The Pride and Shame of Sharing: Who do I think I am?

There is a big brown envelope in my school mailbox on Tuesday. I order a lot of books from Amazon, but this is not from Amazon; it is from Harvard Press. Inside are two copies of the book Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform.   I feel a swell of pride because the first chapter in this book is written by me.  That’s right. Someone thought that what I had to say about the failure of education reform was good enough to be published in a book that people might buy and read. A sense of satisfaction. That swell of pride lasts the length of my walk to room H103 where I place the books on the counter next to my water bottle and greet students. The first ignores me. The second mumbles something close to ” I want to go home.” Teenagers have a way of putting pride in check.

At the end of the day, I notice the big brown envelope again next to the untouched water bottle and look at the books. A colleague is visiting H103, and I tell her that I have a new book, actually that I wrote a chapter in that new book. She politely picks up a copy and scans the pages. I take a picture of the book and post it on Facebook. The sense of satisfaction re-emerges. I feel a swell of pride again.  I pick up the other copy and begin to read what I wrote nearly four years ago. By the second page, I realize that the snapshot of my teaching life that I shared in this book took place a week after my father died. I included an excerpt from a poem I wrote about him in the chapter — a poem I shared in front of these beautiful teenagers who politely witnessed my sadness in H103 years ago.

“Did you really say that?” my colleague asks. I am pulled from my remembering.

“Which part?”

“The part about ‘with all due respect, let me do my job’?” she reminds me.

I look for that part and am brought back to another snapshot of my teaching life later in the chapter. I had just returned from a year-long leave of absence. I was burning out and needed a break. I was in the principal’s office learning of my new placement in the school. I uttered the “with all due respect”  comment when I was handed a “teacher proof” curriculum and told I had to follow it for fidelity’s sake.

There was no swell of pride that day. My ego was bruised. I had to use that curriculum to keep the job I wasn’t sure I wanted but needed because my husband had just been laid off. I thought my principal liked me, respected me. I thought I had established a pretty good reputation as a teacher (even though I essentially walked away the year prior), that I, at least, had enough clout to do my job without “teacher proof” curriculum, but in that moment, I was put in my place.

“I don’t know what I would have done,” my colleague says. “So you mentioned last week that you are working on another book,” she changes the subject handing me the book.

I take her book, put both books in my bag, wrap my scarf around my neck, and pull on my jacket. I say yes, but I can feel the self-doubt rising in my belly and seeping into my voice.

I say that I have essays from Ethical ELA that I want to shape into, well,  something. There’s a book there – maybe.  I say that I have lots of unit plans that I think other people might find helpful but then halt my arrogance, admitting that there are good people already doing that work far better than I ever could:Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers. I say my husband wants me to write the story of my family but that it’s not ready. I say I think I’d like to try writing a novel, maybe a verse novel based on my junior year of high school. I say most of this out loud and then feel very embarrassed. I think, do not say, What am I saying? Who do I think I am? 

I have caught myself in a prideful rant and pause as my insecurities swell where pride had been. I say that, yes, I wrote a book about reading genocide literature because I had to get it out. I say that I know no one will read it at over $100 a copy. I say that I probably won’t write any of those imagined books because there are smarter people out there, and I should be reading their books.

Then, I think, do not say, why do I write? I think that I write to figure out what I know, even though I usually conclude that I don’t know. I think I write because when I write, I feel like I am making neat and tangible the messy, complicated, beautiful experiences that make up my day and sneak into my dreams (sometimes nightmares). I think I share my writing because why? Attention, validation, support? Why isn’t it enough to just write? Why do I need to put it out into the world? Why do I need to invite others to read it?

As we walk out of H103, I do say, “Who do I think I am? A book about teaching, a novel — geesh? The only thing I know is that I feel no purpose if I am not teaching. Today, I sat in the hallway so my student teacher could go solo, and I felt so insignificant. She did great, by the way. I know that good days usually come after bad days if for no other reason than it is another day. I know that it feels good to say this out loud, but I am no expert. I am right along side every other teacher on this rollercoaster. Who am I to write a book about teaching?”

“You are too hard on yourself, Sarah,” my colleague says. “You’re a good teacher.”

I muster a grin that gently rejects the compliment.  I say, “Thirteen years later, I’m right back where I was at the beginning feeling inadequate, never satisfied, questioning my purpose and place in teaching and, well, in this world. And that book? Like the title, I get the failure, but I just don’t know about the future.”

She gives me a knowing smile. I thank her for listening, exit the building, and walk to my car. I take the book out of my bag then set it face down on the seat.

When I get home, I put one book on my husband’s area of the kitchen counter with my chapter marked. I take the other book to the sofa and begin to look through the chapters. I check Facebook and see a few people have liked my post about the book. I feel good about the likes, and then I feel embarrassed for promoting myself; still, I don’t delete the post. What is this about? On one hand, I like the validation that comes with views and likes, but on the other hand I feel arrogant (i.e., an exaggerated sense of my own importance or abilities) and prideful, which feels yucky.

My husband gets home, sees the book, opens the book, recognizes my name, and asks me if he has to read my chapter; he asks me how many pages it is; he turns the pages in the chapter and tells me that it will take him a month to read it. I stare. Then, he sits on the sofa beside me and reads. I pretend I am reading, too, but feel his eyes on my words and listen to him turning the pages. I desperately want him to see the part about my dad.  What is this about, this desperate moment? Attention? Validation? Support? And why do I feel bad for wanting that?

I think.

I write this thinking.

I read my thinking a few days later.

I decide that I think I know what my public writing is about: It is about having a witness. I want my husband to witness the moment I shared the poem about my dad even if it was four years later. I want my husband to witness my accomplishment: a chapter in a book. I want my husband to be proud of me for doing something important with my life, for being brave enough to share it all.  I want other teachers to witness my experiences, too. I want them to be alongside me in my most vulnerable moments and even the prideful ones because I think they understand. When someone reads my posts or chapter or book, that someone becomes a witness to my life. I exist.

