Reflecting on My Journey as a Teacher

I (Clare) am currently teaching a graduate course Current Issues in Teacher Education. The first assignment asks students to:

Write a reflection paper on your experiences in a professional program (teacher education, Teaching English as a Second Language ….). Provide a very brief description of the program. Some questions to consider are: What were the strengths/weaknesses of the program? How well did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher? What were the limitations of the program? Have your views of the program changed since graduation? How could the program have been improved? Did the program prepare you to assume the duties of a teacher (or other position)? Do NOT respond to all of these questions. Select one or two and respond to them. In the fourth class of the course, you will work in small groups and share your paper with your fellow students.

Since all of the students in the course are teachers they have a good perspective on their program. Their assignments were so stellar I felt these would be of great value to share with other teacher educators. Over the next few weeks I will be sharing these papers. I learned much and I suspect you will too. I have changed the name of the university so that no school of education is identified.

Picture of winding roadHaving a 12 year old boy launch a pair of open bladed scissors towards another student across a room full of miniature sized adults during lunch is, from what I recall, the first time I asked myself, “Is this what teaching is?” If I were to promulgate the sentiment that teaching is a “wild triangle,” (McDonald, 1992) this would certainly be the case. My first year of teaching was a fantastic social experiment on survival. As in most life-or-death situations, there is a certain level of commitment to understanding what threats are imminent, as well as sourcing any and all tools to not only ensure your survival, but also your well-being.  What I have since come to valorize as a teacher survival skill since the scissor attack, is the importance of staying awake and paying attention. One danger in the teaching profession thereby limiting the fecundity of opportunities, is becoming numb and indifferent once you have acclimatized to an environment; teaching the same lessons, same subject matter, with a routine schedule. Although the scissor incident posed a physical threat to students in the class, there are other aggregate elements of a different nature that can compromise learning in the classroom. The microcosmic events of the classroom I have observed over the past 12 years, have created patterns that now lead me to direct this reflection to look at broader forces at play in my journey as a teacher. Consistent with many of the articles we have read in class, I am certain that teaching is so much more than content knowledge and I want to suggest that where teacher education might improve, is in providing tools for future educators to acquire situational awareness skills. One such skill I believe is essential to successful teaching is cultivating the ability to stay awake and pay attention; to students, teacher needs and the environment.

Part of what helps us to stay awake in many situations is intrigue. Curiosity is arguably one of the strongest motivators of learning. The disconnect that can happen in the classroom for groups of students is the lack of relevance to their immediate situation. There are students who are able to direct their attention on understanding the relationship between working hard now, to have tools for future application – a behaviour that is often praised by teachers. However, for other students, extreme behaviour like the example from the previous paragraph, are often utilized for students to remain engaged. In both examples, students are simply seeking the same answer, to the same question: “Are you paying attention?” This presents a conflict for teachers, as attention from the teacher can lead to neglect of others and can be counterproductive with the agenda of the day. However, are the two interests so misaligned? Aren’t teachers there to provide support and direct their attention towards the learner? How can motives between teacher and students be realigned?

Contextualizing students can provide a powerful answer. Our stories are where we find validation and often times an explanation for behaviour that may be incongruent with who we want to be. Providing methods to assist teacher with developing this skill is critical to achieving teacher sustainability. Teachers are constantly bouncing their attention back and forth between their immediate surroundings and where to steer a class. Giving teachers access to training and tools on validating statements like, “I see you and I hear you, this is important and we will come back to it, but right now we need to move on,” allows them to prioritize where and how to give their attention. This was not a skill that was taught or even discussed in my training as a teacher. There are in some cases, school support staff or programs to assist in managing this. The relationship between the teacher and student however is paramount to any outside support that may happen, but often the reality is that teachers are not set up for this kind of relational success. It is an exhausting process for many teachers to try and meet the needs of a class. Moreover, common characteristics of teachers lead many to continue to prioritize the needs of students over their own.

