Thursday, July 26, 2012

Stop This Train

      This week was the first one back to work. In addition to sitting in various meetings of varying degrees of importance and informativeness, I've trying to squeeze in the setting up my classroom in time for the new students' arrival on Monday. Perhaps it's because I'm no longer new to this and I haven't had a summer (and I'm typing this while listening to John Mayer, specifically the song, "Stop This Train"), I'm feeling rather...doubtful about this year.

       Note that this feeling has nothing to do with the school, the new kids I haven't met yet, or new colleagues. It's all me-centered (that sentence sucks). I'm in a weird place - for the first time in six years, I'm no longer a "student". I graduated from grad school. I did it. Now what's next in my journey? On top of that, I've made great personal strides this summer in terms of taking care of myself physically (i.e. I'm getting in shape and eating better) that I'm fearful of losing. Again, not one damned thing I just mention has anything (directly) to do with teaching. Yet, this weird out-of-school zone/fear of personal regression somehow feels tied to it. 

     I think that the connection lies in the fact that teaching last year encompassed so much of time and life. My interests were put aside, my health was a peripheral concern, and my time was given to teaching first and foremost. When I did the new teacher orientation, I made sure to mention that our students deserve teachers on their 'A' game, and those teachers are usually the ones who are well-rested, good at coping with stress, and in general, taking good care of themselves. Granted, I said this to them not as someone who actually did this, but as someone who did the opposite and paid for it. I suppose the overarching questions of this school year will be: How can I balance what's best for the students with taking care of myself physically and mentally? What are my next professional moves that maximize benefits for future students/schools that I work for and for myself?

     To wrap this waxing poetic and tie back to John Mayer, "Stop This Train" was John's musing being in the weird transitional place when getting older, which is apropos. I think this is where I am. I recently "celebrated" a birthday, I'm finally taking a break from school, and I'm starting to make personal strides. I was in familiar space, and now, I'm getting further away from it, which only begets uncertainty and doubt. I remember feeling this way once before - the summer after I graduated from high school. I didn't do so bad after that train ride, did I?


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reflecting on Year 1, Part II: What Went Wrong

Reflecting on Year 1, Part I: What Went Right was my first step in the planning process for this orientation sessions, so here goes Part II. Like last time, I'm rolling stream of consciousness, so I apologize for the numerous typos, in advance, though I am trying to get better at reducing them and editing myself as I go...

1. Not Budgeting Enough Time for Myself: This is totally "selfish" in that, theoretically, this list should be about errors that affect the students. Yet, I think this one does, if not directly. A tired, frustrated, burned out, and unhealthy teacher is not the best one, and at several points in the year, I became that teacher. It was when I was exercising, sleeping, leaving the building at a good time, quitting all work by a certain time, eating well, socializing, and overall, just taking care of myself that I was at my best as a teacher. I got more organized, more efficient, and planning better lessons.

2. Re-Inventing the Wheel Too Damn Often: Engaging, effective lesson ideas were planned before me and are out there for the using. Forms and templates were created before me. Organization systems were thought of by more organized teachers than me. So why the hell didn't I use any of these until later on in the year? Because I thought I knew better, which brings me to...

3. Believing in the Super Teacher Myth: I thought I would be the BEST TEACHER EVER in year 1. Hell, no. Pretty good for a first-year? I'll take that. Look up See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden, especially if you are going into your first-year, though it's good for any teacher in her/his formative years.

4. Self-Doubting Myself: Because on the reinventing of the wheel and believing in the super teacher myth, I did real damage to myself through a lot of self-doubt. "Why isn't my activity going the way I planned for it to?" "Why the hell do their benchmark scores suck so badly?" "No, seriously. I taught them that. I. TAUGHT. THEM. I swear I taught them. Why are they acting like I didn't teach them?!" I really thought it was be being a sucky teacher, but no. This is something that almost every teacher experiences. Natural ebb-and-flow in the classroom.

