Career Educators Are An Investment Too Easily Squandered

07/06/2012 12:37 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012

This is my third summer in a row as a higher education faculty member returning for a brief stint in a charter school elementary classroom. This time it's second grade. I have written and will continue to develop my written thoughts about this experience because it has been exceedingly valuable, challenging, and enjoyable. It may seem a little, say, schizophrenic to appreciate something that causes one great anxiety. Yes, even after all these years in various educational situations, I get nervous jitters before every school day, largely focused on whether or not what I have planned will actually work.

I've worked with this summer program enough times to start noticing some patterns. I usually start with a big trip to the public library, collecting books based on a certain theme. I then raid my own children's library in my office on campus. I purchase a couple of reams of chart paper, journals, and a bunch of new markers. Then, I gather my final collection of materials that follow me from year to year, which includes, for example, a selection of laminated posters, a calendar set, a bunch of magnetized labels and tags, doughnut magnets, and sundry baskets, bins, and buckets. When you enter a classroom that isn't yours, you have to do what you can to make it your own.

This last statement above raises an important point, which I've reflected upon, the last three years in particular. Despite how silly it sounds to the non-educator, teachers come with stuff, a great deal of it, and the stuff of our classrooms helps solidify our identities as educators. The stuff makes the learning environment, affects traffic flow, and taps into our unique organizational styles.

My own concerns as a new teacher are likely shared by those up and coming: how on Earth am I going to get all this stuff? Unfortunately, greenhorns and veterans alike shell out hundreds if not thousands of dollars outfitting their classroom spaces. But educators are excellent "thieves" and "scavengers," and I mean in the best possible way, even if that doesn't seem possible.

When an educator knows that this gig is for them, they are fully aware of the kind of investment it's going to take to get a classroom running like a well-oiled machine. This is regardless of how many years they're actually in the classroom. I have numerous bins of other materials, hundreds of books, and other artifacts littering my parents' garage. I have no room for it right now and never know when I'll need to call it into action once again. Even though I did not continue as a full-time, year-round elementary teacher, I spent each year of my life in the classroom collecting and amassing and investing in the stuff that I thought I needed to create the best experience for students.

It's unlikely that any formal research study is going to prove beyond a doubt that this "stuff" makes one a better educator; yet, I guarantee you that every single passionate and effective teacher in existence invests heavily in various artifacts of instruction, and I'm not talking about sets of canned curricular materials that end up collecting dust on some file cabinet.

There are quite a few key players out there suggesting that short-term teachers, alternatively trained and certified, are going to solve all of our problems, particularly in urban areas. So, I ask them this: what kind of investment is that individual going to make into the profession if they walk into the classroom knowing full well that this is a temporary stepping-stone to something else? Let me answer: not a whole lot of investment. In fact, they might leave it and their schools not necessarily better off than they were before.

I'm not going to castigate all of those alternatively certified, and I will admit that there are many traditionally trained teachers who probably already know the classroom is not a career, despite spending thousands on a degree. In settings that tend to rely mainly on short-term operators, however, typically charter schools in high-needs areas, I see this long-term kind of investment severely lacking. Learning environments are not carefully crafted. They lack the aesthetic appeal, the shelves of books, organizational tidbits, and an overall sense that this is not a clean, safe, and caring space.

Who can blame some folks? They'll fulfill their contract and split, so they don't have any need for bins and boxes of stuff, especially if they're going to move. But in the three summers I've been able to assemble my traveling teaching show out of boxes and bins, I know in my heart that the dedicated and professional educator understands the importance of this investment.

Prevailing reform sentiment scoffs at veterans in favor of the young and precocious. But very little has been invested in these short-termers, and I'm willing to assume based on personal experience that they've invested very little in themselves as educators. Veterans, for all of their faults, do come with a heart and head invested in the profession and we should refrain from squandering this investment lest teachers become quite simply easy and cheap interchangeable parts.