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Thursday, July 31, 2008

The paper I wrote last night

So last night I stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing this paper. Might have been quicker if we hadn't gone out in the evening for our biweekly Wednesday Bible Study. I had written a solid page the day before, but last night I couldn't start until after ten. Still, I made time to proof-read. I'm not making any changes, just giving it to you as I gave it to my teacher.

Except she got it on paper.

Robert Sack

July 31, 2008

I Will Make a Difference

I am a teacher, and taught for 12 years before moving back to the U.S.A. I began in the Peace Corps as a mathematics resource teacher, teaching for one year in a k-12 school in the mountains, far from roads or electricity. My second year was spent in training native Nepali teachers to be better. In hindsight, this was rather cultural centric and sophomoric, given my degree in Civil Engineering and grand total teaching of about one year experience substituting in my local school district.

My Peace Corps training involved no more than 10 or 12 hours of theoretical training before we began observing other teachers, teaching sample lessons to each other, and debriefing afterwards. The training quickly moved into a laboratory setting, with groups of three or four of us observing each other teaching and offering feedback, along with our mentor. It was a very organic approach that I carried forward throughout my career. Two years later I spent a year as an academic supervisor at a private ESL conversation institute in Korea. I observed (and was observed by) all ten teachers working under me, most of them more than twice. My main purpose was to give them feedback to improve their teaching, but it also informed and improved my own teaching.

In my previous teaching job I taught college credit courses. After being hired, I quickly gravitated to Earl (not making up the name, I promise), who had been teaching in Korea about as long as I had, though longer at the college level. We quickly fell into a collaborative relationship, bouncing ideas off of each other, “borrowing” ideas that seemed to work well (with modifications, of course), and even doing some co-teaching.

Now that I will be a math teacher in an American junior high school, I know that observation is one of my most powerful tools, especially when I can discuss the lesson with the teacher. I've already been a team player, even when I had to make my own team. I plan to watch as many different math teachers in my building as possible, and hope that they will return the favor. One key to being a great teacher is to take ideas from wherever you can find them, and get input on developing them.

During the last year I have been working at the Wal-Mart jewelry counter, changing watch batteries, adjusting watch bands, and selling jewelry. My favorite part of the job was talking with people, whether it was helping them to figure out what would be a good present, trying to solve a problem for them, or just passing the time as I worked on their watch. When customers or coworkers found that I was planning to be a teacher in the fall, they almost always said that I would be a good teacher. When I asked why they thought so, one answer that came up regularly was that I listen well.

My overseas experience has been a large contributer to this skill. I often had to reach out to people who were overwhelmed by the very idea of talking to a foreigner, whether to ask for directions, buy a bus ticket, or order lunch. My number one rule in teaching ESL conversation was very simple: Make Mistakes. I even wrote it as number one on my syllabus. I have been fine-tuning my approach and personality for more than a decade to make people feel comfortable around me, helping them to break down the idea of “saving face” by not making mistakes or asking for help in front of others. I am absolutely sure that this will be a transferable skill in junior high classrooms.

I have also found humor to be a very useful tool in the classroom. It is a form of release for people who find themselves tense just being in the classroom. It definitely helps to reset the atmosphere after dealing with a problem student, working on a tough project, or anything else that requires something more than a sigh of relief. I believe that it is so effective because people can not control true laughter. If something is funny to you, you will laugh. You have lost control of yourself, if just for a moment. Often that moment is all that is needed for a good teacher to swoop back in and get the class (or student) moving in the desired direction.

While I do enjoy my time interacting with other people, I am somewhat introverted. I need to have time to myself to recharge, whether reading, bicycling, emailing, or just surfing the internet. During the next three years I will be taking classes while working full time and making quality time with my family. Getting my down time will be important, and perhaps difficult to achieve. I am considering an unprecedented solution (for me): blocking out a schedule for my weekly life. It is difficult to see myself doing this, but not any more difficult than picturing myself going slowly insane.

My biggest weakness as a teacher (and a husband) is that I have little natural drive to organize. There are a few exceptions. I used to keep my CDs in alphabetical order by artist, then by release date. That was pleasing to me, and a fairly serious task at more than 300 CDs. I have found that this tendency carries over into keeping grade books and files organized, and affects the way that I plan long term. However, it has absolutely no effect on the surface of my desk at home.

