Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kristen Rasmussen's Interview with a Third Grade Teacher

The teacher I chose to interview has been teaching for 16 years at the same school. The school she works at serves a military community. With it being on a military base, it is naturally diverse demographically, with students coming and going on a consistent basis to and from many different places in the world. The teacher has 4 English language learners in her class. She is a third grade. We eat lunch together every Tuesday and Thursday in the teacher's lounge where I get to sit in and participate in discussion about what is going on in each class.

We discussed how she came to be teacher and what inspired her to do so, what particular teaching approaches and styles she likes/dislikes using, her thoughts about the current curriculum and how she sometimes modifies it to better suit her students and how she looks back on her career as a teacher as she nears retirement either at the end of this year or next.

When the interview began, she immediately mentioned how teaching as a profession runs in her family. Her family members are her inspiration for wanting to help make our world a better place through touching the lives of children in a positive way, educating them about what the world could be like and how they as young people are the future and can make a difference. Her students have also always been her inspiration, to her there is nothing better than seeing that light switch on in a child's mind when they have learned something new. 

As we started to discuss how she approaches her class when teaching a new lesson and what styles she favors, she immediately said that it changes every year according to her new students' strengths and weaknesses. When she went to school to become a teacher, she was mostly educated on direct instruction and therefore that is what she used the most of in her early years of teaching. She emphasized how important it is to continue educating herself and new approaches and styles that fit her students.

Her class this year works particularly well in groups so she tends to find herself grouping the students regularly and encourages authentic discussion in class. She said she finds that students are taking more away from lessons when they learn about them hand-in-hand with their peers through sharing and discussion.

As far as the curriculum goes, she really likes the current literacy/language arts textbooks and manipulatives as opposed to the math. She is partial to the reading texts because they provide plenty of anthologies about things that truly interest her students: stories about outdoor activities, the beach and ocean, sports, etc. She said the math texts are not sequential and it makes it difficult for her to transition from one topic to the next; she has to jump around in the texts to help the students make more sense of it. She modifies lessons for her English language learners by consistently calling upon them to discuss a story or to solve math problems in front of the class to help them use their academic language skills instead of just their writing skills.

As we came to a close on the interview, she began to reflect upon her years as an elementary school teacher and how she has had her ups and downs, sideways and backwards about pretty much everything. But overall she could not be happier with her choice of profession. To her, there is nothing more rewarding than the graciousness of a student who truly learned from her and appreciates her as a teacher and human being. She is planning on retiring very soon as her and her husband look to move out of state. It was my pleasure to sit and discuss teaching with this exemplary person and teacher.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Elliot Langford's Interview with a First Grade Teacher

Mr. A is a wonderful teacher who has enviable classroom management skills and an uncanny knack for motivating his children at all times. He teaches in a Central Coast school here in California where around 99% of the student body is Latino, and where just about everyone gets free lunch. He himself is not of Latino heritage, however his spouse was born and raised in Mexico until she was 6, so his perspective is quite sharp on the subject of English language learning due to the firsthand stories about the difficulties of adolescent language immersion.

He is committed to the craft of educating for the sake of empowering the youth of his community, and has been doing so for 15 years now. He started off as a kindergarten teacher, then third, and then switched off between first and second grade for the past twelve years. He was awarded his first teaching position at a job fair. He had signed a contract before he walked out the door, telling me that the employer was moved by the fact that he wanted to go back and help his community. All his teaching experience has been in "high-risk, low literacy, and high-crime" communities where the children have had to deal with much, much more than school work. He insists that the children can rise above the negative surroundings and empower themselves to achieve greatness.

He credits his teaching style and philosophy are a reflection of his past educators, and how they were very driven by creating an independent student that was self motivated regardless of what is going on at home. He tries to give his students tools they can use for the rest of their lives and not feel helpless in such dire situations. Mr. A believes "even though they are little, there are a lot of things they can be independent on. There is so much chaos in these kids' lives that they need to be able to rely on themselves because those around constantly let them down." He did admit he was generalizing, but that he has seen this situation so many times that he wants the children to be independent learners and not have to wait on their moms or their dads to help them.

He keeps the expectations very high in the class, and believes kids know what level they are achieving. He does not hide the fact that some kids' scores are not as high as others, and really pushes the low performers to work extra hard to move up. Instead of simply passing the kids along and worrying about protecting their feelings through sugar-coated deficiencies, he makes sure they understand that they need to improve and why. In most cases he says, it has a tremendous effect.

When I asked him what keeps him enthusiastic and motivated to teach, he admittedly risked sounding cliché, and told me it was the simple act of teaching children. "Shutting the door and getting to work with the kids" he said. He added, "All the grown up junk is really bad here, and they are taking opportunities away from kids because they are continuing the chaos. I teach as if my own kids were sitting in my classroom. What kind of teacher would I want for my kids? Grown-ups get in the way, and if not for the kids, I would have quit by now." I'm sure lots of teachers feel this way, and I am very happy to hear this. He doesn't have a resentful or vitriolic tone when sharing these thoughts, but rather a matter-of-fact viewpoint of a troublesome issue that he may have found a panacea for.

Mr. A creates a classroom community by grouping his students at tables rather than individual desks to create "families" that rely and help each other. "Ask three before me" is in effect so the students seek out answers and solve problems together before asking the teacher. Over time, this method transforms the students into teachers themselves who help each other at all times. They really get the sense of family and want each other to succeed. There is also a lot of peer discussion and validating each student's ideas so they feel their critical thoughts are awesome and worthy of sharing. Mr. A sounded excited when describing his classroom and the children inside, which made me feel good about choosing to teach.

Mr. A claims his reward is when he hears his name while visiting the local high school that his old students now attend. Feeling a little embarrassed about sounding needy, he stated "It's a great feeling. The students still love you." I'm sure the love is there because he tells his students that, "Once I'm your teacher, I'm always your teacher" and creates that everlasting bond because he cares about their well being, and it won't fade over time.

I want to be a great teacher who inspires children to think big and be great, like Mr. A does. I really enjoyed hearing about high-risk students being able to achieve and be responsible at such an early age. "Even though they're little, they can be independent" will no doubt be a theme of my own classroom so all my students will have the power to succeed, no matter the circumstance.