The theory of teaching


The education department at my college boasted that they got future teachers in the classroom earlier than other programs.

I trusted that claim. I trusted that it would mean practical experience early on.

Turns out, though, that we had different expectations for what getting in the classroom meant.

What I received were assignments to different schools with each course I took. These assignments focused on observing student development (physical development at first, but at the secondary level those changes become less drastic). Then observing teaching styles and classroom management techniques. We wrote papers for each experience. Sure it helps ingrain some of the theory being taught but it’s not exactly hands-on. I remained a bystander.

I recently spoke with a friend who went through the certification process 30+ years ago. She said there were no classroom visits or observations. Only in the final semester did they make the leap of setting foot in the room to teach.

So my college’s claim was accurate. They were getting future teachers in the classroom sooner.

But I suppose with anything, you won’t really know you’d handle things until you’re in the middle of the chaos. The theory offers a framework, but you have to personalize it through experience.

English or math?

A few semesters into college, I debated switching my major from English to math. I completed my one required math course and aced it. I’ll slightly overlook the part where it was a course designed for education majors instead of something more hard hitting. But understanding ratios and probability certainly has more practical applications than other concepts.

Part of my education course requirements meant doing some volunteering. During my freshman year, I signed up as a tutor. I was offered the choice of working with students on math or English. I shuddered at the prospect of helping a student draft an essay. I was still finding my way in essay writing; I didn’t feel qualified to begin offering assistance. Perhaps after a few more courses, that would improve.

So I helped with math tutoring. They seemed to need more help with math, anyhow. It was odd, though, for a student to slide his book to me and finding out in that moment what he was studying. Normally a teacher has a plan. She might get off topic, but there is a plan.

This was tutoring by bombardment. And it was scary. Needing to take some time to get reacquainted with the material without breaking the illusion that you know what you’re doing.

Eventually I was able to explain the process to the student. And at some point during these sessions I received the ultimate compliment: “you explain it so much better than my teacher.”

I’m not naive to think it was all me. I had encountered similar situations as a student:

  • Teacher walks through the process in class and everything makes sense in the moment, but that clarity is whooshed away when it’s time to work independently.
  • A concept simply doesn’t make sense the first few times you hear it, but it takes a different voice to say the same thing before things click.
  • Sometimes there are multiple approaches to reach the same ends and one immediately makes more sense, which causes you to ask the teacher, “Why didn’t you show us that in the first place?”

At least one more time in college I chose to observe math lessons instead of English. It seemed much more straightforward, more objective. Grading writing assignments seems highly subjective. But with math, there’s a clear right or wrong answer. Work is shown or it’s not.

I signed up for a calculus class in college, the next step, since I left off with pre-calculus in high school. During the first lesson the professor began a refresher on slope, a concept I struggled with in high school but eventually grasped. This professor, however, made it seem like the most complicated thing I’d ever encountered. He also spoke English as a second language so he was difficult to understand. I immediately dropped that class and decided “ok I guess I’m sticking to English as my focus.”


In many respects, I think the classroom observations offered me a false sense of confidence. I was able to write my way through explanations and apply the lessons we learned in lectures to what I saw “out in the field,” yet it still remained theoretical. I did get to view things from a teacher’s perspective, especially when I spent one week shadowing a math teacher. I saw the repetitiveness of teaching the same lesson multiple times a day. The teacher was following a script, it seemed, versus having to think on his feet and improvise a way of getting students back on topic.

I could handle one-on-one situations. Those are actually the moments when I received comments from people about how I explained things or how they thought I had enough patience to be a teacher. That’s the only qualifier, right, to be patient? But I could handle those small moments of working with someone else. It’s when I got in front of a group that things fell apart. Why did I think things magically would be different once I had a degree or a few classes under my belt? I really thought that the intellectual foundation would bring confidence to be in front of a group. It helps, but you really have to be sure of who you are. Being confident in who you are offers an anchor of sorts and then the experience and theory side provide avenues for reaching other people. I kept waiting for more experience, more knowledge, more external factors to kick in before feeling like I was competent enough to stand in front of the class and teach.

I was drawn to the warm fuzzy side of teaching, caught up in a theoretical and romanticized image of what it meant to be a teacher. As a teacher, you have a tremendous opportunity to really shape students and mentor them. I loved the idea of being able to make a difference in a student’s life.

For the most part, my interest in being a teacher was focused on this part while completely ignoring the day-to-day experience. It completely threw me for a loop when I learned about the details that are expected for planning lessons and creating projects. I didn’t think about how I would handle lecturing. Somehow I guess it was assumed that there would be a script or that I would just innately know what to do, suddenly infused with knowledge. Didn’t the teacher’s guide tell you exactly what to say, when, and include tests?

I was focused on the big picture: the potential in teaching, it’s importance for the greater good of society. I didn’t pay too much attention early on for how I would carry out the steps in between, how it fit my personality and temperament.

Maybe in some ways it’s a sign of bravery: putting yourself in a position to do more than you’re currently comfortable with. But I think it also added to my struggle with finding my place and figuring out a job or career that would work for me.


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