How I feel about teaching

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Near the end of my second field experience, during the long commute to Lake Shore Middle School from my home, I started to compose a letter to my future urban students. I composed the letter in my mind, spoke the words to myself as I drove, and wrote them down when I arrived in the classroom. As a starting point for how I feel about teaching, I’d like to share that letter with you here.

To my future urban students,

I love stories of rebellion. Maybe it’s because I’m an American and I appreciate that my ancestors fought to make a new world for themselves. Maybe it’s because I love stories of pirates and fantastic voyages and adventures. Maybe it’s because I like to root for the underdog.

You often hear that: that people like to root for the underdog. However, this is not a game. This is life. And you’ll find too often, that in life, the status quo is to keep a dog in its place. To keep rebellious individuals in history…to speak of them in such a way as to make myths of them. To make their exploits seem unattainable in the present.

I love stories of a man who said, “I have a dream.” A man who used his mind and his words as weapons to change the world. I love stories of rainbows and marches and people coming together to ensure that the rights you and I have, are the same rights that others have.

A lot of you are born with obstacles. You come from poverty. You come from communities where drugs are exchanged more easily than smiles. From a world in which a long line of family members has watched their children grow through pictures and letters received in jail. 

Some of you might think to yourselves: THIS is rebellion, this act of making crime a part of your life. You might think to yourself: THIS is how I will make a way for myself in the world. I tell you plainly: this is NOT rebellion. THIS is the status quo, what some might call…modern slavery.

Do you want to know how you can rebel against the status quo? Lift yourself up out of your ignorance. Let your mind be a sponge now…and later it will be your weapon. Your teachers are resources: use them and learn everything you can. It is NOT stupid to be smart. Seek for the right answers and you will find the right questions.

What will those questions be for you? I don’t want you to ask, “Will I find myself in jail in ten years? Will my children raise themselves?” I want you to ask, “Where will I go to college? What can I do to help my fellow man? How do I want to change the world?”

I’ve heard teachers and principals talk about receiving letters from previous students. From previous students, now in jail, who want to let them know how much they appreciated their help when they were young. About how they appreciated having that teacher or principal in their life. I don’t want to be that teacher. And I don’t want you to be that student. I don’t want to be the teacher who has to admit, “I helped that student become a slave to society.” I want to ignite your mind with a love of learning. I want to start a fire so hot within you that your shackles melt. That you turn your obstacles into stepping stones instead of chains. 

When you come to school and act out, when you come to my class and act out, when you’re on your ninth referral and your fifth time in in-school suspension, you may feel that you are rebelling. You may feel that this is a way for you to build up a reputation among your peers that you are a rebel. But I will tell you right now, you are not a rebel. You are doing what society expects of you. You are fulfilling a role put into place for you before you were even born. What is that role? The role of being your own captor.

I want to apologize in advance for the times I will lose sight of the big picture. For the times that I will be so busy with the task of preparing you for a standardized test that I will forget that I too can become part of the system. For the times that I will forget the fact that you are acting out because you feel safe in this environment. For the times that I will forget that I too, can be one of the captors holding you down.

Let us break free. Let us become dogs of war. Let us unite under the banner of a better world…a world in which every child has an opportunity for greatness.

I have always liked stories of rebellion. Years from now, I will be telling people about your rebellion story. About how you raised yourself up from a broken world and resisted the path laid out for you at birth. About how you looked your given future in the face and said, “No, I will NOT be a slave to society. I will not follow the path put out before me. I will make my own path. I will overcome adversity. I will rebel.”

I hope that by sharing this letter with you, it will be plain to see that I believe teaching is about more than just sharing curriculum content with students. It is a commitment that you make, day in and day out, to be there for your students: as an educator, as a role model, and as an inspiration. I believe that students should be challenged to grow in their knowledge and to grow as people. Teaching is a great opportunity to meet individuals from all walks of life, from all manner of backgrounds, and to show each of them that there is validity and beauty in this melting pot of diverse cultures.

I want to teach because I want to make a difference in the lives of our children. I want to be the teacher who has students visit her years later and say, “You changed my life.” I want to teach because it is a challenge and I love challenges. I love seeing a child light up with wonder when they discover something about the world that we live in. I want to teach because of that feeling of accomplishment when a student finally understands a concept because I have explained it in just the right way.  I want to teach because it is exhilarating, scary, fulfilling and challenging all wrapped up into one.

