10 Months, 5 Lessons

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Yesterday marked 10 months since my last day as a public school teacher. At some point I’ll write more about what led me to that decision, but for now I’m going to focus on a different milestone. This coming Friday marks 10 months since I started my new job as an instructional technologist at the VCU School of Dentistry. And so I humbly present a few things I’ve learned over those months.

1. Everybody loves stickers. After spending some time in my new job training students and faculty alike on different technological and pedagogical subjects, and enhancing my moments of positive reinforcement by cheerfully exclaiming “Gold star for you!” I decided I should make good on my promises. So I turned to the time-honored teacher bag of tricks and bought some sheets of gold stars. The old-fashioned kind—no cartoon characters, no scratch-n-sniff, no fancy holographic images, just little five-pointed gold foil stars like the ones I got when I was a kid. Like I’m sure my parents and their parents got.

I keep them on my desk. They go out to anyone who I think has earned one, or who I think needs one, or both. Good work, hard work, persistent work—it all qualifies. I’ve offered these adhesive-backed bits of shiny joy to undergraduate dental hygiene students learning to use electronic health records software for the first time. I’ve offered them to international students, who have already completed several years of dental studies in their home countries and have come here to start almost from scratch in a new language, who are trying to fit a whole year of coursework into a few months. I’ve offered them to faculty, widely respected clinicians and academics who have more letters after their names than are actually in their names, as they prepare to present to their students and colleagues. No one has ever turned a sticker down. No hesitating, no demurring. They gently take the little star from my fingertip and place it somewhere prominent: their laptop, their clinic ID, the School of Dentistry pin on their blazer lapel. And it is there for the world to see. “Yes, I’m chair of my department. Yes, my research has been published in several prestigious journals. Yes, schools from all over the country fly me in to give guest lectures. Oh, this star? This is in recognition of my work in embedding video in PowerPoint slides.”

2. Never underestimate the advantage of loose guidelines over strict rules. People often ask me now if I miss teaching. I tell them no, I don’t, because I haven’t stopped. What I have stopped is dealing with all the other stuff that comes with being a teacher, that gets in the way of doing what I’ve always wanted to do as an educator: help people grow and realize their goals. And I’m being trusted now to decide what that looks like, far more than I ever was as a public school teacher. This is true even though I had more freedom than most. As a guitar teacher, I was often a department of one, and had some limited degree of autonomy over what I taught and how I taught it, far more than my friends who taught other subjects. But even so, to go from that environment to one where my essential job duties boil down to “Help our faculty teach and our students learn, in whatever way you think is best,” is little short of a revelation. I’d heard rumors that, when skilled professionals are granted the trust and flexibility to use their knowledge and training freely, they can accomplish amazing things. I’ve also heard rumors of a giant man-beast living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I now have first-hand proof of one of these.

3. Every job is weird. No matter what the profession, there are things about it that will not happen in any other workplace. One thing I often said to myself while teaching was, “This is my real job.” Mostly this was a good thing. “It’s my real job to watch these seniors who I’ve taught for four years put together a performance of ‘Forever Young,’ on their own, that brings their classmates to tears. And me.” Some days were different. “It’s my real job to tell a 15-year-old boy that threatening to punch somebody because they moved his pick is not okay.” My current job is different, but it is not. “It’s my real job to help an anatomy professor find a place to store 15 human skulls overnight. And it’s not related to a felony.”

4. Even when you know nothing, you know more than you think. Beyond knowing that I’m supposed to brush and floss at least twice daily, I have zero qualifications or background when it comes to actual dentistry, or almost any science, really. My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Music, so I don’t even have a lot of the science courses many of my classmates have. My first week on the job, I bought myself a book of dental terminology just so I would have the faintest glimmer of an idea of what was going on around me. (It’s worked a little. I can actually tell you the difference between the maxillary and mandibular arch. I couldn’t look at a tooth and tell you which one came from which. So don’t ask.)

Not that I thought anyone would expect me to be a dental expert. But after 21+ years of doing the same job, more than 18 of them in the same school building, I went from grizzled veteran to fresh-scrubbed rookie in a matter of days. Because of COVID, my interviews had all been conducted over Zoom; I hadn’t even seen the building until I walked in on my first day. I knew what my job description was, but I had no clue what to expect. (See item #3 above.) No clue if I had an office, a cubicle, a little table in a corner. No experience with a workday without a bell schedule. No idea where to even eat lunch. And I think it’s impossible not to feel a little (a lot) out of one’s depth in a situation like that. And one would not be wrong. But when we know next to nothing, we build on what we do know. We connect our experience to our current situation, and we find out what applies and what doesn’t, what we can repurpose and what we have to create from scratch. We all bring something to the table. It’s amazing how similar the process of training someone to play a G chord is to training someone to carve a tooth. Muscle memory is muscle memory. Practice is practice. And teaching is teaching.

5. It’s never too late to reinvent. Five years ago I thought I was halfway through a career as a public school music teacher: I would teach until it was time to retire, then I would hang up my baton and my grade book, start collecting my pension, and do something else on the side, because hanging around the house would be boring after about a week. And I was happy with that plan, as plenty of other music teachers have been, and deservedly so. It’s a good plan—do something you love, make a living at it, pass your knowledge and gifts on to others, enjoy your rewards while you’re still young enough to do so. But those occasional thoughts of “I wonder if there’s something else I could do?” were beginning to come more and more often, and with more and more urgency. And as they kept coming, I began to feel more and more stuck.

Twenty years in one place makes it hard to imagine being somewhere else. There’s contentment, and there’s paralysis. And I was slowly shifting from one to the other in a way I definitely didn’t like. I was lucky enough to have someone, almost offhandedly, suggest to me another direction I could move, a way to share my skills and energies and use them to help people just like I’d been doing for a decade and a half, but with a fresh perspective and new set of challenges. And that was both exciting and unfathomably scary. (See item #4.) But, as it turns out, you can walk away from something that isn’t working and try a different approach, and not only will you quite possibly not die a fiery (if hopefully metaphorical) death, the results just might be amazing. You might find yourself on a path you didn’t know existed, and spending your time not just counting the years toward retirement, but thinking about how much more you could accomplish for yourself in those years. This Bachelor of Music (who is also now a Master of Education, at least according to the paperwork) has begun to wonder what it would be like to study statistics, ordo educational research. There are schools with deans in charge of faculty development. Dean Harris? Dr. Harris? I don’t hate it. I might like it. I could possibly do it. Not what I would have imagined five years ago. Maybe not what I would imagine five years from now. Because it’s never too late to reinvent.

Ten months, five lessons. It’s not a bad start.

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About the author

I am an instructional technologist for the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA. Before that, I spent more than 20 years as a public school music teacher in Chesterfield County, VA, primarily teaching guitar and music technoogy at the high school level. I hold a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Education degree with a focus on Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. I believe that every person has the need, the desire, the ability, and the right to learn, and that as educators we must meet our students wherever they are, and help bring them to where they want and deserve to be.