I have enough ideas to develop this presentation for tomorrow. At some point, I'll share it. While there are plenty of things that went wrong last year, in total, I must have done well, because the kids learned :)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Hallelujah, the Saviors are Here"

Two of my favorite Internet-based time-wasters collided: satirical sites and education blogs. Bless The Onion for providing such awesome comedic fodder: My Year Volunteering as a Teacher Helped Educate a New Generation of Underprivileged Kids. The piece is a thinly veiled swipe at Teach for America, and some of the teachers/mindsets that exist in TFA corp member population.

For me, the article is apropos. As I'm finishing up (finals tomorrow) this grad degree, I'm starting to think about my next moves, or my next grand teacher improvement project. What can make me more effective and/or what can get me access to more information, tools, and resources that can really enhance the classroom? As I've alluded to previously, TFA is one of several options on the table.

I just want to note that the article brings up something that bothers me about some of the TFA mindsets, and that's the egotism. While I'm sure that most teachers that speak similarly as the one in the satire don't mean to come off as egotistical; I'm sure that they truly to do care about their students and providing them with the best that they can offer them. Yet, read the satire as if a real teacher wrote it, and tell me that you don't get the same unsettling vibes as I did:

"When I graduated college last year, I was certain I wanted to make a real difference in the world. After 17 years of education, I felt an obligation to share my knowledge and skills with those who needed it most.
After this past year, I believe I did just that. Working as a volunteer teacher helped me reach out to a new generation of underprivileged children in dire need of real guidance and care. Most of these kids had been abandoned by the system and, in some cases, even by their families, making me the only person who could really lead them through the turmoil.
Was it always easy? Of course not. But with my spirit and determination, we were all able to move forward. 
Those first few months were the most difficult of my life. Still, I pushed through each day knowing that these kids really needed the knowledge and life experience I had to offer them. In the end, it changed all of our lives.
In some ways, it's almost like I was more than just a teacher to those children. I was a real mentor who was able to connect with them and fully understand their backgrounds and help them become the leaders of tomorrow.
Ultimately, I suppose I can never know exactly how much of an impact I had on my students, but I do know that for me it was a fundamentally eye-opening experience and one I will never forget."

All the emphasis is mine, by the way. If you still aren't a little bit unsettled, listen to this poem called, "Hallelujah the Saviors are Here". This was written and performed by an actual student in Chicago, where TFA corps members are placed, which brings me to problem #2. I'll let you listen to find out what it is.

I have more to say, but no time to write now, so more later...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What It Means to Appreciate Learning

As I was perusing my usual websites and blog collections sites (I'm on study break), I came across a thought-provoking post on Teach for Us called "Test Day is Game Day". Because I'm pretty sure that the author's alias is her actual name, I won't post her name. Here's an excerpt:

"This summer, at Institute, I realized something important: my students must love learning in both of these settings. They must  be as engaged in the content in a testing environment as they are during my most exciting independent practice or engaging discussions.
When I used to think of assessments, I used to think that test-taking was not a transferable skill. I don’t need to sit down & answer a series of multiple-choice content-based questions to buy a cup of coffee or coach a team or do whatever else I love. But after this summer, I see that tests do more than assess content — they teach us perseverance.
When my students sit down in front of a test, they are not simply preparing to answer a series of multiple choice questions about math. They are attacking math. They are activating both their long-term and short-term memory. They are synthesizing content to answer questions. They aremanaging their time to make it through the whole test. They are looking at problems that feel impossible and using critical thinking skills to find alternate solutions, even if they can’t remember the formula. They are doing their best. They are showcasing their knowledge. They are confident. They are empowered.
Classroom engagement takes all different forms. Engaging students in meaningful discussion is incredibly satisfying as a teacher, and through discussion, individual growth becomes visible. But this success means nothing if it can’t be applied to high-stress, testing environments, where individual students are called upon to do thier best on their own, without any coaching or feedback. Test day is game day."
Again, I'm on study break, so I'm going to try to pin down my thoughts in a few minutes, so as usual, excuse the typos!

The first question that popped into my mind as I read was do students really have to love learning in an engaging environment as well as a testing environment? No, I don't think so, which brought me to question two, do they have to love learning at all?