I went through the Kelly Educational Staffing training to substitute in Duval County when I first decided that I wanted to teach. Before being out in the schools, I was already feeling drawn to high school. Attending High School was a pivotal time for me. I discovered the book Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, and it challenged my long held beliefs about religion and our existence. It was a time of awakening, a time of independence, of finding myself and challenging authority. I think back to those days and the teachers who helped me get through them: Mr. Engel and Mrs. Darley and Mrs. Coulter. I think back to the teachers who did not help me get through them. I consider friends who participated in drug use and the teachers who ignored the signs. I remember teachers who allowed sleeping in their class. Ones who failed to challenge their students. The mix of both extraordinary teachers and the ones who failed their students is what drives me to teach. 

I feel drawn to teaching high school students because that period can be a life-changing and tumultuous time. I want to be a stable role model for students who struggle with this phase of their lives. When I started substitute teaching, I decided to try several different age groups and subjects; that way I could confirm if high school was the right age group for me. While I had many fulfilling experiences, I established two things: high school was the right call for me, and in no way did I ever want to teach kindergarten!

I am passionate about science and biology. Science is about constantly learning. About observing our natural world and drawing well thought out conclusions based on evidence and then sharing that evidence with the world. We are biology. Biology connects us to every living thing on this planet; it connects us to each other. Learning about the inner workings of the body inspires us to be doctors, veterinarians, nurses, dentists, researchers who cure diseases, physical therapists…healers. Learning about DNA inspires us to be researchers, detectives, forensic scientists…problem solvers. Learning about how we are connected to the environment inspires us to become conservationists, environmentalists, forest rangers…activists. The beauty in biology inspires us to draw, paint, write…create.

Students who learn to have a love of biology are productive members of society because biology is a part of everything we do. As a high school teacher, I will never be on the front lines of cutting edge science. I will not be the one in the lab finding a cure for cancer. However, I will be the one inspiring students to be there.

Why do I want to teach at an urban school? I think Harry and Rosemary Wong put it best when they said, “The only factor that increases student achievement is the significance of an effective teacher.” Schools do get unequal funding, but if providing a good education were only about the funding schools receive, then how can poor schools achieve anything at all? There are people in other fields making innovative leaps and bounds with less money than some of their counterparts…finding ways to provide third world countries with clean water and medical care with limited funds and resources.

Everything is easier with money…but creativity can trump lack of funding and support. I have that creativity. I have the drive to make it happen. There are so many resources just waiting to be found. I will go the extra mile to find them for my students.

2. Discuss the strengths that you bring to the teaching profession.

I possess several strengths that will ensure I succeed at fulfilling the role I envision for myself as a teacher. I am motivated, patient, kind, funny, analytical, wise, curious, well balanced with a strong constitution and sincere. I am motivated to know my curricula through staying up to date on current research. I am motivated to find solutions for my students, on my own time, by finding creative ways to fund projects. Through my years of serving in the restaurant business, and as a mother, I have developed a huge reservoir of patience. Through my years of working toward my goal of becoming a teacher, I have shown my patience in action.

I am kind. I am a humanist and believe in the equality of all of my students, no matter their background or culture, or that of their parents. I can be empathetic to the struggles of my students, even if they are not ones that I have experienced. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “You can never do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” In this age of worries about the mental health of our students, with gun scares and suicides, I realize the effect that words can have. I strive to always be kind and patient with my students; I do not know what they are struggling with.  

I have an easy way with humor and appreciate laughter. Laughter can release tensions and help build relationships. While teachers often dread the class clown who strives to derail classroom discussions, I believe that some comedic relief can be a way to maintain students’ engagement.

Due to my analytical nature, I can often consider various outcomes to situations in the classroom. This allows me to prepare well and avoid conflict. As I get to know my students, I will utilize past experiences to tailor my teaching and maintain a good environment for all.

In addition to my love of science, I also have a love of the arts and literature. I am curious about a wide variety of topics and constantly look to learn new knowledge. I hope to pass on this thirst for knowledge to my students.     

