Heather Wolpert-Gawron

What is a Teacher’s Shelf Life?

By on October 2, 2010

My OBGYN was running about 45 minutes late. I had no cell phone reception at the hospital and I had already read through the latest Entertainment Weekly, so I got out some paper and pen and started planning out my lessons for the following week. And as I sat there on the table, swinging my legs with thought, my mind wandered to the questions I’ve been asking myself since learning I was pregnant 5 months ago…

OK, so I’m only teaching first semester this year, my testing period during the spring is in the hands of a sub that I have no control over in choosing, and I care deeply about my students’ achievement.

What do I give up and what is lost in the answer?

I’m going on maternity leave this year, leaving the students I am slowly growing to love to the random lottery that is the subfinder system. There’s a lot to be concerned about, not the least of which centers on my own child.

I believe that there is a gradual build up that should happen over the course of a school year. After all, a first semester 7th grader vastly differs from that same kid 10 months in their future, and there’s groundwork to be laid for that to happen. Not so this year.

I’ve started making a list of my beloved go-to lessons and units, the ones I have never lived without since learning or developing them, the ones that seem to catch more of them in the nets of learning. And I’ve started looking at this list critically and sadly.

* I teach them how to develop high level questions in order to create their own quizzes that, if done properly, are 10x more rigorous than a standardized test.

* I teach young authors how to think critically online, evaluating the validity of websites, linking their essays to richer resources so that their readers can dive deeper into the research it took to construct their reasoning. Despite my dedication to teaching this future skill, Internet Literacy isn’t tested. Is this the unit that goes?

* We work on community building so that the students are comfortable with each other, so that each student can feel pride in something they are academically good at and no shame in that which they still need to learn. This allows for deeper differentiation because giving students choice and students advising students (two very powerful tools of differentiation) can’t happen without building community.

Are these the lessons that I need to chuck out the window this year due to my own time constraints?

And what of my own district assessments? As it is, we give a fall benchmark writing test and a spring benchmark-writing test. We give a standardized reading test that mimics our state tests once a quarter. Do I want them to show growth or do well when I’m there? And what if they don’t show growth under the sub’s tutelage? As value-added assessments grow in popularity, will I be defending the scores of this year for years to come? Will I be accountable for a year of learning with only 5 months influence on these students’ progress?

I also started thinking about the duration of a teacher’s career in this Brave New World that so many are wishing our schools reflected. The world I mean is the one seen before, where the teacher’s sole priority was to her students, where on each paycheck, the stub read, “must be unmarried.” For despite my own dedication to the profession and to my students, I can’t deny that I committed far more time to other people’s children before having my own. Frankly, I think being able to see both sides of the teacher’s desk makes me a better teacher, but to many, they wonder why I can’t give more. My job has become to balance what once I never had to.

So that got me thinking about the issue of charter schools. Many clearly are getting a lot of press these days as being staffed with dedicated teachers willing to stay late, come early, work 6 days a week, etc..Despite the fact that many charters can’t boast any more success than a regular public school can, I wondered what that level of dedication meant in regards to a teacher’s shelf life. Recently, I spoke to a doctorate student about her study of 4 charter schools. Two were remarkable, she said. One was “fine,” and the other “not so good.” She shared some details of her research, but said that even the two best charters she studied, the ones with the teachers who spent the most time committed to working with the students, suffered when the teachers begin to reprioritize their lives.

So according to the charter system, to the media, and to those wanting this Brave New World of education, do they believe teachers are “over the hill” when work can’t be their primary focus? In their ideal world, save for a few veterans kept around to help the youngins’, should teachers’ careers be shorter than that of a professional athlete?

I mean, athletes can have a family and still play until their bodies play out, but in society’s ideal educational world are teachers done when their priorities shift? Can we be permitted lives and still retain the title of Superman? Or is Superman less super if he moves in with Lois and has a kid?

That being said, I am trying, as many in my case do, to make it all work. My first priority is my growing family, but I have a responsibility to setup this school year the best I can.

So what do I cross off? Do I go deeply hitting fewer standards? Or, do I cover as much as possible in a more shallow way? Do I pick the best of my lessons from each unit? Or do I progress as I do, trusting the system and hoping that my unknown counterpart for second semester will fill in the gaps that time would not allow me to fill?

My doctor enters, smiling, and I put down my lesson plans for now…

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  1. Nancy Flanagan
    October 2, 2010

    I took my 15-month old daughter to band camp, thinking I could run marching band drills while keeping an eye on her, toddling across the field. Talk about your kid being a distraction to your work. Or your work being a distraction to your primary role as mother…

    Well-written piece (I especially liked the line about Superman moving in with Lois, and procreating). I think your line of thinking goes further, though. Even young, unmarried, childless, enormously dedicated teachers need boundaries on their work lives, and not just because we don’t want them to flame out (current policy actually does want them to flame out, just when they start getting expensive).

    A good teacher needs to continuously refill their intellectual and emotional buckets. Teachers need a rich life, exterior to their daily teaching–a constant inflow of ideas, language, images to challenge and enrich their thinking, to form a context for their important work. They need the love of friends and family so they can, in turn, provide an emotional framework of concern and caring where children can learn.

