Friday, January 7, 2011

5 Questions for the Prospective PreK-12 Teacher

Hello! I'm Sabrina, and I'm a passionate upper-elementary school teacher turned writer and advocate. I'm really happy to be joining Will and the other contributors here at PEOPLEGOGY, and at his request, I'd like to share five things I think prospective PreK-12 teachers should consider before entering the profession.

1. How's your stamina?
I once read an article where the author described teaching as "the perfect family-friendly job" because "you can be home when your kids are, and you have all the same vacations." I alternately snarled and laughed as I read this article, which I found after Google searching "downshifting + career" because I had just returned home from my classroom at 8:30 at night (again). Clearly, this person was not a teacher-- and he or she certainly couldn't have been a teacher in a high-need school!

Contrary to what some folks believe, pre-K-12 teaching is incredibly demanding. For starters, it is not a "job" that can be completed in the contracted hours-- any teacher will tell you that's impossible to do. Teachers routinely either stay late in their classrooms or bring work home with them (sometimes both) in order to get everything done; that's just the nature of the work. You will also spend a lot of your "vacation" time preparing for students and engaging in professional development. Additionally, I and many other teachers have found that working with children is more energy-intensive than working with adults. You're responsible for them in a way you aren't for adults. You have to keep them safe and account for their personal and emotional needs (which are hard to overestimate, especially in stressful times like these), as well as plan and deliver instruction. And following the "guide on the side" model of teaching means you will be on your feet moving from student to student and group to group for most of your day-- the days of Miss Smith sitting at her desk while her students work silently in neat rows are, for the most part, over.

2. How well do you know yourself as a learner?
This is an important thing to consider because who you are as a learner will affect how you teach. For example, I'm naturally an auditory learner, so when I first started student teaching I unconsciously catered to students with those learning styles. Thankfully, a thoughtful professor noted that for me during an observation, so that I could become conscious of my need to attend to visual, kinesthetic, and other modes of learning as I teach.

It's also critical to remain a learner, and to think about what kind of student you were. Continuing the process of learning new things helps you to stay in touch with what it's like to struggle to learn something new, and helps you think about what kinds of feedback you find useful, and ways to deliver it that are useful and kind. (Nothing's less conducive to deep learning than feeling stupid, embarrassed, and frustrated!) Likewise, consider your assumptions about students who are both like and unlike yourself as a student. I was a "successful" student, so I worked really hard to try to understand what it would be like not to feel successful, and how that might affect someone's ability to learn. It also led me to think carefully about what messages I sent about what was valued in the classroom (innate ability, or hard work? Just the 3R's, or the arts, sciences, and social development as well? Conformity, or individuality?) and the opportunities I created for students. The goal should be for all students to have a chance to feel smart and genuinely successful everyday. Success breeds success, while feelings of failure tend to beget more failure.

3. How well do you know yourself, period?
Somewhat related to the last question, this one speaks to the need to reflect on who you are, and your own identity, before entering the classroom. Knowing about yourself-- how you like to work with others, what you need in order to be your most effective, what pushes your buttons, etc.-- goes a long way to figuring out how you'll collaborate with colleagues and how you'll be able to relate to your students.

Additionally, it's almost certain that you will end up teaching students from a diverse range of cultural, ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds. And you will definitely enter your classroom with the privilege associated with age and education, regardless of the other aspects of your identity. If you're interested in teaching for empowerment and equality (and I hope everyone is!), it's crucial to unpack your assumptions about people like and unlike yourself. This is doubly important if you are a member of an advantaged group working with students from a disadvantaged group.

4. What's your philosophy?
Having a well-articulated philosophy about education and learning is an essential part of being a good teacher. One, your philosophy gives you a way to frame and plan your actions in the classroom. Two, it will help you stay focused on your overall goals for your students during times when the politics of teaching (ugh...) and the more trivial day-to-day realities distract you from thinking about the bigger picture. Going back to your "roots" can help you to prioritize-- "Which is more important-- doing [X activity] to please this administrator, or spending some extra time with this student and her parent?"-- and can be a source of strength during those times when you feel worn down, under-valued, or lost. (And you will feel worn down, under-valued, and lost. Fortunately, many students have a knack for sensing those moments and doing something really sweet to help pull you out of it.)

5. Why do you want to teach?
This is the most important question of all! The incredibly long list of good answers to this question include statements like, "Because I want to make a difference," "Because I love learning, and want to share my passion with others," and "Because I love our youth, and want to help them live better lives in the present and future." (On the other hand, if your answer has been influenced by some random article about how you can get summers off and be home in time for Oprah every day...well, you might want to look into something else!)

Teaching is an incredibly rewarding and important career path, but it's also really tough-- make sure you know exactly why you want to do it, and whether you think you're up for the challenge, before you jump in.

Sabrina Stevens Shupe is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently launched the Failing Schools Project, which aims to empower teachers, students, and parents in so-called “failing” schools to share their perspectives on what it’s really like to work and learn in such schools, and to promote alternative ways of thinking about and solving the problems these schools face.

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