Tag Archives: student teaching

What I Learned: Years 4-7

I was going to continue my year by  year  (by year) retrospective, but I decided that the last four years can be considered as a block. Which is good, because if I did a post per year I’d never catch up.

tl;dr Years 4-7 were all about happiness.

I began at this school in late August of Year 4, just a week or so before school began.  Utterly desperate for work, I would have accepted any offer, anywhere in a 35 mile radius and really, by late August, 50 mile drives weren’t out of the question.  That I got my first choice, a school that had actually offered for me the year before, seemed almost a miracle.

And really, I’ve been happy ever since. Teaching has always been a joy. The previous schools, with all the challenges, never dented my belief in my own abilities or the faith that kids were benefiting from my teaching. But at the other schools, the administrators didn’t agree. It’s not that they thought I was a bad teacher. I just wasn’t what they wanted–someone younger, ideally.  Here, for the first time since student teaching, my bosses also thought I was a darn good teacher. May this bliss last at least eight years more.

So in those four years, what changes and accomplishments can I point to?

Teaching Persona

As mentioned in Year 3 retrospective,  I’d begun to establish the same ambiance in my school classrooms that existed in my test prep and enrichment instruction classes. At this school, the process was complete and I never looked back. From day one, I was unpredictable, flexible, friendly, ruthlessly sarcastic, and damn funny, which is where I live the rest of the time. The second year there, I introduced a meme: I am the star of my classroom.  I get a guaranteed audience three or four times a day. It is in my contract. Students are the audience. Their job is to attend. If they’re lucky, they might get some lines. A walk on part. But mostly students are to watch. To listen. Eh…learning would be nice, but that’s up to them.

Someone somewhere is going to take this as a serious statement of priorities, rather than a mindset. Remember that I spend very little upfront time teaching. It’s more of an attitude. It allows me to be big, overblown, demanding attention, dammit, whether you learn or not. Students enjoy the spin on the usual pay attention because education is good for you. Hell with that, kids, your attention is good for me.

I count it as a good sign that I’m regularly in the Teacher Awards section of the yearbook, and for fun things: Storyteller, Unpredictable, Mostly Likely to Lose Whiteboard Eraser. May that, too, extend through the next eight years. I’m a geek; popularity is a nice change.

Building Curriculum–Never Be Satisfied

I vividly remember in the spring of year 4, my first year at this school, when I was looking ahead to linear inequalities. I was just about done with my new method of modeling linear equations which had now gone well twice in a row (remember, this school does a year in a semester and then repeats).

But at the time, I did little more than go through the procedures on linear inequalities, and felt a twinge of shame the first semester, as we moved from a unified modeling approach to…here’s how you test a value.  And suddenly, out of the blue, I remember my ed school professor saying “You should never be satisfied. You can always do better.”

At the time, I rolled my eyes. She was saying this in the context of our first year of teaching, to never feel satisfied. I think this is absurd. “Good enough” is fine a lot of the time. But at this moment, I realized it could apply to an entire career (and in fairness to the professor, that’s probably what she meant.)

So I challenged myself in that moment to come up with something different. How could I introduce  linear inequalities in such a way that would build on the linear equations, while showing their differences? I still use the methods I built that day, although I’ve developed them somewhat.

But from that point on, I always take that moment, that wince away from a piece of curriculum I don’t like. What can I rebuild? How can I make it better? I’m not a perfectionist, not a driving careerist, definitely not hard-charging in approach. (my affect and opinions, whole different deal.) Just one of many ways in which my pricey ed school degree has transformed me well after the fact.

I’ve written about many other curriculum improvements over time. All of these were done with that same spirit of yeah, the old way wasn’t working, let’s try this:

I’ve completely reworked quadratics and exponents as well, but haven’t written them up. It’s been fun.

I don’t have one approach to curriculum, but if I have a go-to process, it’s the “illustrating activity” or problem, which can be seen here in the Projectile Motion writeup, or this lesson on proving the pythagorean theorem and geometric mean activity. I began to write it up as part of this entry, but decided no, do a separate post. (I do apologize for my scarce blogging lately.)