My writing is my testimony.

National Poetry Month is comes at an opportune time for me. I will take a break from writing about teaching for a while. Instead, I will be a student of poetry alongside the teachers and students who will share this virtual space with me. I will be their witness and they mine as we make sense of our worlds with and through verse. Will you join us?

The role of liaison in a student teaching cohort by Aric Foster

Ethical ELA Guest Blogger: Aric Foster

Aric Foster is our guest blogger this week. He is offering another perspective on the student teaching experience–the university-cohort liaison. Never satisfied with his own teaching and ardently passionate about student learning, Aric has been teaching English 11 and AP Literature for 16 years in a rural town 35 miles north of Detroit. Committed to the growth mindset, Standards Based Learning, and differentiated instruction, Aric has also taught using #TTOG (Teachers Throwing Out Grades) for three years. Through twitter (@aricfoster2), Voxer chats (aricfoster2), and trading web-based resources (armadafoster.weebly.com), Aric is diligent in using 21st century tools to promote and internalize best practices for student learning and serving as co-founder of the STEM & Flower Learning Consultants (stemandflower.weebly.com). 

What is typically the most prominent area of growth needed in student teaching? Is it a lack of emotional and academic support for the intern while doing field work? Is it a lack of an effective way to pair interns and mentors according to personality type and expertise? Is it a lack of effective training for mentor teachers? Arguably, it is all three. However, another aspect of the student-teaching process that can stand some attention is the disconnect between what the intern learns in university coursework translating to authentic practice in the field. Often mentor teachers ask, “What are they teaching you in your coursework?” and interns exclaim, “Well, we were never taught that in our coursework.”

Thankfully, Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has developed a model to address all four of these concerns-with extra emphasis on the latter. Through Oakland University, a small group of interns are in a cohort placed in the same school. Currently, there are four interns in Armada High School. Acting as the student-teacher liaison, I meet with the interns once a week to attempt to give them the academic and emotional support that is sometimes found lacking in “silo” field placements where there is only one intern in the school building. Working closely with Oakland University teacher education professors, I am able to listen to intern concerns, find common patterns, relay them to the university and the mentors in the building anonymously, and present the interns with workable options to handle the rigor and stress of student-teaching.

Before interns are ever “given” a mentor in Armada, they have an “open house” day in the spring of the school year prior to student teaching. On this day, the cohort of potential interns visits Armada for a full day. They spend their time observing potential mentors with whom they might be paired, participating in interviews with potential mentors, and, probably most importantly, conferencing with the current Armada intern cohort (without mentors present). This open house works to alleviate possible future conflicts between potential interns and mentor teachers. In trying to make the best fit, this process hopes to connect each intern with a mentor that is most conducive to his or her personality type, learning style, and academic strengths. After the open house, as liaison, I meet with potential interns and mentors privately to listen to concerns and wishes about future intern-mentor pairings. After consulting with university faculty, we establish pairings of interns and mentors with a much more informed mindset.

Another way that the Oakland-Armada partnership improves the student-teaching experience is the summer training that mentors receive. In the teacher education classes, Oakland University professors use a specific curriculum outlined by Teaching Works-a think tank from the University of Michigan. Specifically, they reviewed the “High Leverage Teaching Practices” (HLTPs) promoted by Teaching Works (http://www.teachingworks.org/work-of-teaching/high-leverage-practices) and chose five of them to focus on during the fall of the student-teaching experience. During the summer before the student-teaching year, mentors are brought to the university and are coached in these HLTPs. They are informed about each practice, review rubrics that assess the practice, watch videos from former interns that try to exemplify each practice, score the videos, and discuss the work. What results is a focused, cohesive approach to what to look for in intern proficiency. Rather than just assuming what “good teaching” is and providing seemingly helpful feedback to the interns, mentors have specific criteria to look for, a specific scoring guide, and specific tools to help the intern improve in specific areas. Mentors report feeling more prepared to effectively guide the interns in their growth as educators after going through this training.

Finally, and most importantly, within this model, there is a clear pipeline between university course work that the intern learns on campus and practical field work that the intern demonstrates in the school building. From the summer training and through continued training throughout the school year, mentors cannot ask, “What are they teaching you in methods classes?” as they actually attend the classes at the university where the interns are taught the HLTPs. Furthermore, the course work assignments that the intern needs to complete during the fall of the student-teaching experience involve recording their attempts to demonstrate specific HLTPs and writing analyses of their performances. The intern knows exactly what specific aspects teaching he/she needs to focus on; the mentor knows exactly what kind of feedback to focus on when observing the intern; both stake holders leave the fall session of student-teaching with five HLTPs as a common language to use when discussing lesson effectiveness. Mentors and interns take this common language into the winter semester to continue to “be on the same page” about what effective teaching looks like. It is in the winter, when the intern takes on a fuller load of actually teaching classes that the mentor is then more able to move past the core HLTPs and add feedback about other aspects of teaching. This focused approach facilitates potent feedback, mutual points of emphasis, and clear expectations for all members of the student-teaching process.

Other benefits of this liaison-cohort approach emerge that may not be as obvious at first glance. First, at our weekly meetings, interns have a place to “vent” in a healthy supportive environment-a practice much needed to assuage the stress of teaching responsibilities. Second, at our weekly meetings, interns are able to trade notes about logistics: when is the next college assignment due, what do we have to have in our portfolio, where do we get the paper work for graduation, etc. Also, in these meetings, interns get answers to field work specific questions that mentors might often forget to address, as they are typically low on the priority list: what do we do for a fire drill, what if there is a snow day, can I drink the coffee in the teacher’s lounge, etc. In addition, I am able to share supplemental teaching strategies to interns in our weekly meetings that might not get addressed while working with mentors or in the course work: classroom management tricks, communicating with parents, syllabus preparation, etc. Another invaluable aspect of our meetings is when I bring in current Armada teachers to share their experience and address specific concerns. This year, I brought in several different kinds of educators to these meetings: a teacher that was an intern in Armada in the past to share the difference between student teaching and the first year of teaching; our union president to discuss teacher certification and the benefits of being in the teacher union; the principal to share tips for the interview process; an assessment consultant to clarify standards based learning; and a marketing teacher to discuss getting a part time job while teaching.

