Katie M Smith Foundations of Education Rebecca Werner February 15, 2009
Portfolio #1, Teacher Interview
I had a dream of becoming a teacher. I thought about how much fun it would be to spend my days in a classroom full of small children, reading, learning, discussing, playing and all in all having a wonderful time. Then, reality struck. Lesson plans and grading papers, behavioral issues and insults, bureaucracy and angry parents; there is more to teaching, it seems, than hanging out with children all day, imparting upon them your wisdom. It was the first part, the dream, the fun, the wonderful moments of inspiration and ‘a-ha’ that led my interviewee to become a teacher; that and she had no idea what else she would want to do. It hasn’t always been easy, she explained. She has a proliferate background in teaching; after college, she taught in Guatemala for a year, then on the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana. She taught for two years at Mount Mansfield, and now has a contracted position at Mount Abraham Union High School. Those first few years were hard; there were nights when she would go home and cry from the stress of it.
“What is the primary purpose of schooling?” I asked her. “To prepare students to be functioning, and happy citizens,” she replied. Functioning, of course, but happy… I would be lying to say that the thought had never crossed my mind, but I would not have considered happiness to be a primary purpose of education, that is, until now. As an English teacher, she explained, it is pretty easy to feel she is contributing to this task, as reading and writing are essential components for someone to function in society.
We discussed the challenges of teaching, also. The first thing that came to the mind of my interviewee as a challenge to educating was poverty. For some reason, children below the poverty line consistently score lower on the NECAP tests, and, with the exception of a few gifted students, she sees this performance reflected in the classroom as well. She had some unique suggestions for alleviating the challenges of her classroom though. “Flexibility is essential,” she told me. Of course, the school offers free and reduced lunches, and as we all know by now, good nutrition is essential for maximum brain function. Perhaps the most surprising suggestion, and one I fear I may never have thought of, was that, for those students who are behind in their literacy, she does everything she can to help them out, including finding books on tape for them. I have to say I think that is brilliant. By getting books on tape for those less literate, you enable them to keep up with the class’ assignments, without the stress and embarrassment they would face at struggling through the reading. She added that for those not fortunate enough to have a home computer, she works hard to get them the maximum time she can on the schools computers.
Social reform was the next topic in our interview, and that yielded some interesting insights. A group of Mount Abraham HS juniors and seniors recently put together a survey on social issues that they handed out to the student body. Surprisingly, it was not sex or drugs that was at the top of their list of social concerns: students at Mount Abe were most disgruntled about their lack of connection to the community. The school itself does a bit to encourage this; they have a community service credit requirement, which all students must successfully complete in order to graduate. That group is currently expanding their project to find more ways to connect teens to their community. Another concern that has come up for my interviewee this year was racism. Vermont is not a very diverse state, and so it is an issue that rarely arises, as far as I can see. However, this year, with Barack Obama’s historical win in the race to the White House, racism began rearing its ugly head among the student body. This has led this particular teacher to integrate more multi-cultural texts and lesson plans into her curriculum this semester than she has in the past. Gender issues were not so present, despite Hillary Clinton’s bid for high office, though this particular teacher wonders if students were simply more guarded around her on this issue, being a female teacher and all.
Next, we got down to the real issue, the heart of this interview. What is teaching? What is it really like? “It never leaves you,” she told me. She described how she finds relevance to her lesson plan in everything. She will hear an interesting story on the radio, or see something on the television, read a sign on the way to work, and find it inspiring and a necessary thing to incorporate in that day’s lesson. “I will be in the shower and find myself thinking about that day’s class, what worked, and what didn’t.” One of the hardest parts of teaching as a profession is the time commitment. Even now on vacation, she explained she has “a stack of papers and journals this tall (holding her hand about 2’ off the ground).” She used to be a really active person, and so finding time to do the activities she loves, and spend time with her husband is a challenge. But it is worth it, she tells me. She spent the first few years of her career figuring it out, taking everything way too seriously. She has begun to come back around to the reasons she got into teaching in the first place; and when she sees the kid “get it” and when she sees them finding materials that inspire them, when she gets to watch their writing improve, she is reminded why she begun this career, and it is all worthwhile.
“Things you wish you knew before you started? Strategies for being successful? Things to watch out for?” So, what advice did she have for me as an aspiring teacher? “Humor, humor, and humor.” She thought, when she began her career, that she needed to be professional and serious all the time. It was a difficult lesson to learn, she explained, and one that came with time. “The students take themselves seriously enough,” she said, “I just had to learn to lighten up, and let things go.” Finally, her parting thoughts, getting involved outside of class is so important, getting students out on field trips. And most importantly, giving the students a voice in the classroom, and listening to that voice. “It’s a great career.”
After all that I have learned from this interview, I will certainly have a thing or two to work on. I am a great listener, and I like to think that I inspire people. I love sharing my knowledge, and I am constantly relating one thing to another in everyday life. I think those things will come to me naturally. However, organizing my time is not so natural for me. Learning to put myself on hold to make time for lesson planning and curriculum development, paperwork and grading: those are the things that I will struggle with, and hopefully master. Despite the challenges I know I will face, and doubtless the nights I might find myself crying from the stress of it all, this interview has inspired me; given me hope that I might find the joy in teaching that this woman clearly has found.
As a side note: I considered carefully the questions I had and what I hoped to gain from this interview beforehand. I do not at this point have any additional questions, though I will be sure to update this essay should any arise. Further, this particular teacher happens to be a regular customer of mine, and so I will certainly follow up if I come up with additional questions. I think this was a very worthwhile exercise, and one that certainly helped to allay some of my anxieties about teaching, while giving me some valuable insight into what I need to work on in the future.
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