Senior year of college meant getting into the classroom and actually teaching. This meant two student teaching opportunities. I had signed up as being interested in secondary education, so my field placement would be at the high school level.
The first semester was for a few hours twice a week. In the spring semester, it would be full time, every class, five days a week.
The policy for placement in schools was to offer exposure to different grade levels. They wanted your experience to have a gap in ages: so you might work with 9th grade the first semester and then 11th grade during the second; or 10th and and then 12th grade.
‘Tech prep’ and a lack of accountability
So for my first semester I was placed with 11th graders who were on the “tech prep” track. I was told that meant they weren’t aiming for a four-year college but technical training. Nothing wrong with technical training at all! If Mike Rowe has taught me anything over the last year or so of following his advocacy for skills training and technical work, it’s that it’s every bit as valuable and necessary. It doesn’t have to be a last resort for a career.
But from what I could see with just a few sessions of observing how this class was organized, the “tech prep” designation had a demoralizing feel to it: the group of kids that don’t fit elsewhere. The students that don’t want to be in class, period. Students who haven’t mastered many of the basic skills and yet found themselves a year from graduation.
Students without an inner drive to learn or listen. Many of them, I’m sure, had chaotic home lives, faced with poverty, hunger, neglect, or perhaps they experienced the impact of drugs or physical abuse.
Grammar rules and reading comprehension were not top priorities to them.
Some students slept in class. Some made absolutely no effort to engage. Some argued back with limited repercussions.
And I’m supposed to teach them?
Reaching students where they are
The students’ lack of interest made it really feel like teaching was a performance art. To some degree my mentor teacher did just that.
I recalled my own experience with 11th grade English. How we read books on our own outside of class and used time in class to discuss the material, to dive deeper. But here? My mentor teacher stood in the front of the room and read aloud “Of Mice and Men.” He changed his voice a little for both main characters. It wasn’t a matter of him beginning the section and calling on students to pick up with the reading; he alone read. I’m sure there was some discussion, some simple questions to get the class to relate to the story. But it all seemed overly simplistic for what they should be able to do at their age.
Again some students slept without being called to attention.
There wasn’t homework. No request to continue reading on their own. My mentor teacher probably confided in me “why assign something that has no chance of being completed?”
My mentor teacher was trying to reach these students where they were. I could see that to a degree. But if you set low expectations, there’s an underlying message of “you can’t do or be more than this.”
My philosophy of education and observational assignments did not prepare me for this scenario. How am I supposed to teach these students?
I observed for a few weeks and was in charge of simple tasks so the students could get used to seeing me. But eventually I was in charge of designing a lesson plan, complete with identifying the state standards those plans achieved and then executing those plans with these students.
They certainly weren’t going to care about Jonathan Edwards and his brimstone and hellfire sermons, but that’s one lesson I had to cover. How do I make this relevant for them? Sadly, after discussing possibilities with my mentor teacher, that lesson evolved into an art class where the interactive portion had students drawing pictures of some of the images from the sermons. Is this 11th grade English or elementary school?
I’m not a performer. I don’t have that energetic, dynamic personality that draws people in. I can be very monotone in delivery even if I think I’m speaking differently. My eyes weren’t conveying absolute excitement about the day’s lessons. Those aren’t natural for me, especially when I’m terrified of what I actually have planned and doubting my ability to execute my lesson. Given the lack of interest from the students, I felt like I absolutely needed the ability to entertain to keep their attention.
‘I’m an impostor’
Throughout the semester, we were required to videotape a few of our lessons to discuss back on campus with other student-teachers. I do not like being on camera, so this just made me more self-conscious and uncomfortable. These videos were a way of evaluating various aspects of the lesson: How was the teacher’s body language when giving instructions? Could everyone hear? Were instructions clear or did were students confused? Did the teacher interact with most students or just a few? If problems cropped up, how were they handled?
I always felt like an impostor among the other student-teachers when we watched these videos and offered constructive criticism. They all seemed to enjoy what they were doing. They seemed confident and in control. I wasn’t particularly excited about where I had been placed, and I didn’t exactly like the students. I felt like a fraud, like someone who was pretending to be a teacher but really wasn’t. I didn’t feel like I had any business being in those education classes and submitting video evidence of my attempts to teach.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. However, if there were others, they did a better job of concealing it. I was quite sure my discomfort and insecurities were completely obvious at all times.
I remember one time while my college advisor was observing me that I just broke down; I had to leave the room. Talking with her in the hall, I absolutely questioned whether this was the right job for me. I wanted to give up. She encouraged me to stick with it, promising that the next semester’s placement and experience would be better.
I am thoroughly impressed with myself for making it that far and walking into that classroom every time I was supposed to. I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t sure of anything really. But despite those fears and insecurities I went through the process. I drafted my lesson plans and attempted to teach and finished out the semester.
Teaching is incredibly challenging! There are so many roles to play each day. It’s not just addressing the subject matter, but you’re trying to instill a love of learning and exploring and thinking about problems. And maintaining control of a classroom is very tricky for someone who has a soft voice and probably sounds like she’s asking for students to consider quieting down rather than demanding their attention.
Being at this school while working with these students makes me realize how much I took for granted my own work ethic and interest in learning. I didn’t always comprehend things right away, but I continued to try. I had plenty of obstacles in my way preventing me from learning or at least making it more difficult, and yet I had an inner drive that pushed me forward. I realize now that not everyone has that; it’s not a given.