Part of the Process

Thoughts on becoming a teacher.


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Thinking back

Over the weekend, as I have been working on final papers and projects for the quarter, I have spent time reflecting on the work I have done and what I have learned. As I was re-reading my Educational Autobiography I thought more about how my educational experiences shaped my desire to teach and informed me of the type of teacher I aspire to be. I thought I would share some of my autobiography here:

Mr. Niekamp’s greeting of  “I saw your dad running in the fog this morning and I thought he was dinosaur!” is one of my earliest memories from school. Mr. Niekamp, my kindergarten teacher, could really relate to his young students. I remember lots of fun activities: making animal masks, learning about how paper is made (there was a paper mill in my town), making books for each classmate and I still think of him when I sing the silly songs he taught me. I was fortunate to have him as my first teacher and even more fortunate to have many other dedicated and passionate teachers throughout my education.

    I started out in that public school kindergarten class, but from there completed first through eighth grade at a small private school before going back to public school for high school. In the private school I benefitted from combined grade level classes, extremely low student to teacher ratios and the experience of working as a tutor for younger classmates, but probably not much else. There were no music or art classes and not much to speak of in terms of technology or science. That changed in fifth grade when I had the unique experience of being a student in my dad’s very first class. He did a lot of project based learning, is an artist and had a real passion for teaching. I was in his class for two years and still have a lot of fond memories from it. I moved to finish seventh and eighth grade with a veteran teacher who had been using and reusing the same tired lesson plans for years (my older sister had been in his class seven years before me). This man often made personal and disparaging remarks about students in the classroom. It was disheartening for me to see an adult behave in this way, especially in those middle school years. I remember not having much respect for him, which was a new feeling for me. I still strived to do my best work, but I felt an alienation from my teacher.

    From this tiny private school, I moved to a fairly large and diverse high school. It was like a whole new world opened up to me and I loved it! I had teachers that took a real interest in me and noticed me. Mrs. Grimshaw’s art classroom was always open and became my home base. Over those four years she became a real support for me. I had teachers whose passion for their subjects was evident, from the way Mr. Eiler would jump around the room while discussing DNA to the way Mrs. Kuebler would display a mixture of exasperation and delight when the rats managed to escape their cages again. This passion was infectious, it really drew me in. Mr. Cooper was passionate about Shakespeare and literature, but I loved how he would forget where he parked his car, it made him seem human to me.

    Making the decision to become a teacher has been a long road for me. I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Washington in Environmental Studies. I knew I wanted to join the Peace Corps after I graduated, but wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do after that. During my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I ended up being a teacher in many different settings. I taught preschool, environmental education, life skills and HIV/AIDS education with individuals aged three on up to adults. When I returned to Seattle, I began teaching preschool and over the years have thought more and more about becoming an elementary school teacher.

    Every experience I have had as a teacher has brought its own challenges. The difficulties of trying to teach children with whom you don’t share a common language, the struggle of finding engaging lessons that would meet every child in my Life Skills class of over fifty girls, to the more routine challenge of conveying sensitive information to parents. Although in every case, the rewards of teaching have greatly outweighed the challenges, these experiences have added to my own personal and professional growth and I look forward to everything I will gain from my role as an elementary school teacher.

    Challenges are not my reason for wanting to become a teacher though, as I mentioned above the rewards I have gleaned from teaching have been many. Witnessing the learning process and seeing children develop competence with a subject is so exciting to me. When one of my students experiences joy and discovery, I feel it too. I love seeing the growth of children over time, having those moments when I realize that a particular child has mastered a new skill. Being a caring and attentive adult in a child’s life brings a lot of satisfaction for me.

    I was so fortunate in my own education. The majority of my teachers have been passionate, caring, dedicated and innovative practitioners. I want to bring these same qualities to a new generation of children. I have many role models to emulate. Teaching is a way for me to give back to my community, to repay the energy and love that was bestowed on me throughout my education.


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Positive Thinking

During the very first night of class, Allison brought up the idea of looking for competencies in children and their families. Around the same time, I read “Assuming Positive Intentions” on Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It about how people are trying their best. Both of these related ideas are so simple but I’ve been thinking about them ever since.

I feel that I am a pretty patient most of the time in my interactions with the three year old children in my class, I also feel like it is important to have refreshers and reminders about the ways we should interact with children. When one of my kids has a day where they seem to just not be able to follow directions or listen, or I am met with what I feel are unreasonable demands from parents, I have found “everyone is trying their best” running through my head. Keeping this in mind has helped me try to see things from someone else’s perspective and to be more understanding and patient.

We have been talking about standardized testing a lot recently and I have tried to keep these principles in mind during these discussions. I think it is easy to get carried away when thinking about these big, frustrating topics and move into blaming the nameless “They”. It can be powerful to remember that the people responsible for things that we see not working so well in our educational system were also working with good intentions (at least for the most part).

