Experience??? What is Experience?

Younger teachers often tell me they envy my “experience.” Yet, what does the word really mean? Does it just mean that I’m getting old? What is experience? It has to be more than a mere accumulation of years. It seems to imply a certain wisdom that I have no claim to.

To tell the truth, the first time someone used the word “wise” to describe me, I had a hard time keeping from snorting with laughter. Me? Wise? Who are you kidding? Then I began to wonder if all my mistakes, wrong tracks, faux pas and foolish ideas had finally, in the long run, taught me some wisdom. If so, it seemed like a hard way to learn and not one that I’d recommend to teachers just starting their careers. There had to be an easier way.

I thought over what I have learned over the years, the things that helped set me on the right path, the ideas that helped me improve as a teacher, and I realized that “experience” is just another word for Stories, a whole set of stories that I collected over many years, and each story is about a person I met, a person who helped me acquire a little piece of something which other people sometimes call wisdom.

Many of those people were students. As a matter of fact, when I think about my Stories, the stories I often tell to illustrate a point, I realize two important things. First of all, my students taught me far more than any “training” that I was ever given. I have had many colleagues that I admired and copied, but I haven’t learned as much from them as I have from my students.

Secondly, the students who taught me the most were not the “good kids”. It was the others, the ones you don’t really look forward to having in your class, the problem makers, who pushed me to the limit and showed me how to go beyond my preconceived ideas. Good students are a delight and certainly make a teacher’s life easier, but perhaps they have little to teach someone who was once a good student herself. Yes, I confess. I was a “good student,” one of those girls who raise their hands every time the teacher asks a question and doesn’t really understand why the boys get called on more often. I know how good students function and what they’re made of. They don’t keep me awake at night. It’s the others who keep me up, trying to grasp how they think, trying to imagine their worlds, trying to figure out what makes them tick. To a certain extent, they come from a different world, the world of “Authority is the enemy”, a different culture, with strange customs that I, the daughter of a naval officer, found hard to read.

Sometimes through luck, sometimes through perseverance, I occasionally was able to look through a window and see the person inside the “kid with problems”. Each glimpse became a story that taught me something, often something rather humbling, and helped me when later I encountered others with similar stories. Now, looking back, I think that the most important thing I learned from them was that they were deserving of my respect, that if I could look them in the eye and see the child rather than my attitudes and preconceptions, we could get to know each other and learn from each other.

Some of the stories didn’t have a happy ending. I remember a class of boys who were hard and cruel and scary, even to teachers with far more experience than I had. None of the trouble makers returned the following year, which is more of a cease-fire than a victory. Yet, later, when I met students who were difficult, I could measure them against the memory of that nightmare class, and decide that they were not all that difficult.

Some of my students’ stories were horrific and humbling, others were inspiring. When they honored me by sharing some of their stories, they helped me to grow a little bit, helped me to become a better teacher. My collection of stories grew and grew, allowing me to walk into a classroom with more assurance that I’d be able to see beyond the masks and the defiance, that I could, with patience, reach out to the child behind the masks and share some stories. I teach language; stories are made of language. And children love stories. Eventually I came to understand that whatever the “methodology” or teacherspeak that was being touted by administrations and ministries of education, my job was to share some stories with my students and to listen to their stories.

I suppose that explains why I like to tell my stories to younger teachers. It’s the only part of my “experience” that I can give to others.

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