571. A Lot to Learn

I was talking with Meredith, a student teacher who has been working with the fourth grade class in which I volunteer. At a certain point in our conversation, she said, “I have a lot to learn.”
I answered, “You’ve already learned the most important thing.” With a baffled look on her face, she asked, “What’s that?” “That you have a lot to learn,” I answered. “It took me years to learn that.”
My answer surprised me at least as much as it surprised her. It wasn’t completely true that I took years to learn it; I started my teaching career with at least some appropriate insecurity. It’s reasonable to expect a beginner in any line of work to have at least some self-doubt.
But I also had read a lot about how terrible schools were, and to some degree, I believed that I was part of a new wave of teachers that was going to set things right. And that belief got me thinking that a lot of what I didn’t “know,” and experienced teachers did, was better left unlearned.
As I struggled to learn how to teach, some teachers – perhaps many – found me hard to help. They saw that I was having trouble, and some of them really tried to reach out and help me. But I wasn’t ready for a lot of the help I was offered. I thought that experienced teachers were part of “the system,” and that accepting their help was giving in to that system. I was determined to find my own answers.
Perhaps some of my reluctance to accept help had to do with my gender – a gender that was not the usual one for a second grade teacher in the early ‘s. Men were supposed to be self-reliant and intrinsically competent at whatever they tried, and even though I was already questioning some sex-role stereotypes, I lived some, too.
And part of it had to do with my heart-felt belief that teachers had been doing it all wrong – that learning
from experienced teachers was a bad idea; it would get me to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
So in a way, it did take me a long time to learn that I had a lot to learn. Some of the mistakes I made as a beginning teacher could have been avoided, and some of what I did well could have been done better, if I’d been more ready to ask for and accept help. Maybe there was some danger of what I thought of as “copping out;” some teachers had settled into ruts I hoped I’d never settle into (and now I hope I never did). But I think that throughout my teaching career, and especially at the beginning, when I was most in need of help and least ready to get it, help probably wouldn’t have hurt.
I think Meredith is already a talented teacher in many ways. But more important, I think she’s lucky to be starting out her teaching career knowing what I took so long to fully know – that we have a lot to learn.

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