As someone who has had an interesting academic journey that went from easy street, to indifference and boredom, to dogged determination to get into a really good college, to overconfidence, to defeat, to building back confidence, back to dogged determination to graduate on a high note, and finally to where I am now (BTW, that's "confident, very capable, but full of humility"), I get what it means to feel on top on my game and to struggle mightily (Linear Algebra, I'm looking at you). Apparently, I don't hate learning, because a) I'm a graduate student and b) I teach. Clearly, I have a high regard for the process of learning.

Yet, I don't feel it is necessary to love to learn. For example, I can gobble me up some biology. I love it. I can't, however, gobble up Dostoyevsky (heck yes, I spelled that right the first time!). Or calculus. Or physics, but I do appreciate the reasoning and processes behind analyzing a novel or learning that integrals basically deal with area (in fact, that's kinda beautiful when you think about that...). I don't necessarily love or even enjoy the process of calculating an integral, though.

I suspect this holds with most people about some topic. As much as I love science, I understand that most of my kids don't, and it's not my goal (or even my job) to get my students to love science. My goal is to get them to appreciate science and the processes that are behind scientific knowledge. Even if my kids aren't tripping over themselves to become scientists later on in life, if they can understand why they are learning what they are learning and are engaging in whatever we are doing in class, be it discussions, hands-on/minds-on activities, labs, whatever, AND they meet my learning goals, I'm happy at the end of the day.

As for testing, it's not anything that anyone I know, adult or child, likes. The CRCT sucked. The ACT sucked. The SAT sucked. The GACE sucked. The GRE really sucked. I did not love any of those tests. What I did love was that feeling of pure victory when I kicked all of their asses, so I completely agree with the assertion that testing, in part, teaches perseverance. I'll admit to taking the SAT and GRE twice, because I didn't think I did my best the first go-round. Instead of crying, in both cases, when I got to my computer in the evening, I went ahead and plunked down the $100+, reflected on where I went wrong, and got back studying to fix my mistakes. I was not excited about spending more money and time on those tests, but I wasn't about to let some test keep me from getting into school.

I'll end on this note: Part of appreciating learning means appreciating that, at certain points, you gotta show what you know, know what you know, know what you don't know, and how you can best address gaps in your learning (which is not to absolve teachers from this process, but I digress). Remember, that's only a part of appreciating learning, which means my job (and the job of every teacher that shares my goal) is a tall order, but it's one that I wouldn't undertake if I truly didn't believe in it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflecting On Year 1, Part I: What Went Right

As I wrote on my last post, I was asked to give a presentation during the new teachers' orientation on how to survive during the first year at our school. I gave myself kudos, but here's where the nitty-gritty happens: the reflecting!

I've been doing this on-and-off all summer as a means of developing new ideas or evolving older ones. Still, I want to do some in-depth reflections on what went right, what went wrong, and then what's next.

Because it's late, I'll tackle what should be the easiest for me to do: reflecting on what went right. I think I'll do it in a numbered list, because I will literally be typing as I'm thinking of my list. Hopefully, what I write will be readable :)

1. Establishing my teacher persona without sacrificing my out-of-class personality and without being false. How I acted in the classroom is pretty much how I act outside of class AND I kept teacher presence. From day one, my kids knew that I would not tolerate nonsense, and that my classroom operates on assumed respect from both ends. I know for a fact that this policy of mine is what helped me maintain "control" (I put it in quotes, because it's not my first choice of word...I think I would prefer "authoritative presence").

Outside of the classroom, I'm a light-hearted, jokey character and a bit of an introvert. I'm not a social wallflower, yet prolonged social interactions can tire me out sometimes. I have no time for nonsense inside and outside the classroom. This version of me (with a cleaner mouth) is who showed up to teach everyday: some days, I can deal with more light-hearted conversations and can really ham it up, and other days, I really just needed my kids to work independently and without much fuss to boot. And none it came off as false. They all knew that whatever the mood in class that day was, it was all organic. It wasn't a put-on for guests or admin. It was all Ms. Insane.

