Well, I am totally done. I even had my Portfolio interview today -- the final step in the process. Now it's on to job applications and interviews. But before I go there, let me share with you my reflection from student teaching and my 4 years as a college student:
My journey toward becoming a math teacher formally started halfway through my freshman year of college, but the preparation began long before. From tutoring friends to student teaching, this journey has been full of lessons learned and major milestones crossed. Looking back now, I see those lessons and milestones clearly.
As a freshman in college, I changed my major into the education department when I finally realized that I was going to be a teacher no matter what I did; I figured I might as well get paid for it. I chose math education based on the fact that I always did my math homework first and I was taking calculus for fun at the time. There was no great revelation or calling; rather, a realization of who I am and what I am made to be. I had been a teacher all my life; I informally and formally tutored most of my friends through all of junior high and high school in most every subject. I taught piano lessons when the community piano teacher moved away. I had always found that I learned best by teaching and I compulsively taught my friends and family anything I found interesting. I was comfortable with being in front of people, whether it was performing in the school musicals, leading music at church, or being in charge of children at Vacation Bible School or camp. Not only was I a teacher inherently, but I always strived to make a difference in the lives of those around me who were my age or younger.
Once I became an education major, I felt more at home at Olivet. I could pursue math courses freely – for more than just fun – and could begin learning the ins and outs of education. My education classes were informative and enjoyable. I found a lot of camaraderie, particularly with the other math education majors. I also found professors in both departments that were supportive and encouraging. I began forming my teaching philosophy, relying fully on my experiences in high school in traditional, teacher-centered classrooms. At that point, I only knew that to be the option in an advanced math classroom.
As I worked through the math requirements for secondary education, I realized how much emphasis the math department put on getting the fullest understanding of mathematics to prepare me for the future. I took Discrete Math as a freshman and it was the first class that taught me how to think like a mathematician. It taught me proofs and truth tables and patterns. It challenged me in a way no other math class had before with its unique course material. I took two or more math classes each semester through to senior year and became immersed in mathematical scholarship. Though much more mathematically advanced than anything I would teach in high school, I enjoyed the challenges these classes brought and how thorough my mathematical foundation became. It not only taught me high level math, it also opened my eyes to the realms of possibilities that arise when math is taken beyond the elementary level. It taught me application for that lower math – preparing me for the inevitable “When am I ever going to use this?” – and taught me that good grades take a lot of hard work, another life lesson to share with my students.
As a sophomore I had my first practicum at King Middle School in Kankakee. Working as the only female and only white person in this after school program, I learned very quickly the importance of knowing how to interact in a diverse classroom. My teacher, also a black male, taught me a lot about the range of possibilities of home life for these sixth graders, along with how to keep a firm sense of authority. He told me to not smile very much and to work to gain their respect immediately. Though his teaching style was very different than my own ideas, he helped to prepare me for my future classrooms.
Though I learned about a diverse classroom in Kankakee, I learned how to interact in different cultures in Africa. The summer between my sophomore and junior year I had an invaluable opportunity to spend two months in French-speaking West Africa, in the countries of Benin and Togo. I learned French on the fly, prepared for the culture by reading encyclopedia articles and short fictional stories from West African authors. While there, I daily taught masses of adults and children games, like Little Sally Walker and Duck, Duck, Goose, and songs, like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “Hallelujah, Praise Ye the Lord.” This experience taught me the art of pulling from your resources to fill any left over time. It taught me how to communicate with people whom I did not understand and who did not understand me. While assisting the Peace Corps in a camp for pre-teen girls, I learned the value of human rights and education. I heard stories of these girls being forced into sexual intercourse by their teachers to receive the grades that they deserved by their merit alone. I came to a truer sense of understanding of the prominence education should take in every society around the globe. Though for many people this would serve as a calling to bring about that education outside of their home country, for me it solidified my sense of calling to my own country. We have a good foundation of education, yes, but the passion and appreciation for that in America has all but died in our high schools. This experience, though not directly related to teaching, taught me new passions and focused my resolve to teach in America.
Junior year of college I took a class that helped me along the way as an educator, though it was neither an education nor math class. American Government proved to be an important transition class as I learned from my African experience. We spent countless class sessions talking about social justice, locally and abroad. In some books we read, I felt a guilt complex for not wanting to go back to Africa and stay. Through reading, discussing, and writing papers, I worked through this feeling and gained confidence in where I felt I should go. It seems to be a trend in the education world to have a call to the inner city or third world countries; however, I feel called to the rural setting. These students need a positive influence just as much as inner city students do. I am not opposed to reaching beyond a culture that I am comfortable in, but I feel I can do the best in a culture I know. I know the struggles, the poverty, the pressures, and the indifference to education that comes in many rural settings. I know I can use my lessons learned from Africa no matter where I am. American Government gave me an opportunity to define my calling and give me confidence that I am not just being lazy or that my calling is any less important; because of this class, I now feel assured to accept any destination as a place where I can make a difference.
My last practicum was one that served as a breaker of my teaching philosophy. I previously only saw math as teacher-centered and lecture-based. At Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, I learned that math can be taught as student-centered, cooperative learning, discovery-based. In this classroom, students were always in groups, working together through a lesson. The teacher walked around and addressed questions of the group as a whole, rather than individual. Each person in the group had a role to play to ensure the group members were learning. Students participated in hands on activities, while the teacher used newer technology as a great asset in his classroom. This taught me that the possibilities are endless – even in a math classroom. This changed my teaching philosophy to include a range of teaching styles, allowing room for teacher-centered and student-centered.
