15 Sep What I Learned in My Graduate Education
What I learned in my graduate education program: if you want to be a teacher, watch a teacher. Let them watch you. A lot.
Honestly, I can’t remember more than a few individual moments of lasting learning from my graduate education classes. Don’t get me wrong; the program is highly rated and respected and the teachers were wonderful and intelligent, for the most part, but nothing much floats to the top in my mind.
I imagine my coursework was not unusual, but I count myself lucky that I was in a program that at least required me to be in a classroom from day one. Granted, the prospect was frightening. Terrifying. But in retrospect, it is crucial to the teacher I am today.
My car broke down as I turned across the intersection to attend my first day at my first student teaching posting and, as the car sputtered and lurched, I thought my heart had replaced the engine. My mind made the same noise when I understood that I would be teaching before I had even met with my Methods instructor. The light changed, vehicles bore down on me, swerving and honking, as I coaxed my wounded and smoking vehicle into the North Eugene High School parking lot.
“I survived that,” I thought.
That first day was a teacher work day, a back to school day full of meetings and workshops, so the terror of actually being in front of students was put off momentarily, but it arrived nonetheless. My mentor teacher, in whose classroom I would spend hours upon end that year, explained that I would be teaching one of her freshmen English classes.
“No. You are mistaken. I don’t know how to teach.”
She laughed, though I wasn’t joking.
Yes, it was frightening to be thrown into that setting, in front of an audience of juveniles and elder statesmen teachers, but I learned so much more then than from all my professors’ lectures and assigned readings. I learned something that I wish all teachers and administrators could learn and know. I learned the truths that surfers learn from wiping out over and over again because their friends pushed them to paddle out into a swell beyond their skills, beyond their ambitions. I learned that to be watched while one teaches is not punitive. To be observed is not a punishment for a poor or struggling teacher. To be watched, and to be forced to talk about one’s own practice in a dispassionate way, is a gift.
At the end of the semester, I thought, “Well, I survived that,” but I wanted more. Despite the knowledge and skills that I gained, I felt that it was half chance. The center of the program was still the coursework, not the fieldwork. This seems reversed, to me. Fieldwork should be supported by study of standards and theory. A teacher’s career should be the same. We should see our jobs as a multitude extended study opportunities. Our classes are where we try our best to implement what we are learning from our community of peers, teachers, and administrators committed to nonjudgmental observation and feedback. Learning to teach in this way buries in a teacher the understanding of actual collegiality.
As it stands, too many of us look around our schools and see rows of boxes with closed doors, figurative or literal. Too often, these boxes are impenetrable, used to lock away our teaching, and seem to open only via the threat of an administrator observation. As the chair of my department, I find that there are classes I still can’t look into. Teachers smile and nod when asked to share common practices or watch each other work, but it is so out of the norm to actually observe and be observed regularly, that many people get nervous and defensive at the mere mention. I am lucky to have neighbor teachers that, like me, understand that teacher observation is normal, like breathing, and is essential to how we learn and grow, but again, this is just luck.
I want to eliminate the element of chance.
If I could create a graduate education program, it would focus on pedagogy and theories of mind and content, but it would focus more on a model of apprenticeship and observation that ingrained in teachers and administrators that frequent, ongoing feedback is positive, productive, and necessary.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to teach in a world in which it is normal to seek and receive feedback openly? Shouldn’t we see our peers and our administrators as part of our learning team? If we’re really in the classroom to serve students, then we know that they are the observers whose feedback and experience matters most anyway. The adults should team up to provide the best product we can for our actual audience: our students and their futures.