Updated: May 3, 2020
Throughout my dissertation research, I asked each of the teachers that I interviewed to discuss their own educational experiences and why they chose to become teachers. Their responses provided insight into their teaching philosophies and how they view the role of teaching and purpose(s) of schools. To me, this is crucial in identifying what inspires and motivates an individual and subsequently shapes the way they design and enact their instructional practices. Additionally, taking a moment to look back and reflect is a key component of adopting culturally relevant and responsive practices as it unearths the people, experiences, and beliefs that have shaped an individual and impacts the way they engage with their work and students.
So, in this entry, I take a moment to share my own journey to and through teaching by answering two questions that I begin most professional development sessions with:
What drew you to teaching?
What are three words you hope students use(d) to describe your class/classroom?
"WHAT DREW YOU TO TEACHING?"
A part of me probably always knew I’d be an educator or at least work in a school. I come from a long line of teachers, professors, and school personnel - on BOTH sides of my family. My dad even switched careers, leaving the world of corporate finance to become a teacher when I was entering my junior year of high school. In that regard, teaching is sort of the family business...it's in my blood. However, it took me a long time to realize that it was actually my passion. I started my college career as a Journalism major, with the hopes of entering the Magazine Journalism program and starting a Seventeen or Teen Vogue specifically targeted for Black teenagers/young women. Think Essence for teens--does Teen Essence exist? If not, it should. During my second failed attempt at passing one of the core/weed out classes, I started to realize that maybe this wasn't the career for me (weed out classes can be VERY effective in this way). That summer I went home to work my 5th or 6th summer as a camp counselor and had a revelation.
I was never happier than when I was with my campers, talking with them about their lives, sharing my (very limited at the time) insight on being a teenager and creating/engaging in fun activities with them--most recreational, but some had a bit of an academic component to them. All of a sudden, it just clicked: I was supposed to teach. So I went back, spoke with my parents because I knew that changing my major this late in the game (I was about to enter my junior year) might add some time to my undergraduate experience and they told me to follow my heart and do what would make me happy because life was too short to spend any time doing anything else.
One email to my advisor later, I was officially set to start my Junior year as a Sophomore Elementary Education major. From the first second of the first day in my Teaching Diverse Populations course I knew I'd made the right choice. These were my people. These were the conversations I was meant to be a part of. I was home.
So what EXACTLY was it about teaching that drew me in?
Honestly, my initial draw to teaching was that sense that I was being called to do it, this feeling that I had the natural ability to connect with and communicate with kids and that it fulfilled me on multiple levels. From my research and speaking with my own students in my various courses, this is a pretty common feeling, as is probably true about most of the other helping professions/social sciences (i.e. psychology, social work, etc.)
However, as I went through my undergraduate and graduate coursework and completed my various field experiences, student teaching assignments, and especially as I did my dissertation research, I developed a much deeper connection with and passion for teaching as I gained a deeper understanding of its power. That's a whole long post for another day, but essentially I have come to think of education as the process of coming to know ourselves and the world around us. I'm not going to get too academic here, but sociologists and educational historians point out the ways in which schools and curriculum have always been used to socialize the youth by passing on the dominant norms and practices under the guise of "education". Think about it, schools are where most of us learned the "proper" way to speak and write (aka grammar), to fall in line and follow rules and meet expectations, and of course, the academic content deemed most valuable in helping us become productive citizens and prepare us for the job market....and that as such, I feel that formal school-based education can, and has, been a primary tool through which many students learn that who they are must be fixed or changed in order to be deemed a valuable, educated, and productive citizen.
We are CONSTANTLY engaging in educational experiences. Each interaction and event we encounter teaches us something new--whether we're aware of the lesson at the time or not. Take a moment and think back, really think about the past experiences and interactions you've had, both in and out of school. I bet you could identify at least 3-5 stand out experiences, interactions, and people that greatly impacted how you came to view yourself and the world around you that has deeply impacted the person you want to become and the way you approach your work, relationships, family life, etc. Therefore, to me, education, both formal and informal, is so deeply linked to identity development and we as a society spend so much of our time in schools, that I believe teaching can truly help shift the social and cultural dynamics of society. Education/teaching become powerful tools through which to enact social justice and equity-oriented practices and schools/institutions of higher learning, powerful sites in which to begin to transform historical and persistent narratives that have placed those deviating from or unable and/or unwilling to fit within the norms of society on the margins.