2.  I was good at putting my feelings and thoughts aside to get the job done. This seems to run counter to number 1, but this part is more about putting away the personal stuff. Granted, it was (and still is) easier for me to get excited about a lesson when I feel good about work and about personal stuff, but I can bottle up personal stuff, so that it doesn't mess up my day with the kids. Lord knows that there were days where everything sucked: long meetings, emails that won't deal with themselves, adults acting crazy, students acting crazy, etc. There were some days where I woke up feeling like poo for no apparent reason. Yet, I could contain my feelings to where they wouldn't contaminate my entire day. In fact, most of the days, I had a better outlook on my problems. There is something to say about being too tired to be mad, worried, sad, or much anything other emotion beyond "determined" to fix or get over whatever the malady may be.

3. My classroom blog: While I won't post a link to it, trust me when I say it kicked ass. The better, updated version of it to be released at the beginning of the school year will kick even more ass.

4. Keeping my adherence to (and belief in) the school culture. If someone were to ask me two years ago whether I could teach in a place with a "rigid" structure, I would have said no. After doing so for two years now, I can wholeheartedly say, "Sure. Why not?" I don't even think that rigid is the right word here, but it's the best I've got. Our school culture is well-defined and is to be fiercely maintain and to do that, our school has a definite way of doing things that if not done, can get a teacher shown the door quickly. I'm making this sound horrible, and to many people, it is horrible. Some have tried to do it anyway, but ultimately did not do well in this type of environment.

Being the light-hearted character, I thought that I would struggle to fit the way the school wants things done in the classroom to how I would do them without the structure in place. However, once I stepped back, I could see several aspects of the school culture where individuality and flexibility could take what may seems to be a restrictive way of teaching and doing things in the classroom into something that makes for a really special teaching and learning experience. I apologize for being vague for those you reading who don't me or where I work, but suffice it to say, someday I will figure out a way of describing this that maintains some degree of anonymity.

5. Eventually, coming to realization that I was doing the best I could as a new teacher and that I didn't suck. I'm not really sure if this counts in the right or wrong column, but I'll list it here because it popped up. Though this realization didn't come until the last month of school (after the standardized testing was over), I came to it and kept it moving. Even though I didn't see it while I was living it, I was reflecting and evolving throughout the year. My lessons in May blow the ones in October out of water. More inquiry, better discussions, more independence from the kids! While this all is a result of the kids' growth, their growth couldn't have happened with something being done right on my end. In fact, it had to be more than one thing done right on my end for the improved lessons to for the kids. And not that we're supposed to hang our hats on these scores,but my kids rocked their state tests. While we as teachers may not care, the educational overlords do, and these people keep schools open and running...and keep me doing what I love for another year. 

6. I never once hated my job. In fact, I really love what I do. Did I hate certain aspects of it? Sure. Who loves or likes every aspect of anything or anyone? Despite my disdain for aspects of my job (e.g. 35-minute lunch periods - 10 for transitions - 5 for food nuking/prepping time = 20-minute lunch), I never once regretted my decision to teach or take the job at my beloved charter. Were there days that I didn't want to go to work? Yes, and when the feeling was overwhelming, I took a personal day if there were no impending teacher holidays. I openly admitted that I took of my two personal days simply to go see movies, because I really wanted do something for myself that was not education-related.

Guess the two movies I saw on my  personal days. 
Still, even when things sucked, I didn't hate my job. Point in fact, I very much love teaching. It's still exciting and dare I say, fun on most days. I still get a bit nervous when the kids come in, and I still get a thrill once the "meat" of the lesson kicks. I still get crazy excited when the kids get a concept or when they have the "light-bulb" moment of understanding. I still enjoy planning lessons. I still like grading "A" and "B" papers when most of the stack falls in that ranges. (What happens when the stack isn't so good is something I'll talking about in Part II.)

While I'm sure I could think of more things that went right this year, this leaves me at a pretty good place for the night. I can refer to this list to help me once I start planning my presentation in earnest. 

