Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Walking the Line: Working with Pre-Service Teachers

It was a former student who gave me the idea that I might be of use to pre-service teachers. Rachel is a student in English education at West Virginia University, and she came in to do an observation with me during her second year in the program. She’s smart and funny, and during her second observation I turned the class over to her. The way I see it, most of us spend the first thirteen years of our formal educations observing public school teaching, both good and bad. She didn’t really need to observe; she needed a safe, supportive environment in which to “test out” her ideas and a clear, pedagogical discussion afterward. This seemed like a deeper, more productive exercise for both of us. So, in that way, I was able to influence her as a teacher on more than one level—as a student, then as a colleague. This seemed—still seems—especially meaningful to me.

Anyway, after Teacher of the Year was announced, I got an email from a friend and colleague who is on staff at West Virginia University. She said that Rachel was in her class, and she thought it would be beneficial for pre-service teachers to be able to speak with me. I agreed and spent a little more than an hour with her group of future English teachers, doing a demonstration on using art as a bridge to written analysis. They were amazing: asking questions, taking notes, journaling with me, writing, sharing. The temperature in the room was about ninety degrees, but they were fully engaged—on the level of learner and of teacher.

This experience led me to other, similar visits with pre-service teachers: a pedagogy class at Shepherd University, a curriculum and instruction class at WVU. In every situation they drilled me with questions—from simple stuff (“What do you do about bathroom passes?”) to complex conundrum (“How do you handle a challenge to your beliefs in the classroom?”). Several times I had to be comfortable saying those words traditional teachers are often most afraid to say: “I don’t know.” These visits are some of the most rewarding activities I’ve done in my role as Teacher of the Year.

Conversations like the ones I’ve had with teachers in training require me to reconsider my own fears and also to come to terms with the fact that I’ve been very lucky. In my career, I’ve been protected by strong administrators, a safe community, and involved colleagues. I wasn’t that long ago, though, that I was a student with many of the same fears, questions, and hopes for my future. Seven years ago, when I entered the field, I was frightened and excited. I could have used the insights of someone who had experience but who also could relate to me. I think I am different from the traditional model of “teacher” in this respect: I don’t know the answers. I am always learning, I think I learned that perspective in my teacher education classes; I was asked to be both a student and a practitioner—to straddle the line. Now, as a professional educator, this perspective still continues to work for me, as it seems to for those pre-service teachers.

As I began to think about this, I realized that the West Virginia University professor whom Rachel contacted me through served much the same function to me as I do to Rachel. I was her student in a young adult literature class when I was studying in the education department, then, later, we were peers as fellows in the National Writing Project at WVU Summer Institute. Now, we are co-leaders of the Summer Institute ourselves, leading teachers to different kinds of learning. Maybe, for me, the real secret of successful teaching is this web of professional collegiality, the fluidity of relationships, the idea that we are all learners and that we never stop learning. It’s this that draws Rachel to me, and me to her, and to any other teacher who can shift between roles, walk the blurry line, learning from me, learning with me, and leading me to learning at the same time.

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