Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Arnold Pulda reflects on teaching as a second (or third) career! He feels his teaching success is due largely to the timing of his teaching career -- which began at age 45! Included: Are older teachers better teachers? Join the discussion!
I have heard it said that, in real estate, the three most important things are location, location, location. I believe that in everything else, including life, the three most important things are timing, timing, timing.
I started teaching as an old man. You define old any way you want: I was 45. Timing was everything in my case. I am certain that had I not been so lucky in the timing of the start of my teaching career, I would not have become as proficient at it as I like to think I am.
Nor would I have come to enjoy teaching as much as I do!
When I started teaching, I already had two careers behind me -- one as a graduate student, which was wonderful, and a second one as a businessman, which was something less than that! As the result of the first career, I earned a Ph.D. From the second, I earned a living and, eventually, an understanding that I was not meant to work in business.
Like all new teachers, in those first days I had no idea what I was doing. But I soon perceived that my age was a true asset. I had distance from my high school students, both in a purely chronological sense and also in life experience. We did not share many things in common -- especially our taste in music, movies, TV, or much cultural.
In addition, the events that punctuated my life -- the beginning of the cold war, John F. Kennedy, civil rights, Vietnam, the polarization of the country, Nixon coming and going, and so on -- were history to my students. Since I teach U.S. and world history, that disparity in memory between my students and me enabled both of us -- all of us -- to learn from one another, to truly understand history.
My classroom has never been one where consensus prevails. I have always tried to tolerate and even create some friction there, some traction where ideas and opinions often clash. The age difference between my students and me has often provided an opportunity to create "teachable moments" from our divergent experiences.
I also had, due to my age, some authority. I say "some" advisedly because it was not much, and could, indeed, be wasted easily. But it was a start, I believed, this modest amount of esteem that comes with age. Nurtured and husbanded carefully, that authority could become true respect; taken for granted and wasted, it could just as easily turn into empty autocracy -- a kingdom (classroom) and a leader (teacher) with no one really following, listening, or learning. I have experienced both types of classrooms in my nine years of teaching; in the last few years I feel that the more productive one has been the rule.
I started teaching in 1993, which was the same year I discovered the Internet. I would be a much different teacher -- a worse teacher, I'm sure --without the resources that are available online to my students and me. The abundance of Internet resources, the challenge of using them wisely and productively, and the ongoing desire to keep up with the technology and the best information out there -- those things have motivated me from my first days of teaching and continue to do so today. They have kept me from getting stale in my own research or in my teaching strategies.
I am the teacher I am today because I was lucky enough to be "old" when I started my teaching career, and because I have a brand-new world of tools and information exploding right in front of my students and me. How could the timing have been better?
Arnold Pulda is a teacher and a liaison for gifted and talented student programs in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.