We focus a lot on how to help teachers once they are in the classroom, but what can we do to help prepare teachers for success before they even get into the classroom? Recently, I spoke with *Tammy, a teacher who has been in the field for three years. She explained how college prepared her for her work in the classroom, how it didn't, and what she has learned since.
Tell me about how you got into teaching.
Teaching has always been something I wanted to do. I remember being in third grade and loving my elementary school music teacher. How I felt in that classroom and her teaching never left me. I went to university for music education and have been teaching music to preschoolers, kindergarteners, and first graders in public school for three years now.
How did your schooling prepare you for teaching?
I studied music education, so my preparation was a little different than elementary or early childhood education programs. Most music majors have the same courses for the first two years—music theory courses and classes for your area of focus or instrument. In the latter two years, I started taking more methods courses, learning about different pedagogies, and moving into my practicum and student teaching.
Did you feel ready for the classroom?
I felt very ready to teach the subject matter. I had a lot of lesson plans and activities in terms of curriculum and I knew what was expected of me or “what I had to teach the children.”
But I realized pretty quickly that in my teacher preparation, we didn’t talk much about classroom management styles. Once I got into the classroom, I had a lot of questions around how I, as the teacher, could deal with the specific needs of my children. How do you make your classroom work for children with behavioral issues and children from different backgrounds, each coming with their own set of needs and challenges?
What would have prepared you better?
The key is realizing that what works for one student might not work for everyone. I would have loved to have a broader variety of classroom management tools before I started teaching so I could personalize my responses and interactions. For example, if you want your classroom to quiet down, counting down from five to one might work sometimes but not for every class.
My university classes were based on me as the teacher, not on the children that I would be working with. We didn't talk about how life challenges affect these children or how to deal with these issues that affect them. I’ve learned I need to focus more on working with children, not just methods of getting certain information to the children.
How have you worked through these challenges since becoming a teacher?
I’ve focused on building relationships with the children. Before I can ask anything of them, they need to feel like they are safe and trust me. Children need to have a say in what they are learning and how they are learning. I spend a lot of my class time getting to know them and what works for each student. Some of this can even come from sitting next to them and asking, “How are you?”
Did you have a mentor or someone who you could go to for advice?
A friend of mine has been in the education field for a long time and has worked as both a teacher and a coach, so I felt comfortable going to her for advice. I don’t know much about CLASS, but what I do know I learned from her. A lot of what she talked about when we started talking was about making time with the children in my classroom and building those one-on-one interactions.
How do interactions play a role in your classroom and in your teaching?
When you’re paying attention to an individual and their needs, it matters and makes a difference to the child. I think it’s really easy to overlook some of these kids because you don’t have time—but they need to feel like you’re invested. I’ve become someone they can confide in and feel safe with because I’ve invested time and attention in identifying their needs. I have a relationship with them and that makes my job and my classroom more fun.
We learned that time is one of the biggest challenges for teachers and coaches. How have you made the time to build these relationships.
Sitting next to or walking around to each child. I’ll check in with them at lunch or at recess, especially if I notice they might be having a tough day. During class, I make sure that the students know what is expected of them when we start an activity so they can work as a group or explore independently. This allows me to check in with individuals when I need to.
What other tools do you use in your classroom?
I give students choices. For example, some children might have a hard time transitioning from PE to music so I give them a choice to take a break in our “take-a-break spot” where I have calming techniques and stuffed animals available to help them transition. Or if a child is having trouble sitting still or with impulse control, I give them a choice on where to sit. Anytime you give a child ownership of their learning, they are more successful. They are owning it and learning within their comfort zone.
What advice do you have to share with other teachers?
Take the time to work with students who are having challenges. Don’t be afraid. You’re not wasting your class time. Some of my best relationships come from working with these “difficult” students and they can surprise you! It might be tough at first (to find the time and to build the relationship), but it’s worth it. I’ve seen my students grow exponentially. Put the time in to find what works for each child.
*Not her real name. Our contact asked to remain anonymous to protect her university and current employer.
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
To those in the education world, it’s not news that our schools, our systems, and our students are struggling. For nearly 40 years, since the publication of A Nation At Risk, we’ve recognized as a country that something isn’t working.
For more than a century after the United States’ colonization, school was intended for children who were overwhelmingly wealthy, white, male, and English-speaking - those demographics are no longer the case. Students today are representative of all our nation’s families, but our history means there’s a mismatch between what education has done up to this point and what children really need. What’s more, advances in science - psychology, medicine,
neuroscience, economics, and more - have shown us that to give children the greatest opportunity we must change what we’re doing. We can’t let another 40 years pass while we figure it out.
This past year of hybrid and virtual learning due to the pandemic highlighted the gaps in learning and the inequities that we already knew existed. It is apparent, now more than ever, that there needs to be a narrow focus on bridging the divides (e.g., digital) that exist and meeting students where they are in order to promote growth and put less emphasis on standardized testing. This would allow teachers to concentrate on curriculum with greater impact, differentiate their instruction, and utilize effective strategies that they know make a difference for children’s outcomes.