Thursday, March 25, 2010

Melissa Moore-Call's Interview with an English Teacher

Early in my teaching career, I was fortunate to have worked with Janice Stallings (a pseudonym), a middle school English Language Arts teacher who brings a true passion for her subject matter to her classroom. Although Janice had originally intended to teach English at the university level, her plans changed when she was offered a position teaching seventh grade ELA in North Carolina. Janice earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from a small liberal-arts college in Virginia that is known for its stellar creative writing department. After Ms. Stallings completed her Master of Arts in English, she set her sights on teaching graduate level creative writing. Unfortunately, there are few job openings in MFA level creative writing programs and Janice had to reconsider her options. As luck would have it, Janice’s mother knew of an opening at the Middle School and asked her daughter if she would be interested in teaching seventh grade. Thankfully for hundreds of students, the answer was a resounding yes.

I interviewed Janice over the phone and asked her to tell me about her school. This Middle School, located in the suburbs of a very large and bustling business center in North Carolina, is a North Carolina School of Excellence. It is also, as Janice points out, “very white bread.” Approximately 94% of the school’s 1425 students are Caucasian; the other six percent of students are African-American, Asian, and Hispanic. Very few students qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program; most kids at Crown come from middle class and upper middle class families. Many children at the school have parents who work for a large bank that is headquartered near Mint Hill.

Janice is known for her excellence in the classroom. When I worked with her, I was amazed at her natural ease for managing a classroom and for delivering instruction. Jan is very much a natural teacher. That is not to say, however, that she doesn’t face challenges in her job. Jan points out that her first year of teaching was “very rough. I had 36 kids in one class and 70% of them had 504s or IEPs [Individual Education Plans].” Like many first-year teachers, Jan admits to having felt overwhelmed. When I asked Janice how she coped with that experience, she replied that she simply did the best she could and that she relied a good bit upon the Academic Facilitators, who came into her classroom, observed her, and gave her feedback on what was working and what was not. Also, the Academic Facilitators ensured that Jan had real, concrete strategies she could use to teach struggling students. Janice also worked on her teaching skills by attending as many professional developments workshops and seminars as she could, where she learned about a variety of topics, including Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory.

I mentioned to Jan that I try to visit other teachers as much as I can and see what is going on in their classrooms and not only English teachers. Jan admitted that she had observed many other teachers as well in her beginning years. (She has taught for a decade at this point.) Also, she says, “I leaned on my department members. I took everything I could away from English department meetings, any kinds of ideas, lesson plans, strategies.” Although this Middle is located in a district with a very detailed pacing guide, Janice points out that it is unrealistic for any teacher to be tied to a pacing guide that does not allow for any derivation. Jan had the pacing guide available her first year of teaching, but she felt that it was not adequate for her students' needs. Jan added that the district’s pacing guide does not allow time for re-looping or re-teaching concepts that students did not grasp the first time around. Furthermore, Janice continued, the pacing guide assumes that you are teaching a class of kids who are all reading and writing at grade-level. In many of Ms. Stallings' classes, this has not been the case.

I asked Jan what she does to meet the needs of all her students, as I know she has had a wide variety of students over the years. Most of Jan’s students are ability-tracked; they are grouped together in for English language Arts and Math, which means most of them end up having Social Studies and Science together, too. Jan responded after a moment that it is difficult to meet the needs of every student, but that is what teachers have to do. Jan knows that some students face bigger hurdles than others and she does what she can (often at personal expense) to level the playing field. I remember Janice buying coats for students who could not afford them when I taught with her years back. She felt was merely doing her job; no one could expect cold and hungry students to do their best in the classroom. Buying coats for disadvantaged students is a great illustration of who Jan is as a teacher. Her caring and empathy really speak to her philosophy of love and acceptance as a teacher. Jan cares for her students and it shows in and out of her classroom.

I asked Jan if her classroom had changed much since I last saw it when I taught with her, her classroom was always neat, tidy, colorful and welcoming. She laughed that it is probably a little more untidy than I remember and that she certainly has more books than she used to. Her classroom is set up to be student-friendly; she has a supply table with paper, pens, staplers, a hole puncher, and other necessary items in the back of the room where students can easily access it. There are several bookcases housing books of all reading levels; students are welcome to check them out and take them home. Janice groups her kids' desks in fours and arranges these groups so that everyone can see the whiteboard and overhead projector. Jan works hard to make sure the classroom is a place of learning and she arranges her room carefully. Ms. Stallings has several bulletin boards on which she displays photos of her students. This is a room where all kids are welcome.

