A Teacher’s Journey
4. Assistance (Meeting the Mentor)
This is part of a personal narrative series detailing my quest to be a teacher.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasures you seek.
— Joseph Campbell
Preservice teacher courses were different. Instead of large lecture halls, we sat in small classrooms. Instead of rows upon rows of lecture chairs, we sat in circles of chairs facing our classmates. Instead of passively listening and taking notes, we engaged in lively discussions and listened to anecdotal stories from the field. Instead of ivory tower professors, we had active teacher professors who were still teaching in public classrooms. When I walked into my education courses, I was electric. For the first time in my life, the grade didn’t matter; there were no hoops to jump through. I enjoyed learning and developing my identity as a teacher.
One afternoon early in the program, we all made our way to our seats. We were a diverse mismash of genders, ethnicities, and interests. The professor wanted to see, by a show of hands, how many of us planned to teach high school. A few hands went up. How about middle school? A few less hands went up. How about the elementary grades? 80% of us shot up our hands. We far outnumbered our intermediate counterparts, but even so, I was the minority in the class. I was the only male who planned to teach Elementary school. In fact, I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher.
Throughout college, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. It was the profession that allowed me to work with children, act like a clown, and not be an engineer. My father was less than thrilled, but at least a teacher had a hint of authority. Perhaps my son will become a world-renowned professor! It was a win-win situation: choosing a major got my father off of my back and I got to learn how to be an educator. I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to be Arnold Schwartzenegger from Kindergarten Cop. I wanted to be a larger-than-life presence to a room full of five-year-olds. I wanted the story time, milk and cookies, costumes, and games. I wanted it all. Little did I realize that being a male Kindergarten teacher was like announcing to the local zoo that I am a unicorn and I am ready for my enclosure.
No one could quite understand why I wanted to teach the little ones. I got a lot of sympathetic looks, even from other veteran educators. I was used to being one of the few males in class. Ever since entering the School of Education for my courses, I regularly found myself surrounded by female classmates. All of my professors were women. The Dean of the School of Education was a woman. I was preparing myself to enter the female-dominated education profession.
And then, I met Brian. I was learning all of the necessary information, gaining the tools and resources I would need, and understanding the mindset of being a teacher. I just didn’t see anyone else that looked like me. The only other three males in the class were planning to teach high school Math, Science, and English. Brian, on the other hand, was my first male professor who had actually taught K-5. He had undertaken this same journey and I was excited to receive his hard-earned wisdom that came from experience in Elementary schools. You often hear the phrase, Think outside of the box. Brian taught me how to think differently within the box. He taught me that just because things were done a certain way before, didn’t mean that was the way I needed to do them. I didn’t have to use worksheets and basal textbooks. I didn’t need to use the prescribed curriculum if I found a more authentic way to teach content. I still remember a brown book he gave me for teaching mathematics. Teaching and Learning Elementary and Middle School Mathematics by Linda Jensen Sheffield. It had hands-on activities that strayed from the prescribed lessons currently being taught in the classrooms I was observing. Instead of skill and drill, there was work with manipulatives that you could find around the house. An entire lesson on division used Dixie cups and beans! Brian gave me permission to mae learning visual and use whatever means necessary to help students see abstract concepts (like division) in a concrete way.
By the time I was ready to do my student teaching, I was questioning everything. Did I have to do my student teaching in Boulder, or could I choose another district? Could I choose my cooperating teacher and interview them so that I was confident I would be a good fit in their classroom? I decided to student-teach in a full-day Kindergarten classroom in a school district that wasn’t part of the consortium of schools partnering with the University. I received permission after petitioning my desire to teach in a full-day Kindergarten. Kindergarten is for most students, their first educational experience. Itr sets the tone for all subject areas and aspects of school. Children learn in Kindergarten many of the learning routings, content area likes and dislikes, and school expectations that are used to form opinions of school and education. I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher because I felt a duty to excite students early in their educational journey and motivate them into the life-long process of learning. I was pumped and ready to go!
My coordinating instructor was Dr. Donald Bruno. When I told him that I wanted to teach a free verse poetry unit to Kindergarten students so that I could inspire them to use more colorful and innovative word choice, he supported me. Dr. Bruno was always available to help me problem-solve and improve my teaching. He inspired me to take risks. For example, my cooperating teacher (as most Kindergarten teacher) spend considerable time establishing routines and structures. Oftentimes, creativity and innovation fall by the wayside. Teaching a unit on free verse poetry was antithetical to a standard Kindergarten classroom. Dr. Bruno was an invaluable resource during my student teaching. His feedback was supportive and pushed my thinking as an educator.
When I interviewed for teaching positions and received my first round of No, Thank you’s, he gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. I still hang onto his email almost 20 years later:
I’m disappointed you did not receive an offer for a teaching position. I know this can be very frustrating; especially when the feedback you received from these two identified interviews were diametrically opposed to one another.
The best advice I can give you is to be genuine and believe in yourself. Interviewing teams are looking for (1) competence; but more important, (2) a team player. Interviewing teams essentially ask the same type of questions; however, each interviewing team is observing you and the manner in which you answer these questions to see if they perceive you to be someone who they would like to have as a colleague. Overconfidence or lack of confidence is in the eyes of the perceiver. Somehow this was their perception. Try to reflect on exactly what might have given them this erroneous perception and it may or may not be something which you might want to change. In any case, be genuine and believe in yourself. Adrian, I know you are going to be an outstanding teacher. Exhibit your passion for teaching and learning how to teach better. If you are able to manifest this in your interviews, you will be hired. I only wish I was still in a position to hire you; because I would hire you in a minute. Please let me know how you come out.
Between Brian and Dr. Bruno, I was encouraged and supported so that I could cross the threshold into the world of public education. They both offered encouragement and helped me keep going when I doubted myself. I grew professionally and personally under their mentorship. I could use them as sounding boards and I could always expect candor and professionalism. I trusted them. Having a mentor and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Without my mentors, I would never have begun my teaching adventure.