The Learning Never Stops

As I look back on my pre-internship, I am almost at a loss for words about what I have learned. I feel this way, because I feel like at almost every moment that I was teaching I was learning something new. Every sentence I spoke showed me if I was on the right track with the students or not, every demo or example, every game, and every video taught me something about my students, what they were learning, and how I needed to proceed. Every conversation I had with a student allowed me to learn more about them, their learning needs, and how I needed to teach them. So how is it possible to even begin trying to put those thousands of little moments into words?

Well, I’m going to try to put it into just two main ideas…ok, maybe three.

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The most important lesson that I learned through the process of my pre-internship is FLEXIBILITY. Now, as gymnastics coach, you might think I understand the concept of flexibility pretty well, but, when it comes to teaching in the classroom, it was a concept that I had a difficult time adjusting to. When I’m coaching my gymnasts my flexibility and adaptability seems to come naturally to me. Didn’t finish a routine in the timeline I wanted to? No big deal, we’ll do it next class. Didn’t finish a lesson, a worksheet, or a project in the timeline I wanted to? I freaked out, cried, and thought I was an awful teacher. (Don’t worry, this was not in front of students, or anyone but my husband.) So what made this concept so difficult for me to grasp? Why was it that I could just let things roll of in an easy flow as a coach, and not as a teacher?

I think it comes down to my own perfectionist tendencies. I wanted my lessons to be perfect, and I wanted my unit to go smoothly, making sure to get in all of the fun lessons that I had planned. The problem is that students are not perfect, and neither is the classroom environment. Things come up that you can’t control! Students are away for various reasons, kids get into disagreements outside the classroom that migrate into the classroom, technology is sometimes not the friendliest of friends, students sometimes don’t “get” what you think is pretty straight forward, and your great ideas are not always that great in reality. I had a difficult time adjusting to this. I wanted my lesson plan to go as I planned it, and not have to somehow find a way to stop in the middle and pick up again next day. Having another teacher coming in right after me to teach (as we had to go teach another class usually), also meant that I had no option to even take a few extra minutes from the next period to finish something. At first, this was really devastating to me. I was so frustrated that the students just weren’t getting what I needed them to get or being able to finish what I needed them to finish, which meant having to find ways to add in more lessons, shuffle things around, and make the unit plan work somehow. My flexibility skills were being put to the test every day.

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In addition to my own lessons, I also saw the need for flexibility in many other ways each day. Things just tended to “pop up”. There was the surprise arts workshop that de-railed the plan for the day for our classes outside of our grade 7/8 room and interrupted a super great lesson at the end of the day. There were times we forgot to book the laptops or iPads and had to make plans to share with another class. There were demos that didn’t go as planned, sound systems that didn’t work, photocopiers out of toner, computers that locked, accounts that crashed, fights between students, teaching guides misplaced, major power outages, and many more things that just meant that we, as teachers, had to always have a Plan B (or C or D!) ready to go. As the days went by, I definitely got better at this. I became less stressed about the “perfect” lesson, because I understood that it wasn’t real, or at least not in the way I had originally imagined it to be. The perfect lesson is not getting through what you planned out. I now understand the perfect lesson to be one in which you really connect with the students, and they connect with you, and you all are on the same page, and you are all learning together, are all engaged in what is going on, and all come away with some newly learned concept, even if it is learning more about each other.

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The next most important thing that I learned is that CLARITY is crucial. If nothing else, you have to be so clear in your instructions to students that there’s no question about what you need them to do. And you need to give these instructions to students in many ways; telling them is not enough. Say it, give them a copy, have them write it down, post it on the board, write it in the sky, and even then you still have a chance that they will ask you, “What are we supposed to do?” When explaining what to do it’s also key to give an example of what you’re looking for from students. Don’t just expect students to be able to read or listen to something and then go and do it. I learned this the hard way a few times during my pre-internship, and then the next day had to back it up and re-explain how to do the activity. One great moment though, was when a pair of boys really listened to the re-explanation, realized they had done the activity incorrectly the first time, tried it again, and got 100% on the assignment!

