Not Alone

To borrow a phrase from an amazing young person on Twitter and an insight from a sharp fellow educator, yesterday’s ResearchEd in Frederick, MD was valuable in part because it made me feel less alone.

When I walked into the opening remarks, I followed North, whom I’d only ever conversed with on Twitter, to meet up with Rod (also via Twitter), and then the amazing Andrew Watson (Twitter) came to sit with us. I settled in with my jacket, my swag bag, and my cane, and said, “I have found my people!”

I was being a little silly, but the statement was also true. Teaching can be a lonely profession. This is not a new idea, but when you walk in that classroom and close that door, it’s just you and 20 or 30 children. All day long.

Maybe you grab 20 minutes at lunch in the staff room, but that experience is fraught with its own difficulties and interoffice politics. Often those 20 minutes revolve around a senior teacher complaining about administration, or a mid-career teacher complaining about That One Student, or a general complaint-fest about testing. All of which are valid, but not conducive to good digestion–or improving your teaching techniques. You don’t want to get involved because you’re still bogged down with why your students can’t remember what you taught them last week. Nobody else seems to have this problem, so you figure it must just be you. You feel alone in your incompetence. (What you don’t realize is that schools commonly assign the most challenging classes to the newbies, in an unspoken, cruel form of professional hazing.)

Maybe you get lucky, and your boss assigns you an experienced mentor, perhaps someone who retired from your position after 20 years of service. They’re wonderfully helpful at guiding you through your paperwork requirements and scheduling. But actually asking for assistance in daily lesson implementation might be intimidating, because that mentor also reports to your supervisor. How incompetent do you want to look? You need this paycheck. Somehow, this double-bind is even more isolating.

So then, because most teachers were good students, you decide to study–alone. You buy books from Amazon’s “Instruction Methods” category and read something obvious your teacher methods class never taught you, like “Stand still while giving instructions.” You try it, it works, and you’re so thrilled you track down the author to learn more and discover that they’re active on Twitter.

There, perhaps you find a whole wide world of teachers who, as Robert Pondiscio says, “desperately want to be good at their jobs.” High-level policy arguments rage, and you follow avidly. Low-level nitty gritty arguments about orthographic mapping go on for months and you make popcorn. You stumble across simple lesson tweaks and complex philosophical arguments and follow and discuss education with passionate, sharp folks. But you do it all by yourself, in the light of your phone or computer, at night, after teaching all day.

Then, one day you read about this grass-roots professional development that folks are excited about, called ResearchED. Seems to be mostly British, so that’s all right for them, but surely it doesn’t apply to you. Then you see on Twitter that some US folks went, and that’s nice, but your school doesn’t require PD and your state won’t count it for the necessary credits, so you brush it off. But on Twitter, you see slides of presentations, and you read details of talks, and you realize…hey, maybe this is something I can use so I don’t end up guilt-tripping my students into actually studying for tests.

Eventually, you budget some money for a hotel room, and you explain to your people that you’re going on a short trip. They can spare you for a day, so you align all your ducks in a row (“Oops, sorry about not grading this weekend!”), and you find that this convention is well-organized, in a way that reeks of educator professionalism. It’s a little scary, going where you don’t actually know anybody in person. But you’ve paid your money, you grab your cane, and you show up.

You meet other, regular teachers in person for the first time, and maybe nobody looks like their profile picture, but they’re somehow just as you know them. You go to presentations by folks who are humble and modest on Twitter and they’re giving absolute rockstar presentations that make you want to pump your first and say, Yeah!! This is awesome! You go to seminars of witty, wise people you’ve never heard of debating and go, Wow. That’s really something. Do they have a book? There are books to buy and hand-outs to grab and when you read them, you feel inspired. These are practical strategies you can use on Monday!

The rock stars on the stage, folks you’ve followed on Twitter for years are there and they’re kind and brilliant and professional. Conversations swirl, but everyone is laser-focused on being better teachers. You show up at the casual after hours, but instead of football games or the same hoary complaints about teaching, you fall into hours of conversation with smart, earnest folks who are just as passionate about good teaching as you are.

You’re no longer quite so isolated. Maybe attendees disperse all across the country–and the world!–but the temporary gathering of community shows that you’re not the only one. You’re not alone.

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