I am very fortunate to be a liaison for Oakland University and cannot say enough about how this cohort model has benefited the interns’ teaching proficiency, my own teaching expertise, the quality of teacher education at Oakland, and most crucially, the learning of the pupils in Armada classrooms. 

Do you have a idea for Ethical ELA? Would you like to start a conversation with our readers on an ethical issue in teaching? Want to be a guest blogger? Let us know.

Sena Kose: In the Middle of Student Teaching (part 6 of 6)

Sena Kose is currently a pre-service teacher from the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She began her student teaching experience in January 2017, and plans to graduate with a certificate to teach English in grades 6-12 in May 2017.

Sena Kose

This is the final post in a series about student teaching, mentoring, and how we are always becoming teachers: “The Coaching Tree for Teachers.In this post, Sena reflects on our time working together, what she is discovering about teaching, and how she might support her future student teachers.

1) What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?

Coming into your classroom, I was hesitant about teaching.  I did not know how to communicate with students. In my mind, teacher-student relationship did not go beyond the classroom. In the classroom, this relationship was only about school work. I did not recognize that my students are teenagers with so many problems in their everyday lives, but more like robots who were waiting for my directions. In such a short amount of time, I learned to treat my students with respect, understanding, and kindness. Even looking at them in the eye and asking if they are doing okay means so much to them. As a new teacher, I was focused so much on teaching content that I would forget to communicate with them about their lives or even their day. I am glad to have acknowledged the deficiency of ‘human’ relationships early in my teaching career because students respond to teachers who they know care about them. Now, as I stand in the hall greeting students, I look them in the eye and ask, “Good morning, how are you today?”

2) What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help?

My biggest struggle currently is structuring my lessons. A lesson that I planned last week was very content-focused and lacked student directions and guidance. In my mind, I am thinking of ways to give the most out of this lesson in a forty-minute period and rush through the content without realizing. As I try to give students examples of how to track a theme throughout a book and share example scenes I found for them in our book, 60 confused eyes stare at me. “Where do we write this down?” “What page is this on?” As these questions emerge, I realize I need to take a step back, give students clear directions, and wait for them to all be on the same page.

3) When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?

I think this depends greatly on the needs of my student teacher. I would try to approach his/her needs by balancing explicitly teaching them versus giving them the opportunity to explore. I think our co-teaching relationship is very similar to how I would handle a student teacher. I find your stories of experiences and relationships with students very helpful. Within every story you share with me, there’s a ‘lesson’ that I learn and try to use in our class. For example, sharing your experience with Isa helped me create a better relationship with her as I try not to push her limits, but still keep her on task. So, I think sharing and passing down personal teaching experiences will help my student teacher develop his/her approach to teaching. They will have a lot to discover and find out on their own, so it’s best if I can lower the amount of stressful discoveries for them.

Jessica Arl: Beginning as a Long-Term Sub (part 5 of 6)

Jessica Arl is currently a long-term substitute teacher in our school.  She student taught with me in the Spring of 2016 and graduated in December 2016 with a certificate to teach English in grades 6-12 from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Jessica Arl

This is post five of six in a series about student teaching, mentoring, and how we are always becoming teachers: “The Coaching Tree for Teachers.” In this post, Jessica reflects on our time working together, what she is discovering as a teacher in her own classroom, and how she might support her future student teachers.

1) What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?

When I was first told that I would be student teaching with you, I had no idea just how much I would learn about myself as a teacher and as a person in general. I remember walking in the first week and being amazed by the relationships you had with students inside your classroom as well as outside of it. That is one, if not the most, important thing I took away from working with you. Now, as I walk into my own classroom each morning, I say “hello, [student name]” or “how are you, [student name]?” to each student. I want to start the day off by making that connection with them and letting them know that I am here for THEM. You always showed me just how important these relationships are, and I thank you for that. Another idea I took away from my time with you is that teaching isn’t just standing in front of the room talking about character interactions in a novel or explaining where to place commas, but it is figuring out what to do next. It’s taking the time to analyze what the students understand and what they don’t. It’s looking at individual students and figuring out the best way to engage them. It’s realizing that this lesson might not work for each class or any class at all. Teaching has many obstacles you have to overcome, but you have to be flexible and resilient in order to work through them. The last thing I learned from you is about myself as a person, which has heavily impacted my teaching. I learned just how much resilience and strength I have. I learned that it’s okay to have bad days, and that I just need to always remember the reason I chose teaching in the first place: To be there for the students. I remember the last day we worked together during my student teaching, and you said, “You belong here.” When I have bad days now, I always think back to that moment and know that I do belong here, and that teaching is what I should be doing.
 
2) What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help?
Since I started long-term subbing, it has been hard getting used to teaching, helping, and guiding 20+ students all by myself. During student teaching, I always had you there to help when things got out of hand, and I never really understood just how exhausting and frustrating it can be when doing it by yourself. I have had trouble getting and maintaining my classes’ attention, and it has taken a toll on me. Even during student teaching I had trouble with this when you would be out for a day. I don’t think this is something that can be taught since every class and every student is different. Rather, it is something that you need to have experience with. Even though I still struggle with this, I can see improvement in myself as a teacher.
3) When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?
For me, I think I can help most with showing how important relationships with students are. I believe that forming these connections provides a basis for you as a teacher, and I have seen how it positively affects the students. Teaching is way more than just the academic aspect, and it is important to know that when you step into this profession. You won’t reach every student, that’s impossible, but by creating those small connections, you are doing more than you think. One thing I think new teachers have to figure out one their own is definitely classroom management. Each class is different and has an array of students with specific learning, behavioral, and emotional needs that require a multitude of different supports. Of course there are strategies to help manage and teach classes, but you can’t plan for it without being in the classroom first. For new teachers, I just want you to know that there will be bad days. There will be days you feel helpless, but always remember that each day is a new day.