This lesson also became very important when outlining expectations of students during a lesson. Sometimes you want students to discuss things, and it’s ok for them to just talk, but other times you need them to raise their hand. Sometimes it is ok for students to work in partners, but other times they need to work alone. Sometimes it’s ok for students to work in their own space in or just outside the classroom, but sometimes you need them in their desks. If you don’t outline these expectations at the start of the lesson, then students will just assume whatever they want, which can quickly turn classroom management into a living nightmare.

This concept snuck up on me multiple times during my pre-internship, and I think it’s one important area that I feel I still need to work on a lot. I certainly got better at outlining expectations and providing instructions the more I taught, but there were still many times where I could look back and go, “Right…that’s why things went as they did. I should have fixed that.” This is definitely an area that I hope I’ll get much better with during my internship.
I just learned so much during my time in the classroom, and I cannot wait to learn so much more during my internship! I had an uphill battle going into a classroom that I didn’t get the chance to work with during my first 7-week experience in the fall, but I am so grateful for all that this experience taught me. I learned so much from the students, the staff, my partner, and especially from my co-operating teacher. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to be able to go back to university next week, and stick it out for nearly three more weeks, but I’m hoping that the next three weeks will allow me to get even more excited about going back out to the classroom, and that I’ll be able to go and visit my class again soon!

Bubble Burst

I wrote recently about stepping outside the bubble. I wondered if teaching would really be all that I had imagined in my head, all that I had planned for on paper, and all that my peers and I had hyped it up to be.

It wasn’t.

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In so many ways my pre-internship experience was nothing like I had imagined.

I thought that my unit plan was solid, and would be the best thing ever. It wasn’t.

I thought that I’d coast through my three weeks with my head held high and confidence in my step. I didn’t.

I thought that I would be able to do all sorts of amazing things, and totally wow the students with a wonderful math unit experience. I didn’t.

Now, I’m sure by this point many of you (especially you, Mrs. G!) are thinking, “What?! Seriously? You didn’t have a good time? I’m sure you were awesome and had so much fun! You were born to teach! ”

These are the types of statements that really bug me. Did I have fun? Sure, lots of times! Was I awesome? ….well that’s debatable. Am I a born teacher? I am definitely nowhere close to being some sort of prodigal teacher who can do no wrong; believe me, I made plenty of mistakes in the past few weeks to prove this point. The thing is, my pre-internship went so beyond the perceived ideals I had before my pre-internship, and the experienced realities of the classroom have had such a huge impact on my understanding of education.

My super great unit plan did not turn out the way I’d planned, but what I taught my students was what they needed.

My confidence did not carry me through the last few weeks, and I had several days of near (or actual) tears where I contemplated how I got myself into this “mess”, and if I am really cut out for this profession.

There was little wow factor in the way that I taught my students, because I had to change on the fly, shift my unit, simplify, and adapt to the needs of my students and ensure they were learning what they needed to learn.

So no, my pre-internship experience was not what I expected; it was what I needed and so much more.

I learned so much about myself and the way I teach, that I still don’t know where to begin to explain it all. I didn’t blog last week mainly because I was just so caught up in the changes I was feeling within myself that I couldn’t pluck a tangible thought to share with everyone. Now that my time is over, I’m still sorting through everything, and hope to come out with some clearer thoughts in the next few days about what I really learned the last three weeks.

I have always found it really difficult to look back and see what I didn’t know before. Once I learn something new, I don’t remember what it was like to not know it. Perhaps this is why I can easily apply newly learned things into my life, because they kind of feel like they’ve always been there; like I just uncovered something that was always there, but I hadn’t noticed before. This is how I’ve felt a lot during my pre-internship. As I learned something new, I’d get a feeling like, “Huh, that’s neat,” or “Whoops, guess I won’t do that again,” and then the next day I could usually apply that concept and make things better. Now, this wasn’t always the case, and it lead to some major inner conflict and struggle, but I think in the end, I was able to really learn a lot of things about myself.

