Tricia Lewicki, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Beacon Hill International School, shares the joys and challenges of being a veteran teacher.
Two months ago, Education Lab held a teacher storytelling event with the theme “Why I Teach.” Five local educators told stories about the challenges they face in today’s classrooms and the reasons why they’ve stuck around.
We received tremendous response to our initial inquiry and soon realized that many teachers have stories to share. So we’ve decided to start a semi-regular Education Lab feature where one local teacher will answer the same questions: Why do they teach? How do they know when they’re good? If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself on your first day of teaching?
Our first interviewee is Tricia Lewicki, who teaches science and math to fourth and fifth graders at Beacon Hill International School in Seattle. Lewicki, who’s been teaching for two decades, started her education career at Beacon Hill after spending a couple years in investment banking. Her learning pod — Beacon Hill has no walls between classrooms — is C2, which is in the same corner of the building where she was a student teacher in 1993.
Lewicki’s eyes light up when she describes how it feels to help a student understand a new concept, but she is upfront about the challenges facing today’s teachers: Overcrowded buildings, increased testing, and a lack of pay increases.
It’s not strictly about the money, she said, but about feeling valued — especially as a veteran teacher who has hit the top of the pay scale: “We don’t have a way to entice teachers to really feel that they are valued once they get beyond year 15.”
What follows is a condensed version of our conversation. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.
So the obvious question: Why do you teach?
I learn so much all the time. I learn about my students. I learn from my students. But the really cool thing is I’m a learner alongside them.
They ask questions about something we’re studying that drive me to go deeper. I feel like I get to be that lifelong learner, in my job. … I get to be a student along with being a teacher.
How do you know you’re a good teacher?
It’s seeing the excitement in kids’ eyes when I know I’ve asked the right question. Maybe a student has been struggling with something, and I know I’ve finally asked the right question to make them think about it in a different way. The number of times kids have said, “Oh! I get it!” Probably the first time that ever happened was the time I realized, “OK, this is what it feels like to teach something well.”
What would you tell yourself on your first day of teaching?
Spend less time on paperwork — including grading.
OK, a related question: What’s your advice for new teachers?
In an ideal world, it would be to really look for schools with strong teams. The other part of my joy in teaching, and the reason I stayed here for 20 years, is that we have these core groups that work together. When you need help with something, when you’re struggling with something, you really want to feel like you’re part of a team that you can rely on. You can’t be in this job alone — there are too many times when it is stressful, and there are too many times when you don’t have an answer to something.
The people you work with matter, and you want to be in a place where you feel comfortable and supported.
Do you ever think about leaving teaching?
Yeah, I do.
What keeps you here?
I can’t think of another profession (I would want to pursue). It’s funny, because I know the focus of this is “Why I Teach,” and I feel like I am at a crossroads for why I might leave. It has always been such an enriching and wonderful experience. Literally, year after year, I’ve thought, “I couldn’t even imagine doing another job.” What other job do you come home and say, “I just learned a new way to multiply! Another one!”
But it is hard to be in a place that you don’t feel valued. When I say don’t feel valued — of course I feel valued by my team and I feel valued within the school — but at the state level, with funding for education, at the state level with our salary schedule, there’s nothing that tells me I’m valued with what I have to offer.
I still feel like I have much to give to this profession, and I still feel like it’s really an exciting place to be. So it is a crossroads. Five years from now, you may come back and say, “Wow, Ms. Lewicki is still in C2, where she student taught.”
Which teacher should we feature next? Send your nominations to Caitlin Moran: firstname.lastname@example.org.