“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”
– Maya Angelou
I was recently having a conversation with a friend who is about to start a new job. A big job for a big company where she will now be a team lead. Working for her will be a number of really young, super-talented engineers. You know who I’m talking about – the ones that pretty much ruined the curve in your college class. They come in with enthusiasm, a lot of know-how but not much real-world experience, and quite a bit of arrogance. She is worried.
This got me thinking about my own career. My first “job in my field” was working for a local aquarium that hired me my last year of college. This was long before I had any idea I had a passion for education. I was different than those engineers in that my early college years didn’t come easy for me. Despite that, in my young age, I vividly remember being naively confident and sure of myself in that job, much like the young engineers my friend is about to work with.
This really made me reflect on how we deal with those that are “new.” Some folks are “new” simply because they are young. With current teacher shortages and heavy recruitment underway, we are bound to have many young new teachers enter the field in the coming years. Other folks are “new” because they are transitioning in their career into teaching, adding a new credential to be able to teach a new course, or exerting themselves into new aspects of leadership. Stepping back, I have long observed two realities when the “not-new” people of the world deal with the “new,” they either squelch them or elevate them.
There’s no question that those that are “new” have a lot to learn. We’ve all been there. Working through anything new is a process that will naturally and inevitably create humility. But how the “new” emerge from these experiences will depend both on their own personal attitude and on how those around them treated them.
In that first “job in my field” I was so arrogant I eventually switched departments and landed in the education department because I felt like, “at least there I will use my knowledge.” There were a few squelchers along the way, but I learned nothing from them other than what not to do. That’s when I met my new boss who changed my life forever. She wasn’t “new,” she had been around the block for quite a while. But rather than squelch, she elevated. I had a lot to learn – A LOT. But she never pointed that out to me. She never gave me the, “I know more than you because I’ve been doing this longer than you” bit. Rather, she led by example, gave me opportunity, picked me up when I fell, and encouraged – she gave me a chance after chance to elevate, and I soared.
Years later, I can reflect back and recognize that at every moment in my career where I grew the most, began to take more chances, take on more leadership role, and even finding myself in positions to elevate others, I had a person. A person who knew way more than I did but never made me feel that way. Instead, they elevated me. Sure, there were moments when these folks had to have a frank and humbling conversation with me, but I attribute wholly the person I am today to those that extended a hand, mentored, and inspired me. It goes without saying that I had to be willing to take the seat at the table, commit to the work, and really listen. But, somewhere along the way, others helped me see that I had potential. Even today, I frequently find myself in positions where I realize I have much to learn and I’m still leaning on those individuals. And in an interesting twist, I used to just think that I was benefitting by having a mentor elevate me. But I recognize now that we often were leaning on each other.
Leaning on each other is critical. As important as it is to have mentors elevate the newbies, it’s equally important to have peers do the same. Colleagues have an instrumental role in helping each other not only survive the day-to-day but setting a path for future success. As professionals, we are far stronger when we are collaborating and supporting each other.
Some years ago I finally had a chance to read Darwin’s Armada by Ian McCalman. I was somewhat familiar with the tales of the scientists it profiled (Hooker, Huxley, Wallace, and Darwin), but not at all familiar with the fierce alliance the scientists forged later in their careers, forming what would become known as the “X Club,” deciding it was time to challenge the establishment and the old salts who were holding them back and not supporting the “new.”
“The X’ers made friendship a machine of war, and harnessed its energy to storm and infiltrate the fortresses of science. They were a meritocratic ‘conspiracy’, each member boasting real talents, and credentials won in the face of social disadvantage. Collectively, they were unstoppable.”
– Ian McCalman
They worked tirelessly to elevate the achievements of the other, including securing Alfred Wallace a Royal Medal. This group is an example of an interesting mix of mentoring and support for colleagues. It’s also an example of rich collaboration benefiting the whole. Darwin, the elder of the bunch, benefitted from the unwavering support of his younger contemporaries, but also helped foster their successes.
“An arch consists of two weaknesses, which, leaning on each other, become a strength.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
My advice to my friend embarking on her new journey is the same to all of you amazing science educators. Remember the importance of everyone learning from and supporting each other – no matter where you all are in your careers. Reach out when you can. It’s okay to guide, but when you do, listen to others, acknowledge ideas, be a partner, and show respect.
Thinking of my friend reminds me of the fact that as we approach the end of the school year, we all embark on a new journey. Some colleagues are moving on to other jobs. Some will retire. New teachers are hired. Everyone will try to dig deeper into NGSS next school year and probably spend most of the summer preparing.
This is a prime opportunity to elevate others.