Gabbi McArtor: First Year (part 4 of 6)

Gabbi McArtor is in her first year teaching.  She student taught with me in the Spring of 2015 and graduated in May 2016 with a certificate to teach K-8 from Illinois State University.

Gabbi McArtor

This is post four of six in a series about student teaching, mentoring, and how we are always becoming teachers: “The Coaching Tree for Teachers.” In this post, Gabbi reflects on our time working together, what she is discovering as a teacher in her own classroom, and how she might support her future student teachers.

1) What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?

Reflecting back to my student teaching placement with you, there are several things that I took away from my experience and being in your classroom. One of the greatest and most valuable things I took away was being able to see how powerful learning can be for the students when you show that you genuinely care about them as a person.

I think you did a phenomenal job of providing them with a sense of belonging because you remembered certain things about them like their interests. Regardless of the little amount of time you see them each day, it was clear to me that the students felt safe and comfortable which allowed them to take risks and ownership of their learning. I realized that this information can be easily obtained by spending at least 2 minutes everyday conferring with students and asking them what they took away from a book.

The insight the students provide allow teachers to see what is important to the student. For instance, I remember I was conferring with a student and I asked her why she enjoyed the book she was reading. In the 2 minutes we spoke, I learned that she felt a connection with the protagonist because her mother left her when she was little and the student experienced something very similar when she was younger. This moment really stuck with me because I learned so much about this student in 2 minutes and she trusted me as a student teacher because of the environment she was in. She was safe and she was comfortable.

This made me wonder, how do I ensure that my students feel safe and comfortable like they do in this classroom? It was clear to me that your ability to connect students to books based on what you knew about each kid and book helped build a positive rapport in your classroom.

Since then, I have been determined to incorporate my students interests in the content we learn everyday. I know it will take more experience and a lot of reading to get there, but I am glad that I got to witness several students in that environment.

2) What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help?

Being a first year teacher, I knew that this year was going to be a challenge. Right now, my biggest struggle would have to be finding a classroom management system that focuses on positive behaviors and provides intrinsic motivation. I’ve realized that a lot of my own systems include physical things such as raffle tickets and points. Because of this, I feel that this takes away from students taking ownership of their work and being proud of what they truly accomplish in the classroom. I believe that as I gain more experience, I will be able to find more ways to gain autonomy.

3) When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?

Down the road, I would love to have a student teacher. Being a student teacher of yours, I loved that you valued my opinions, ideas, beliefs. It provided me with confidence. My favorite moments were being able to reflect on what happened in the classroom and our deep conversations about the amazing things students revealed that day.When I have a student teacher, I want to do exactly what you did for me. To guide them and allow them to see my thinking and my process of teaching, but giving them the freedom to pave their own way and use their own ideas so they can find their own style of teaching.

I’ve taken so much from student teaching for an entire year, but there is just so much that I have learned by having my own classroom. Because all experiences are different for every teacher, it is impossible for a mentor teacher to give any black and white answers on how to handle a situation or go about a certain lesson. I’ve learned that experience is everything.

Amy Estanislao: On Humanity, High-Stakes Tests, and Worksheets (part 3 of 6)

Amy Estanislao is a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.  She student taught with me in the Spring of 2014 and graduated in May 2015 with a certificate to teach 6-12 from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Amy Estanislao

This is post three of six in a series about student teaching, mentoring, and how we are always becoming teachers: “The Coaching Tree for Teachers.” In this post, Amy reflects on our time working together, what she is discovering about teaching after a few years in the classroom, and how she might support her future student teachers.

1) What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?

One of the main beliefs that I took away from our time together is keeping humanity in the forefront of my practice. When planning units, lessons, activities, and assignments, I often think about the desired outcome. Is this about just transmitting knowledge and skills or is this something that is going to make them a better human being? Another belief that I took away from student teaching is fair grading and assessment practices. I constantly try to assess my students on what they can do through goals/skills/standards in hopes of avoiding penalizing them for not completing the assignment or homework. One of the main strategies of sorts that I still use today is helping my students to discover the information on their own. You always instilled the power of uncovering while teaching students. I also have the students create all graphic organizers in their notebook instead of handing them out. I remember you always telling me, “why give them this when they can create it on their own?” There are so many more things that I learned from you to list, but these are the main ones.

2) What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help?

I think my main struggle now is falling into the habits of “traditional” teaching. I’m not sure this is the best phrase, but I can’t think of another way to explain it. I feel like this results from two things: high-stakes assessments and student behavior. There is so much pressure put on teachers to improve test scores that administration mandates test prep and the use of online programs. I find it hard to balance this with my desire for humane teaching practices. Furthermore, student behavior often results in me reverting back to traditional worksheets and teacher-centered lessons to manage the classroom. This has been the case in only one class each year the past three years, but it is something that hurts me. Much of my colleagues’ advice is to push play on the audio and give worksheets because you can’t teach in classes like that. Yes, the students are quiet and the majority of them are focused when I do this; however, I am left feeling that I am doing them a disservice. The next day, I try to do a more interactive and student-centered lesson and it is complete chaos. This is something that bothers me a lot, but I feel at a loss for what to do. I have yet to find a like-minded teacher at my school to get advice from or even learn from. The strategies we talked about for seeking help have not been a success. I’m not sure that there was anything we could have done during student teaching that could have helped more. Ross Greene’s “plan A, B, and C” conversations are something I think about and use. However, I wonder if taking a classroom management course during my undergrad program would have been helpful in giving me some tools or a foundation for managing my classroom.

3) When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?

