Thursday, May 26, 2016

First Classroom Mentors

My first mentor teacher, Bernie, kept a manilla folder on each student and walked the aisles, every day, folders in hand. When he checked homework, he recorded a plus or a minus on each student's folder. When students submitted work, each sheet went into a folder.

Every two weeks or so, Bernie emptied the folders into individual portfolios in a cabinet (or returned the work he no longer needed) so that the folders he carried up and down the aisles never grew too thick, too heavy. If he scored something with a number or a letter, that also went on the outside of the folder.

Every week, Bernie transcribed the records from the outsides of his folders into his grade book. That was his system, and it worked for him. He was organized and diligent. This was 1993. We did not have computers in our classrooms for students. Teachers did not have an individual computer in their classrooms. Record keeping happened with pen and paper. Writing, for the most part, happened at home.

Almost 25 years later, my memory locks onto Bernie's fastidious record keeping on manilla folders. That couldn't be all I "learned" from student teaching...was everything reduced to that one memory?

Wanting to dig deeper, I started a list of what I remember:

-Bernie served in the Peace Corps in Brazil.
-In 1993, he was writing a novel based on his experiences in Brazil.
-He kept a theoretical chart of the consistency of symbolism. He had sketched it out for himself: midnight, winter, December/January, black, blue all aligned in the same way that 3pm, summer, red and yellow, and June/July all aligned. His chart had a dozen different layers of details...much more than I can recall.
-Bernie telephoned my parents to tell them how well I did as a student teacher.
-As a parting gift, he bought me a first edition of a novel he loved: Butterfield 8, by John O'Hara.
-He wore a jacket and a tie every day.

-He told me he worked at being a better teacher every day, every year. He said it took effort.
-He coached soccer at various points of his career.
-We taught Lord of the Flies and Romeo and Juliet. We taught The Scarlet Letter.
-Bernie was highly respected by his colleagues. Accordingly, his colleagues treated me very well and always spoke with great admiration about Bernie. They were pleased that they knew him, that they worked with him, and that I got to be his mentee.

The thing is, I don't remember anything about how we taught.

I don't remember great lessons or failed lessons. I don't remember teaching strategies. I just remember scattered fragments of content. And I remember how Bernie was, who Bernie was. I remember the great respect he afforded me, but I especially recall the great respect he gave to the profession.

In retrospect, I don't remember Bernie conferring with students or working or getting to know them. I don't recall ever seeing the students write or seeing them read. This isn't to say that it did not happen--I just did not experience it when it did happen or my memory fails me. While Bernie was a writer, I don't remember his sharing that fact (or his writing processes) with the students. I don't recall Bernie writing in front of them.

But the one thing I still carry with me is Bernie's affect--his control and confidence in who he was and what he offered in the classroom. I remember trying to process what Bernie meant about trying to be better every day...did he mean that his record keeping became more efficient? Did he mean that he grew smarter about the novels? I didn't really know, and even today I can only surmise from a different point in my life.

Bernie was true to his spirit, his style. He knew how to make himself--who he was--most effective for his students. And, it seemed at the time, that many of his colleagues also had that trait...they seemed to enjoy that they worked with people who were different than they were. Teacher A wasn't trying to be like Teacher B. Teaching wasn't standardized even though the content was. It was ok to teach to your strengths.

Maybe my one significant take-away from student teaching is just that--maintaining control and confidence in who I am in an escalating climate of assessment, judgement, and policy. Maintaining control and confidence comes from action. Taking control over who we are fuels our confidence.

Maybe the best we can all hope for, after leaving student teaching, is remembering one key thing. Maybe we are so overwhelmed by all of it that our brain does not know which kernels of experience are so valuable that we must remember them forever.

Maybe we don't really know what to see, what to hear. Or maybe a teaching career does have to begin with content, and maybe growth only comes with practice and experience. There are no magic packets or workbooks. There are no magic techniques.

As a student teacher, I remember being so concerned with knowing the facts, knowing the books, knowing the answers, that the pedagogy often came a distant second. I didn't want to be wrong. I didn't want to get caught not knowing something. What if students asked a question that I could not answer?

The only energy I put into pedagogy was a reliance on how I remembered being taught as a student and what I observed when Bernie taught. I mimicked what I experienced and observed.

And I wonder what it was, in me, that flipped a switch to start to grow, to seek change, to find a process that would help me become a better teacher later in my career. The thing about Bernie is that I met him towards the end of his career. I don't know how Bernie started. I don't know how Bernie grew. Yet, I remember Bernie telling me that the previous year was his best year of teaching. I remember being surprised. Thirty years into the profession, Bernie only just felt that he had a great year.

As I reflect on that experience, I am reminded that we may never master this thing we do, teaching; yet, that does not mean that we just settle on being who we were when we started.

Even though policy and climate may shift from year to year, it is incumbent on me to take responsibility to grow and change from year to year while retaining the confidence and control of who I am and who I can still become in this profession. I cannot wait for guidance to make me better. I cannot wait for top-down Professional Development to make me better. Growth, confidence, and control are all within my power and, quite honestly, what makes up much of my being professional in this vocation is what I do--taking responsibility for my actions and development.

I wonder, what have you taken with you from student teaching or your first classroom experience? 

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