Thursday, December 07, 2006

Building Bridges

This is the "letter to the reader" in my teaching portfolio. I am so pleased with it that I decided to post it.

Dear Reader,
I write this to you so that you might have a sense of how a man is transforming into a teacher, and not just a teacher, but a redeemer. The Fresno Pacific mission and vision statement describes teaching as a “calling to redemptive service.” At first this seemed very cosmic and idealistic, but then I met seventy tenth graders at Sunnyside High School who were there to learn, among other things, world history. That is were I came in—I was there to teach them. I had so many questions going into this semester and at the beginning of my initial student teaching experience. Among them were: Will I relate to the students? Will they learn anything? Will they want to learn anything? What if I fail? What if I can not reach them? I found that there were students who were in gangs, abandoned by family, parents, on drugs, illiterate, hopeless, and unloved. Then I understood why Fresno Pacific would call teaching “a calling to redemptive service.” My students needed to be redeemed, and I had the power to do it. But how?

All of the books and articles in the world could not equal the actual time spent in the classroom. William Ayers (2001) wrote that “teaching is an eminently practical activity, best learned in the exercise of it and in the thoughtful reflection that must accompany that,” (p. 12). I learned in a couple months working with my students what I could never have learned spending years studying teaching and learning, and while it is an enormously complicated thing that cannot be fully explained in words, I will sum it up like this: first I have to know myself, then I have to know my students, then I have to find a way to build a bridge between us.

The first thing that I learned about teaching is that in order to be successful at it, I must be acutely aware of myself as a teacher, but more importantly a learner. Socrates is accredited with the advice “know thyself,” and Shakespeare elaborated in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.” This to me is the heart of being a teacher, and my goal as I become one. Parker Palmer (1997) wrote that “we teach who we are,” and “teaching holds a mirror to the soul,” (p. 15). I can only teach effectively if I have an understanding of how I learn and who I am at every level—socially, spiritually, and internally. In practical terms then, teaching for me is less about adapting to the classroom, and more about adapting the classroom to me. This includes curriculum, lessons, even physical environment. Everything reflects me as an individual. The more I understand myself, and teach who I am, the better I will be as a teacher.

Part of being true to who I am is being honest. Students are smart. They have noses for smelling a liar and eyes that see through masks. Everyday I must get up and be myself, in my weakness and in my strength, the students need me to be me, they need me to be real. Authors Sizer and Sizer (1999) wrote that “kids count on our consistency. Few qualities in adults annoy adolescents more than hypocrisy,” which is a huge burden on the teacher (p. 11). It means that every day I am being evaluated. Not by administrators, mentor or master teachers, but by students. As a teacher I must accept that I am fallible just like my students, and that making mistakes is permissible and a natural part of learning. Haberman (1995) wrote that “the surest way to teach children and youth to accept their fallibility is to select and prepare teachers who accept their own,” (p. 71). This is something that I tried to instill in my students and at least one appreciated it by writing to me, “you helped me learn that being wrong is alright.” This is a crucial part of understanding myself, but knowing myself is only the first part.

The second challenge for me is to know my students. Ideally I will know all of my students intimately. The goal according to Levine (2002) is to “become deeply familiar with each student’s abilities, needs, and interests so that [I] can suggest well-informed strategies for each student’s learning,” (p.17). This is challenging with a large number of students, but it is extremely important and begins with something as simple as knowing each students name. Because of who I am, and the way I relate to people, I learned all of my students’ names and used them as we interacted during the day. I was rewarded for this in an informal evaluation I had my students write about me. Michael wrote, “most all of my teachers didn’t know my name, but you do. You would call on me during class on a question to answer.” It was important to at least one student that I knew his name. I was disappointed that he believes other teachers do not know it.

Knowing my students is a key element in shaping my strategies to teach them. They are all different and they might require different teaching methods. This again reinforces the idea that teaching is not about methods or strategies, but instead it is a dynamic relationship that is wholly human and therefore immune to imposed models and machines. Haberman (1995) wrote that “stars establish very close and supportive relationships with most of the children they teach,” but that knowing is not enough, but rather must be used to “make teaching more relevant,” (p. 53-54). My goal is knowing my students, which leaves the final piece in quality teaching—building the bridge between myself and them.

Once I have a solid understanding of myself, and spend the time to significantly know all of my students, I must find a way to connect who they are with who I am. Students are not likely to do this on their own. I alone have the power to build the bridge. Ayers (2001) suggested that “the teacher must be the architect and the contractor who begins to build the bridge,” (p. 75). The question is then how do I build the bridge? It begins with me and my passion for not only my subject but learning in general. I can build a bridge to them by becoming a student myself. To this Robert Fried (2001) explained that, “passionate teachers convey their passion to novice learners—their students—by acting as partners in learning rather than as “experts in the field,” (p. 23). Once I become one of them in a sense, they will trust me and I can lead them effectively. Haberman (1995) explained how the class works once the bridge is complete, “by identifying with their teacher—through rapport, caring, mutual respect—children are naturally drawn to explore and sample the teacher’s interests and pursuits,” (p. 33). I can lead them and they will follow. The possibilities for learning are endless because they know that I will be there with them, the bridge is built.

It all begins with me. If I can “to mine own self be true,” I have a chance of building the bridge to my students. When I am true to myself, building the bridge will come naturally because, “teaching can come from the depths of my own truth—and the truth that is within my students has a chance to respond in kind,” (Palmer, 1997 p. 20). It is the importance of knowing myself that makes this portfolio important.

Reflecting on and examining my experiences during my initial student teaching has helped me to understand myself, my students, and how to build bridges to them. Examining the community contributed to my understanding of my students. Reflecting on the lessons that I taught helped me to understand the things that I did well and not so well, and helped me understand what I was able to communicate to my students (bridge building). Discussing the nature of the school with the assistant principle helped me understand both myself as a teacher and also the school with its students. The discipline inquiry further helped me understand myself and my beliefs about discipline, but also how the students respond to different discipline strategies.

Finally all of this goes back to my revelation that teaching is in fact a “calling to redemptive service,” in more ways than one. First and foremost there are students who need redeeming. The community and the school sometimes discount students. Like one of my students whose third grade teacher called him a “burro,” he does not believe in himself as a learner. It is my job to make him believe in himself. Besides the students, I have the task of redeeming the subject matter. Several of my students began world history believing that it was a waste of time. I had to build a bridge between them and the curriculum in order to redeem it. To this end some of my students wrote that “you helped me learn that history can be fun and interesting.” For these students history is no longer something to be dreaded. It can be enjoyed, and know that gives me satisfaction as a teacher.

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