Seeing with Different Eyes

Earlier this year, I had a visitor from South Africa contact me to ask if they could drop into the school at which I work while they were visiting Australia.  She was were here as part of a study tour, and had heard some good things about PLC Sydney.  In fact, her school in Johannesburg was a similar sort of school – independent, all girls, similar size – and she was interested in comparing a few ideas.  Her school was also using IWBs extensively, and was keen to see how our staff were using them.

On the day she visited, we chatted for a while in the main staffroom, shared ideas about education and various resources for learning, before finally heading off on a little tour around the school.

Because I knew she was coming, I sent an email around asking for volunteers who wouldn’t mind us coming into their classrooms. Several responded positively, so I organised to expect us to drop by their classrooms, however I wasn’t specific about times since I didn’t really know when we would be coming by… I suggested that they don’t try and come up with anything special, just do whatever they would normally be doing at that time.  I was pleased that I ended up with a cross section of year groups too, right from our very young students all the way up to some senior classes.

As we wandered about the school, we saw some wonderful teaching in action. My South African friend kept remarking on the quality of the teaching she was seeing, and how expertly these teachers appeared to get the best from their students.  And she was right – there really were some wonderful things going on in these classrooms. There was great creativity, engagement, enthusiasm and learning taking place in every class we visited, and it was very obviously driven by the dedication, passion and commitment of these teachers.

Something that occurred to me later that day was that every one of these classrooms we visited were all of teachers who had not always been teachers.  Every single one of them had done other things in their lives besides being a teacher.  For example, the Year 2 teacher had originally trained as a teacher, but then spent several years as a professional opera singer with the Australian Opera. The Year 6 teacher used to be a corporate lawyer before deciding to retrain as a teacher.  The maths teacher we visited in the high school was originally a computer programmer before he started his teaching career.

I thought about other great teachers I knew, and I could think of many examples of where this pattern seemed to consistently continue.  The number of really good teachers I knew who had done other things outside of teaching was quite astounding.  Whether they had originally done something else before discovering teaching, or whether they had started out as a teacher then left the profession to do something quite different before returning, the nexus between having out-of-school experience and being an outstanding teacher seemed incredibly obvious.

Before you jump on that last statement, I’m NOT saying that there is anything inherently wrong with teachers who have always been teachers.  Not at all.  There are many wonderful educators, many of whom have only ever been teachers, who do a fantastic job of teaching kids.  But I’d still argue the case that to be a good teacher you need to have some level of broader interaction with the wider world, and whether that comes from involvement in something extra-curricula like being active in a club or organisation, having a part-time job, doing volunteer work, helping your spouse run their business, or even having your own small business “on the side”, there really needs to be some other way of gaining exposure to the world outside the classroom.

I can’t help thinking that teachers who have this wider experience beyond the classroom, who have had to deal with that dreaded “real world” we hear so much about, add an important extra dimension to what they bring to their classrooms and to the experiences they offer their students.

We can all recognise the value of work-experience programs for students, and most people would agree that it’s important that kids get to see what life is like outside of school. But I’d like to see some sort of “real world experience program” for educators.  Perhaps teachers need to do a work experience program just as much as students do? Maybe we need an arrangement where teachers can choose to spend part of a term away from the classroom every few years, working in “the real world”?  It would help them understand the world their students are preparing for, it would give them a far more rounded perspective on life beyond the classroom, and overall I really think it would make them better teachers in the long run.

What do you think?  Have you noticed the same thing with teachers who have done other things outside teaching?  Would some sort of a teacher work experience program help make us better at what we do?

Image: ‘Visionary
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CC BY-SA 4.0 Seeing with Different Eyes by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

14 Replies to “Seeing with Different Eyes”

  1. You say “…teachers who have this wider experience beyond the classroom, who have had to deal with that dreaded “real world” we hear so much about, add an important extra dimension to what they bring to their classrooms and to the experiences they offer their students.”

    You could make this sort of sweeping statement about teachers who’ve taught in a range of schools from places where poverty is a real issue, where generations of families have been unemployed, where kids first exposure to English is when they come to school. They bring an extra dimension too, no less important than this “real world” experience. Ditto for people who’ve worked in country areas, remote Aboriginal schools – I don’t think that working for a while away from education endows anyone with any special teaching abilities or commitment.

    I suppose it does get down to how you measure a teacher’s success. Every teacher brings something unique into the classroom – how do you know that it’s time spent in another job or profession that is the difference?

  2. It’s an interesting observation, and I’ve enjoyed reflecting on it. But I have to say I don’t see a corellation.  I know some brilliant educators who have had other jobs and others who haven’t.  It makes intuitive sense that good teachers have a broad range of life experiences, but I don’t know if having a paid non-education sector job gives anyone any more “real world” experience than caring for a disabled child or surviving cancer or buying an investment property or playing football.  I don’t think the Opera stage or a computer programming cubicle are necessarily any more “real world” than a school is. John Mayer sang:

     “I wanna run through the halls of my high school, i wanna scream at the top of my lungs. I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world – it’s just a lie you have to rise above”

    I don’t thing John Mayer is an education expert but I think he’s got something there.