I can also look at this list whenever my confidence wains as a written, public record of positive thoughts on what I think of myself as a teacher right now. I will definitely need this in November :)

Look out for Part II soon: What Went Wrong. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Not Bad

The principal at my school asked me to do a session during the new teacher orientation, "How to Survive Your First Year at [My Beloved Charter School]".

If you will allow me a very brief moment to allow my head to go large, I kinda knew it was highly likely that I would be asked to do so. And I knew that I would say yes if asked. Which I did.

This means that I now need to reflect on my first year and figure out how I did. To be honest, I recognize that I survived, that I have happily decided to do it again, but after that...I don't know how I did it! I have to figure what I did. I've spent so much time over the summer reflecting on what NOT to do again or how to improve things that I didn't spend any time on what to keep doing.

That's going to make for one heck of post soon, guys! Can't wait for the self-dissection!

In the meantime, let me leave you with a small taste of how much I (very currently, as in right now, not a second afterward)  rock at life. This is an email I received from my professor who evaluated my grad exit portfolio, which is a collection of narratives I had to write with "artifacts" I used or created during my time in the program:

"Ms. [Insane],

Congratulations!!! You have successfully completed your e-portfolio. This is by far the most thorough e-portfolio that I have evaluated in my three year stint as a professor here at [place I attend grad school]. Keep on being exceptional!!! You are one step closer to becoming a Georgia certified middle level mathematics/science teacher and completing your requirements for our certification program. Please see my comments regarding your e-portfolio in [software where I submitted the monster]. Congratulations to you again!!!"

Not bad, indeed. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Seriously, Teachers! Stop this NOW!

Stop posting comments on your Facebook pages about your students. It can bite you in the butt.

Remember, if you don't have anything nice to say about a student, keep it to yourself!

Unless, I'm missing something, this stuff is common sense. Why isn't it being used? I don't get it. It's frustrating me. Really, am I missing something here? If so, I genuinely welcome anyone to challenge me on this.


Ms. Insane

Oh, and don't look up or befriend your students on your personal accounts. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

More on Teacher-Prep Programs & Research Methods & ...

I mentioned towards the end of my last post that this subject came up in my Research Methods class a few weeks ago. Mind you, the discussion was not framed in terms on our opinions of teacher-prep programs. In fact, here were the questions that framed the discussion...

"Art Levine is a critic of teacher education. You can read some of his ideas here:

1. What does Levine see as the basic problem with teacher education?
2. Do you think teacher education is easily researchable? Can you think of a research question that Levine wants answered? "

Note that neither of the questions asked for our opinion on teacher education. I read the link the professor provided but wasn't satisfied, so I did some more digging and found the following: 

Levine's report called "Educating School Teachers" from which his remarks on teacher ed came.
A WaPost article Levine wrote on the subject in 2011.

Just a warning, before you embark, the first link is the entire report. All 140 & something pages of it. This is something to skim through in bits and pieces. The second link is a more condensed version of his argument. After doing my digging, I wrote the following on the discussion board (excuse the grammar, please)...

"It was hard for me to get a good read on what Levine's problem with teacher education was based on the provided link, so I did some digging. I found the link to his "Educating Teachers" report  and the link to an article Levine wrote about his report for the Wa Post in 2011.

I still don't have a great feel for what his problem is beyond that he thinks that many colleges of education are falling! He does give a variety of possible reasons: low admissions standards, weak, unfocused curricula, inadequate field experiences, limited contact with K-12 schools, and faculty who have been out of practice for a long time. Part of the reason why I don't have a great feel for his problem is that it is poorly defined. His reasoning for the "failure" of colleges of edu are too wide scope; any of the reasons he stated could affect how well teachers perform (note that I didn't define "performance") on their own.

