By Kevin Hart
Decades before he became the 2005-2006 New York State Teacher of the Year and was heralded as one of the nation’s leading educators, Stephen Bongiovi almost became something far less glamorous – fired.
The retired English teacher from Long Island was reviewing his personnel files as part of the teacher of the year application process when he received a shock – after his first year of teaching, at least one administrator recommended that he not be retained.
“Someone must have stood up for me,” Bongiovi said, because he was invited back and was allowed to continue what became a stellar career.
But at a time when education “reformers” are criticizing seniority-based layoff policies that prioritize teacher experience, or are advocating for alternative certification programs that may provide only a couple months of teacher preparation, Bongiovi’s story is a powerful reminder that great teachers are not made overnight. Experience matters.
In a recent column on seniority-based layoffs, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel argued that teachers are not interchangeable inventory, and that schools that discount experience – or treat it as a liability — do so at their own peril.
That’s a lesson that needs to be heard in places like New York City, where 4,100 experienced teachers may be laid off while the city recruits 500 inexperienced teachers from the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America programs.
“We absolutely need new teachers,” said Bongiovi. “We need their enthusiasm and their capabilities with technology. But that can not outweigh the accumulation of resources and strategies that only comes with years of experience.”
The vital role of teacher experience was a recent topic of discussion on NEA’s Speak Up For Education & Kids Facebook page. Educators from across the country weighed in on how experience helped them hone their crafts, and discussed what they see as an alarmingly hostile attitude some reformers are taking toward teacher experience.
“I have taught for 18 years and know that I am a better teacher this year than last, and the year before that,” wrote Sharon McLaughlin, a National Board Certified Teacher from Washington. “By my fourth year, I started feeling a bit more confident and built on that every year.”
Mary Cullen, an elementary school teacher from Santa Maria, Calif., said she doubted any teachers would rate their first few years as their finest.
“The idealized world you imagined wears away quickly,” she wrote. “No school prepares you for what teaching is really like.”
Several educators said their first few years of teaching were difficult, but through experience, mentoring and professional development, they learned valuable skills, such as what to do when a lesson isn’t working; how to better differentiate instruction based on students’ ability levels; and how to communicate more effectively with students and their parents.
“I learned more in the first four years of teaching, than in my four years at college,” wrote Casey Jo Maynard Finkbeiner, a life skills teacher from Michigan. “Now that I’ve been teaching for 16 years, I realize I get better every year at handling personal issues with the kids and not just presenting information.”
Several educators credited their development to veteran teachers who served as mentors and sounding boards. Bongiovi benefited from two experienced teachers in his department who spent time helping him improve. Veteran teachers also encouraged Bongiovi to participate in his local union’s teacher advisory council, where he developed confidence and a sense of empowerment.
Minnesota teacher Deb Osland Kozak spent her first three years sharing a classroom with a colleague who had been teaching for 40 years, and said the constant feedback proved invaluable.
Given the important role teacher experience plays in helping students succeed, why are some so-called reformers pushing to discount teacher experience during school layoffs? Cost seems to be a significant factor, as inexperienced teachers are paid less. But Bongiovi is also bothered by what he sees as a concerted attempt to label experienced teachers as somehow less engaged.
And he has reason to be upset – Bongiovi, after all, received the teacher of the year honor at the tail end of his career, when students were hanging on his every word as much as ever.
“The notion that as we get older we become stale, I object to that,” he said. “We all know what the stereotypes are, but there are many, many more teachers who are teaching because they love it. After all, why would you do this job if you didn’t love it?”