When I have the opportunity to have a student teacher, I hope that I can help them in a similar way you helped me. I hope to share with them the importance of looking at our students as human beings and helping them to become…that they are always becoming. I want my student teacher to know that if you are constantly trying to be fair and keep humanity as the focus of your teaching, then you are on the right track. I hope to share not only what I do with the students, but why I am doing it. You were always so good at explaining your thinking, and it helped me understand so much about the process of teaching students. It was something that I could have never learned in a book. I hope to encourage reflection. I learned so much from our conversations about how the lesson went and brainstorming what changes I could make. Reflection was a way of sorting through the day and making sense of everything, I appreciate the opportunity to have someone to reflect with. I hope I can provide this to student teacher someday.  I think managing your time, the logistics/politics of schools, parent communication, and some classroom management are things that you figure out on your own. You really don’t feel the reality of the situation until you are in it on your own. You have to figure out what works for you in the school you are at.

Madeline LaLonde: Feeling Safe, Cared About, and Respected (part 2 of 6)

Madeline LaLonde is in her fourth year of teaching as a fourth grade teacher in Geneva, Illinois.  She taught with me in the Fall of 2012 and graduated in May 2013 with a certificate to teach K-8 from Illinois State University.

Madeline LaLonde

This is post two of six in a series about student teaching, mentoring, and how we are always becoming teachers: “The Coaching Tree for Teachers.” In this post, Madeline reflects on our time working together, what she is discovering about teaching after a few years in the classroom, and how she might support her future student teachers.

1) What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?

I learned so much during my entire student teaching experience. Specifically, my time spent student teaching in 8th grade, I will never forget. You taught me how to look at teaching as more of a process rather than a goal or end task to be achieved. You also taught me the importance of reflection after each lesson and how to use those reflections for improvement even if that meant completely changing the path that specific lesson was taking. I learned how important it is to speak to the students as equals rather than speaking to them as their authority. Also, my belief of looking at each child as a whole child rather than just a student in my classroom, came from my time spent with you!

2) What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help

I have been very fortunate to have been hired in a very supportive school. As a result of this amazing support, I did not have as many or the same types of struggles that most first year teachers report. One of the aspects of teaching that I find to be challenging is finding the right classroom management techniques that fit each individual class and each individual student. So far, every class I have had has been so very different from one another and each one has required different management techniques to run smoothly. I do not think there was much we could have done during student teaching that would have helped me through this, especially because 4th grade and 8th grade are very different, but definitely some of the ideas/beliefs listed in my answer to number one have gotten me through some tough moments so far.

3) When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?

When I have a student teacher, I think the best way to help them will be through modeling effective teaching as much as possible. This includes showing patience, respect, tone of voice, questioning techniques, etc. I know that I learned so many of my teaching characteristics just by watching you teach! The lesson planning and the classroom setup, etc. are things that can be taught to a student teacher but it also is something that comes naturally as a teacher figures out their personal style. So, I would say technical things like that, a teacher might just have to figure out on their own. I believe the most important things that a new teacher can learn do not even involve lesson planning. A child won’t learn curriculum or state standards if they don’t feel safe, cared about and respected first.

 

The Coaching Tree for Teachers (part 1 of 6)

Over blueberry pancakes and coffee on Saturday morning, my husband, Dan, interrupts my weekly recap of teaching to say, “Have you ever heard of the coaching tree? You are talking about the teaching tree.”

I was talking about lesson planning with my student teacher. What the heck is a coaching tree, and is breakfast about to turn into Sports Center? Is that even on anymore?

“Well, you know Phil Jackson, right? Chicago Bulls? He had assistant coaches who went on to coach their own teams. Tom Thibodeau?  He is part of the Doc River’s coaching tree,” Dan explains reaching for his coffee mug.

“Uhuh,” I say remembering Mr. Jackson but having no idea who Doc Rivers is.

“Well, the coach is the trunk or base of the tree and his assistant coaches, who have gone on to coach, are his branches. Football is probably a better example because there are so many assistant coaches– like Ditka’s coaching tree. Your student teachers are like the assistants; they eventually stand on their own–have their own classes. They take what they learned from you and branch out–get it? Your student teachers are your branches,” he concludes with a grin and moves on to his omelette.

“Yeah, but I don’t think I have my own tree; I’m part of someone else’s coaching-teaching tree — just a branch,” I reply as I am thinking this through. “Or maybe… the people who helped me become a teacher are my roots. Do coaching trees have roots?”

“Not really — the ones I’ve seen are just boxes connected with lines – like a family tree.  But, you can probably be both- a trunk and a branch. Your mentor teacher was Sue, right? From Morton East? If she made her teaching tree, you would be a branch for her with lots of leaves — healthy,” he says smiling, “but, you would be a trunk for your student teachers; the people you’ve mentored.”

“Uhuh,” I respond. “I haven’t talked to Sue in a while, but her lessons are still with me. I wonder about my student teachers. What is their take away from our time together? Geesh, what if they quit? What does that mean?”I sigh pouring us more coffee.

“Well, your ‘branches’ die if they quit, I guess,” Dan says regretfully. “Not every assistant coach has the same success as their mentor, and not every assistant coach even goes on to coach their own team. Stuff happens the mentor can’t control–the new team or school has complex dynamics.”

I sip my coffee and think about the word “success” as I look at the waiting area of Egg Harbor. It’s getting busy, but our tree conversation is resonating with me, and I want to talk this out, so I pour more coffee.

I almost quit teaching after my fifth year, and there are plenty of days now when I feel like an imposter, when I fail, when I lose my composure, when I forget a meeting. I wouldn’t know where to begin to define successful. What can a mentor do to support teachers through the hardest days that come once they are on their own? And how can we support teachers later in their career when the systems have chipped away at their souls (too dramatic, maybe), when “success” is so elusive?

Dan notices my furrowed brow. He can tell when I am going to a dark place. “In my mind, the metaphor is more of a mentality,” he reassures me. “It isn’t about how long they’ve been teaching or how successful they are; it is more of an initial metaphor for how your theories, how your work ethic is really branching out or helping other teachers.”

