Monday, April 25, 2011

Living into the Answers

I'm pretty good at everything I do because I try to be the best at everything I do. I have my own standards that usually end up exceeding the external standards placed upon me; and I live up to my own standards. Some people probably consider me an over-achiever, but I wouldn't know because I try NOT to surround myself with under-achievers. I hold myself to high standards that I continually find myself raising higher as I reach them.

I am currently finishing up student teaching at a local high school where I am constantly challenged to perform better and more creatively. My student teaching experience has taught me that teaching is something I am good at, but still have soooo much room for improvement.

At this point in the student teaching schedule, I am finished teaching students (ninth graders), and finished being evaluated while teaching students. At this point I am visiting different classrooms around the campus to observe all different types of teachers, some amazing, others not so amazing, as they teach their respective subjects and grade levels. What I've witnessed is eye-opening and worth this brief blog reflection.

I wish the student teaching schedule were reversed. I wish that the first few weeks of student teaching were spent visiting different classrooms and learning a myriad of ways to engage and teach students. What I'm discovering is that I am far from the best teacher in the school (not surprising as I'm a student teacher), and, moreover, that my own standards of what a good teacher is or does, are way too low. I need to start dreaming bigger.

Observing teachers who have been teaching 10+ years is a humbling experience. These veterans know what parts of a lesson are going to need more explaining than others. They know how to explain things better because they've dealt with the same questions for six classes a day for 10+ years. That's a lot of questions that these teachers already know will be fired at them, and what's even better, they've had 10+ years to refine their answers into educational gold. Watching these teachers I ask myself "How is she so good at explaining how to write a clear and concise thesis statement to tenth graders?" I want to know because I when I tried to teach my ninth graders how write thesis statements they looked at me like was teaching them stoichiometry in Finnish.

I want to have these seemingly telepathic teaching skills, not to mention classroom management skills, and I want them now. I'm constantly reading pedagogy books and teacher help books to try to speed up the learning curve. Some of the teaching strategies work like charms (like a lot of those by Jim Burke), but others fail miserably, leaving me broken and vulnerable in front of 35 mischievous freshmen. Books about teaching have their place. I gather new ideas and a few graphic organizers from them every now and then; but really it all boils down to experience, and the more years of it you've got the better.

I strive to be the best at everything I do. I read books to help me arrive at different perspectives on teaching. I observe good teachers to see what works well, and I watch horrible teachers to learn from what doesn't work so well--both are educational for me. But best of all, I make numerous unintentional mentors. These are experienced teachers that I gravitate toward and ask politely if I could ask them a few questions that end up taking entire conference periods to answer. I form a mentor/mentee relationship with them whether they would consider themselves mentors or not. I like these unspoken arrangements.

And it still all boils down to experience, and faith. I don't mean faith in a higher power per se. I mean faith in myself that I too will become one of these awesome teachers--in time. Even this early in my teaching career I realize how important, nay, vital, it is to have faith that I can constantly improve my teaching and craft my own valuable years of experiences. If you don't believe you can constantly improve then why keep teaching?

In his insightful book Letters to a New Teacher, Jim Burke quite aptly quotes the following passage from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet, that inspired my reflection on expectations and experience:

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

1 comment:

  1. Justin,

    This is so good! I know that you will be an amazing teacher because you truly have the heart for it. I love that you quoted Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet. I often think of it because it is an important part of a book I love and refer to when I need a little inspiration, Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water: On Faith and Art.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.