In speaking with Jan, I was reminded that content knowledge is only one part of teaching. Jan and I have several graduate degrees in English and Creative Writing between us. Certainly, knowing one’s subject area and having passion for it is important, but just having that knowledge will not convey it to your students. You need solid teaching methods and practices. You must care about your subject and your kids; you must accept all of them and want all of them to succeed. Jan and I discussed the philosophy of meeting our students where they are and how important that idea is to remember when we are working with them. Yes, knowledge of our teaching area is important, but so is an understanding of how individuals learn. We must know our students, know them well, and have in our possession skills and strategies that will help every child develop as a learner.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ruben Garcia's Interview with a Fifth Grade Teacher

Ms. Smith has been in the teaching profession for a quite the time now serving public schools. She has been a dedicated teacher to her profession for twelve years now. These have been twelve rewarding years where she has seen the growth of the students year by year. She has taught 1st grade for three years, 3rd grade for two, and has been teaching 5th grade in her current school for the past seven years. The majority of the students in this public school are of Hispanic background. The school has an estimate of 800 students enrolled from K to 6th grade.

Ms. Smith states how her philosophy of teaching is being open and prepared for whatever or whoever may walk through her classroom. As a teacher one has to be ready for the unexpected with all this different types of students who come into the school year with a variety of learning levels/styles. As a teacher she says she attempts to teach in a way where none of her students are left out or feel left out due to their ability of performing. She attempts to make everyone count in the class and get every student involved as much as possible in the lesson. Furthermore, even as a teacher she has the job of learning like her students. She has to learn about her students as a way to understand them better and use that to an advantage to aid her students succeed in their education. She believes the purpose of public education is to provide equal education to every individual in our communities and equip them with proper knowledge and tools to put to use in the community to better the community.

When looking at the classroom and how it is organized, she has her classroom set in a very unique way. Her students sit in a group of four per group; all the groups of four are arranged in a way where the center of the classroom is open in a circular type area. She leaves this area open so she can have a better contact with the whole class. She has the classroom divided in five different groups named Mon-Fri, and the kids fall in the day of the week group depending in their reading level. When it comes time for the class to practice on their reading, they get in their assigned group to read a book according to their reading level. Every day the teacher works with different groups as a way to facilitate them and to see how the book is working for the group. As time goes on the students are able to move up a day of the week as their reading improves and have the opportunity to now practice their reading with peers who are at a higher level and learn from each other.

Ms. Smith, taking a deep breath explained that at times it can be challenging to meet the needs of a diverse group of students, but one has to stay focused and always think about the best way to pull the students forward with their learning. She meets the needs of her students who do learn at a different pace is by closely observing them and seeing what works for them and what does not. By observing her students and picking out areas in where they struggle the most, this gives her the opportunity to really drill in this area by starting slow and throughout time challenging the students a bit more as they go on. She will take as long as it take for her students to succeed in the material, but must be careful to not leave out other information.

When I asked her what her motives in becoming a teacher were, she cracked a huge smile and responded by blurting out that it was definitely not the pay. She wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a little girl attending school in Mexico. She enjoyed school so much in Mexico that she always knew she wanted to peruse a career in this profession. Then, making a difference in a child╒s life was another reason she gave. "I always enjoyed helping others from helping my mother cook food to helping my little brother with his school work. As long as I helped, I felt good inside. Plus it allowed me to learn new things along the way." To her, teaching is a very rewarding job. As a teacher when seeing the growth in the students and seeing the change and improvement, this is like getting paid without receiving a currency. The greatest reward for her was when the students go up to her with excitement letting her know they get the information and know how to put it to use.

Through this interview I learned how in teaching one has to be very much prepared for anything, and make adjustments at any time when needed. One has to be very familiar with their students and know what meets their needs and what does not. I also learned that teaching is not all about the income that comes in since it is not the greatest, but it is more about the wanting to teach and the wanting to help others.