Classroom Ambiance

allclassworking

This is the first time I had my students “work in the round”, which is how you’ll find my class at least 12-15 days a month since then. My current classroom has whiteboards all the way around. The walls have a 5 x wall-length strip of white board paint (which is really cool). I have small white boards with coordinate planes etched in. I also have a wonderful donor who sends me $100 worth of whiteboard pens every year, so the kids can always be working on a big surface, with plenty of room for mistakes.

There must be whiteboards.  Working constantly in class, moving around, reduces the risk of math zombies. Earphones are allowed to shut out the noise, provided I don’t see the student enjoying the music more than the work.

I sit my kids in groups, which has been true since my first year. I don’t do homework, which has been true for two years, but I never counted failure to do homework.

There must also be movies. Twice a semester in the fall, because Christmas means “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Always at the end of the semester.

Assessments

The December of Year 5, I got a look at the new Common Core tests and laughed, again, at the ludicrous notion that the new mean achievement would be centered around these ridiculously difficult standards. Except…..

I noticed that many questions required more than one answer. They weren’t simple multiple choice questions. “Identify all the solutions.” “Select all the equivalent expressions.”

Hey, now. That’s interesting. And my first multiple assessment test was born a week later.

Thanks, Common Core! sez I. My kids, not so much.The tests are really helpful for lower ability kids to show what they know, but the strongest kids have to be on their game to do well.

Here’s my first post on the topic, but I’ve revisited it often. They allow flexibility way beyond the usual multiple choice–I can mix and match between freeform and formatted response, or include both in the same question. I can create one question with varied procedural tasks, or one question that dives deep into one situation. They also allow me to greater access to student thinking.

I’ve also had fun redoing my quizzes in the past year. Typically, my quizzes have been straightforward affairs that contain no surprises. But I’ve started to mix it up. helicopterquest

These are nice stylistic changes, even if the underlying question is still straightforward.

Meta Teaching
While I mentioned that my third year saw fundamental .changes in my approach to teaching, I completely forgot to mention that the year also gave  birth to this blog.  While I began blogging at my last school, all but eight months of it have been here. The blog itself is a constant insight into my teaching practice–among other things. I’ve kept it primarily on education, whether it be policy, practice, law, or the reality, which often violates all the others. And occasionally Trump, of course. But then, a good chunk of my Trump support is also related to teaching.

I was not terribly popular with the head of my ed school, but on at least two occasions, she mentioned my gift for writing about classroom experiences. My second year out, I was telling one of my ed school professors about my administration woes, and he told me that he wanted me to keep teaching so I could write about it.

“You’re a very good new teacher. But writing about teaching will be your unique contribution to the field.” I was immensely complimented, and said so–wondering how I could possibly get someone to ever be interested in publishing my thoughts, and how I could get my thoughts down to 750 word chunks.

Turned out I could do first part myself, making the second (ahem) unnecessary.

I try to avoid doing too much with clubs or other school activities that involve stipends.Mentoring credentialed and student teachers1on the other hand, fits in well with my temperament. I’ve spent most of my life being paid for opinions. Consulting new teachers carries on that piece of my past. I’ll be doing induction this year, and hope to find another student teacher soon.

And so, I move onto years 8 and beyond. Looking forward to it.

 

*******************************
1My student teacher got at least two job offers from the district; I’m assuming he took one of them but haven’t talked to

Advertisements

Teaching Oddness #4: Student Teachers

Student teaching is definitely an oddness, but it’s an oddness with an old history. In the early days of public education, prospective teachers were given a smattering of content in a “normal school”, and then sent out under the tutelage of a more senior teacher to learn the ropes. Then, as now, the actual mechanics of a student teaching experience had a ridiculously broad implementation range, from getting a few weeks learning how to take attendance to a legitimate practicum with an experienced teacher giving advice and feedback.

Here’s what anyone can tell you about student teaching, the stuff that’s so obvious even the hacks at NCTQ can figure out: Cooperating, or mentoring, teachers are hard to find. Undergraduate ed school programs, in particular, are desperate for any warm bodies to shepherd teachers through the practicum.