Looking back on my own K-12 experience, I learned all of the typical things....you know...reading, writing, arithmetic. I went to pretty good schools with engaging curricula and I was lucky enough to have some of the best teachers along the way. However, what stands out the most for me are the messages I received from interactions with classmates and teachers in the buildings about who I was, or rather who others perceived or wanted me to be, as a black girl/young woman. Although I had parents who were able to be physically present and really hands-on in guiding and advocating for me through my racial identity development, I know that this is a privilege that many do not have and many schools/educators are ill-equipped (lack of knowledge/skills, lack of effective personnel, lack of funding & lack of desire) to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population. This understanding continues to guide and shape my motivations and approaches in my work as an educator, and especially in my new identity/role as a teacher educator.
" WHAT ARE THREE WORDS YOU HOPE STUDENTS USE(D) TO DESCRIBE YOUR CLASS/CLASSROOM?"
This is the question that I ask at the start of each course I teach each semester. It provides me with two very important pieces of information all at once before I've even covered one bit of content:
What students value and need in an educational environment
A glimpse into their own teaching philosophy/views on the role of the teacher
Knowing this straight out the gate helps me to tailor the class to meet the needs of my students while also giving me some useful background and entry points to begin some of the conversations on the various topics for the courses. Whether it's my course on classroom management, educational assessment, foundations of education, or teaching diverse populations--opening the class with these three words from each student gives me an anchor to have them constantly go back to. I often find myself saying: Look/Think back on those three words you mentioned on day 1: How would you need to approach [x concept/issue] in order to create a climate that fits those words? What would it require of you as the educator?
This activity also smoothly transitions into guiding students into writing their teaching philosophies AS WELL AS their critical autobiographies as they make connections to experiences, both in and out of school, that informed their selection of these three words. So...I bet you all want to know my three words....here they are:
I believe that teaching & learning is a bi-directional process meaning that teachers should approach the subject ready to learn just as much, if not more than they expect to teach. Our students, their families and the various community members in the spaces we teach bring interesting and valuable perspectives, experiences, interests, understandings, etc that can help to enhance the curriculum far better than I could on my own. It's always a goal of mine to open the space as much as I can to welcome these diverse voices, experiences & identities to engage new approaches and meaningful experiences for students. Admittedly, this is something I struggled with throughout my K-12 teaching years as I was in a school that REALLY valued the testing process and I was early on in the development of my understanding of how to incorporate collaborative efforts in the midst of extreme test-taking culture. However, parents were always welcome in my room and I often sent emails and text notifications home to invite them in to help with the construction and development of various materials and activities. I also gave my students an opportunity to evaluate me and my practice halfway through the year, followed by lunch meetings with small groups of students to gain deeper insight into what was working, their interests and their suggestions for how we could work together to make things even better for the remainder of the year.
Building on the collaborative component, it's always my goal to ensure that students find the lessons & courses I teach interesting and engaging. Incorporating their interests, suggestions, and involving them in the production of academic experiences and activities serves as my process of working towards that. I believe that if students feel like they are valued active participants in the learning AND teaching process, they are more likely to WANT to engage. This, of course, looks different in every course and with every group of students as we work together to figure out what types of activities and communication practices work best to meet the needs of the individuals and the collective group. Again, this was something I developed throughout my K-12 teaching and am really strengthening as I teach my teacher education courses.
Of course, it's always my goal to create an environment in which students, and I, have our previously-held understandings and beliefs pushed, expanded upon or deepened as we engage in challenging and thought-provoking activities. Even as a 5th grade Math/Science teacher it was important to ensure that the content was as relevant and meaningful to my students' personal lives and experiences, although I didn't have the proper preparation or understanding of how to deeply root this practice in a social justice lens. I do now, and it remains at the core of my work in my teacher education courses so that they feel better prepared to do so when they enter their classrooms.
So that's just a brief glimpse into my own journey into teaching and my philosophy. I could probably write a whole long post on each of the topics I touched on here...and maybe I will. But I think this was a great place to start. It's always good to take a few moments to look back and reconnect with your initial motivations for doing the work you do, and to reflect on how they have strengthened, developed and changed as you learn more about your respective field and hone your craft.
Community Reflection Time:
Now I turn the reflection over to you. What three words do you hope your students will use to describe you and/or your class? How do these words shed light on your motivations for becoming a teacher and your philosophy of teaching and learning? Leave your response in a comment. Comment on other people's posts. Let's all encourage & push each other in our development as educators.