Hindsight of a 30-year teaching career

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 9/22/21

I was a public school teacher for 30 years. And, for many of those years, I was an outsider in the buildings, from both a mechanical standpoint and a philosophical standpoint. But, now that the …

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Hindsight of a 30-year teaching career

Posted

I was a public school teacher for 30 years. And, for many of those years, I was an outsider in the buildings, from both a mechanical standpoint and a philosophical standpoint. But, now that the school year is fully underway, and I am occupationally an outsider now, too, please let me share with you some of the things I’ve learned from that perspective.

First of all, building-level adults — teachers, staff, administrators — are awesome people. Seriously, you should see some of the brilliant things that I’ve had the privilege to witness over 30 years. As a whole, the intelligence, dedication, creativity, compassion and humanity that are the day-to-day norms in the buildings I’ve been in are unlike anything I ever imagined they would be. It is truly inspiring.

Some of my favorite people are the teachers and support staff who work with the special needs kids. If you think about the combination of skills required for that job — during the day, teaching students with different and sometimes limited abilities; after hours, nothing but meetings and reams of paperwork — you can understand why they might develop a bit of a dark sense of humor. An awesome lady named Judy taught me that years ago, and it’s held true ever since.

School lesson that *absolutely* translates to the real world: Understand the real power structure of your organization. You would think that in any building, the center of power is the principal — not true. I’ve had many, many great principals … but hardly any of them ever had a tenure longer than mine, and NONE of them had a tenure longer than their lead administrative secretary. THAT’s where the power lies.

Kids are, mostly, just kids. They don’t change that much. I’ll have a lot more to say about kids next week, but let me just start with that. Thirty years ago, my biggest complaint was that the kids didn’t do enough work on their own; last year, my biggest complaint was …the same. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I didn’t practice as much as I should have when I was young, so…

What has changed a lot is the culture and society around the kids, and that shows up in the classroom. Thirty years ago, a young athlete would play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer; these days, a young athlete, more often than not, plays one sport all year long, and maybe sprinkles in a second sport just for conditioning. And that same dynamic plays out in the rest of the building, too: many gifted students begin taking Advanced Placement courses as freshmen, and forgo many electives and other activities to focus on getting into their top college. I don’t think that is good or healthy for kids, but that’s the reality these days.

What that means for everybody who has “programs” is that it’s harder to find contributors — that is, students who want to contribute and are willing to work hard even if they’re not going to be the star. So you have the stars — and, believe me, some of the things the top kids are doing these days in every arena are years beyond what my contemporaries and I were doing — and then you have the students who are mostly happy to have the jersey. You can find five strong kids to make a basketball team; it’s harder to find the kind of numbers that make up a great band/orchestra/choir/football program.

But most importantly, the people who work in the schools have been tasked with the impossible for forever, but especially the last two years, and they’ve tried. And they’re still trying. Every day.

These are just preliminary thoughts. I’ve only been retired for a few months, so I haven’t really processed all of what the last three decades meant. But you can bet I’ll have more to say.

Michael Alcorn is a former teacher and current writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Valkyrie’s Kiss,” a finalist in the ScreenCraft Book Competition, is available now at mjalcorn@comcast.net. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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