Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Student Teaching

Student Teaching, Phase I

Student Teaching, Phase II (the misspelling makes it even better)

I made the gradual switch from retail to education in my mid 20s. I kept the retail job until I finished both phases of student teaching. Student Teaching, Phase I was at a mainstream high school. Technically, I was supposed to be taking over a couple English classes for two weeks after observing for two weeks. During my turn, the teachers were supposed to be there to coach me and provide feedback, but what really happened was that they called out sick. Both teachers observed me for one class meeting then met with me once for feedback.

One teacher was Mr. Mellow. He had those inspirational posters with kittens falling off logs and sleeping puppies plastered all over the walls. It was very quiet in his classes with a lot of reading and answering questions out of textbooks. When it was my turn, I instrumented several activities and required the girls in the back to stop socializing. When the teacher came back, he told me the kids thought I was too strict, then he shared his cornerstone philosophy . . . kids need time to do nothing in class. They are over-scheduled and they should be able to space out (maybe look at the posters?). I nodded politely. NEXT!

The other English teacher was the football coach. It was obvious that football was his first love. He seemed awkward when holding a discussion on The Great Gatsby, like he could hardly wait for it to be over. He directed his comments almost exclusively to his football players. When it was my turn, I crafted a plan to get every single student to participate and it worked. During our feedback meeting, he said he hadn't ever heard some of the students talk in his class. It was March. Then, he proceeded to describe in great detail his son's budding career as a professional skier. NEXT!

You have to understand that the greatest motivator of new teachers is that they are certain that they can do a better job than those who have done it before them, and I was no exception. Instead of seeing experienced teachers who found strategies and compromises that worked for their own personal styles, I saw dinosaurs . . . slow, lumbering dinosaurs. I could barely contain my smug idealism.

I decided to try something different for Student Teaching, Phase II. A friend of mine, at the ripe old age of 26, had recently become principal of an alternative high school for at-risk teenagers, which was located at my undergrad university. I really, really wanted to be placed there but when I submitted the proposal to my credential program, it was rejected. I appealed the decision and several letters later, with the help of one of the staff members from the alternative school, I was eventually approved. However, I had to promise to double my student teaching time from a semester to a year and my master teacher from the credential program could cancel my placement at any time.

The master teacher who was assigned to me by the credential program was one step away from retiring. I would be one of her last student teachers. She was an old-school teacher and seemed like one of many that I had growing up. She always wore skirts and pantyhose. She spoke in a motherly tone and had a pleasant smile. I felt a little bad for getting her involved with my placement.

For these were the wild early days at the alternative school. Students were arriving throughout the day, profanity was allowed, and there weren't even real walls in some classrooms. We were in the process of implementing a structure to corral behavior, and you never knew what your day might involve. You could count on some students being stoned and some being angry but what else . . . heroin at lunch? Masturbation in the corner of the computer lab? Maybe some police action? I shuddered at the thought of my master teacher in this environment.

After her first visit, I was relieved. The kids argued with me throughout the Macbeth lesson plan but it gave me an opportunity to display my mad skills. I held my ground and even though I was exhausted by the end of class and everything took twice as long as it should have, the kids eventually cooperated and had fun; they may have even learned something (gasp!). They walked out of the classroom with their heads held high, complaining with pride about the fucked-up Shakespeare I was making them do. It warmed my heart. My master teacher was very supportive; her only suggestion was that I should plan for more down time to give myself a break (what is up with down time in class?).

Her second visit wasn't as smooth. I thought I lost her. This time, the class took place in the computer lab with all its temptations. On this particular day, a student's dad decided to sit in. In fact, he sat fairly near my master teacher. I started to sweat because I had already gotten acquainted with this family. After I started class, the dad gestured for me to come over. He said, "You should see yourself right now. You are so cute. Damn! My son is lucky." His son glowed to see me so uncomfortable. I couldn't tell if they were oblivious to my situation or if they were messing with me on purpose.

The class continued to go south and I gloomily faced my master teacher after class. It was worse than I thought . . . she told me that in the middle of class, the dad had leaned over and explained that he smoked pot with his son regularly and had been doing so for years. His son was 15 and looked to be about 12. I waited to be told that my placement was going to be canceled but then my master teacher surprised me. She praised me for taking such a difficult path and told me these students needed me. "Continue the good work." She never came back and I was given an A for the year.

What is that saying . . . be careful what you wish for because it might just come true?

Pictures: OK, I can't figure out where I got these but I'm not willing to give them up.

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