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How My Teacher Prep Classes Failed Me

22 Apr 2016 by Betsy Murry

College students chatting

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. 

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