This past summer, I enjoyed watching my 6-year-old explore the community swimming pool. When he was younger, he wouldn’t leave the 2-foot-deep section because he couldn’t touch the bottom, but last year he finally gained the confidence to float and swim in the area where he can’t stand up. It was a significant moment for him, and for me. He traded safety and familiarity for freedom and exploration, and I saw in him my own goals as a teacher.
Despite frequent opportunities and the inherent rewards associated with it, very few of my fellow teachers are willing to leave the shallow end of the pool when it comes to their profession. Too many are accustomed to the comfort of staying within their classroom, continuing to teach the way that they always have, and communicating only with other like-minded teachers. For those who work at this level, the world is small and everyone is a master teacher; and our vocation will not move forward until we can convince many more teachers to “cross the rope” and explore the rest of the pool.
In the shallow end, every instructional decision is based on “this is how we’ve always done it” and “kids just don’t care anymore”. Teachers who operate at this level believe that they have no need to change because they are already good at what they do. They find validation in the other “shallow enders”, and together this group punches the time card everyday and teaches the same year 30 times.
I was one of these teachers until very recently. I received positive evaluations and plenty of praise from colleagues and parents. I figured that I must have a knack for this teaching thing, and that’s why it came easily. At the start of one academic year, I actually copied one of my lesson plan books and simply changed the dates. It was nice and comfortable and easy and flattering… and boring.
Since I left the shallow end, my time has been absorbed with blogging and writing and questioning my practice. I rewrite lesson plans constantly. I spend countless hours reading about instructional strategies and collaborating with distant contemporaries. I refine, and I refine, and I refine. And then I go home and refine some more. It’s frustrating, and I am often unhappy. I look at the shallow-enders around me and I sometimes consider sneaking back under the rope and letting my feet touch the bottom. I envy their satisfaction. I long for that sensation of terminal success–of reaching “the goal”.
Shallow enders don’t really follow (or care about) the ongoing policy debates in their State Capitol or Washington, D.C. They don’t really know what “The Research” shows because they figure if it’s important enough someone will tell them about it. They wish teachers were paid more, and that we were respected more, but they pay their union dues and move on with it.
Most of the teachers that taught me and that I respect very much are shallow-enders. There is no shame in this, but there is also very little hope in it. Shallow enders will touch lives and teach children, but they won’t change education. Most of them don’t even see a need for change.
Paddling for the Deep End
With the risks and uncertainty that accompany the deep end of the pool, it’s easy to ask “Why swim there?”. I mean, after all, what benefits are there to feeling inadequate and challenging conventional wisdom and constantly seeking perfection? It would seem a useless enterprise, since perfection can never be attained. And yet, as Oscar Wilde said, “The condition of perfection is idleness.” Those who decide that “okay is good enough” cease to improve.
Heading away from the safety of the shallow end of the pool brings with it a sense of pride in this marvelous profession. I mean, why take a job that you don’t love? And if you love a job, why not try to make it better (for yourself and for others)? Diving into the policy conversations and becoming a teacher leader gives you a voice in the path ahead. I suspect that most teachers enjoy the (relative) autonomy that comes with running your own classroom, so why would you settle for letting someone else make all of the other decisions that affect your career?
Freedom is the least considered, but most important, reason for teachers to spread their water wings and head for uncharted waters. When you explore the less familiar end of the pool, you gain the attention and respect of the decision-makers and your colleagues in ways that you might not appreciate until it happens.
We Must Be The Swim Instructors
Most of the shallow enders don’t even recognize that there is a deep end, let alone how to get there. They need to understand what it takes, and why its worth it. They need swim lessons from intermediate and advanced swimmers (and if you’re reading this, you are probably one of us). If we value change in the education system, we must seek out more shallow enders and encourage them to build a PLN, read books and scholarly articles, and set goals for professional improvement.
All my son needed was consistent encouragement and a little maturity, and he left the 2-foot-end of our local pool. These days he finds it funny that he ever enjoyed keeping his feet on the bottom.