A Teacher’s Journey
This is part of a personal narrative series detailing my quest to be a teacher.
This is the departure when the hero feels something has been lost and goes to find it. You are to cross the threshold into new life. It’s a dangerous adventure, because you are moving out of the sphere of the knowledge of you and your community.
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
I believe that five and six-year old children are impressionable beings. They are still learning right from wrong and are testing boundaries with their friends, family and teachers. They see the world through innocent eyes and become overwhelmed with an excess of stimuli surrounding their lives. They can be fearful of this mysterious world, but are fearless in conquering and understanding it one piece at a time. They are exploring their environment through bodily movement that is tested every single day.
Kindergarteners are an essential asset that demand attention.
Kindergarteners refuse to be ignored.
These children are ruthless, honest, emotional and unconditional, and it is these children who I planned to dedicate my life educating.
“I want to teach Kindergarteners poetry.”
That is how I started each conversation with every prospective coordinating teacher for my student teaching. I knew that I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher. I knew that I wanted to do things differently. I loved poetry. Who says 5-year-olds can’t learn how to read and write poetry?
I interviewed 4 teachers before I met Mrs. Clapes. She was brave enough to take me on as a student teacher and allow me to cross the threshold into the teaching profession. I had to petition the University to allow me to do my student teaching so far away from campus, but that is where Mrs. Clapes’ classroom was, so that is where I wanted to be.
Each day, I made the 45-minute trek to the Elementary school to observe and build relationships with her students. Student teaching is much like an apprenticeship: a novice spends time observing a master teacher and then slowly begins to take on more and more responsibility. I learned very quickly that I needed to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I disagreed with a lot of what I saw. I was not a master teacher, but I had ideas on how a classroom should run and what sorts of activities there should be. Teaching is such an emotional profession. That is why many refer to it as a calling. Educators put so much of themselves into the daily grind of educating their students. They can’t help but internalize the dynamics of a classroom. Student successes are celebrated and failures are often internalized by both student and teacher. Ongoing value conflicts with pedagogical policies and administrators, ineffectual reform mandates, and school practices all take a toll on educators. Many become demoralized; some even burn out and leave the profession.
I didn’t know about any of this. I was a neophyte teacher. A trainee. I was observing a lot.
I saw lots of worksheets.
It was a full-day kindergarten classroom which meant that students got a 45 minute TV break/naptime in the middle of the day after nap. In the morning, students rotated through center activities where each table contained something for the children to work on. Some tables had drawing. Some had counting. One table usually had a parent volunteer to help students navigate a more complex task such as writing. The oblong-shaped table usually had Mrs. Clapes seated with a few students reading a book together.
In the early 2000s, if a classroom had a computer connected to the Internet, it usually included a few educational software CD-ROMs like Math Blaster. During the 2002–2003 school year, state standardized testing was in full swing. In Colorado, CSAP dictated the stringent Math and Literacy curriculum design for many classrooms across the country. Many primary grade teachers felt the increasing pressure to begin teaching their students the necessary skills to ensure later achievement on CSAP. Teachers used Accelerated Reader programs and Houghton Mifflin Basal Reading textbooks to drive their literacy instruction.
The school’s parent involvement was incredible. I chose this classroom especially because they had a full-day Kindergarten. Parents in this district paid tuition for full day and so there were often parent volunteers in the classroom.
The school also touted a “child-centered” curriculum focused on Six-Trait Writing. I had no idea what all of these things would mean in practice, but I was now in this Special World with new rules, new values and new people. I knew that my journey had started and I was excited to get started!
I was ready to inspire kids to move away from the conventional, boring language that was typical in Elementary classroom writing assignments. I wanted to introduce the students to colorful language and innovative words. I wanted to encourage students to read and reread poetry on their own. I wanted them to leave Kindergarten in love with reading and writing and motivated to be a life-long learner.
I chose poetry because I felt that this particular class had a thirst for creativity. I spent the Fall semester observing what I saw as dull routines. Kindergarten is an important place to establish routines, but I felt that there was so much structure, that it came at the expense of creative learning. I wanted to establish a positive environment for reading and writing poetry. I didn’t want to stunt the literary means through which children can communicate their lives. I meticulously created a standards-linked unit that would eliminate the boredom children see in writing poetry. Instead, I would awaken the creative spirit used in writing.
No one said teaching would be easy, but I had absolutely no idea what was coming my way.