I hope that I will be able to carry these ideas of looking for and assuming the positive  in my future as an educator.


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Lance Jones

Last night, I interviewed my little brother for a project I’m working on for my Middle School Learners class. The fact that I got a 14 year old boy to happily talk to me about his experiences in middle school is probably a testament to what a great kid he is. I asked him to choose a pseudonym for me to use in my paper, he chose Lance Jones, the names he gave to his tuba and saxophone. I really enjoyed learning more about what those years of his life were like and it made me want to learn more about the experiences of other kids. I went to a tiny private school from 1st-8th grade, so traditional middle school experiences seem a little foreign to me.

There were a few things that stood out to me during the interview. When I asked him about teachers, he told me he knew that teachers cared about him when they took the curriculum further, brought in extra activities and made it fun. I asked him if he felt like any of his teachers didn’t care about him and he told me that he felt like a few teachers were just there for the paycheck (he mentioned these teachers just chatting with each other or showing videos all the time). For the most part he held his teachers in high regard. He told me about a time when he felt like he was being bullied (verbally) and a teacher stepped in and talked to the other child. He said the teacher did the exact right thing for the situation.

One of the things that kept coming up was how he felt frustrated with kids who didn’t care about school and how in every class there were kids who were “goof-offs”. I asked him why he thought these kids didn’t care about school and he thought that maybe they had a bad experience in elementary school that “set them up terrible for their whole education”. He thought a possible solution for those kids would be if a teacher noticed they were struggling and stepped in to try to make school fun for them.

At the end of our conversation, I asked him if he had any general thoughts that had come up. Here is what he said: “Middle School is a time when you decide if you want to stay a seed, or if you want to start to germinate, put roots down and grow.”


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Community

I really loved “Building a Safe Community for Learning” by Mara Sapon-Shevin. Community is something that I have thought a lot about. During my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, community was in the forefront. Getting to know my community and how to successfully and respectfully be a member of it occupied a lot of my thoughts .

Although, its not such a prominent issue for me now, I still think about community in my current role as a preschool teacher. I want my center to have a community feel, for families to feel that they belong. In class a few weeks ago and again the other day the importance of rituals was brought up. Rituals can be a great way to build community. Recently,  my center held our annual Parent Work Day. I think this is a great example of a ritual that benefits the center by not only getting much needed maintenance performed, but also gives the parents a different type of role and time to work together and get to know each other better. This single event is one of the most important community buildings events in the year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the type of community I want to foster in my future classroom. I especially love Sapon-Shevin’s quote about safety:

     “the safety to learn and fail; the safety to show oneself fully and be appreciated or at   supported; the safety to be imperfect; the safety from humiliation, stigmatization, alienation from the group. This is the essence of community. A community is a safe place to grow, a space that welcomes you fully, that sees you for who you are, that invites your participation , and that holds you gently while you explore.”

I love this quote, it applies to children and adults. These ideas should guide the way that we treat each other. This article really reaffirmed my desire to be the type of teacher that builds a positive classroom community where children feel safe enough to take risks. I want my students to try new things, where failing at something is okay because it means you tried. I also need to learn this for myself, that its okay if I fail as long as I am learning from it.


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Us versus Them?

As I was reading Chapter 3 of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I experienced mostly negative emotions, ranging from disbelief to anger. Ravitch describes the changes the San Diego school district went through in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s. New administrators were brought in that favored a heavy handed top-down approach that placed no value on the experience and buy-in of the teachers and principals. Teachers in the San Diego school district were being treated like the enemy. This kind of treatment just doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t imagine thinking that in order to have success in schools, you must force teachers to comply with your agenda. It must have been a pretty dismal time to work in that school district.

As I’ve been thinking about it, I have been reminded of the way the teachers felt about administrators in “School Work: Gender and the Cultural Construction of Teaching” by Biklen. The teachers in this study felt like their supervisors routinely “underestimated them” and were “out of touch” with what went on in the classroom. I don’t personally know a lot of teachers, but I have heard these sentiments expressed before. I wonder how pervasive this distrust between teachers and administrators is in our school systems?

I’m left thinking about what can be done to change the dynamic of these relationships? We have been talking and thinking a lot about teaching as a “Professional Community” in class. As teaching moves towards this “Professional Community”, hopefully teachers will garner more of the respect we deserve and gain more of a voice in policy decisions.


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Here We Go!

The first few weeks of being back to school (after a fairly long break) have brought lots of new experiences. Blogging is definitely in that category!

Although I am still near the beginning of my journey towards becoming a teacher, I feel like I have already learned a lot. I have been thankful for the insights, opinions and the shared personal experiences of my fellow students. I’m looking forward to using this blog as a space to reflect and develop my ideas concerning education.