Powers of Ten

Reflecting on my student teaching, I saw regrets flashing like flustering bolts of lightning and from their strikes the wavering fires they ignited…

The first 10 minutes…

Anxiety. I was filled with fluttering butterflies that stirred my stomach a crazy wreck. No thoughts or words could calm them. They were alert that morning, and I was alive with worry. I had taught before; I had been responsible for a group of students prior to that angst-churning morning, but I had never felt the weight of full classroom responsibility for 30 students before—and it bore down on me with all its dense weight, all its pressure. Prior to the class, I replayed hypothetical scenarios in my head: Scenarios where I didn’t know the answer to a student’s question; scenarios where I stuttered and couldn’t speak; scenarios where I tripped and fell; scenarios where I was clueless; scenarios where I horribly failed at teaching. I was absolutely scared. Then, without further ado, I stood before my class a teacher for the first time.

Anxiety subsided to duty. It was that easy: introductory words poured out of me, and students, most of them, were listening. It felt natural. I spoke from raw inexperience but with heart, and the students could sense it. All those months, days, and minutes of worrying had been forgotten. I was surprised with how comfortable I felt and how naturally, with few hesitations, I could communicate to my students. The butterflies still fluttered (and still do), but I thrived off of them instead of worrying from them. [If I did not feel the excitement of teaching, I’d fear I’m in the wrong profession.]

After my introduction, there was an awkward silence, for students seemed as nervous as their teacher. I learned my first on-the-spot lesson: students will reflect their teacher. So, to help break this ice, before the planned ice-breaker activity, I acted like a fool. I started to operatically sing my speech. I had to let students know that “it is okay to be yourself”; that “unless you feel comfortable in class, you will not be in a position to be receptive to learning.”

Also helping to break the ice of discomfort is having an understanding that failure is commonplace. No one has ever learned if failure has not come first, so after I non-intentionally stammered my words for the first time, followed with an incomprehensible flowing of blah-deedee-blah sounds, the students laughed, and, more importantly, they witnessed an imperfection of their teacher. By my failure, but continuing effort, students—and I—learned that it was okay to fail and to let people witness that failure. I learned my second on-the-spot lesson: a trip, a stutter, a stumble in manner, keeps one humble, human in stature. And until students become a robotic storage facility capable to download education solely from a computer to a flash drive in their brain, that second lesson will forever be a prominent element of my pedagogical foundation.

I once expressed my student teaching fears to a friend, and she said, “You’ll know in the first ten minutes whether or not you’re cutout for teaching.” She was right. In those first 10 minutes, I realized that I was meant to teach; I felt it, the natural flow and energy and interaction with students. Surprisingly, all of my teaching fears were answered within those 10 minutes: despite the occurrences in the course of my teaching career, I thought, I had made the right career choice, and I could now breathe deeply and roll up my sleeves.

The next 10 days…

With the first day experienced, the pressure of the unknown was alleviated. Now I had to plan, for I accepted full classroom responsibilities for every class from each of my cooperating teachers. My new concerns quickly clouded: Where do I start? How do I start?

To help me, I spoke with the cooperating teachers (after each class on that first day), and they filled me in on previous lessons, assignments, and goals and current and future objectives. My cooperating teachers openly answered all of my questions and provided me with ample support, such as offering to make copies for me or brainstorming activities and lessons aloud with me. Once I had been caught up, I was ready to plan.

I engrossed myself in lesson planning through the consideration of every hypothetical situation that could alter the course of the lesson, as well as the detailed writing of each plan, especially each minute and how and why it was used. Though it was good preparation, I forgot one pretty big aspect of teaching: the student. During my initial lesson planning, I was so absorbed with the details and the content of the plan that I neglected the individual student’s needs and basically taught to the middle. Moreover, I allowed my obsession with carrying out a perfect lesson plan obstruct beneficial data and observation collection. Understanding each student and creating the most effective learning experience requires patience and flexibility to veer away from a plan when necessary—no matter how perfect the plan.

Aside from planning and data collection, for the next two weeks, I had set goals: know every one of my student’s names, be aware of all of the available resources, and build a relationship of trust and confidence with my students and co-workers. Unfortunately, I accomplished only one of those goals in those 10 days. I didn’t know every one of my 165 students’ names until week six, and I am still unsure if I successfully established a relationship of trust and confidence with all of my students and co-workers (I believe this takes more time through more shared experiences). [Here’s a tip for learning students’ names: When calling on a student in or out of class, force yourself to always say the student’s name; never call on a student without saying the student’s name, and if you’re having trouble remembering, ask the student. Don’t ever hesitate to ask, like I did, because there is no reason to hesitate; if students can see that you are trying, they will not hesitate to help you.]

After those first 10 days, though I knew I had followed the right career path, I also knew I had a thick swamp of work through which I had to trudge. My new concern was not drowning in the quagmires. Then, realizing the challenges that rest ahead, I understood a misguided notion: teaching is an artistic profession and has infinite challenges; it is no place for complaining people.

The whole 10 weeks…

Ten weeks is a short time, and the development of a teacher is so long. I would embrace a whole year of student teaching, but an entire year without compensation is, for me, impossible; however, the development of my teaching abilities would be invaluable. Whether 10 weeks or a year or more, student teachers need to make the absolute most out of their experiences and understand that qualities of an effective teacher develop through the constant application of best effort in—and before—the aftermath of failure. Despite the length of student teaching, aspiring and new teachers must understand that teacher development is like writing in that it’s a recursive process—it never ends.

Ten years from now, Whitman-bearded (but with a bit more color), reflecting once again on my inaugural teaching experience, I’ll say something cliché to the newest teacher in the department, look away into the distance, and deeply sigh: “If only I would’ve known then what I know now…” That’s the point: we could never know now unless we learned then.

…And suddenly in marvelous illumination, I saw those wavering fires lighting the way of preparation.

Recap

  • Thrive off of butterflies
  • Students reflect teacher
  • Establish comfortable environment
  • A stumble in manner keeps us humble
  • “You’ll know in the first ten minutes…”
  • Plan thoroughly but don’t forget student
  • Set goals and keep trying
  • Don’t hesitate to ask student
  • Can’t know unless we learn
  • Failure is the way of preparation
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