He is so wise, this man. I am no sports fan or arborist, but the part about the mentality of teaching makes me feel better. We learn certain traits or approaches from our mentors and then we have to make our own way. But the beauty of these relationships is that they can endure and nurture both people throughout their careers. I had a moment this week when I found myself being comforted by my current and former student teachers (one who is now teaching in our school). What a gift to be vulnerable and to have compassionate witnesses who really know what a day in your classroom is or tries to be.

When we get home from breakfast, I look up some coaching trees. The Mike Ditka tree has many healthy branches, but he came from deep roots: “Halas taught Ditka to compete. Landry taught Ditka to lead.” Competing and leadership are not skills per se but ways of being. And this got me thinking about my roots, the rings marking my years growing, and budding branches. How did I grow? How am I helping other teachers? How am I keeping the tree healthy?

The Roots

My husband made it clear that the coaches don’t actually make their own coaching tree graphics or discuss the success or failure of their assistant coaches as they make a name for themselves. Still, it has only been in reflecting on my own practice and my impact on my students and colleagues that I have been able to stay in this profession. Reflection has been humbling because I must face my failures and comforting because I recognize that I am one among so many trying to do what is good and right for the human beings with whom we are entrusted — and what is “good” and “right” is not always clear.

Even though this is bordering on self-absorbed, I decided to sketch my teaching tree.  I began by listing the people who have helped me become a teacher: teachers, professors, mentors, authors, bloggers, students, and even my dear husband. My sketch was a beautiful mess that could not capture the plethora of people and experiences that I attribute to my still-becoming a “good” teacher. My roots take up over half of the sketch. They sustain me, anchor me.

Students, of course, have taught me the most; they are the “soil” and “sun” and “rain” that keep my tree alive. However, the people who have explicitly taught me how to be a teacher are Todd DeStigter, David Schaafsma, and Kate Manski from the University of Illinois at Chicago. They taught me to put relationships first, and they taught me how to do that with young adult novels, classics, writing and reading workshops, narrative feedback, portfolios, reciprocal teaching, and always, always reflection. Sue Fitzgibbons-Hughes was my cooperating teacher at Morton East High School in 2003.  She showed me how to design curriculum and use class time to uncover rather than cover all that is English (e.g., the philosophy of being human alongside Lord of the Flies). She also taught me to recognize when I slip into avoidance mode (and to keep coins for coffee and lipstick in the desk drawer). Diane DuBois, my mentor the first year of teaching and beyond, taught me about schooling — how to navigate the systems of teams, departments, unions, data, and testing. She taught me how to be a teacher-friend. These teachers are the core roots of my teaching tree.

The Branches

It was ten years before I would sprout branches. Even after ten years, I did not think I had any business helping someone else become a teacher. On a daily basis I would hears whispers (sometimes screams) of doubt that I should even be a teacher. However, when a group of Illinois State University pre-service teachers were coming to our school for a year-long student-teaching experience, I decided that I would not turn down an opportunity to have one more adult in my classroom giving attention to teens in desperate need of it. And since then, I can’t imagine my classroom without a co-teacher, and I am grateful to Madeline LaLonde, Amy Estanislao, Gabbi McArtor, Jessica Arl, and Sena Kose for trusting me but, even more so, for supporting the hearts and minds of our students.

I want to stay in this profession, but I know that my “tree” will not stay healthy without care and deliberate choices to do and be better. My “branches” have kept me alive so to speak as they remind me that, as teachers, we never have this figured out; we never stop growing. So I decided to reach out to the student co-teachers who’ve worked in my classroom to hear how they remember our time together.  I also wanted to hear how things are going and what, if anything, I could have done or can do now to be a source of support. I think that believing in and supporting their careers will actually sustain mine. I invited them to be a part of this “tree reflection” process by pondering these questions:

  1. What ideas, beliefs, lessons did you take away from our time together that seem helpful in your own teaching now?
  2. What are you struggling with or working through now and is there something we could have done during student teaching to help?
  3. When you are ready for a student teacher, what do you think you can most help with and what do you think new teachers just have to figure out on their own?

Now I realize that this is not a scientific survey of any kind because I was asking the questions. I recognize that their responses cannot be entirely candid, but I share their responses with you over the next few days to illuminate what is possible in the short time student teachers have with their mentors, what lessons can only be learned when on one’s own, and what issues all teachers — novice and veteran– have to negotiate as they are always becoming the teacher they imagined.

I have enjoyed reconnecting with these women and honoring the them on Ethical ELA.  They inspire me to take care, to stay healthy, to honor my roots, and to keep growing.

Monday, 2/6, Madeline LaLonde: Feeling Safe, Cared About, and Respected

Tuesday, 3/6, Amy Estanislao: On Humanity, High-Stakes Tests, and Worksheets

Wednesday,4/6, Gabbi McArtor: In Year One

Thursday, 5/6, Jessica Arl: Beginning as a Long-Term Sub

Friday, 6/6, Sena Kose: In the Middle of Student Teaching

I encourage you to answer these questions about your teaching and make your own teaching tree (here is a template) . If you are willing, share in the comments here or on social media to celebrate your roots and branches.

Mirror, Mirror, is it time to move on?

“Do you regret being a teacher?”

It was 3:30 pm on a Thursday in January. The hallways of the school were quiet. Snowflakes were falling outside, and I was standing on a desk hanging twinkle lights from the ceiling for presentations the next day when my student teacher asked me this question. I lowered my hands and looked at her as she wrote tomorrow’s plans on the board, sighed and answered, “Gosh, no. Never.”

I was surprised at how quickly and easily I exhaled that response. There is nothing easy about teaching. I’ve written about this for over a year here on Ethical ELA: oversharing, apologies, grading, testing. Still, I don’t regret for a second that I became, am still becoming a teacher.

