And Now for Something Completely Different

MontyPythonsFlyingCircusREB73MBy Peggy Wuenstel — This title phrase was part of the intro to the British comedy Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a part of my formative high school and college years, a promise that each week it never failed to deliver.

The zany British humor was a bonding experience for me and my friends of both genders, which sometimes left us scratching our heads, but always gave us something to talk about. I find myself at another formative crossroads as this school year begins.

After thirty years as a speech/language pathologist, I have reinvented myself for the upcoming term. In the last 18 months, I have completed the requirements for a new teaching licensure, interviewed for a new position for the first time in 11 years, and secured a new role and set of responsibilities as a reading interventionist.

One of the things that our system of teacher education has always done is encourage ongoing education in the field. Some of this is done by requiring it for license renewal. Some occurs because of fellowships, stipends, and advancement on the salary scale. But often, it happens just because teachers are, at their very heart, learners. Or at least they should be! I entered a program of reading teacher education last summer because I am never one to turn down free credits whenever they are offered. The school district that I work for was offering the opportunity to complete the requirements for a 316 Reading Teacher license, with the district picking up the tuition tab. Twenty-four of my colleagues started this journey, teaching at their regular jobs while shoehorning in traditional and on-line classes, tutoring reading students, lesson-planning, video-taping and transcribing lessons, and worrying about readings, assignments, and grades, just like out students do. Not all of us finished, but I learned a great deal about these motivated professionals and about myself.

I never expected when I started this coursework that it would lead to a job change. This kind of end of career re-invention was not something I anticipated, but it has served to keep things fresh and renewed my enthusiasm for my return to this fall’s classroom. I discovered that I love teaching kids how to read. I learned that it has a great deal in common with teaching kids how to talk and use oral language. I started out on this trek, wanting to make sure that I was doing everything I should be doing to enhance the literacy skills of my students. In my training years in the 70’s and 80’s there was a demarcation line between spoken and written language, one that we did not cross regularly. Times have changed and demand that we change with them. The longer kids are in school, the more communication occurs in written form and all educators must see themselves as teachers of reading and writing as these are essential skills in all subjects of study.

There are things I will not miss about my former role,  the late afternoon meetings, the special education paperwork, the challenge of scheduling services to accommodate teachers and support students , Medicaid billing and more students than time to meet their needs. But I get to stay in a building that I love, with colleagues that I value and students with whom I have already established a relationship. What better scenario could I write for myself? I will have the opportunity to mentor the marvelous practitioner that will replace me in my former role, while forging a new path. The program is new and not rigidly defined. I am being joined in this position by a friend of twenty years whose skills I admire and whose commitment to kids is unparalleled. My favorite aspects of teaching will continue in this position; teaming with staff for the advancements of students,   one-on-one or small group intervention, long-term relationships, and building key skills for student success.

I have been increasingly disheartened over the last few years that our society has become less focused on making sure that everyone has what they need, and more pre-occupied with ensuring that no one gets more than we think they deserve. Our need to hold tightly to what we think is ours leads to stand your ground laws, public policies and social discussions that revolve far more around things than around people. Our capitalistic system is driven by two major wheels, capital and labor. Over the last couple of decades we have increasingly valued the “what we have” over “what we do”. That is one reason why teachers have had a hard time feeling respected and supported. What we produce is students who DO, and not necessarily consumers who HAVE.

But in my 30 years of experience, schools are different. We care more about the substance and less about the trappings. It is the substance of the essay, not the fancy embossed stationery it is printed on. And in many cases, it is the effort, not the outcome that brings tears of joy to a teacher’s eye, whether that is in the classroom, on the playing field, or in the relationships we see developing between the students we face in school every day. Hope springs eternal each September. The notebooks are pristine, the shoes are shiny and unscuffed, the slate is clean and we are ready to face a new school year. We can change the world and in a very real way, we have to.

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