During my last semester of college, I completed my student teaching at Central High School. I taught Advanced Algebra, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus to students ranging ninth to twelfth grade. Central runs on block schedule, meaning I had four 90-minute class periods, with an A day and B day. In the advanced math classroom, I had a unique and challenging experience.
First, I faced a challenge academically. With Pre-Calculus, I was teaching some lessons that I had rarely used or seen in five years. Further, my pre-calculus experience in high school was lacking and did not prepare me to use many of those tools in my upper math classes. In my student teaching, I found myself teaching lessons on subjects that I had to teach to myself the week before. This was a struggle that disappointed me, but I learned quickly and my students never knew the difference. Because I had a strong enough general mathematics foundation, adapting my understanding to the more specific lessons, even if I had little previous knowledge, allowed me to go on with ease. In Calculus, however, things worked a little differently. Knowing that I would be teaching Calculus, I only felt prepared for that as long as I did not have to teach Related Rates – the dreaded word problems of Calculus. I had avoided comprehension of these types of problems through a high school year and three college semesters of calculus. Now, finally, I was faced with teaching them. I frantically tried to teach myself – to no avail – the week before. Conveniently, my cooperating teacher is an excellent teacher and removed even my mental block against these problems. I did confess to my students that I had just finally understood these problems before I taught it to them, but it had a useful effect of letting them know the difficulty level. They worked hard and showed more comprehension of these problems than I had in the last four years. These lessons may have shown my students that I did not know everything, but it did show them that I was human and willing to continue my learning.
Most student teachers are probably not challenged academically. Mentally, emotionally, physically, yes; academically, no. However, it was a welcome challenge to me. Still, the challenges came in other forms, like keeping classroom management.
My cooperating teacher, Ms. Carol Davidson, runs a strict classroom. Students know to respect her and she can calm a pending storm in her classroom with just a few words. Students learn to work hard and stay organized in her class, whether they like it or not. She demands much of her students, and she prepares them for their future in ways that they will not fully realize until after school. Picking up and maintaining a classroom like this comes with advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, when I took over the classes, I was constantly surprised at how polite and studious they were. On the other hand, because I was not nearly as effective with my words as Carol was, students soon loosened up and I had classroom management issues that Carol had avoided. I learned quickly (and yet too late) that it is incorrect to assume that students will stay “trained” on the rules and procedures of the classroom if they are not enforced in the same way as before. However, I can learn only so much in such little time. I adapted to the rules and procedures and management practices of my classroom, but the transition time was too much for a few students. I worked to keep the class the same and run it as smoothly as possible, and succeeded for the most part. Still, there were students who found their opportunity to shine, and I spent the rest of the semester trying to train those few again. Overall, I was blessed with a very balanced classroom, with both strict rules and relaxed conversation; however, maintaining that balance was the theme of the semester.
Along with maintaining that balance, I learned some other lessons along the way. I learned that first and foremost I need to earn my students’ respect. In some instances, that is done by sharing with them more about who I am and where I am from. In other instances, that is keeping well defined rules that are enforced with consequences if not followed. In other instances, it is rising above the situation; while other times I need to respond swiftly and pointedly to remind students of the respect that must always be shown. Again, it is maintaining the balance. I also learned a life lesson about the teaching profession. I found that every teacher must struggle with two things: the idea that people should always listen to them, and the belief that no one really is. In the classroom this is a struggle because it leads to pessimism and distrust of the students. In every other part of one’s life, it leads to a superiority complex and more pessimism. Spending the whole day expecting students to listen to you and holding them accountable if they are not, makes it difficult to avoid finishing off the day doing the same thing with your friends and family. I had to work this semester to suppress the thoughts that I was entitled to respect from strangers even though I spent the whole day being entitled to it just because I was a teacher. How do people who spend the work day telling people what to do avoid carrying that into their homes? Probably many people do not avoid it; I must start now to work against it. By seeing my classroom as an opportunity for even the teacher to work toward earning respect from the students, I can remember that I must earn respect wherever I am.
Though there were struggles and challenges, the time spent with these students proved invaluable. The conversations, the questions, the sharing of laughter, the support as I went through my student teaching made all the hardships seem miniscule. As a closure for my time with my students, I asked them to fill out evaluations for me. My university and cooperating supervisors had critiqued my teaching plenty, but what about the ones who were there on a daily basis? I used the Olivet evaluation form, so they knew that this was official and important. They went through the checklist and then left comments to accompany their assessments. The most common “needs improvement” mark was in the categories of “keeps students on task” and “maintains student orderliness.” This supported what I knew to be true, but it was good to have their opinion. Some of their comments were helpful, while others were just humorous. Either way, I felt they reflected the atmosphere of my time in their classroom well. Here are some of the highlights:
[See last post!]
Whether it was encouragement or constructive criticism, I greatly appreciated the feedback from my students. My time in this classroom benefited me greatly as I prepare for my future as a teacher. Going into the semester, I was not clear on whether I would teach right out of college, but after spending time with these students, I feel encouraged to begin my time in my own classroom. I learned an infinite amount of lessons to apply to my own life and to my teaching career; I found resolution in my teaching philosophies; I formed bonds with students and staff that helped to form who I will become as a teacher. After four years as a math education student, I am ready to become the math teacher.