With that said, my answer for question 2, is no, teacher education is not easily researchable. First, like in Levine's case, the problem needs a clear definition. For example, Levine could have started with "Do teacher's SAT scores affect their students' scores on the CRCT?" He could see if there is a relationship between the two, and then go from there. Next, a clear and measurable dependent variable is needed. In my sample question, I went with student CRCT scores. Lastly, the validity of the IV definition and DV measure needs to be considered. Someone could (easily) convince me that CRCT scores may not be the best measure of the effectiveness of a teacher, thus making its use in research not a good idea. Getting one step right is difficult, so it goes then that getting all three right is more difficult.
Perhaps, what Levine should ask is, "What teacher-related factors relate to their effectiveness?" He could examine number of pedagogy courses (or SAT scores, field experience time, etc.) and relate them to some student achievement measure, for example. Either way, some more (good) research may make his argument more convincing to the powers that be. [NOTE: nothing I said here is meant to be in support or against Levine's argument, though I do have an opinion!]"

Note how I did NOT give my opinion on the matter, because I wasn't asked for it. Most of the responses I received were thoughtful. Some folks agreed with me, and some thought that Levine's stance was quite clear. Then, I get a response like this:

"[Ms. Insane],

Do you believe that the measure of how much a student learned is an accurate factor/standard to grade teachers on their success? I have testing anxiety so I'd feel bad if my teachers livelihood rested on my testing ability."

Le sigh. My response to this poster:

"From the original post: 'Someone could (easily) convince me that CRCT scores may not be the best measure of the effectiveness of a teacher, thus making its use in research not a good idea.'

My purpose in mentioning students' scores on a test was not to insinuate that it is an accurate factor or standard through which to "grade" teachers on their success. My point was that it is a potential operational definition for "teacher effectiveness" or "teacher quality", for better or for worse. 
On an off-topic note, yes, I think some sort of measure (or more than one measure!) of student learning is but ONE part in determining the effectiveness of a teacher."

Ironically enough, in a discussion questioning the difficulty in researching teacher education and evaluating it, someone becomes an anecdote to strengthening my opinion on the problems with my teacher-prep program. It's not difficult to extrapolate from my postings that I generally agree with the core of Levine's argument in my own program. I can't speak for other programs, because I wasn't in them. In my own, though, I saw many of the weakness he points out: out-of-practice faculty, students slipping in through low entry standards, less-than-desirable student teaching, etc.  

However, I do wish that Levine's argument was more grounded in research. What exactly is his indicator that current teacher education programs aren't working? Standardized test scores? Number of schools making AYP? A general feeling or what? There had to be something that made him say that what's happening now isn't working. How did he come up with his possible reasons behind this "failure" in teacher-prep programs? Not to say that they are wrong (or right), but I'd like to read some studies that give his argument more of a backbone. 

I loved Research Methods as an undergrad, and I still love it today. If I didn't like the classroom as much as I do, I would totally be in educational research. Who knows? I might have my hand in it somehow, someway one day. 

To make a meaningful decision in education today, it seems that at least a basic understanding of research methods is necessary, as it should be and should always be. Yet, the conversation becomes diluted and dumbed-down when extraneous details get thrown in. We were having an awesome conversation about Levine's argument and its basis in research, whenever the flavor of the conversation was watered down with an argument based on a personal feeling. 

Let me not get it twisted, humans are doing the research, so feelings, opinions, and biases are a part of the game. Yet, we don't invite them in and use them as arguments, which is why I preface opinions and feelings and label them as such. I shouldn't have to, because everyone should know the difference. Still, I will hear the "No, that wrong, because my cousin, Remus went to a school where...blah, yak-smack...and he won teacher of the year." or the "You're right because of blah, blah, at my school."

To be honest, I don't mind these types of comments, but I understand that these comments don't move research along unless they are being acted upon, which is why I ask for pieces of research whenever someone finds something that support or goes against any claims or opinions of mine. Just so you all know that I don't write in a vacuum; I often send my blog post along to teacher friends and respected professors of mine in the research biz, so that discussion and thought can be stimulated to move things along. In the case of the class discussion and now, I would love nothing more than to move along the discussion of the research of teacher-prep: how we do, who we let do it, and how we choose people into these programs. Yes, I bitch to vent, but I also do it hopefully to move things along in whatever small way I can. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

My Problems with My Grad Teacher-Prep Program

Just a brief note. Before actually writing this post, I actually begin a post about my graduate teacher prep program, but I never finished it. This first part is the beginning of the original, unfinished post. This was written in November 2011.

