• Jennifer Meliton

The Elder Statesmen.

I was 23 when I started teaching. Coming out of college where I was the mature, elder stateswoman, I felt ready to stand on equal ground with my fellow educators. It was so nice to finally be a grown up, after paying my dues at school and growing up as the youngest, the baby in my family. Surely my preparation at IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) had readied me to share fresh, new ideas with the staff at Connolly Middle School in Tempe, Arizona. I was on my way.

It was Friday, August 15 when I was hired to teach 6th grade. School started Monday. My classes were full of unfamiliar names, and as I learned many of their stories I felt the crushing weight of responsibility. I was pretty sure I was ready to teach students, but these were people with huge life stories. There were lots of tears (mostly mine). I felt like the baby of the family all over again. Trudy, Robin, Manny, Ron... the actual voices of experience were willing to give me all the advice I needed if I would listen. Listening is what saved me. Listening to those who had been there, and to my kids, who taught me more than any content I could have imparted to them.

A few years later I found myself back in Pennsylvania, 25 and armed with experience in a place much more "fierce" than Elizabeth. Pssht. "I got this."

Day one. 7th grade. OMG. Wait a minute, I signed up for easy kids! These kids had stories, too? More tears. When was it going to get easier? To make it worse, I was by far the youngest again. Kathy, Roger, Cheryl, Jean, Jay and Sandy steadied the nerves, gave me the low down, showed me the local ropes, taught me the landscape, and helped me learn from my failures. Again, it took a lot of listening.

If I did one thing right in those formative years, it was listening. The advice wasn't always great, the stories were often heart wrenching, the years of being the baby were long. I would feel much better as an administrator-come on, I was 29!

I'll spare you the accounts of my early assistant principal days. Suffice it to say, I couldn't wait to turn 30 so I could feel older. My mentors were true elder statesmen of our district. Jay, Paul, Matt, Tim, and Bob took me under their wing, protected me, and taught me more about the importance of listening much more than speaking.

I don't remember when people stopped saying, "You're a principal? You're so young!" Or when I went from the youngest to the middle child. On the first day of this school year though, one of the speakers asked any first or second year teachers to stand. Then he asked anyone with 25+ years of experience to stand. I was geeked to stand up with the rest of my group. Where were they? Where were all the standing people??? It was just a few of us?!?

So here is my advice to those of you working with kids, whether you are 20, 30, or a really old 48 like me (insert jovial laughter at how 48 isn't old). LISTEN. Listen to the children, especially the most difficult kids who take the most of your time. They will teach you more about dealing with kids and more about yourself than anyone. Listen to those who have been there. Take every chance you can to hear their stories, to listen to their words, and to talk about what they've seen. Reflect on what you hear.

Before you know it you'll be the one telling the stories. You'll need something good to say.

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