May 26, 2011 1 Comment
At some point during the course of my educational endeavors at Penn State, I developed a theory that teaching is a lot like driving. Not in the sense of actually maneuvering a vehicle (although I’m sure that simile could be effectively made). Rather, I mean it in the sense that it requires a learning period in which an experienced professional takes you under their wing in order to teach you to effectively perform. This person serves as a guide to show you the ropes of a practice that before you’d only ever seen or read about. But as I’m sure any driver can attest to, the majority of your learning doesn’t happen when a mentor’s beside you in the car. It happens after you get your license and find yourself alone in the car, foot on the gas, hoping that neither of the two semi-trucks on either side of you decide they need to merge into your lane.
A driving coach can’t predict every situation that you might find yourself in. What they can do is provide you with a set of basic tools for you to hone in the hopes of being able handling whatever is thrown your way.
I think teaching works this same way. Before awarded your teaching certificate and the ability to teach a classroom full of students on your own, a mentor teacher (or teachers) is required to help you develop enough as a professional to handle this task. They do this by providing you with skills, advice, and guidance through practicum experiences. Once you’ve demonstrated proper understanding of the profession, it’s time for you to take those skills you’ve learned and head out to begin teaching on your own. And that’s where the fun begins.
This past week and a half in the Robert Vaux High School has been this kind of learning experience for me. Under the guidance of my mentor teacher and a host of other school professionals, I’ve learned a great deal about many different aspects of what’s required to effectively teach in a secondary school.
This opportunity, coupled with my coursework and other practicum experiences I have down the line, will help me become the best teacher I can be.
Being that this is my final blog, I’m going to post some of the most important things I’ve taken away from my time in Philadelphia. To begin, I want to note the importance of the six guidelines from Corbett and Wilson’s “What Urban Students Say”, specifically the point about needing to push students. Through observing multiple teachers in Robert Vaux High School, I’ve noticed just how vital this is to getting students to actually work towards their full potential. Without the constant poking and prodding of their teachers, most students wouldn’t even lift a pencil. However, through a teacher’s constant insistence on work, some students are actually driven to perform at a level that they hadn’t previously thought themselves capable of. In the case of one English student, she found herself to be a more competent writer than she ever dreamed. I daresay she grew to like putting a pen to paper.
On a very similar note I observed a good deal on the topic of discipline. Coupled with this is the idea of order in the classroom, an element of the utmost importance as described by Mr. Carter during one of our professional development sessions. I had the good fortune to see how different teachers handled the duality of order and discipline in different ways. From these at times contrasting methods, I was able to form a rudimentary theory on how I would like to cover them in my own classroom. Mr. Krieger, the mentor teacher I was specifically paired with, isn’t the sternest of disciplinarians. He rarely ever raises his voice, and I never heard utter the “D” word. But that doesn’t mean his class lacked order. For the most part his students behave, albeit with a few dissidents in the mix. It wasn’t through fear of punishments that his students complied with him. Rather, it seemed to be respect.
You see, Mr. Krieger has good relationships with a lot of his students. He’s considered to be one of the “cool” teachers around the school. It’s not hard to see why. He’s always quick to joke with his pupils, and usually has an air of good humor about him. He also helps his students as often as he can, either with homework or, with one (what I think to be) very appropriate exception, monetary means. I think his students recognize and appreciate these attributes. They respect him, and through that comply with his wishes that they do at least some of their work. It’s not a forced respect. We all know how damaging and ill-conducive to pretty much anything that can be.
However, I noticed a tendency of some students to try and take advantage of Mr. Krieger. This became apparent when I saw their behavior in other, more strict teachers’ classes. Some students are overly disruptive when in Mr. Krieger’s class, whether through drifting in and out of the classroom, spending an entire period with their iPods in ear, or speaking loudly and out of turn.
Because of these disruptions I came to the conclusion that Mr. Krieger’s degree of respect with his students is definitely something to model. However, I’d like to take a stricter approach in my own classroom. Like other teachers I observed, I would like to keep a tighter shift and try to establish a more rigid classroom order (hopefully without sacrificing too much good humor. I noticed that, too.).
This isn’t to say that Mr. Krieger is naïve when it comes to discipline. There are some formerly disruptive students that he’s learned to deal with quite well. The key word here is learned. As was stressed in last night’s professional development, every student has different needs. This includes discipline. For some students, Mr. Krieger has identified what works in terms of discipline and has used that to better both student achievement and classroom order. I took this away as one of the most important things a teacher should remember upon attempting to manage a classroom.
This goes back to the importance of having close, positive relationships with students. It can help a teacher recognize what their students need to succeed. In some cases, it can even help them to crack a student’s “tough” exterior and realize that they’re not that bad, or slow, or stupid of a student after all. They just need an extra something to get them going. Building relationships and being intuitive enough to look for this extra something is what separates the good from the great. Respect, discipline, and close student relationships all work together to help build a positive, effective classroom environment.
I also learned the importance of keeping on your feet when teaching a classroom. There isn’t a second for a teacher to let themselves slide. I learned this lesson first hand yesterday as I gave my first lesson to a class by myself. Between PA interruptions, phone calls, students strolling into class late, and other teachers knocking on the door, a teacher needs to expect the unexpected. These are the types of things that, like some idiot driver’s risky traffic maneuver, you can’t be specifically taught to deal with. A degree of improvisational skill and ingenuity are required.
A final leaf from Vaux High’s book that I took to heart was multiple teachers’ insistence that at the end of the day, you can remember to laugh. Teaching can carry a pretty heavy emotional load. But as long as you can remind yourself not to take anything too personally and to be able to laugh and keep as much of a semblance of good humor as possible, you stand a better chance of making it through each and every day. I use a day by day scale because, as Mr. Krieger noted several times, baby steps get you through it.
Obviously, I also learned a lot in terms of specific ways of organizing lessons, leading class discussions, different class activities, etc. that I’ll be sure to take with me. But in the interest of blog space and readability, I won’t delve into each and every detail. Suffice to say, I actually learned a good deal more than I figured I would. But I suppose that’s because one can never measure what they’ll learn before they learn it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to learn it.
So now that I’ve come this far, I plan to take these valuable lessons with me throughout the rest of my college years and beyond. These are now part of my tool box, and I’ll draw on them as a solid starting point when I find myself alone behind the wheel. Hopefully, I’ll be up to the task. One can never quite know what a journey has in store for them.