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“What Do They Take When They Walk Away?”

June 30, 2010

Susan Graham recently asked that question on her blog, after watching two of her teammates retire and reading the story of Mrs. Chapman, a D.C. teacher who retired this year. Because of generational patterns and a political climate that devalues older teachers in particular, schools are losing tremendous amounts of wisdom and expertise as those teachers retire and disengage from the schooling process.

Our schools are facing the loss of many Mrs. Chapmans because a lot of us are getting older. Schools face a deluge of retirements in the next five years. But the problem is exacerbated by a growing sense that many teachers find their work less rewarding. In the last year, for the first time, I am hearing a new kind of conversation among good teachers. They are talking about how many years left until retirement. And too often, they are looking for an exit plan long before many of them expected to retire because as Diane Ravitch explains

Teachers — not just union leaders — are unhappy, frustrated, and demoralized. So are parents, because they don’t like the high-stakes testing regime either. They don’t like that their children are losing time for the arts, science, history, geography, physical education, foreign languages, and everything that is not tested. They may not be well-informed, yet they know that their children are missing out on a good education.

But here’s the thing— many teachers are extremely well-informed. They are the keepers of the institutional knowledge of teaching. The business term for that is knowledge capital and I found this very MBA definition.

Knowledge capital: Know-how that results from the experience, information, knowledge, learning, and skills of the employees of an organization. Of all the factors of production, knowledge capital creates the longest lasting competitive advantage. It may consist entirely of technical information (as in chemical and electronics industries) or may reside in the actual experience or skills acquired by the individuals (as in construction and steel industries). Knowledge capital is an essential component of human capital.

This is a tremendous loss. I know that we younger folks are easily seduced by the idea that we’re an automatic improvement on the teachers we’re replacing. We have “new ideas,” we have “energy” (and we have politicians and administrators blowing sunshine up you-know-where…), but often, those new ideas are recycled older ones. Often, that energy is no substitute for the patience and know-how that only come after you’ve put in your 10,000 hours.

When she’s with the kids, she is like a patient gardener who senses that golden moment when a child is about to blossom. She is the master of the vastly overlooked power of restraint.

Indeed. Here’s hoping more of us can last long enough in the profession to earn that kind of expertise.

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