Young educators are enthusiastic. They spend years preparing: They learn the content they will teach, they learn how brains work, they learn pedagogical theory, and they practice various strategies. Of course, the details of what they learn depends on the specific regulatory agencies to which their teacher preparation program reports, but they learn in classrooms then in highly supervised classroom settings.
Once they finally break free of the requirements of higher education and the supervision of student teaching, they are ready to begin practicing their craft.
The enthusiasm of new educators is met with various reactions from their first colleagues. Some dismiss it as naivety, and they advise new educators to “not smile until December.” Others find it energizing, and they see it as an opportunity to learn from new colleagues. Many leaders see it as something to be used, and they assign a relatively new educator to lead the most recent curriculum initiatives.
I experienced all of these early in my career. Sometimes I’ve been the curmudgeon who advised no smiling. I’ve been energized by new colleagues. I’ve seen new colleagues who have accepted roles as leaders of initiatives; usually after about three years of successful teaching.
Enthusiastic early career educators have often connected with a practice they experienced during their training. When student teachers work with teachers who are experts in a certain method or when they are involved with an engaging project during their student teaching, the education students become enthusiastic about replicating that experience when they begin their careers.
Those who have been at it a few years and are asked to be curriculum leaders are often encouraged as the initiative is expected to bring important and necessary changes to the school.
Now, I am not criticizing educators who are enthusiastic about practices they value or who want to lead efforts they believe are important. I am, however, suggesting their enthusiasm may be misplaced.
Educators who have been sufficiently successful so that they have a career measured in decades tend to develop what I call “pedagogical maturity.” This is characterized by less enthusiastic response to engaging projects and new initiatives than early-career educators. This pedagogical maturity is not to be confused with the curmudgeons who push back against anything.
As I envision it, pedagogical maturity is grounded in several things successful long-term teachers realize about their craft:
- Not every project is exciting to every student, and students do not all share our excitement. Humans vary. The variation extends to interests and motivations. When an educator can see a project or strategy from many students’ perspectives, they become pedagogically mature.
- A complete education is grounded in diverse experiences. The strategy a pedagogically mature educator chooses depends on the nature of the content, the resources available, the abilities and interests of the teacher, and the abilities and interests of the particular group of students. Effective classrooms result from teachers being critical of their plans and pedagogically mature educators’ criticism of plans are informed by greater experience than those who are not.
- Red herrings are common. Education is a field well-informed by folk psychology. Many of the practices in education that seem natural because they have been used for decades (or longer) are not effective; massed practice is an example. Conversely, many research findings are later found to not be supported. Yet other “good ideas” are rejected by research but continue to be accepted by practitioners; learning styles is an example. Pedagogically mature educators are willing to adopt new practices, but they are cautious and are willing to abandon unsupported practices.
- Many initiatives are politically motivated. Especially in the last few decades, education has become politicized to a degree it never was before. Politicians are promising they will affect curriculum and instruction strategies, and philanthropists are funding changes that they believe will improve education. Despite these efforts having failed previously, the promise of funding motivates leaders to welcome these initiatives and to recruit teachers to help. Pedagogically mature educators see the political and financial rewards motivating the efforts, to tend to be very critical of them and require the effects be demonstrated reliably before they join.
I must stress that I value the enthusiasm of new educators. I find it refreshing, I value their commitment to practices, and I value what I can learn from them.
I also value those who are pedagogically mature. Those who question new initiatives, integrate them into their practices, pay attention to emerging research, and understand the nuances of teaching particular groups of students.