Dealing with this weakness at work takes effort on my part. It is very important to keep track of student papers to be able to verify grades if they are questioned. I found that with some planning, a little regular work, and a little bit of luck, I could keep track of assignments, projects and other documents for as many as 200 students. Almost 400 one year. Because it does not come naturally to me, I have to focus intently just to make it happen. I am aware of the mechanics of how I do this, because I had to consciously design them. As such, I am not glued to any particular method, and am willing to try whatever I think will work, especially if it works for someone else.

Punctuality and procrastination are similar issues for me. I have always had to work at it to be on time to class and to my office hours. I focus on it, and make it a point of pride to be on time and prepared when class starts. I still have occasional problems with doing work at the last minute. This is fostered by my ability to do well when it comes to crunch time. I have improved a lot over the past ten years, but there have still been times when I have turned in grades late at night on the due date or gone to class with an activity which was still warm from the photocopier. Using the internet as a teaching tool helped me a lot with this because I wanted my students to download and print handouts for the next class. In order for this to be a reasonable request, I had to have these handouts ready by the day before class, otherwise I could not expect my students to bring the materials, and justifiably so. I have also found that having activities planned well in advance usually (but not always) makes them work more smoothly in class. Procrastination is not a problem that I have completely solved, but I have developed strategies to deal with it, and still struggle with it.

The issues I have dealt with in myself help me relate to students who struggle with the same issues. They may not be too thrilled to see that 20 years is not enough to fix it completely, but they will see that one can improve, and may even take my advice on how to do so.

One key reason that I will be a good teacher is that I enjoy learning new things. I am not very keen on trivia, but I like finding out things that will help me to do my job better. When I find a new way to teach something that seems to mesh with my teaching style, I can't wait to give it a shot. Once I've given it a shot, I can't wait to make the inevitable changes to “improve” it. I often do the improving before I get around to teaching it the first time, sometimes to the extent that even its mother would not recognize it. Of course, the next time I use the activity it can still be polished, making the instructions clearer for students, avoiding bottlenecks, or just making it more entertaining.

I am also a fan of meta-thinking. As a middle school teacher, I plan to work with my students on how they think about their problems. Working with students who are new to the English language reveals a lot about how the brain works, and this can offer some insight into how everyone thinks, even when they are working on math problems.

The three classes I took before this one were all in mathematics. During my first undergraduate career, I found math classes to be just one more hurdle to get over in order to get my degree. This time they were actually fun. I enjoyed teasing the truth out of those numbers. (Except for the statistics class, in which we dragged lies out of them.) I enjoyed looking for and applying patterns. It was fun to sit in class and try to follow the lecture, maybe even jump ahead a point on a good day. This education class has been similar, in that I have enjoyed the material, the interaction with the teacher, and the mental challenge of synthesizing new ideas from the given materials. Of course I will be continuing to take classes at Baker to earn my teaching certificate, but when that is finished I hope to take more classes. As long as I am learning, I can improve as a teacher.

This passion for learning can be carried to extremes. A class activity about learning can be 100% fascinating to me, yet might only be somewhat interesting to some of my students, and for a much shorter time. Never mind the students sleeping in the back. I have found myself answering questions about grammar that turned into mini-lectures which fascinated the front row, but put some students to sleep. In general, I do well to remember to geek-out in my free time with my coworkers rather than in front of my students. At the very least, I need to keep it under control in the classroom.

I am a good teacher. I am not a perfect teacher. I doubt that such a creature walks this planet, but there are many of us striving for that noble goal. The skills that I have discussed here are only the manifestation of the true quality which makes me a good teacher: I care. I want to see people more satisfied with their lives. The best thing about working at Wal-Mart was that I did help people, but it was all to do with owning things, and therefore not truly satisfying to me or them. Teaching is about helping people to improve themselves. Whether it is the quantifiable goal of eventually scoring well on the PSAT five years down the road, or the more ambiguous goal of imparting respect for self and others, teachers give students things that cannot be taken away from them by others. The feeling I get when I see the light go on in a student's head is not worth trading for a fat salary and a corner office. The lift my heart gets when a student comes back a year later to say 'thank you' makes up for the forgotten headaches of that year. It is truly a privilege that I can get paid to do something that I enjoy this much, and I will strive to be worthy of it.

p.s. I would like to apologize for the informal tone of this paper, but I won't. The topic is a passionate one for me. I could have written it in a dry, academic tone and presented the same facts, but the feeling would have been edited out. Thank you for the opportunity to present it.

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A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.