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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Teaching is like Gardening

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Yes, this is probably an overused metaphor. But, I am thinking past the seed germinating and taking root analogy to my own personal experiences with gardening. I became interested in gardening several years ago and have tried a variety of approaches. I learned about gardening from internet research, reading books, talking to other gardeners, adapting some of my knowledge from studying restoration ecology and from practice. Each time I try something new (either a new plant or growing method) I try to get a baseline of knowledge, but then just kind of experiment to see what will work.

    I think there are some crossovers with teaching. Teachers learn from a variety of sources, just as I have in my gardening efforts. In both cases I think some of the most valuable lessons come from talking to others and from experimenting.

    I can learn specific information about how to make a cucumber plant grow and produce, but then I have to go and figure out how to make it work in my own yard. Teaching is the same, we can learn about how to teach students and ways we can provide the right conditions for their learning, but we have to figure out how to adapt it to our own personal situations (including the personal situations of our students).

    Both teaching and gardening are hopeful endeavors for me too. In gardening you put a lot of initial resources in (working and nourishing the earth, watering, planting in an appropriate space for sun) and then you see if the techniques were successful. Some factors, like a late frost or other weather patterns are out of your hands.


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Learning Environments

The end of the quarter is rapidly approaching, so I was determined to get some work done on some of my final papers this morning. Instead, I have been organizing and looking at the work I have left to do. I finally sat down at my desk to start writing and spent about ten minutes writing and then deleting everything I had just written. I stopped to watch a video for next week’s class: “People and their Desks”. I definitely haven’t followed in Einstein’s footsteps, I don’t thrive on clutter. That being said, the desk I share with my partner is occasionally tidy but often pretty cluttered. It is populated with books, bills, cameras, a plethora of markers, pens and pencils and some miscellaneous mementos.

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In short, its kind of a mess. I took a few minutes to tidy things up a bit. I hope this helps de-clutter my brain for the work ahead!

In my classroom, I am often focused on the environment. I am vigilant about clutter and making sure that the space is clean, organized and easy for children to see the activities that are available to them. Several years ago, my classroom had a vibrant yellow wall. I repainted it to a calmer blue-green. I know it had a profound effect on how I feel in the classroom and I think it had the same effect on the kids. Classrooms are often busy places and there is a need for a lot of materials, but when spaces get cluttered I think it adds an element of chaos. It is important to be mindful of the way our environments affect us and those around us.


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You Can’t Say You Can’t Play

I finished reading Paley’s You Can’t Say You Can’t Play this evening. I was thinking back to the discussion we had in class a few nights ago about the book and how Paley serves as a moral authority in her classroom, but isn’t authoritarian. I think she is successful with the new rule of You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is because she has earned the role moral authority in the classroom. The way she details taking the time to listen to her students and how she demonstrates she truly cares for their emotional well-being earns their trust and respect. She is modeling empathetic behavior for them. I don’t think the same rule would work in a classroom where the teacher wasn’t modeling this behavior.

I believe that Paley can serve as important model for teachers as well. The way she shows that she takes the time to hear her students is inspiring. Classrooms are often busy places, with a million things going on at once, where the teacher’s attention is at a premium. Throughout You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, Paley is showing the importance of slowing down to ensure that children are being heard.


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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.