Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning from a Veteran: An Interview

I had the pleasure of working with my girl Steph for the first three years of my teaching career.  During that time, she was supportive and challenging and encouraged me to be a teacher that really stuck to her guns.  She taught me that it was okay to challenge my students in a new way and she always urged me to be a collaborator.  During our last conversation, I thought this teacher has so much wisdom to offer!  So I decided to interview her.  Below are some little nuggets of gold to take with as the school year begins.

1.  What is the most important thing that you have learned that student teaching didn't prepare you for?
Student teaching is a time of life when I was definitely in survival mode. I was trying to lesson plan well, teach well, grade well, know my students as best I could, and to sleep a bit here and there. During this time, I was so focused on my classroom, that I saw little outside of those four walls. Therefore, student teaching did not, in any way, prepare me for the variety of teacher personalities and agendas that I would come in contact with.

It did not occur to me that collaboration would be incredibly difficult at times; that small groups of teachers are resistant to change and therefore growth. Student teaching did not warn me that some teachers would forget why they got into this profession in the first place. Their self-centeredness and stubbornness was shocking in the early days of my career. Honestly, after twelve years it is still surprising at times.  Student teaching did not show me the disappointment I would feel at times in my colleagues, and undoubtedly the disappointment they sometimes feel in me. It also did not show me the personalities of those who constantly go above and beyond, of those who can reach students unreachable in other classrooms. I was unprepared for the lengths some teachers are willing to go for students, for their schools, and for their communities.

What I have learned during the last twelve years, no thanks to student teaching, is to align myself with teachers, administrators, and staff who inspire me and to stay away from those who create drama or who drag me down. I have learned to seek out those who are like minded and to learn from and grow with them. Only in this way, can I become the absolute best version of my teacher self.

2.  When was the first time you realized, "wow, I'm really a teacher"?
I did not have my first “Aha” moment in which I felt like a real teacher, until a few years into my career. I came into teaching from the publishing field and have always felt that improving student writing is critical. During one class period, I was having students revise pieces of their own writing, as well as other student pieces of writing. We were making sure statements were supported with textual evidence and we were eliminating wordiness. Any changes that helped improve writing flow or increased clarity were celebrated and witnessed by the entire class. Students began complimenting each other on changes being made, and started thanking each other for the help they were receiving. I knew they were improving. They knew they were enjoying the activity. At the end of the period, one student came up and thanked me for caring about their writing and for trying to make them better. That was it! I knew then that I was a “real teacher.” When you can get students to thank you for making them work, you have made it!

3.  What's one activity that you did during your first few years of teaching that you will never do again and why?
During my first few years of teaching I wanted to work a creative project into my Shakespeare unit. I also wanted to have student-produced work to display in my classroom. I remember assigning the License Plate Project. Students were to create a license plate that related in some way to Julius Caesar.  They were meant to be clever and to reveal an important part of the play. Many of the plates simply had phrases such as: E2BRUTE, or SEASER or STABSTAB. They were colorful or cute and the right size or shape, but in my reflection of this activity I realized the students got nothing out of doing this. They were not asked to analyze or critically think. They were asked to be cute and to color nicely. I have learned since those early days that my creative projects must always contain a written explanation of the creative piece. When doing creative projects now, my students must incorporate a discussion of why they chose certain colors; the symbolism of their piece; any allegory or allusion they have included, etc.

4.  What role does creativity play in your classroom?
Creativity plays a solid role in my current classroom. I am very aware that not all students learn in the same way, and that many cannot express what they have learned in the form of multiple choice tests and formal essays. In my classroom we stand up, we move around, we sing, we chant, we play, we color, we paint, we write, we read, we laugh, we share. My opening day activity with seniors in Honors World Literature is a finger painting activity. They must describe the role of a griot in Africa, but do so on butcher paper using finger paints. Later in the year when we study cuneiform and hieroglyphics, they create their own symbols and alphabets related to modern day and write a brief story using their designs.  Anyone without an assigned reading part during Oedipus Rex becomes part of the chorus and must help chant those lines while walking in a circle in the middle of the room. Hector and Achilles have had their arguments on top of desks and they have spilled out into the hallway. Odysseus and Penelope have had heartfelt discussions lying next to each other on the floor of my classroom, and many a student has taken the risk to show us the video she created at home, because she was just a bit too nervous to be creative with us watching in real time. Creativity is noisy and messy. It means the teacher has to let go a little bit, but it makes learning fun and it is engaging.  And, it can create amazing results.

5.  If your teaching style was an animal, what would it be and why?
This is a difficult question. After much deliberation I have decided that my teaching style is that of a wasp. Much like the wasp, I attempt to keep stinging (read as motivating) my students. Their flailing hands and attempts and shooing me away, are useless. I buzz around their heads and near their ears so that they hear my voice and understand my expectations even when they are away from my classroom. I buzz near them and attempt to make them move, and only really sting when necessary.