I have been an educator for more than two decades. This field has evolved around me in ways that I rarely take time to process. But when I pause and reflect, the transformation is mind-blowing. Many of you have been on this journey as long as I have, or much longer. Others of you were students yourselves who experienced these changes from the other side. Regardless, it’s been a wild ride – be sure to buckle up and keep your hands and arms inside the car at all times.
When I was an elementary and high school student, a major (or sometimes even a minor) in the subject you wished to teach was sufficient. You needed to take classes in instruction and evaluation and child and adolescent psychology, but your academic background was not questioned. As I emerged into the world of teaching, content-area exams (then the SSAT and Praxis, now the CSET and others), became necessary.
As a high school social studies teacher, I was required to have in-depth knowledge of California history, a subject taught explicitly only in 3rd and 4th grade standards. Thus early in my career, educator expectations included cramming for those exams. Colleagues just a few years older than I marveled at the content – some of which they assured me that they hadn’t reviewed since they were in 4th grade themselves. Yet, like most of us with current teaching credentials, I proved my ability to teach this content in this way.
As a student I was a rule-follower, painfully shy, and almost mute in most classes. To say that I lacked insight into classroom management as a student is gross understatement. My educator experience lacked the personal experience of being disconnected from school. So I took all the classes. Read all the books. Made administrators regular guests in my classroom. And eventually figured out how to assert myself as a twenty-something, 5-foot-something female in a class of 37 (yes, 37!) teenagers. This wasn’t my favorite part of teaching, but it made teaching content more possible, so I embraced it.
I was 22 when I started teaching, closer in age to my students than to their parents. Yet it became clear that for many of them, I was one of the most stable adults in their lives. I was, with little life experience myself, a role model. I found myself weighing in on things like the empty calories in hot Cheetos, the need to go to bed before 2 am, and the best way to get a stain out of white polo shirt (which were required clothing at my school, a rarity in public high schools).
This was an unexpected educator role – one that no one had told me about. At no time in my 23-year-career have I felt more out of my league than when a young, pregnant student had her water break in the middle of my US History class. Yet this aspect of educator expectations brought me a greater connection with my students, and the school community.
I earned my credential at a time when a CLAD (Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development) certificate was required. I taught several sections of social studies for students who would now carry both EL and Long Term EL (LTEL) tags in one room. It created a complex instructional dynamic, but also a positive social one – one in which LTEL students translated instructions for newly arrived students and then they collaborated on assignments in multilingual, multicultural groups. Now providing language supports is embedded in educator expectations: translating extensively for parents and guardians, while pushing the learners themselves to practice English in scaffolded settings.
I was teaching during the attacks on Columbine High School. It was the spring of 1999 – my first year in the classroom. Within a week we were taught – and then taught our students – how to barricade a door. The terminology would come later – “code red,” “lockdown,” “Columbine locks” – but the actions were taught swiftly. Growing up, my “sport” of choice was ballet – hardly a breeding ground for the sort of skills that one thinks about when building barricades or thwarting intruders. Yet, as for all of you, this has become second nature to me, integral to my educator experience, and one more layer in what it means to be an educator in the twenty-first century.
When I was in college, I was among the first non-engineering students to have a school email address. I didn’t have a cell phone until a few years into my teaching career. I didn’t have a computer in my classroom – instead I carried a (not-so-floppy) “floppy” disk to the staff lounge each day during my prep to print my files and update my grade book (after one year of using the dreaded “green boxes” of a paper grade book, I was an early adopter of an online grade book; I transpose numbers in a form of dyscalculia so those were an utter nightmare for me!). In the early years of my career, educator expectations were far from technology-focused.
Around 2000, the internet broke wide open -and right into our classrooms. Suddenly I went from zero computers in my classroom to 35 brand new laptops – though they barely made it through a class period without needing to charge. Educator expectations about using technology have changed exponentially in the past two decades, and then exponentially again during the pandemic. If nothing else, I think the past year has bridged the gap from technology being “one more thing” to technology being seamlessly integrated into curriculum and instruction. Can technology add extra layers of complication to lessons? Absolutely. But it also brought us access, inclusion, and individual accountability in ways that few of us anticipated 18 months ago.
I was teaching on September 11, 2001. And while the trauma of plane crashes and collapsing buildings was far enough away to shield our school community, the rash of hate crimes and racially- and religiously-charged attacks hit home in a school where fewer than 5% of our students were White. So we detoured from our introduction to latitude and longitude to discuss why our Sikh classmates covered their hair and to distinguish the humanity of Islam from the inhumanity of the terrorists.
That was a turning point early in my career, but the opportunity to have this kind of real-time discussion has not diminished in the past two decades. Instead, we are increasingly asked to manage these conversations – and the corresponding emotions – in our schools. Educator expectations continue to grow with each unfolding event or crisis.
In 2004 the federal government reauthorized IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act – which of course has impacted educator expecations. Which means my career has overlapped with a steady march toward more inclusive practices and policies. These shifts have not always been smooth – such as the admittedly rocky switch to co-teaching in our district several years ago – but the intention remains important. And parenting a child with special needs who is fast-approaching his high school years has made me all the more attuned to how much growth there still is in this area.
Activism and Social Justice
Regardless of your political views, 2016 was a galvanizing year for American politics – and no exception was made for our young people. The election results in November 2016 elicited strong feelings – as did the numerous decisions made in the years of the Trump administration. Many of those decisions sparked responses that we had to manage at school – including walk outs and other forms of protests – that transformed the educator expectations yet again.
In 2018, the mass shooting at Parkland High School mobilized students to speak out and march against gun violence. Beginning in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown in strength and reach, with a crescendo in the spring of 2020 following the now-adjudicated murder of George Floyd. These responses, as well as the follow up to the 2020 election, we learned to manage in Zoom rooms and other social distant ways.
Health and Well-Being
Nursing and teaching are oft-compared career pathways. Both are helping professions requiring certification beyond a bachelor’s degree. Both are fields dominated by women (yes, I know that this skews at the secondary and post-secondary levels, but overall there is a 3:1 discrepancy). And both careers put you in a place where you must balance your own well-being with that of your patients/students – or risk a career-ending level of burnout.
In many ways we are being asked to manage our students’ health right now – we are supervising desk sanitizing and competing with air purifiers. There are one-way hallways, plexiglass cubbies, and tented teaching spaces. These are the new educator expectations.
But you must manage your own health and well-being. It is not a choice. You need to come first, not last. Your ability to teach and serve students effectively hinges on your ability to be a healthy individual. Not only because modeling your own well-being helps communicate the importance of doing so to your students, but because you must put your own oxygen mask on first in order to continue serving as an educator. Meeting educator expecations is central to your life, no doubt, but it is not worth your life.