3. What is the biggest challenge that you may encounter during the internship? How will you deal with the challenge?

My biggest challenges will be time and money. I will have to work weekends waiting tables during my internship, but in preparation for this, I am hoping to work a lot over the summer and save money so that I may not have to work as much during the fall. I will also get in contact with my directing teacher as soon as I have been placed, so that I can look over the curriculum during the summer and start preparing for class. I hope to build a good working relationship with my directing teacher so that I can have as successful an internship as possible. I will be open to accepting help from anyone willing to give it. I will work with my directing teacher to develop a thorough schedule and behavioral plan that sets us up for success.

I have always expected a lot from my students. Very infrequently have I seen the output that I desired. Why is there this disconnect between my expectations and what is presented to me by students? This idea of a classroom environment where expectations are high is what I would consider a challenge for not just my internship, but also my future teaching. All of my personal philosophies of education can center on this idea. I have high expectations for my students and for myself. This relates to my desire to provide an excellent education and my desire for society to respect the ability of our educational system.

How can I get my students to produce high quality work that matches my high expectations? Throughout my life, I have often considered the teaching process as many others do: students passively accepting known truths from their educators. But what if students could come to knowledge through something else other than passivity? Part of what I want students to learn from their science education is the ability to think critically with a capacity for rational discourse. What better way to teach these skills but through inquiry-based lessons where they must test their ideas against evidence and the ideas of their peers?  

The utilization of inquiry-based lessons throughout the school year will push my students to connect learned knowledge with their own cognition. While I expect my students to learn how to think rationally and discuss their ideas about science concepts, I also expect them to be able to take the effort to articulate their thoughts with proficient writing. The ways in which I will connect my expectations with output for efficient writing will be threefold. Firstly, I will provide samples of exceptional work for my students. The samples will vary based on the assignments. Secondly, I will actively engage my students in efficient writing and model it for them. I may start or end the week with an open-ended question, wait for answers from the class, write down those answers, and then model how to put the answers into a coherent written paragraph that answers the question. Thirdly, I will allow for remediation on written assignments. Practice will be expected until a passing grade is achieved, and while guidance will be offered, the degree of guidance will decline as time passes throughout a particular assignment and through the year. Minimal effort will not be tolerated. A lack of effort for original assignments or remediation will result in after-school tutoring and/or other efforts determined by administration, parents and myself.

The focus of an inquiry-based centered classroom and the many opportunities to perfect their writing will teach students more about my desire for excellence than just telling them what I expect. I have to actively show them. Another way I will stress high expectations is through the assessment process. While multiple-choice will be a component of my assessments, students will be expected to present their knowledge through more than just choosing answers from a short selection of possibilities. I will provide students with multiple-choice questions in class and will model the thought processes included in making a choice.

I will constantly push the idea of the importance of metacognition and encourage my students to think about what they think and why. My students will have the opportunity on every multiple-choice portion of assessments to include a written analysis of why they chose their answer. Such a process will help me as a teacher and the writer of the questions to access where learning gaps may have occurred or where I may be able to improve the question. Such a process will help students question themselves about their own thinking, give them ownership of their own ideas, and possibly lead to a higher score on the assignment. I will also provide students with a list of possible open-ended questions before the assessment so that they are able to research and practice writing what they would like to include in their answer. Students will also always have an open-ended option on every unit assessment to tell me about something that especially interested them and that they learned from the unit. In addition, remediation on assessments will always be an option. For some assessments, remediation will be of the original assignment. In unit assessments that are closely linked to traditional tests, the remediation process will be more difficult than the original assignment. This process will be put in place to avoid students who want to avoid studying for such exams and instead utilize their first attempt as practice.

In addition to my expectations for excellent classwork, I also expect a respectful environment. At the beginning of the year, I plan on starting with an activity where I tell students that I only have one rule and ask them to guess what it is. The activity will include them putting their ideas for what they think the one rule is on slips of paper, anonymously. The anonymity will no doubt lead to tomfoolery, which is what I am hoping for. My one rule is a verb and a noun: Respect. I will have students exchange their “rules” and then ask them to come to the board and try to group them together, asking what the rules have in common. I hope that there will also be non-examples. Eventually we will come to the idea that at their heart, all our class rules are about some kind of respect.

I know that I will face many challenges, of which I cannot even begin to imagine, but I will ensure that I prioritize my health by preparing meals in advance, getting plenty of rest, and taking time away from my busy schedule to connect with my family. I will work hard to ensure that my daily responsibilities are met while maintaining a vision of the big picture; that no matter the obstacles, there are people available to help me and that I will be successful.

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