A Look Back And Five Challenges Ahead
When I first started working in education in the early 1980s, it was as the sole ESL teacher at a community college. I was given a windowless office all by myself down in the basement, and in these pre-internet days, the only way I had to connect with other teachers was to come upstairs, wander around and hope to have a chat with someone who happened to be free. There were problems with this approach. Usually no one was free, and whenever someone was, it was usually someone who wasn’t all that interested in the same things I was interested in.
Then one day the dean suggested it would be good for me to attend an upcoming regional conference for English Language Teachers and even give a presentation. The idea terrified me but somehow I wound up saying yes, came up with an idea for a presentation, and even got my proposal accepted.
Over the next several weeks, I spent every evening in my windowless office sitting amidst a pile of books researching and putting together my presentation. The more I worked, the more terrified I became. Who was I to be giving a presentation? What if the ideas I was putting together were wrong? What if I messed up?
By the time the day of the conference arrived I’d convinced myself my presentation was going to be a disaster, yet somehow I got myself to the conference site, took a deep breath, and opened the door. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a couple hundred ESL teachers milling around having coffee. Wandering around, I didn’t see anyone I knew, but spotted some famous people whose names I recognized from articles and books I’d read. As I couldn’t imagine what I would say to such people, or to anyone for that matter, I got some coffee and went off into a corner to practice my presentation one more time.
Before long, it was time. My heart already was pounding with nervousness as I walked into the room where I was to give my presentation, but things got worse when I saw that among the elevenpeople who’d come to hear me speak, one of them was one of those famous people I’d been too shy to approach earlier.
To my amazement, this famous man whose books were required reading greeted me warmly and told me how much he was looking forward to hearing my ideas. His manner caused me to relax, yet as I started my presentation, all my fears came back and I began faltering and stumbling over my words.
Each time I made what I thought was a terrible mistake, someone asked a question and got me back on track. By doing so, they shone a light. At one point when I wasn’t even sure I had a point worth making, the famous man said he’d been thinking along the same lines and asked me what I thought about an idea he had. By doing so, he held a ladder and allowed me to climb higher. That’s when I realized I wasn’t there to tell anyone anything. I was there to share ideas, enter into a conversation, and become part of a community. I set my presentation aside, joined the evolving discussion, had a marvelous session, and then enjoyed the rest of the conference immensely – for the first time ever, as part of a community of educators.
This was the day I began my professional journey, and the lessons I learned then are still valid today. Given how technology’s opened up the world of professional development, these lessons are even easier to follow now.
If you’re just starting out on your professional journey, I have some challenges for you. Even if you’re well on your way on this journey, I have challenges for you, too.
1. Attend a webinar online or a conference offline. Then, put yourself forward and give a presentation. You’ll learn more than you can even imagine. Presenting at a conference isn’t about giving the correct answer to a question no one asked. It’s about entering a conversation, developing your thinking, learning to collaborate, and becoming part of a community. Take a risk.
2. Even the well-known people in our profession are teachers just like you. Don’t be afraid of approaching them. There’s no reason to work in isolation when the world’s full of good people willing to help you develop your thinking, your teaching skills, and your personal development. Reach out.
3. Relationships are central to our work, and one of the very best ways to develop strong relationships with other educators is by joining and being active in professional communities online and offline. Once you’re joined, take on leadership roles within such communities. Get involved.
4. Leadership in education isn’t about one person leading a group of followers. It’s about communities working together. If you are already involved in professional communities and presenting at conferences, then reach out and mentor someone who isn’t doing this yet. Be a leader.
5. Never look down on anyone — especially on those just starting out. Make everyone feel welcome. Build others up. Hold the ladder. Be a light.