This is just my opinion. While I'm all about research and data (and those who know me well can attest to this), opinion (or "first-hand accounts") are not useless to researchers. In this spirit, I write!

My problems with graduate school are well-documented here on my blog. It is a frequent target of mine whenever I get the fine whines, but it's not because the graduate work is "time-consuming" or "difficult". I can handle both. What I can't handle is "wasteful", which is what this experience has been for me so far.

I'm working on a Master of Arts in Teaching degree in Middle Education Math and Science at a the second largest university here in GA. What all that mumbo jumbo means is that I'm in a graduate-level teacher preparation program, which is unlike the Master of Education, or M.Ed.

Hey! It's the present-version of Ms. Insane writing again! As you read, I wasn't a fan of my graduate program then, and I'm still not a fan now. However, now that I've come to the end of the road, I'll write more in detail about my experience. 

Again, let me note that these are my opinions, as in NOT SUPPORTED BY RESEARCH! If there are certain aspects that are, cool! I would relish reading these pieces, so post links or references.

The root of my problems lie in the following: a lack of focus on the practical, everyday aspects of teaching and probable low entry standards.

Lack of practical, pedagogical knowledge
          I've written about this already here and especially here. Still, to this day, that "Theory and Pedagogy in Middle Childhood Math and Science" course was the biggest waste of time in my post-secondary education career. The saddest part about this course was that it had the largest amount of potential to turn things around. It was a 3-hour class session every week. I would have loved for the first hour to focus on the theory-based readings, and the last two to focus on practical implications and practices from those theories we discussed the first hour. What we got instead was an hour of shooting-the-breeze style whine sessions (which as a teacher, I totally get the need for these) followed by the professor discussing how awesome her own classroom was without telling us why it was so awesome. This was followed by 30 minutes of her discussing the week's topic and then a hurried listing of the 901 readings and reflections that needed to be done on the readings. I was okay with the readings and the reflections. Too bad, we never actually discussed them and how they applied to our teaching philosophies and practices.

          I bring up that "Theory and Pedagogy" course as it was the epitome of the wastefulness in opportunity that I felt throughout my program. The particular program I'm in is built around the idea of having a cohort of preservice teachers taking the same courses together to create a sense of community. We would discuss and make sense of education theories, discuss together how these theories apply to today's society, share and discuss good, research-driven practices, and overall act as each other's soundboards and support system as we developed from pre-service to in-service teachers. Last summer gave use the background in theories. The fall and spring semesters (i.e. the Theory and Pedagogy course along with practicum) was supposed to be about the practical application. I didn't feel that was the case and many of my cohort members/my friends would agree with me to some extent.

          You could classify all of the cohort members as one of the following: a regular preservice teacher, a teaching fellow, or a provisionally-licensed teacher. The teaching fellows were those accepted into a special program that came with a grant, a year-long placement in a classroom in a high-needs school with a mentor teacher, and a high likelihood of having a job in the same school during the next school year. (Note that this teaching fellowship was not the same as the one I did. I came across mine while I was an undergrad, I didn't get a grant...I did land the job though!) The provisionally-licensed teachers were actual teachers without a renewable certificate. However, they varied in experience level. There were pro-licensed teachers with three years of experience and were some with none (me!). The regular preservice teachers were those placed in a regular practicum experience: one semester in one school doing mostly observations with a little bit of teaching at the end plus another semester in (highly likely) another school doing increasingly more teaching. Most of the cohort fell into the "regular preservice teacher" category. 