    1. I love that song. 🙂

      Like I said, I also know some amazing teachers that have only ever been teachers. I’m not saying that can’t be the case. But I’ve still noticed that every time I strike a teacher who REALLY stands out, more often than not they have done something else in their life besides teaching. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but it’s what I’ve noticed.

  3. I am about to start my second year as a teacher after 20 years in the “real world”. I don’t think that my “real world experience” is necessarily going to make me a better teacher, but I have used it in the classroom to help students see the relevance of what they are learning.

    I do think that schools have a culture which is very, very different from the business world. I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on what it is, but it has taken me probably the whole first year to get used to it. I have been quite surprised by this. Perhaps it is a question of teachers experiencing other working cultures to broaden their outlook and understanding.

    1. You said “I don’t think that my “real world experience” is necessarily going to make me a better teacher, but I have used it in the classroom to help students see the relevance of what they are learning.”

      QED. 🙂

  4. That’s true, all those other experiences help open up a new perspective on the world, and I’d agree with you that they can be equally as valuable. But then again, that doesn’t describe the career path of all that many teachers, does it?

    Extreme case, but when I was at school (as a student) I had a teacher who had also been a student at the same school, went to teachers college to be a teacher and did all of his pracs at this same school, then got his first teaching job at this same school, and had been there ever since (over 20 years). I know that’s an extreme case, but how does someone like that possibly teach kids and offer them any perspective on how the world works?

    I suppose, all hyperbole aside, I’m just saying that I think teachers make better teachers when they have a wider range of life experiences from which to draw. You’re right, perhaps they don’t all need to be from outside the actual teaching profession, but they should definitely be more diverse than the same old same old.

  5. This is a thought provoking topic. I certAinly agree Chris that a variety of work experience be it in or out of education brings much to the class room. I have something controversial to add. I think I have become a much better teacher since becoming a parent. Of course there are great teachers who are not parents but I know for myself I am much more aware of my students struggle with home life and famy since having my own kids

    1. I agree Coyley. Becoming a parent dramatically changed my outlook on being a teacher. I started to see the lives of my students through the lens of my own kids. Good observation.

  6. Interesting article – I began my teacher training in my very late 30’s having worked in automotive and engineering industries before my kids were born. Certainly teacher training wasn’t an ‘off-the-cuff’ idea for me and I think that I was more committed (as were most of the older students when I trained).

  7. Can I please voice the caution one should attribute to ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE! The Mathematics teacher in me had my heckles raised when reading propositions forwarded that are based on such a tiny sample! No offence Chris but your school employment situation cannot be described as typical of the vast majority of those who toil in classrooms. Frankly I’d rather teach with colleagues who love spending time with kids rather than concern myself about their previous professions or whether the ‘real world’ is inside or outside the school fence!

  8. I heard of a Principal recently who discovered a group of staff still at school late one night. They were ordered home with the instructions “Go and become interesting”. The point wasn’t that they were uninteresting people; but rather that their teaching would be enriched by their experiences outside the school – we all know that teachers that create interest and intrigue in their children are already half-way-there. This seems to be Chris’ observation (rather than an ardent belief that teachers can only be good if they’ve done other stuff).

  9. As a Drexel University student (Phila, PA, USA) we must complete three six month internships in corporate or non-profit organizations as a requirement to graduate. These expierences will give me much knowledge and expierence when I start to teach in Sep 2010.
    Btw, I am Drexel University (Phil, PA) student and I just started my own blog about technology and education.

  10. spread the word…I share your observations…and I’m a beginning teacher, having worked in corporations (banks, multinationals, consulting).

    What I’ve learned in (what I call) a previous lifetime, I now employ. Sometimes I feel like a rebel, e.g. who really does their personal best in everything they do? Seriously? Yet, we expect kids to give 100% in every subject. Seriously! What do kids really need to learn? Good employers know what they need to hire others for.

    I put a lot of stress on meta-cognition and life skills such as working in teams, welcoming challenges, questioning opinions, love to learn, know what you don’t know …and it’s ok to make mistakes. Teachers are human, too. These are most useful in the world outside of schools.

  11. I read this article with great interest, as a late life teacher who has two former trades and a few too many other jobs to put here, I was retreched from the NSW Rail as a Carriage Builder and took to study at Uni on a whim and ended up as a teacher, never had that planned, but glad I ended up as a teacher, love the job.

    I was a part of 18 new teachers in Dubbo in 2001 as Dubbo College came into being, and a bulk of these teachers were late life teachers from all walks of life.

    We often comment on how worldly some classrooms are with these teachers, something carreer teachers can’t have, not knocking them, as I do know all my best teaching methologies came from a mentor who came from school to Uni to school, a career teacher.

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