“Really? It’s so hard, so emotional. There’s so much to think about,” she replied.

“Really. I can’t imagine my life if I did not having teaching.”  I went on to say more about what teaching means to me as I climbed down from the desk, and then I said, “I don’t see my time with the kids as hard. Maybe I’d say it’s more elusive. It is a privilege to know students in this way even if some days are challenging. The hardest part, for me, is not being good enough, not doing enough, not knowing how to engage this student. It just this sense of never being satisfied with what I’ve done.”

I like working with a student teacher because of conversations like this. Student teachers come with fresh eyes and questions, wondering how to do and be all that our profession asks of teachers. I confess that while I have no regrets, I do often wonder if I can do and be all that the students need. I do often wonder if there might be another way to serve.

For the past thirteen years, I have been trying to make sense of this elusiveness, this feeling of never being good enough. The best way I know how to assuage the anxiety and discontent that comes with perceived failure and self-doubt is by making a change. Sometimes, new initiatives in the school give me the push (or distraction) to make that change, but most of the time, I have to make a deliberate choice to do something different. One year that meant a leave of absence to start a PhD. One year that meant submitting a proposal to NCTE. One year that meant applying for a grant to develop a classroom library. One year that meant applying to be part of a Chromebook pilot. One year that meant publishing a book. One year that meant teaching a class at a local university. One year that meant starting this blog, and one year that meant accepting a student teacher. The change gives me a sense of agency and temporary confidence, but whispers of self-doubt and agitation with failures inevitably resurface.

Working with student teachers this year has helped me to see my role as a teacher anew — in ways new initiatives have not. I am seeing in my student teachers, the children I serve, and the colleagues I serve alongside myself— like they are holding up a mirror for me.  They show me what I am doing well, but they also make visible those minor cracks in the mirror that have potential to grow. What is, perhaps, becoming most clear  in those mirrors (other than my age) is how I fit and don’t fit in with my school, the team, and the department. My student teachers bear witness to how I teach but also how I interact with students and colleagues, and they are so observant of the dynamics that I am confronted by them as well.

It is incredibly humbling to look, really look at oneself from the angles other show you, but I see it as protection from shattering, from falling apart. When I am willing to look carefully at all the angles, I can make adjustments to heal, to improve, and to make a change if needed.

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Essentially, I think my metaphorical mirrors are asking me this: What are you doing here? How do you fit in? How are you being useful? How are you contributing? Might you be becoming complacent? Are you being a little self-righteous? Are you isolating yourself? What more can you do for us, for the students? Is this the right place for you?

Messages about who I am as a teacher are coming at me all the time. Sometimes I find myself avoiding or disengaging from meetings because I don’t want to see or hear these messages, but with student teachers, I must look, listen, and reflect on my place among colleagues, my place in the school, my place in the profession. I imagine true satisfaction will remain elusive as it, perhaps, should. In some ways, I think my willingness/need to try new approaches has helped me stay in the profession. Still, I want to try to answer the questions my mirrors ask of me.

I’ve already found a few cracks in need of attention, but when I looked in the mirror today, I glimpsed a smile below my tired eyes in gratitude for another year with students. No regrets.

Fatigue in teaching: A few tips for getting back to the teacher you want to be

be the teacher

A laptop held in the crook of an arm that used to carry a plan book. An empty stainless steel canister in hand, curled close to the chest. The free hand now pulls out an empty chair at a table where several teachers offer a polite, knowing smile with the last few drops of compassion they can muster. The Friday faculty meeting at the end of the eighth week, just before a three-day weekend begins.

“I don’t know if I could have made it another week without this break,” I hear one teacher whisper. And I think, Is that true for me? Am I spent? How many of us are empty like the stainless steel canister?

As the meeting went on, I glanced around the cafetorium at the eyes of our faculty and thought of the pre-service teachers I work with and why they want to become teachers. I thought about the hope in our Wednesday night discussion and imagined how they’d be feeling in the eighth week of their first year teaching, and then their tenth — if they’d make it.

I thought about how (if)  teacher education programs are preparing teachers to stay healthy physically but also mentally so that they can 1) stay in the profession and 2) be their best selves for the students who need healthy adults in their lives.

A short digression.

As much as I love to read, my hands and eyes can use a break at the end of a full day, and network TV still has a few shows that both my husband and I can enjoy. We’ve been watching Blindspot for a couple seasons and just started watching a revival of Lethal Weapon. What I most look forward to is Madam Secretary.

And here’s why I bring this up: in these shows that feature “public servants,” there is a therapist on staff to support agents, police officers, and even the Secretary of State as they recover from trauma. Unfortunately, the characters in these shows tend to resist therapy, associating this source of support with weakness. I think this is, in part, because therapy tends to be seen as an intervention at a time of crisis instead of one aspect of being and staying healthy for ourselves and the people we serve.

We take care of our bodies for the most part. There is no shame in having a gym membership or a FitBit. Why, then, is how we care for of our minds and hearts a secret (or at least it seems to be) in the teaching profession?  It is assumed that teachers are superhuman never able to run out of compassion for those we serve. Why isn’t there a therapist on staff in schools to support teachers when they are feeling exhausted or on edge, when they notice their emotional state is impacting their teaching?

A Google search of “teachers and therapy” revealed a Reddit forum where a few teachers chatted openly about exhaustion, anxiety attacks, and seeking therapy:

I’m losing it. I’m a first year middle school teacher in a title I school with bad teacher retention, teaching a subject I didn’t want. I had my second ever anxiety attack last night/today. I’m exhausted all the time. I get angry over nothing. I’m fighting with my SO over the dumbest things. On the way to school a part of me hopes something kinda bad will happen so I don’t have to go. I mentioned my attack to another teacher, and she told me about the counseling services our district offers through insurance. She said she did it last year and the person she saw had several other teachers coming in. Has anyone else had to go this far? Am I just not cut out for this? Edit: I don’t mean to come off as so whiny, I just want to make it clear that I don’t feel like it’s just normal “first year sucks” kinds of things. Some days are good, but a few too many days feel like this.