Teacher care and needs are complex and dynamic. Much like situational awareness of student needs is essential to the success and longevity of a teacher, so too is the self-awareness of teachers themselves. Many of my colleagues have communicated to me in casual conversations the struggle to connect activities of day-to-day responsibilities in the classroom with the demands and expectations that stakeholders have. This can add a layer of pressure as an additional element of accountability and responsibility is applied to a teacher’s performance. Stakeholders can include, but are not limited to administrators, parents, the public and the state. However it is rare to find a teacher, regardless of experience, who can clearly articulate what exactly it is they need to meet these expectations or to excel in their role. Often times the easy answer is increased monetary access or resources. During the most recent two years at my school, I had the privilege of being one of five staff members who participated in leading the Professional Learning Community (PLC). Our administration had elected to create a more autonomous environment regarding the professional development of the staff, thereby allowing more voices into the conversation of how the PLC should run. At the end of both years, staff participated in a survey and were asked to specify which areas their PLC days should focus on. After results were tallied, groups were free to meet within their specified area of need and generate ideas of how to accomplish meeting these needs. While some groups like technology in education and staff wellness were able to establish clear targets and strategies of achievement, more than half of the staff and over six other groups were not able to clearly state what they needed and opted for ‘department time.’   How are so many of my colleagues unable to articulate this? Have we become so repetitive and comfortable in our routines that the opportunity for something to change cause fear rather than hope? How can we expect our students to create and innovate if we are not willing to do so? I believe that self-evaluation skills have become dormant in many educators – we simply cannot expect changes if we do not know what we need in order to ask for it. Becoming aware and paying attention to what is needed to perform our jobs well becomes the catalyst for turning the opinion of stakeholders to want to work with us. It also allows for earlier intervention before the temptation of repetition and comfort deceive teachers into believing that it’s too late or too hard for change.

Learning environment is something that has eased its way into my consciousness. As a young student in Ontario I theorized that Catholic schools were “nicer, because they had more money.” Later on as a young adult and teacher, I developed an understanding that schools were not learner centered or designed to inspire, but rather a product of industrialization efficiency where the idea of factory and maximized output was prioritized over lived experience. Now, as a new graduate student at OISE, the common school building represents the powerful historical colonial legacy imprinted on much of the globe during a time where dominant cultures attempted to “civilize” indigenous populations through education. Why does environment matter?

As Beck & Kosnik (2006), explore in their book “Innovations in Teacher Education,” we learn that “space is important to community,” (p.79) and that “community is not just a frill: it is fundamental to effective learning.” (p.74). Environmental space matters. There is growing literature on the value of student learning environments. A book published in 2010 by a team of architects called, “The Third Teacher,” by O’Donnell Wicklund Pigozzi and Peterson, Bruce Mau and David W. Orr, looks at the link between school environments and how children learn, as well as practical ways to implement design changes to prepare students for life in the 21st century. But who, if anyone, is paying attention? We are able to tear down old apartments, houses and commercial spaces and within months have brand new, modern, highly functional structures that reinvent ways people move through space, yet we accept that schools built in the 1950s are sufficient for students. As a teacher my space had a profound impact on my mental state as my physical environment was isolated and disconnected from other areas of the school, becoming a contributing factor in exploring a career change.

My journey as a teacher has incorporated many moments of realization where I was not paying attention, to which there has been a price. After my sixth year of teaching, I had a strong sense that I needed to find something beyond teaching in the classroom. Dissatisfied by my experience in the classroom, I wanted to change my environment in order to evade the numbing and sleepiness that I observed happening to colleagues and students around me. Ignoring this urgent attempt to capture my attention has led to lost opportunities and questionably a loss of time. Even though I am early in my graduate studies it has already been a wonderful change, where I am constantly required to stay sharp and focused and renew my perspectives. Many colleagues of mine who have completed graduate studies and returned to the classroom consistently attest to the richness it has brought to their practice. Equipped with better tools, these educators are prepared to identify the multiple layers necessary to remain nimble and alert in the classroom. The confidence that is gained through the courage of paying attention to your situation, gives you the faith to leap from surviving to thriving.

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