I suppose that it would be a gross understatement to equate earning a master’s degree in education to beginning a career in teaching. Even today, months before I begin my job, I am experiencing the glaring discrepancies between these two distinct stages of my life.
In recent days, I realize that I have made the mistake of trying to treat this career as I have treated my entry into my master’s program. Although a parallel may exist between being accepted to a graduate program and receiving a job offer, the truth is that the responsibilities attached to the two decisions could not be more different.
After being accepted to a master’s program, I consciously worked to maintain as few expectations as possible. I treated my new life as an interesting surprise, and I gladly handed my time and freedom to an educational institution. The professors of my program described it as a well-oiled machine. I imagine a function machine in which the inputs were students and the outputs were teachers. As an input, I was churned through the machine without having to focus my life decisions, or even worry about where it was going. I made one decision, an acceptance, which essentially lasted me an entire year.
After accepting a job in April and completing my graduate program a week ago, I turned off my brain to education. For a short time I stopped being a graduate student – or a student at all – and enjoyed my freedom. I remember going to a Greek festival and feeling that I was getting away with something by not reading, writing, or reflecting. I stopped reading educational theorists, I stopped thinking about school, and I stopped posting on this blog. I needed a vacation from academic thought, I had the time to take it, and most importantly, I had the available distractions that make life so great; and so I took a week off. I hold no regrets.
But I can’t just turn off my mind to my future. The one decision to enroll in graduate school was, essentially, the only difficult decision I had to make. Accepting a job was just the start of a long line of decisions. After a vacation of thoughts about teaching, I am now ready to return to educational thinking. And boy, are there a lot of thoughts to be had.
I have a huge amount of information on education floating around in my head right now – my graduate program has made sure of that. I have a ton of experience inside the classroom, which has begun to give me the pedagogical tools, subtle skills, and essential practices that productive teachers need – my students have made sure of that. I have quite a wealth of resources, support, talent, and information easily accessible – you, as the reader and commenter, have made sure of that. So the challenge of accepting a job now becomes that of distilling down the huge amounts that I’ve learned about education and who I am as a teacher to realizing how exactly it all translates into a productive environment for student learning.
What has become apparent in my experiences as a teacher is that there are a number of essential practices and structures which make up the classroom. Before setting foot in the classroom, I need to have a plan for all the systems I will use, from seating arrangements, to collecting and returning homework, giving assessments, monitoring absences and tardies, and dealing with students on a day to day basis. I need to build the norms of my classroom (as well as develop strategies for reinforcing those norms); I need to figure out how I will ensure all students have the opportunity (and understand their obligation) to learn; I need to know what I will do when everything goes wrong. I need to build my classroom before I begin to teach.
When I tell experienced teachers that I am beginning my first year as a math teacher, more often than not their advice is some form of “don’t reinvent the wheel.” I have built a collection of strategies for dealing with each of these questions, but I expect that my inexperience has provided me with a very narrow scope of possible solutions. A very close friend of mine had the idea to send out a “question of the day” to be discussed by a listserv of mathematics teachers. I love this idea, as I cannot think of a better use of time than to contemplate and discuss with others how I will realistically deal with the problems and dilemmas of teaching. However, why use a listserv when you can include the entire world. With that, I call on you, the reader/commenter, to help me turn my ideas into a well-formed plan of action. I hope to post the ideas I am wrestling with regarding questions about how to build a productive classroom. Perhaps you can help me turn my hodge-podge set of disconnected, half-baked thoughts into a working classroom.