Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mr. Aion: Student/Teacher

During my first semester as an undergraduate mathematics education major, I was told by one of my professors that I should change my major.  After meeting 18-year old me for a total of 7 times, she determined that I wouldn't be a good teacher.  While I can't necessarily say that she was wrong at the time, thinking back, I'm amazed that someone so ensconced in education would be willing to give up on a student.  She dismissed me from the start, rather than helping me to see what I needed to.

While I did change my major, I didn't give up on being a teacher. After graduating, I moved to New Jersey and entered an Alternate Route Certification program where I was hired as a full time teacher and enrolled in education courses at night.

As a direct result of this process, I didn't student teach until I moved back to Pennsylvania and enrolled in a Master's of Education program.  I butted heads with several of the professors in the education department over things that I saw as the short-comings of "education" education, many of which I have laid out previously.

I believe that as a result of these differences in personality, I was placed in a student teaching assignment that was meant to be a punishment.  While many of my classmates were placed in affluent districts, I, as well as some of my more vocal associates in the program, were placed in districts deemed "failing" by the state.

This turned out to be a blessing for me, as I thrived in this environment.  My cooperating teacher was a thorn in the side of his administration, but an excellent teacher.  He and I were of a similar temperament and teaching style, and we hit it off right away.

Since I had already taught my own classes for a few years, he handed over his schedule to me right away and we were off to the races.  The experience of teaching in someone else's class was amazing and, for the first time, I realized what I had missed by not doing student teaching the first time around.

Having another, more experienced teacher in the room who knew the kids and the system was excellent.  He never interfered with my lessons or class management, but we had several conversations of reflection afterwards, the function of which was replaced by this blog for many years.

It may not have been at that point that I realized I wanted to be a mentor teacher, but it was very soon afterwards.  In my previous district, I never had that opportunity, but now I do.

Last Monday, my very first student teacher showed up.  She is eager, energetic and ready to go!  She comes to my class so late in the semester because she spent the first half in an elementary placement.  My 7th and 8th graders are the oldest students that she has taught and, while she admitted she was nervous, she has taken to it admirably.

But this post isn't about her.

It's about me.

Because everything is about me.

Last week, she was observing me teach, learning the kids' names, interacting with them, writing lessons and getting ready to take over.  We had several conversations about what role she wanted me to play as her co-operating teacher; silent observer, class participant, co-teacher, etc.  I want this experience to be as valuable for her as possible, and that means giving her what she's looking for, rather than just checking the boxes handed out by her program.  Her previous co-op was more reluctant to hand over the classes, being worried about upcoming standardized tests.

I have no such concerns.

On Monday, I handed over my Math 7 class, giving her free reign over 25 7th graders at the end of the school day, all of which come to us from gym class.

I took my seat in the back of the room and immediately realized my error.

Folks, being a cooperating teacher is HARD.

Teaching is a strange profession for many reasons, but one of them is that we come to see our classroom as our domain.  This room is my space.  When I am in it, I expect certain things to happen and things to go a certain way.  When they don't, I usually know why.

When you observe another teacher, you are forced to notice things that you wouldn't normally notice.  You go into their kingdom, taking stock of similarities and differences. You note how they interact with students in a different environment.

Being an observer in your OWN kingdom is WAY strange.

I had decided I wasn't going to do any discipline or interacting with the students.  I was going to let her teach and interact the way she wanted to and let the chips fall where they may.  I sat in the back, blank expression, watching a lesson happen in my classroom, biting my tongue.  As my mouth slowly filled up with blood from biting my tongue, I wrote notes for her based on what I saw, and what I didn't see.

It was overwhelmingly positive.  I loved the way she interacted with the kids, the way she presented the lesson, and many, many other aspects of her teaching.

The biting of my tongue had absolutely nothing to do with her and everything to do with the difficulty I having giving up control in the first place and resisting the urge to helpfully jump in.

Upon reflection of my reaction, several things occurred to me, all of which boiled down to a single statement:

I need to be a better teacher.

Saying this isn't a statement of self degradation, but merely an observation.  I am a teacher. I think I'm a fairly good teacher, but I am by no means a master teacher.

I have so much to learn.

In the 7 days that she has been in my room, I have been more reflective on my own practice than I have been in months.  I have thought of better ways to present content, more encouraging ways to interact with the students and my coworkers, and better classroom environmental structures. Having a room full of students who are supposed to be learning from you is a very different experience than having one adult in your room who is looking for you to be a mentor.

Introspection is, once again, becoming my most common partner.

It has been almost 15 years since I have been on the dating market, but I do remember that during the first few weeks and months of dating a new person, people become the best versions of themselves.  We want to impress our new partner.  We do all of the things that we know we should do, many of which fall off of the wagon of complacency that comes from the comfort and familiarity of a long-term relationship.