My own (excellent) ed school provided an entire 12 months of student teaching, first in a summer school program and then a full school year in a classroom. We all had total responsibility for at least one class for a semester. This school had a relatively small program, turning out fewer than a hundred teachers a year. And their search for cooperating teachers was….intense. Generally, the priority was for teachers committed to group work and complex instruction, progressive teachers. But even with the school’s considerable prestige, finding sufficient cooperating teachers by September often meant unseemly begging and attitudes common to businessmen in bars at 2 am.

And that’s a well-regarded ed school. At online schools, the students themselves are required to find cooperating teachers. My current cooperating teacher gig began because I got an email, funneled through the district and the department chair, asking for a teacher with more than three years math teaching experience. Why this district? Because that’s where my student teacher lives. Why my school? Because it’s Title I. They were pleased to learn I was squishy and went to a great ed school, but there were no other takers.

(BTW, I’ve mentioned the need for “warm bodies” before, in other contexts. Quality control expectations of public education shrivel away in the blazing inferno of the billion suns generated by “we are legally required to have a warm body present for X activity”. Grasp this fact, and much becomes clear.)

Researchers don’t often bother with student teaching; this Goldhaber work on student teaching vs. employment locations is interesting, but doesn’t give any insight into the practice. Much of what I find is qualitative research on student teacher experience (everyone I know says their student teacher experience was the most important part of their training). But no one has really written meaningfully on the challenges I found with my first student teacher.

Arthur is my age, which means he’s a second-career teacher starting seven years in age later than I did. He’s retired early, financially comfortable (he takes me out to lunch in his Mercedes!), and relatively unconcerned about getting a full-time job, although he’d certainly like to. He’s Chinese, but a long-time immigrant, having moved here in the 70s. His language is a bit tough to follow sometimes, which I have issues with, but he’s dedicated to working with at-risk kids.

Arthur has largely taken over my geometry class. I was initially happy to turn over the job to Arthur and just watch from afar. My job is to be as disconnected from the classroom as possible, consulting with him on curriculum and objectives before and after, but to let him operate independently, sinking or swimming without interference, in the main. I did this well at first. Then I realized that the impact of having a student teacher was going to be an issue in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

In one sense, my geometry class is tailor-made for him: relatively small, just 21 kids, 8 speds, 1 ELL (Chinese). In another sense it’s a tough class for any student teacher. The ability distribution isn’t a normal curve, but rather clumped: (1) too bright for the class, (2) ready for the class and motivated, (3) ready for the class and unmotivated, (4) unmotivated to the point that readiness is irrelevant. A histogram shows groups 1 & 2 combined is n=8, group 3 also n=8, and group 4 is n=5. Much better to have a bigger group 2 to balance out group 3 and drown out group 4. This is why I like big classes. This small class is an extraordinary management challenge.

And so, I find myself wondering constantly about when or where to jump in or pile on. Not obviously, not in the “stepping in because Arthur can’t cope” manner, so that the kids would notice. But this would be a hard class for anyone to teach. What to do when he doesn’t wrap it up in a way that will hit it home, get the kids to see what they’ve been doing, give them a mental link to access the next day? What to do when I can see the kids aren’t attending, that he’s explaining too much? Meanwhile, both Arthur and I can both see that a couple of the unmotivated are just itching for a chance to cause trouble, say that they’d be doing great if it wasn’t for the dumb new student teacher.

Which brings up another issue, one that I’m also quite conscious of: how do parents feel about their kids being subjected to a trainee? Then I think about TFA trainees, who don’t have an experienced teacher in the room, and I feel better. Back at ed school I knew cases of parental complaints about a classmate taking over that led to….difficulties. From the parent’s point of view, the training teacher as damaging their child’s learning experience. From everyone else’s point of view, the student was using the newbie teacher as a scapegoat, and that was indeed usually the case. But my school doesn’t often train student teachers, and I don’t want to have that complaint aired.

And then, there’s the problem of my curriculum. Specifically, much of it is in my head. I’m not an easy teacher to learn from; my skills lie in explanation and seemingly random curriculum development. I can’t give Arthur a textbook and tell him to check out chapter 6 to pick some lessons to run. He can’t anticipate what I’m going to do; half the time I’ve just decided it the night before.

