Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Catherine Conway's Interview with a Fifth Grade Teacher

Mrs. K teaches in an elementary school made up of roughly six hundred students located in a small suburban neighborhood. Most of the students are upper-middle class and White. Only about 15% of the students are Hispanic and the remaining 5% are Asian and Pilipino. About 3% of the student population are English language learners and 5% are on a free or reduced meal plan.

Mrs. K has been teaching off and on over the last twenty-five years. After graduating from a California State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, she decided to go back to school to pursue a career in teaching. She first obtained her Single Subject teaching credential in English in 1984 and taught English at the high school level for three years. After the birth of her second child, Mrs. K decided to take a break from teaching so she could care for her two young daughters. As a stay-at-home mom she was very involved with her daughters’ schooling; volunteering in their classrooms every chance she had, and was supportive of their extracurricular activities.

When her daughters were nine and twelve, Mrs. K decided to go back to work. She took the opportunity to replace a retiring fourth-grade teacher at the school her daughters attended. Her youngest daughter was in the fourth grade at the time in another teacher’s class, so she was excited to have the opportunity to work alongside her daughter’s teacher and new colleague. Mrs. K taught fourth grade for eleven years before she decided she needed a change and took the opportunity to teacher fifth grade. She is currently teaching her third fifth-grade class.

Mrs. K believes that all children should be treated equally no matter what academic level they may be at. Although she does take into account differing learning styles and academic needs, she for the most part treats all of her students the same and expects their best effort. Her pedagogy, to me, sounds like that of a feminist pedagogy in that she tries to strive for egalitarian relationships in the classroom, to make all students feel valued as individuals, and to use the experience of students as a learning resource. She tries to center many of her writing assignments around student experiences. Mrs. K is also very adamant about her student’s paying close attention to detail in their work. Not only does she expect good, well-developed thoughts in their writing, but she also expects that the physical appearance of their work is “display quality.” Her expectation regarding her student’s attention to detail reminds me much of Ron Berger (in the Ethic of Excellence) and his students’ flawless work. Mrs. K wants pictures to be bright, colorful, and interesting. She expects her students to use their best handwriting, and to stay within the margins on their writing assignments. She displays all of her student’s work on the walls to give students and classroom visitors the opportunity to see the showcased work that her students are so proud of.

The walls are filled student work. Various books and stacks of paper lay about the room. Mrs. K apologized for what she thinks is an incurable mess. She told me that no matter how hard she tries she has never been able to keep her classroom organized. She is well aware that even if she tries to keep it clean, her students will still make a mess anyway. She seems to have given up trying to keep a pristine classroom and doesn’t seem to mind the disarray.

Instructionally, Mrs. K usually allows her students much freedom and flexibility. She uses direct instruction when necessary, but prefers that her student’s take responsibility for their own learning. She allows them to work with others and collaborate on a regular basis. Because she likes to be flexible, she admitted that she does not have the classroom management skills she would like to have and probably should. She is aware that she is sometimes “walked all over” by her students, a little to easy on them sometimes, and often passive. She also revealed that she can become easily annoyed when students constantly ask questions about things she had previously explained and that they should have paid attention to in the first place. The noise level in her classroom only bothers her when it become excessive, which at that point she has to raise her voice in order to get the students to quiet down. Mrs. K attributes her ability to be flexible with her students and reliance on student-centered assignments to meet the needs of diverse learners. Although she treats her students equally, and expects quality work from them, she still is able to adapt and tailor assignment if needed, in order to meet the needs of her individual students.

Mrs. K has always had a love of teaching and working with children. She adores her students and appreciates the constant parent support she receives. She told me that she could not have asked for a better school to teach at, in a better area, with better students. She loves hearing (directly and through her daughters) that she was a specific student’s favorite teacher. She has become friends with many of the other teachers who have worked there as long as she, and is thrilled when asked to be a mentor to a fresh student teacher. She loves the sense of school community she feels everyday she sets foot on campus. She takes in pride in the school that her daughter’s attended and where she has come to call home over the last fifteen years. Mrs. K finds the glowing, “light bulb” expressions of her students when they have finally understood a topic extremely rewarding. She also enjoys seeing her student’s enthusiasm and hard work put into various projects, art work, and writing. Mrs. K finds the positive information and stories about previous students she hears from younger siblings, parents, or from the students themselves who have come back to visit her, the most rewarding. Most are thriving academically and many have gone off to college to excel in dreams she had heard described to her years before.

I learned a great deal from having the opportunity to interview Mrs. K. She dedicates herself to the student’s of her school and continues to support the community. She has been influential to me and I will always remember her words as I embark on my teaching journey.

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