More teachers should go to therapy. It’s a very stressful job and I think everyone’s mental health will improve. But you, with your hopes of something bad happening so you don’t have to work, I would say definitely go talk to someone. It does not mean you’re weak or not cut out for it. It just means you need to talk to someone. You’re bottling a lot up right now and you need a release.

There are several other comments in this thread that reveal teachers recognizing the need and benefit of therapy for teachers. I think we need to create more spaces, virtual or actual, to support teachers who notice they are not being the teachers they want to see in this world.

In “The Brief Wonderous Life of Teachers’ Mental Health,” Isaiah Pickens writes:

Few antagonists to teachers’ mental wellness contribute to burnout as much as feeling incapable of successfully fulfilling teaching responsibilities—also known as low teacher self-efficacy. Having difficulty connecting with students, classroom behavior problems, perceptions of limited support from administration, and little time to recharge outside of work can undermine the most resilient teachers’ mental health. Equally important, teacher’s struggling to manage stress can unintentionally create tense classroom environments that model unhealthy stress-reduction strategies for student’s learning how to become socially and emotionally healthy people.

I am invested in supporting  pre-service teachers, my colleagues, and myself so that we can have healthy teachers who will nurture and mentor emotionally health students. Our world needs all generations of human beings to be healthy if we are to imagine a more healthy world.

When I was a social worker, part of my preparation included a class with specific strategies to protect my emotional health. My first employer gave us three “mental health days” that we “had” to use each year in part because, in the social work field, there is a code. When a social worker becomes aware of psychological distress that impacts judgment and performance, it is that person’s ethical responsibility to seek help because it may (and likely is) impacting clients. Being worn out or emotionally drained as a social worker can lead to misdiagnosis and treatment of a client.

As a teacher, the impact of being worn out or overly stressed may not be as severe as misdiagnosing a disorder, but you may begin to make mistakes in the lesson or assessment and lose sight of the instructional goals — your job. And beyond that, consider the impact on your students’ academic and emotional well being if your brain is foggy or your stress level is making you more irritable. Might your actions or reactions be harmful in some cases?

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As for the culture of schools, I’d like to see a change in what schools “ask” from teachers beyond their work in the classroom. New teachers want to get involved to show they’re dedicated to the school, and they are willing to put in the time beyond their teaching responsibilities to show that. Veteran teachers still join committees and start clubs and sign up for the “duties”  like lunch room and detention supervision (consider the toll that takes on teachers’ well being over time). And many teachers find time to squeeze in meetings for clubs, student conferences, and collaboration at lunch time — time when they can be drinking water, doing some relaxing, and taking a walk — while also coming to school early for committee meeting, which means giving up extra sleep or a workout. We do this because we care about our school and students and believe in the community that is our school, but we also do this because the school culture makes it hard for teachers to say “no.” I’d like to see a culture in schools that creates space for self-care and does not ask just one more thing of the teachers who want to be at their best for themselves, their students, one another. Indeed, we are public servants. I think it is in our nature to handle one more thing, but we are, in fact, not superhuman.

If we can agree that teachers are ethically bound to self-monitor their emotional well being, then we have to ask how we can be more conscious and even systematic about addressing emotional needs of teachers. We can start doing this in our teacher education program by adding self-care to our syllabi, but we can also start right now.

  1. Do a self-exam regularly (perhaps every 3-day weekend). How many of these descriptors apply to you? Exhaustion, reduced feelings of sympathy, dreading going to work, irritable, angry, hypersensitive, headaches, trouble sleeping/sleeping too much, weight loss/gain, more arguments. Do you need to make time for self care? Yes, definitely yes.
  2. Practice self-care. Of course, if you knew how to do this consistently, you would likely not be exhausted right now, so I’ll just say that when you do a self-exam, make some changes and do your best to keep them up. If you can eat more fruit, drink more water, go to a yoga class, take a walk, add a weekend nap, start a new hobby, say “no” to a committee for a few days or weeks before falling off the practice of self-care until the next attempt, that is a good enough. You are trying, and in those weeks you will be better for yourself and your students.
  3. Make a friend. As an adult and an introvert, I have a hard time making friends, because talking is actually exhausting to me. However, having a positive relationship with a few colleagues has really sustained me in recent years. Knowing there are few people in my school who like me (and least I think they do because they smile at me or share experiences with me) and just knowing they’re there if I need to chat, feels good. If you don’t have those people, try to make a friend by smiling at your colleagues and stopping in their room to ask what they’re teaching this week. Show an interest in others, and they’ll show an interest in you — and this can help minimize feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  4. Revise, reinvigorate your lesson plans. Would you want to be a student in your class? Do you love what you’re teaching? Even if you have a set curriculum and are feeling like you are behind in your plan and can’t possibly take a day off to explore something new, do it! Why did you want to become a teacher? What story, concept, idea made you say I want to become an English teacher? Read it, write it, watch it, act it out, make a game with. Do something you love, and I bet your students will love it, too and maybe your students will see an opening to give you some love for sharing your passion with them.
  5. Seek therapy. If you’re a full-time teacher, your insurance plan most likely has some coverage for personal therapy. Set it up. Psychology Today makes it easy to search therapist in your area.Find a therapist near your home or school so that it is easy to make the appointments. Read the bios of several therapists and consider their style and education. Many have a cognitive approach, but more and more therapists have a holistic approach and can help with childhood issues, mind-body connections (like if you carry your stress in your shoulders or back), meditation/mindful practice, and do overall life coaching. See the therapist once a week, once a month, once every few months. There are no rules to this.

I hope you find time to rest and take care of yourself this 3-day weekend, and I hope you take some time to consider how you will take care of yourself in the weeks to come. We need your best you. Fill up that water bottle.

I’d love to hear any stories of personal resilience or tips for self-care if you’re willing to share.

be the teacher