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Ed Leadership Blog: Letter to a Young Teacher in 2020

Are you a school leader, or do you aspire to be one? Staying up-to-date on news and trends in your field will help you proactively lead schools. Each month, faculty members in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies blog about topics to advance your career. This month’s Ed Leadership Blog is written by Dr. Justin Bathon, associate professor and director of graduate studies. He is also director of the UK Next Generation Scholars program. 

Letter to a Young Teacher in 2020

photo of Dr. Justin Bathon
Dr. Justin Bathon

In my first year teaching high school in 2001, I was a month into the job when September 11 happened. It was a traumatic day. I was all of twenty-one years old then, just three years removed from being a student in that same high school myself. But, I remember the weight of those eyes that looked to me, hoping I might offer some shred of meaning amongst the chaos of that morning.

By contrast, this experience is much worse. At least I could hug the students in my room that day. The fear was real but the danger was far away. Not so now.

In reality, there is not much any of us can say to you right now that will make this easier. No one in my generation has faced a moment like this. We are experiencing this as not just a “novel coronavirus” – it is a novel event, period. As we are all too clearly aware at this point, there was no plan for this. No reserve of knowledge to draw from.

Compound the challenges of the virus with everything else 2020 has offered and it has been a half a century since we have faced anything even remotely close to this. As we were in the 1960s, we are a people unsure of ourselves. We are a people in transition. And, change is hard. For real hard. This type of knowledge, about the sheer difficulty of change, is something that a young teacher should not have to face in the first few years. Knowing the difficulty of real change, it is easy to get cynical and to slip into a hopelessness that can lead to dark places.

For that reason, all of us, educators from older generations, wish we could keep this burden off of you. We wish our plans were stronger. We wish our words were better. We wish we had invested more in technology. Honestly, we wish we knew what to do.

So, while I cannot offer “a plan” or tell you some formula for how to teach through this, I can offer what we have, the wisdom of not being “young.”

When one is young it is hard to see the longer arcs or feel the deeper histories of time. There are long games being played of which we are all participating. These are long games in which we all get to leave our marks. In this moment, I want you to have a sense of those longer arcs because it is in knowing those that I take my own personal comfort.

First, a child’s journey from childhood to adulthood is a long arc itself. Traumatic moments can leave lasting and long term damage, but there are more moments ahead for all the kids in your class. No one lesson or concept is as critical as the state standards might have you believe. What kids remember, the lasting impressions, are the feelings, the relationships, and the experiences. Positive feelings, relationships, and experiences build upon themselves and help to shape the journey. So, consider those longer journeys of childhood and how, during this time, we might offer positive feelings, relationships, and experiences to the kids in your care.

Second, I don’t think anyone questions at this point that we are in a period of profound societal change. As I said, change is massively hard. Painful, even. Of course, you likely know that by now. But, change is also a profound opportunity. As a young teacher I longed for this type of change. Naively so, actually. It is easy to see the broken things in society and grow desperate for change. The desperation I felt though was always met with a “wait-your-turn” response of some kind or the other. At first it was “wait until you have a degree,” … then “wait till you have tenure” … then it was “wait until you are a principal” … then “wait until you are in a policy role.” As you know, telling a young person to “wait” is like a slap in the face. But, when I was young, my own mentors rightly advised me to wait. And, generally, I did because that was my lot.

I do not think you will be asked to “wait” as much now. Of course, amidst chaos being handed the reins of leadership might not feel like a blessing. But, leadership will find you sooner. It might even be finding you now. At first it asks for smaller things, like maybe leading a PD on a technology that’s working for you. Maybe you are asked to do some additional student advising or mentoring. But, make no mistake, that is leadership finding you. If you are like me and you see the broken things and are desperate for change, when leadership knocks, don’t wait. Resist thinking a leadership request too insignificant for your time while you watch the news with frustration. Change comes through thousands of small steps. A momentous change, like Brown v. Board, is only the culminating crescendo of a thousand small steps before. And then there are a thousand small steps after. This is why real change is so hard.

So, as leadership finds you this year, know that it is a step amongst a thousand more. This might feel like a burden at first, but it is a privilege. You will not have to wait long to get your hands on those long arcs of history and begin to bend those towards justice. In fact, that is exactly what we need you to do right now.

Finally, you are blessed to be starting your career during this challenging time. (I hear you laughing at me … hear me out). This last week I was diagnosed with Cancer. Hopefully I’ll get through this and see the other side. I expect I will. But that word causes you to face your own mortality. You are young and can’t see that yet. Thankfully so. When you get there, though, you wonder about the legacy you might leave and the gifts you have shared. That legacy is yours for the taking right now. Helping your students, and all of us as a society, through this challenge is a legacy gift you can bestow right now. The mark you leave is finding you early.

In the end, young teachers, you will shape who we are next. We older folk will try to guide us through the rough waters of this transition, but the systems we build next will be your choice. Gray-haired policy makers may pass proclamations, but what matters are the shape and substance of the feelings, the relationships, and the experiences of our youth. Those are yours now to shape. And, how you shape them will define our systems vastly more than any policy. The eyes of the children don’t see the policies, they see you. Even if it is virtually.

It is your turn now. Fate – and history – have chosen you.

Thank you for being courageous and for being bold. Thank you for leading. Thank you, for being a teacher.