We have more patience for the faults and more appreciation for the strengths of the person we are dating.  Everything they do is amazing and we go above and beyond in order to make the relationship work.

Having this future educator in my classroom is rekindling many of my own feelings about education that I had no realized needed to be stoked again, blowing new oxygen on the embers until they blaze.

I have been complacent.  I have been lazy.  I talk a good game, but my follow-through has been lacking.  I have not been the better educator that I want to be.  My student teacher, simply by being present in the room and asking me to help her to become a better educator, is doing the same for me.  I am already grateful for her.

I am invigorated.  The next six and a half weeks will be so fascinating.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Preparing the Future of Teaching

My student teacher starts on Monday, so I've been doing some informal research. I've been asking new teachers about their experiences and what I can do to make this one as valuable as possible for my student teacher. I'm hearing consistency across the board:

Education programs do not prepare teachers for the reality of teaching.
Actual footage of a 1st-year teacher
They focus very heavily on lesson preparation, content knowledge and organization, which is all important. Unfortunately, they skip or miss the most important aspect: Kids are kids

My own grad program did an excellent job helping us to develop cool lessons and understand the history of educational policy. Unfortunately, they gave the impression that a solid lesson will make everything great. Yeah, no.

I see this philosophy all throughout my educational interactions with people who are not classroom teachers. The idea of "if the kids aren't engaged, you need to a better lesson" is pervasive, foolish, misguided and dangerous. When teachers complain about how their students are not doing what we ask, the go-to response is (infuriatingly) that we should make the lessons more interesting.

Teaching is about interacting with students. A good lesson is the first step of a marathon. The rest is student interaction, knowing your kids, empathy, knowing your kids, improvisation, building a culture of safety, and knowing your kids.

My education program required 7-10 page lesson plans for each lesson, citing educational research, state standards, scripting interactions with students and multiple avenues of follow-up. Each plan took me 2-3 hours to write.

At no point in my program, did we have a discussion about what it means to interact with middle school students as though they are people. We talked about them in the abstract way of "clients."
We had long conversations about how kids change all the time, but my professors hadn't been in a classroom in decades.

We talked about the importance of making your lessons engaging, but not HOW to engage unengaged students beyond "make the lesson better."What we didn't do was have discussions about interacting with students beyond the surface.

At no point did we talk about what do when your students can't concentrate because they or their family members have court dates coming up and are worried about going to jail.

At no point did we talk about what to do when you have two kids in your room who simply will not stop throwing things at each other.
At no point were we taught how to interact with unreasonable parents. What to do when a first phone call is to the superintendent. How to survive when administration requires you to do something that YOU know is counterproductive to your students.

What do I do when I've spent weeks building up to a lesson and the day before, the loud, popular girls gets dumped and spends the whole period crying?
We never talked about how to deal with bullying in class. We never talked about what to do when a student dies.

Teacher burnout is a real thing. It's an epidemic and is doing awful things to our education system, to future teachers, and to our students. We need to provide teachers with support, but more so, we need to give pre-service teachers the reality of teaching.

Teaching is about students; first, last, and always. Yes, it deals with lessons, content, activities, self-doubt, homework, plans, stress, seating charts, rosters, and crying yourself to sleep. It deals with those, but it's about the students and their needs as people.

Education programs do observations throughout the programs, but student teaching is always at the end. When you discover the wonderful and horrid realities of what it means to ACTUALLY teach, you've been invested for years. This is a tremendous disservice to new teachers.
This is a metaphor!

So what do I want to do for my student teacher? I want to give her space and support. I want to let her deal with issues of walking the tightrope while remaining the safety net far below. Let her learn, fall, get back up and grow.

I want to remind her that just the way that school isn't a good representation life or learning, education programs are not a good representation of teaching. I want to help her become the amazing teacher that she can be.

I want to speak with more pre-service teachers about the reality of teaching, but I think the first time I did so in an education program, I wouldn't be invited back. Colleges, like any other school, are so invested in their curriculum, that any slight push sending them crashing

There are amazing teacher prep programs out there, but they are few and far between. I've met teachers as college students and watch them leave teaching in less than 3 years because of how unprepared they were.

You will cry regularly during your first year. You will be scared and sad and questioning. You will be angry at your coworkers, your students, your parents and your admin. You will be elated when a lesson goes well and crushed when it doesn't.

Teaching is hard as hell. Anyone who says otherwise is either doing it poorly or works in the recruiting office at a University.

I just hope she can write a good lesson plan, otherwise her classroom management will be up the creek.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...