Going Against the Grain

A couple of weeks ago @sophgermain asked the following question on Twitter:

Hmm…good question.

Moments later @dcox21 responded with:

My initial reaction to @sophgermain’s question was that I certainly have taught things that went against what I believed in as an educator. But I think this is due mainly to the fact that I was a beginning teacher, in my first year, teaching middle school for the first time (scary!), and I put other teachers’ advice before my own gut instincts. And to tell you all the truth, I’m not 100% convinced that this was the wrong decision to make at the time.

My first year was rough (isn’t everyone’s?) and the biggest challenge was in classroom management. I just didn’t know yet how to keep things running smoothly. I still don’t always have that one down perfectly. I don’t know if I would have been able to implement a lot of the strategies and tools that I use now. But I know a lot more now about the kinds of things that make a classroom work and how to get students’ attention and build relationships with kids. And now I have more time and energy stores to put into the pursuit of smokin’ hot lessons and cool stuff to do with kids.

I didn’t have the mental and emotional capacity in year one to create curriculum and do all of the other things that go along with teaching. I was overwhelmed by…well, everything. But I don’t know, maybe this is all just me trying to make myself feel better about messing up in my first year.

What I wanted to say was that I didn’t really know better then. I didn’t know what worked and how to go about creating a learning environment that was student-centered and that supported kids in becoming better at math. I think that’s only half true. I did know things that worked. I had seen them. I had practiced teaching that way the year before in my student teaching internship. I used group-work at my internship, but I shied away from it during my first year. Probably due in large part to the horrific substitute job I had straight out of certification. That was three months of agony. Maybe there were a few high points, but overall it was pretty painful. However, that summer I went to PCMI for the first time. I watched videos of good teaching; I talked with amazing teachers about pedagogy and lesson planning; I met my boyfriend. It was a good summer.

So you see, I did know better. But then I chickened out. I didn’t hold my own feet to the fire. In part because I chose to work at a school where people weren’t doing the kinds of things I wanted to try. Retrospect…it bites. I didn’t have the chops to say that I was going to do things my way even though it was different, because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had some experience. I had some mentors. But I didn’t have them there, and I didn’t have them then. And I knew I would need a bunch of support to do what I wanted to do. A different kind of support than the kind I did receive at my first year.

I think that it’s really hard to be different from the predominant school culture—especially when you’re just starting out as a teacher. Though it’s hard at any point in your career really. Just ask Avery about his year teaching in Oakland Unified. That’s why this year, when I was looking for a new job, I was picky. I went into my search with the mindset that I was interviewing the school as much as they were interviewing me. I said no to schools without having other offers on my plate.

Being able to teach what you believe to be the “right” or “best” way is complicated. It takes effort and energy and a healthy environment. You need colleagues and administrators that support what you are doing. You need someone, somewhere to give you feedback on how you’re doing. Otherwise you are in danger of falling into the teach-how-you-were-taught trap. I came closer to doing this than I care to admit. And I haven’t even gotten into talking about the quagmire of teaching at a place that is actively developing a teaching methodology that runs counter to your own. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Been there, done that. Very glad to have moved on.

So, in any event, knowing what was behind @sophgermain’s tweet, all I can say is: That whole situation and how it ultimately played out was a blessing in disguise. You didn’t want to be doing that anyways.

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