As he’s taken over more of the planning, we’ve found a routine. I’ve told him what topics I want him to cover. He researches and develops a lesson. I offer suggestions and changes. Mostly, EXPLAIN LESS. Either give them foolproof tasks to do, or do it together with explicit instructions. But no lecture, here’s a worksheet, go. Not just because I don’t like it, but because (and he sees this readily) the class can’t handle it and sits around doing nothing.

In addition to curriculum development, he’s getting a solid course in teaching delivery. My own advice to him often sounds like stage direction: “Work the room. Own it. Make your presence bigger.” and he has really done well in that regard, becoming more expansive and performance-oriented, while not distorting his natural style. I just closed up a lesson for him a couple days ago, and he said he’d finally started to grasp what I meant about punching the finish, closing with a big picture, not a repeated explanation. So there’s that.

Since I’m not a planner, to put it mildly, I sought out a new teacher I’d previously mentored (the second one in that essay), and asked what he did to plan. His method struck me as very sensible, so I sent Arthur to him for some consultation. This was a resounding success, so now Arthur has another resource.

Do other teachers have this problem? Or do they hand over curriculum, either pre-developed or in textbook form, and just let the student teacher prepare in advance? Maybe I should just tell Arthur teach from the book. But he doesn’t want to, and his ed school is actually quite happy that he’s working with a curriculum developer. Besides, Arthur does pretty well. He’s made improvements to my switch and stay game that were so sensible I instantly adopted them. He picks good model problems.

Anyway. I leave the room at times when I see things are going well to give him full authority. Other times, as mentioned, I “close up” for the lesson, to illustrate key issues or transition to the next day’s work, with him turning it over to me. I film him other times, which forces me to shut up.

These issues are never really discussed, and maybe they don’t have to be. Why should parents be alarmed at having a student teacher, when they might have a TFA candidate with no training, or a bad first year? For the most part, I subdue my classroom control freak tendencies, and Arthur runs the room. I’ll keep getting better at it. And he sez that he’s learning a lot, so there’s that.

Another really, really important thing for student teachers to understand about their apprenticeship: student teaching has an incredibly wide range of acceptable outcomes, provided the cooperating teacher doesn’t complain or in some way declare the student teacher unacceptable. If the CT rejects the student teacher, it’s game over. Even if the CT is a jerk. Even if the CT is wrong. Even if the ed school agrees that the CT is a total jerk entirely in the wrong.

Timing is everything in student teaching. An approved stint has to happen in that semester, in that quarter, in that pre-determined time period. If it doesn’t happen then, consider the impact the equivalent of the damage a Mack truck does to a bunny rabbit. The student teacher has to pay for another quarter, has to find another teacher, and oh, by the way, usually has to delay graduation. There’s really no equivalent in anything other than maybe med school with no appeals system. Student teaching is required–ironic, in a world where schools pay a premium to hire TFA.

Student teaching is one of the few genuine apprenticeships left in the modern workforce. Even before unpaid internships got a bad name, we all know they weren’t really about learning the job. But even the worst student teaching gig with an obnoxious cooperating teacher and unwilling students gives the candidates some small sense of the job. Without question, some gigs are better than others. But life twas ever thus.

My advice to teaching candidates is keep your head down, don’t complain, recognize your near complete powerlessness and if you sense any weirdness early on, do your best to find someone else before you’ve lost too much time. Because most cooperating teachers, like me, can’t imagine rejecting a student teacher for anything other than outright cruelty. We know it’s a rite of passage. We want to help.

Yes, it is an oddness.

Why would I approve a student teacher in almost case? I remember my own (excellent) cooperating teacher saying that the really important thing was that the kids loved me and thinking yeah, fine, but so what? And now here I am, watching a fifty-something Chinese immigrant pay a metric ton of money for the right to get up every morning, put in 4 hours a day at an unpaid practicum, and explain geometry to generally uninterested and unmotivated adolescents and you have to know what I’m thinking, right? I’ve actually said this, to others: “Arthur’s doing okay, making progress, but the really important thing is that the kids like him.” Now that I’m a teacher, watching someone learn the job, the empathy and connection needed for this job stand out starkly.

Most everything else, you’ll learn. Or quit, leaving little damage behind.