinders in faculty rooms who have known no other life and really need a job-shadowing experience outside of education to gain some perspective.

The key for all students is learning, and it is a take-no-prisoners activity. The MAT interns learned that the viewpoint of "It's in the curriculum and you have to learn it to pass" does not compute with most adolescents. The interns learned that strong positive relationships with students align with rigor and relevance to help pave the way for academic success.

To establish relationships in which the teacher is the lead facilitator and not just the giver of the grade remains vital and powerful. For some student teachers, this is a difficult lesson, involving crashes-and-burns that make second-guessing a rite of passage. When a lesson or a behavior intervention does not work, it's hard to go back into class the next day and face the students. Because many students these days have minimal stability in their lives, they seem to want to test us to prove we are just like all the others who have misunderstood, failed or abandoned them. Somehow, we teachers must find ways to be something more.

In my early years of teaching, students did not accept The Red Badge of Courage as a powerful classic until I tied it to soldiers in the Vietnam War. In later years, as an English department chair, assistant principal and principal, I helped teachers connect the novel to the Persian Gulf War and Iraq.

It is a rough road for teachers to guide instruction on complex math problems, multi-layered issues in social studies, the 19th-century essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the intricacies of the scientific method with students who have honed their skills of disruption and inattention to a fine edge, encouraged by TV sitcoms starring smart-mouthed children. However, when it happens and the kids learn and appreciate, it is a powerful experience for the teacher who has been guiding the action. As one of my interns said after achieving a breakthrough with a difficult child, "I know exactly what I want to do the rest of my life. I want to teach."

In a time when some school districts are struggling to find enough quality candidates who share that sentiment, it's time to challenge the nay-sayers, both inside and outside the profession. Although some teachers may complain about teaching to the test, that is not the real problem. Tests, if constructed and implemented appropriately, help drive instruction and monitor learning. In business, products and profits are the bottom line. In education, the students' mastery of content is the bottom line. Appropriate testing measures that mastery. That is a concept that is real and should be embraced.

For all of its challenges, teaching has a lot to offer. Salaries in public school systems are competitive and feature good benefit packages. Although teachers do lesson planning and paper marking on their own time, they have the perks of a shorter workday, the 10-month school year, automatic winter and spring breaks, and other holidays, including snow days. Teachers have their summers for additional employment and continuing education to spark the steps to a higher salary.

As the teacher's turkey at Thanksgiving has become a thing of the past, the view of the teacher as victim should be passe. Teaching is a complicated, yet exhilarating process to master, and it is a worthwhile endeavor with rewards that last the test of time.I believe that we haven't promoted the career enough as a piece of the American dream.

To those who worry about new teachers quickly leaving the profession, I say let's analyze the reasons. In Maryland, a sizable number leap to another district to improve their salaries or lifestyle. They aren't leaving the profession; they are changing spaces. Others leave because they don't have the tools for success. Success in the classroom requires academic credentials, social intelligence, leadership, strength and resilience. Do all beginning teachers have what it takes? The answer is no, but it never has been yes.

For those willing and able to confront the challenges, education offers extraordinary rewards. Forty years ago, I entered my first classroom, one filled with 30 energetic eighth-graders. Forty years later, I am reminded of that group when I have prescriptions filled at Mount Carmel Pharmacy in Hereford. One of the girls has grown up to be a pharmacist and works there. From that same class, one of the boys has become a successful caterer in Westminster; his last name on the lighted road sign never fails to evoke a reminiscence of his youthful mischievousness. Like my earlier students, my first group of MAT interns always will be a significant part of my life, because we learned together and became stronger and better because of our relationship.

Although some educators from my generation lament the passing of the good old days, I see something different. I expect that my Class of 2007 MAT graduates will become admirable teachers because they know what it takes to succeed in the classroom; they care about their students; and they are dedicated to helping the next generation learn. I will watch their progress with anticipation and pride.

Dorothy E. Hardin began her career teaching English at Hereford High School and chaired the English department at Milford Mill High School. She was assistant principal at Eastern Technical High School and served as principal of Pikesville High School from 1997 until her retirement in 2006. She has won numerous awards, including Maryland High School English Teacher of the year in 1990, Baltimore County Principal of the Year in 2000 and Maryland High School Principal of the Year in 2003. She is married to Wayne Hardin, a copy editor at The Sun.

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