    Balancing it all out is tough. Ironically, the point where many teachers are able to pour the most into teaching is after their children are grown and living independent lives. They’re wiser then, too. But we don’t value those folks, in education. A TFA corps member I know, who taught in your state and has now leveraged his blog and handful of years in the classroom into national recognition, used to refer to those veteran teachers as “the old sh*t-bags.”

    And that’s how we got to this place.

    • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      October 2, 2010

      I agree, of course, that this a problem that goes beyond a mere chapter in a person’s life. It’s about a broken philosophy about what is expected of teachers.

      It would behoove us as a profession to be developing the definition of “What Makes an Effective Teacher” so that others don’t do it for us. Depending on what that answer looks like, it could solve the self-sacrificing, leave-it-all-on-the-field-or-it’s-not-enough expectation if there are other qualities that can still define us.

      My immediate concern in my situation is what to give up that I know is valuable, and how does that taint the definition that so many have come to judge teachers the most: test scores.

      Thanks for your comment, Nancy. You never cease to make me think harder about my own focus and purpose.

      -Heather WG
      aka Tweenteacher

  2. Pam Korporaal
    October 2, 2010

    First, congratulations to your entire family on you upcoming arrival. You bring up the one of the hardest thing that educators who have children of their own, the division of time for my kids (students) and my kids (progeny). Can you adequately provide for them all? I personally remember the tug of war in which my son and daughter always won.

    I personally found that depth always meant more for my students than breadth. Going deep gave my students so many skills and took them through the full process that throwing lots of information at them but not connecting the dots could do.


  3. Diane Lauer
    October 2, 2010

    Thank you for sharing your story. I connected with your reflections both cognitively and emotionally. I really appreciated your think aloud on how you work to intentionally support the developmental growth of a 7th grader and build instruction accordingly.

    I think good schools understand career cycles of staff and support one another through the stages of life. I believe that good schools also create positive school cultures and communities so that members work interdependently and effectively. It does seem that there are schools that continuously focus in hiring the new and the young. It seems that is a difficult strategy to use if your aim is to create sustainability. Perhaps then sustainability is not the goal of those schools.

  4. Chad@classroots.org
    October 2, 2010

    Congrats to you, Heather!

    This charter school teacher is on your side.


  5. Mrs. H
    November 4, 2010

    Interesting post. I find the thought that teachers may have a shelf life to be humorous, but, upon contemplation, I see what’s being said.
    I suppose I see teaching as one of the only professions where one is almost required to spend every waking minute working, planning, thinking of new lessons, worrying over students, etc. It’s hard to have a life outside of being a teacher, and once you start to have a life outside of teaching things do begin to slip.
    When I got married I saw shifts taking place in my life. Teaching was still my priority but it had to share space with my life outside of school in both my brain and my life. I remember feeling guilty about this and simultaneously enraged. After all, am I not worthy of a life outside of the classroom?
    This teaching thing isn’t easy. We start because we care. We drive ourselves nuts because we care. We have little time for anything else because we care. Eventually, life happens and we have to juggle things around more than we were before. And they think we have it easy because we have Summers off…

  6. JoanneR
    November 22, 2010

    I’m replying to this post somewhat past its prime, but it resonated with me.

    I have a small child and my teaching life before and after has definitely changed. Some for the better, some perhaps not. But I firmly believe that martyrdom should not be a prerequisite for good teaching. We must allow teachers to have lives outside of work. Any job that requires its young to burn – and burn hard – for too long is ultimately self-defeating.

    What you will learn to do is to be ruthless about managing your time and to be much more efficient in your decision-making. Have clarity of purpose and cut curricular fat. Not all papers will or need to be assessed. You can do this. And having your own child will make you understand so many more things about parents and kids.
    Congratulations and good luck.

    • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      November 23, 2010

      Thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, of course, you’re right about it all. With my first child, I learned to “cut the curricular fat,” as you say. I learned so much about better efficiency of scoring, relying heavily on front-loading expectations over consequence-grading.

      So well said.

      Thanks for checking in, and thanks again for your wisdom.

      -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      aka Tweenteacher

  7. Christina Y
    March 10, 2011

    Mrs. Wolpert! Hi, this is Christina from your 8th grade Honors class from about two years ago? I just wanted to congratulate you on your new son and your new book! This is a really great site; I enjoy reading your thoughts on how to improve teaching. I am so glad to see how wonderfully you’re doing, and wish you all the best.

    • Heather Wolpert-Gawron
      March 10, 2011

      You mean, Christina, who helped design the art on my website?! Christina, one of the most talented young ladies around? Christina who asked such amazing questions and could dig into any book deeper than any teacher around? THAT Christina?! Fantastic! Email me through school so I can talk more with you and find out how you are doing! I can’t wait.

      -Mrs. W

  8. Mingjie Dowgwilla
    April 21, 2011

    Heather, you took many of those anxieties I have about personal vs. professional balance and threw it on the blogging platter. I can’t thank you enough for sharing a bit of your intimate thoughts because there are times when I hesitate to share them for fear of professional backlash. It’s a relief to hear that we are all human behind the Superman cape.

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