          No matter our classification, we all had a US, a university superior, our connect to the grad school while we were out in the field and the person who graded our performance through practicum. If you were lucky, you had the same US throughout both semesters. Because you are likely going to change schools (and thus mentor teachers), it would be nice to have some consistency. However, many of us ended up with another US for the next semester. I'll admit that in my case, my second US was miles more engaged and enthusiastic about discussing whatever was on my mind, teaching-wise, than my first one. In fact, I still communicate with her today and will continue to, because she has been an absolute blessing and inspiration to me! However, I don't think that my experience was common. My mentor teacher was also consistent, because I chose her and worked with her everyday. Again, most of my cohort-mates likely didn't have the same experience of having a consistent presence to help them along and support them.

        Yet, this is the whole purpose of student teaching. Whether it is a five-week program or entire graduate program, preservice teachers need a consistent, knowledgeable, and experienced mentor, advisor, or supervisor to help point out what is working, what can be improved, and possible solutions on how to improve. The US, while not as omnipresent as the mentor teacher, is supposedly the "expert" at this. However, I think that we greatly lose out when we switch USs halfway through. This blow wouldn't be anywhere near as damaging if we could keep the same mentor teacher throughout the year. My teaching fellowship before my actual first year of teaching saved my butt. There's something to be said for acting as a "fellow" in a classroom for a full year before doing it yourself. I watched an experienced, awesome mentor teacher at work for an entire year: I watched where she went right, where she stumbled, and how she bounced back. In the mix was me, observing, asking questions, jumping in to help students, and eventually, taking over the wheel. Whenever I did take the wheel, we would debrief about what I did well and what I could do better next time. That experience is how I largely avoided the year one ass-kicking many new teachers get. And to this day, even though my teaching fellowship mentor no longer teaches at my school, I still keep in touch with her. I shudder to think about how crappy of a teacher I would have been without that fellowship. That's not to say that the regular preservice teachers are screwed. In fact, some of them are the hardest-working and most talented out of the entire cohort, and they will do great. However, it would have been nice if our program didn't stack the deck against them.

Note: Many out there are likely thinking, "How did this affect you personally?" The answer is that most of this didn't, because of my mentor teacher and second US. However, at the beginning of the year when I could have used more practical strategies to help my students, I was left hanging by the course that I thought would have been the most helpful and by my US, though her lack of presence was not likely her fault, but the school's for stretching her too thin. 

Probable Low Entry Standards
         I'm going to keep this part short, because as I said in my last post, if you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself. Yet, I feel compelled to say that while most of my fellow cohort members are intelligent and hard-working individuals, too many for my comfort were not. I genuinely felt concerned about these people having their own classroom in the near future, and I still do. For example, there is no excuse  for a future science teacher to not know why we have seasons! There is no reason for thinking that merely showing a Brain Pop video on organelles is sufficient to teaching students about organelles. And yes, knowing that 'b' is a constant in the algebraic equation 'y = mx +b' matters when you teach it! Also, knowing the difference between an "expression" and "equation" matters. Say what you will about TFA, they got the idea of selection right.

        While I am plenty disappointed in my graduate program, they didn't get everything wrong. I do appreciate the courses on educational foundations, theory, and diversity, which you just can't get in a classroom. While it's not something I think about everyday, what I learned in those courses helped me put a lot of what happens in and around my classroom into proper context. Without context, I wouldn't understand many policies and the reasoning behind them nor would I understand the underlying processes at work in many practical ideas. In fact, it is from these theories and ideas from education thinkers around long before us that these practical ideas are born.

        I am grateful for the contacts I have made through my program both personal and professional. I am also grateful that there were online courses available, so that I could continue to teach and learn at the same time. In fact, most of the courses that have been the most enjoyable and helpful to me have been online. Online courses are a blessing to teachers who want to grow professionally without having to sacrifice their classrooms. 

       I don't know whether my problems with my grad school program are school-specific or system-wide. Perhaps, it may have something to do with how I feel teachers are trained (which was a point of discussion in my Research Methods class two weeks ago...I may post my discussions!), because most of my problems are centered around the quintessential in teacher-prep programs, the student-teaching experience. Either way, I'm grateful I'm at the finish line.

Now, what's next? TFA or more grad school?