Wednesday, April 13, 2016

To Any and All Teacher Education Students

Imagine this:
You are a college senior just about to finish the teaching program at your university.  You have spent the last four years studying educational psychology, curriculum & instruction, assessment practices, pedagogy in your subject area, and much, much more.  No doubt, you have also completed a couple short-term practica in which you may have been a fly-on-the-wall or even a temporary T.A. in another teacher's classroom.

Perhaps you were even able to teach a lesson or two of your own before you started your official student teaching placement in your Senior year.

What lies before you now is a choice, and--it turns out--an important choice, at that:

Will you try to find a teaching job right after you graduate?
Or, will you go straight into a Master's program?

I can certainly understand the appeal of pursuing a Master's right away--after all, you have been a student for the past 16 years of your life and momentum is on your side!  All of the theory you've accumulated over the past several years of education courses is still fresh in your mind, and wouldn't it be better to have as much preparation as possible before that dreaded first year of teaching?  And anyway, you'll have to get a Master's sooner or later, so you might as well just get it over with, right?

But what if your choice made a big difference to your long-term growth as both a teacher and learner?  What if "sooner" was not the proactive, forward-thinking choice we often believe it to be? What if "getting it over with" was the wrong mentality entirely?

The truth is, the first year of teaching will be painful no matter how much you prepare.  You will forget what you learned in your education classes, and sometimes you'll forget a lot.  You will do things that you know are not best practice in the name of making it through the day.  You will not be able to keep a smile on your face and a spring in your step every minute of every day.  You might not ever snap and lose your temper (Confession: I did), but a time will come when your students will observe that "you're not as nice [or fun, or energetic, or <positive quality>] as you were at the start of the year." You'll have moments where you will feel overwhelmed, exhausted and quite possibly, even questioning your decision to be a teacher....

...and you'll learn more in that one year of struggle than you learned in all of your education courses combined.  Through trial and error, a constant cycle of forgetting and recovering, theories will turn into realities before your eyes.  You will develop your "voice" as a teacher.  Your daily and hourly failures to be the best you can be will drive you ceaselessly back to the drawing board, and each time you will come up with something better, something stronger.

Your second year will feel like a new pair of running shoes and the breeze at your back: you'll be able to run further and jump higher than you could the year before, and things that were challenging to you in your first year will seem like second-nature in year two.

On and on it will go, each year bringing you closer to becoming the teacher you want to be, and then...'ll reach a point where you can't improve on your own.  It'll feel like hitting a wall, and it might be painful, or frustrating, or simply perplexing.  You'll encounter an issue in your teaching that you cannot find an obvious solution to, and you will want to learn more about teaching.

No, "want" is too weak a word--you will crave a deeper understanding of teaching.  You will be hungry for growth, eager to dig deep into the theory and philosophy that had so easily escaped you in your first year of teaching, to soak up best practice and make it your practice. 

It will be a desire based not on convenience or momentum, not on "getting it over with", but rather on need.  

That is the right time to pursue your Master's--not sooner, and certainly not later (if you hit a wall and have no desire to find a way over it, teaching is not for you).  

Pursuing your Master's under these conditions will be a richly rewarding experience: you'll have spent enough hours in the classroom to know your own strengths and weaknesses as an educator; you'll be in a better position to ask questions and research what is most important to your situation; you'll have an abundant supply of concrete examples to give real grounding to the philosophies and theories you will study.  If you happen to find a program that allows you to teach and study simultaneously, you'll also have a built-in lab in which you are able to try new things that you are studying, and consequently, you will have real-time experiences to discuss and reflect on in your coursework.  Perhaps of chief importance, you will learn what it means to be a lifelong learner at the time that you need that mindset and skill-set the most.

Poet Wendell Berry wrote, 
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Being baffled is an uncomfortable feeling, as is the helpless feeling of not knowing where to go or what to do.  Yet it is these feelings that ensure that we will be learners for life and not simply learners until our 20s.  

So if you're facing the choice between teaching or marching straight into your Master's, the decision should be simple: teach first.  

Teach long enough to forge an identity as a teacher, and then long enough beyond that to find yourself truly "baffled".  

Then, famished, come and enjoy the feast that further education offers.

As educators who desire for our students to become lifelong learners themselves, what could be better?

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff in here Nate! Totally agree. It's when the rubber hit the road that I realized how much information from the first years of university had sifted out of my mind before I had a chance to use it. Pursuing further education once you have hooks in your mind to hang the information on is very worthwhile. When it has been practice and not just theory, it causes me to say, "Oh! That totally makes sense to me, because I've experienced ______" (Also makes me think about my students... am I making the content, questions, and meaning significant enough that they can connect it to something real, not just theory?)
    Thanks for sharing!