So, what did I learn? What are my biggest take-aways from my pre-internship experience? Well, I guess you’ll just have to check back later for another blog post…because I’m still sorting all of that out myself!

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Teaching in the Gong Show

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Let’s be real here; middle years students are pretty much walking gong shows. Trying to teach a whole class of grade 7 and 8 students is kind of like trying to wrangle a whole flock of chickens with their heads cut off while they try to figure out who cut off their heads, who’s sitting in their favourite spot, and which head is the prettiest. It’s seriously the craziest atmosphere to work in! If you have another analogy, please share! I love a good analogy.

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Let me start off by saying that my first few days of pre-internship have taught me SO MUCH! My first few days of teaching have been pretty chaotic. No, let’s rephrase; VERY chaotic…but I’ve loved every minute of it (ok, almost every minute), and am continually learning new things! If this is only day 3, I can’t imagine all that I will have learned by the end of my time here. I also already know that I truly LOVE teaching this grade level. Yes, the kids can be pretty crazy, loud, and somewhat obnoxious, but they are also fairly awesome, passionate, and enthusiastic when you find a way to tap into what their personalities. I have learned many things about my students, about myself, and about teaching, and these things are only going to make me a better teacher as I move forward.

I have learned that actually carrying out the plan for a unit is tricky. It all looks great on paper, but the reality can be far from the theoretical. I had an idea about this before in just teaching single lessons, but to now have to link lessons together and create continuity and scaffolding is pretty challenging. My first lesson went great, and even the second lesson was very successful. I learned a few things from both of them, like being really clear about my choice of wording in questioning, and ensuring that directions are both written and verbal. Today though, I learned just how quickly the tables can turn and how students who seem to know what they’re doing can all of a sudden be really stumped and clueless. We’re working with integers, and the introduction and addition lessons went super smooth, and it was clear that almost all students were totally on track. Today’s subtraction lesson though…yikes. I forgot just how difficult of a concept it is to subtract integers! It brought me back to our EMTH 217 class last year when a room full of university students couldn’t comprehend the concept of zero pairs. We did get it eventually, and it was a really cool “ah-ha” moment for a lot of people. So why did I think I could teach grade 7s and 8s the same concept in 20 minutes? Beats me! Needless to say, it took a lot longer to even get to the activity than I’d expected, and many students were still confused, so we’ll be going back to that again tomorrow.

What I have also realized is that sometimes something simple can be so effective. Complicated lessons can be just that: complicated! It’s ok to just focus on something “easy” and ensure that students get the concept before moving on. On the flip side though, too easy can also be a bad thing and students are easily bored and unchallenged. This is where differentiation needs to enter, and is something I’m seeing I need to work on more. Today I think I tried to put too much in. Tomorrow I’ll take another go at things, refresh, refocus, and see where we end up. When I created my unit plan I definitely created some flexibility in my plan, and I’m glad I did so that I have the time to ensure that students really understand the concepts they need.

Here are the key lessons I’ve learned so far:

  1. Flexibility is something that my co-operating teacher has really stressed as an important teacher tool. Things come up, stuff doesn’t go as planned, and kids are unpredictable. You just have to roll with it, adjust, and continue on. If your plan is taken off track, figure out how to get back. This might mean revisiting the lesson the next day, and that’s ok! Your job is to get kids to where they need to be, but you have to help them get there from where they are.
  2. Word choice is key. If you don’t say EXACTLY what you want students to do, then students will do exactly how they interpret the words. Think before you say things (especially when teaching about STI’s! …Mrs. G had a pretty funny moment with this today) because sometimes what you say in your head should not be said out loud, and sometimes what you say out loud is not really what you meant to say.
  3. Admit your mistakes. I’ve heard this one before, but I’ve had the chance to see it in action the last few days. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve seen others make mistakes. It’s ok! Admitting you made an error shows your students that you’re a human and assures them that mistakes are part of learning. Students actually think it’s pretty hilarious to be able to point out your errors.

I’m sure this list will continue to grow in my time in the classroom. I am learning new things every time I teach, and am realizing more about who I am as a teacher. It’s an adventure, and I’m loving it!