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The Three Rocks: My Teaching Journey

I always find revising my teaching philosophy to be quite difficult.  How do I distill everything I have experienced and all my beliefs about why, what and how I teach as well as how I assess student achievement into not more than three pages?  Teaching is an art, not a science.  There is no step-by-step manual or perfect teaching equation, “do this and then that and the students are guaranteed to learn.”  To me, writing a teaching philosophy is like describing a piece of art to someone who has never seen it; your portrayal pales in comparison to the real thing.  The other reason I find this type of exercise so challenging relates to my core teaching belief: teaching is about the student, not the teacher.  How do I write a cohesive, one-size fits all statement when each student is different?  When each class and each situation is different?  Why should I describe what I have done and what has worked in the past when I know that strategy may not work in the future?  Therefore, instead of a traditional teaching philosophy, what follows is the story of how I came to embrace a student-centered classroom.  It is the story about the Juliane who was a novice teacher and grew with her years of experience.  It is the story of how I almost left the profession, but returned to it renewed and ready to tackle my second decade of syllabi writing, the expansion of my pedagogical content knowledge, as well as discussion facilitating and grading. 

In the spring of 2012, Iowa State University selected me to be a Wakonse Fellow.  I traveled with a group of current and future faculty to Camp Miniwanca on the shores of Lake Michigan for a six-day intensive teaching conference and retreat.  Mentally exhausted and seriously considering leaving the teaching profession after just over 10 consecutive years in various classrooms, I looked forward to taking a step back and re-evaluating my career choice.  Upon arrival, I saw the camp’s motto, “My own self, at my very best, all the time,” plastered on what seemed like every wall.   When I read that statement, I knew I was in the right place to re-find myself, whether it turned out to be a teaching self was yet to be determined. 

One morning midway through the conference, I was up before the sun, walking along the deserted sandy beach; the gulls were looking for their breakfasts, the freezing cold water lapped at my toes, and a stiff wind pulled at my hair.  My eyes burned from a night of too little sleep and my sides ached with the night’s laughter and camaraderie; it was a delightful dichotomy.  I stopped to watch the sunrise over Lake Michigan and suddenly, I felt the water push three solid objects at my toes.  I looked down and saw three small rocks at my feet.  Absent-mindedly, I picked up the stones, rinsed off the sand and muck in the lake surf and placed them in my backpack where I promptly forgot about their existence.  Later, as I sat in a rather uncommonly stilted group seminar, I was looking for my pen in my bag and came across the rocks.  As I wrapped my hand around them, I excused myself from the meeting.  Alone in my room, I lined up the rocks along the edge of the small bedside table and considered them in the midday stillness, these two black-gray rocks and this one white rock with fine gray lines.  I imagined the rocks as they were when they entered Lake Michigan, likely much larger, pointy and sharp-edged.  Buffeted by the waves, now their edges were smooth and round, their faces indented to the point a latticework of vertices were evident.  They had spent an unknown amount of time in the surf, making their way, somehow, through the whole of Lake Michigan, to land at my feet that early morning.  With my finger, I traced the tiny scars evident on the smallest of the three rocks.  Clearly, it was battle worn, but it was still recognizable as a rock.  I took comfort in the weight of the rock in my palm as it offered its own best self to me. 

It occurred to me then that the process my rocks went through to arrive at my feet that pre-dawn, not-quite-summer morning was not unlike my personal teaching journey.  When I first entered the role of quasi-instructor in 2001, what I considered my very best teaching self was full of sharp edges, absolutes and inane rules.  Working with mathematics and business students, I considered calculators cheats and required my students work without one.  Late work and absences were unacceptable under all circumstances.  Cellular telephones, in their infancy in 2001, had to be off in class or else, and all work had to be shown in pencil.  Ever the sage on stage, I considered myself the alpha and omega of knowledge.  My lessons were purely lecture-style and in my arrogance, I often told students, “If I am speaking, you should be taking notes.”  I cared not for different learning styles or student goals, and when students did not do so well on assessments, I simply thought that they should have studied harder.  After all, I clearly “covered” all the material! 

Fortunately, time passed; I taught more classes and met many different types of students, from highly gifted second graders to adults struggling to earn their General Education Diplomas.  I worked with students entering college directly from high school and others who juggled their studies with working part-time and caring for children as single parents.  I educated high school students who, try as they might, could not overcome their personal issues to find success in a traditional classroom and found themselves finishing out their high school diplomas in an alternative educational environment.  My student encounters, from triumphs to miserable failures that still haunt me, buffeted me as the waves of Lake Michigan worked their magic on my three rocks.  Like my rocks, over time, my sharp edges also became rounded.  I realized absolutist ideas had no station in my classroom.  Students could be trusted to use calculators as tools and not crutches.  It did not matter if a student completed the homework in pencil or pen.  Cellular phones sometimes needed to be on, and there were valid reasons a student simply could not be in class.  As my edges softened, my own best teaching self also evolved, shaped by not only my students but also my never-ending quest for pedagogical content knowledge.  I moved from a lecture-based to a collaborative style; in my current classroom, you will often find students working in small groups and then presenting material to the class either at the board or from their seats.  I transformed my favorite activities from single-answer, easy to grade questions into multiple-entry point scenarios that required all group members to come to class ready to contribute and saw an increase in student attendance, timeliness and retention.  I began requiring that students write and share with me their class learning goals so I could better shape my lessons, activities and pre-planned questions.  My assessments expanded from traditional tests and quizzes to mathematical essays and portfolios that actually showed student learning.  The biggest change I made in my classroom; however, was the decrease in the amount of time I spent speaking. 

Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge about my content and appropriate pedagogy, I have realized it is not always necessary for me to dispense it directly.  Instead of being a fount of facts and procedures that spews forth two or three times a week for 50 to 120 minutes, in my class I now speak only when necessary and let my students have the floor for the rest of the time.  Student’s vocalizations, whether to me or to their small group, give me a valuable window into their current level of conceptual understanding and let me know the direction in which I need to steer the discussion so we may accomplish the learning objectives.  I now understand that my job as class instructor is to observe, listen, and measure what students already understand against our goals, then push that existing knowledge to the next level by directed questioning, well-planned activities and thoughtful assessments.  It is the reverse of what my larger than life egotistical self said many years ago; “If my students are speaking, I should be taking notes.”  

Ten years of classroom experiences have left their marks on me.  Like my rocks, I have evolved and developed rounded edges, yet I maintain some soft vertices that represent the classroom policies and procedures that are necessary to maintain order.  My core belief that became cemented over time: teaching is about the student, remains.  Since students are a heterogeneous and fickle enigma, it is clear why I cannot write a traditional teaching philosophy statement.  I can only say that I plan and write lesson objectives and assessments in conjunction with the course learning objectives and then I observe and listen to my students.  I take note of student goals, their experiences and their process of understanding our content, and then I go back and adjust my objectives, plans and assessments as appropriate.  I capture all the little pieces that constitute learning and mesh them together in the same way an artist mixes paint or clay to weave the art of my teaching.  It is an imperfect, subjective process under constant construction.  As my time at Camp Miniwanca ended, I realized that my own very best self is a listening, observant teacher.  I returned to my university to undertake the academic work of teaching with newfound joy.  As I weave my teaching art, I look at three rocks sitting on my desk that came out of the surf of Lake Michigan.  Three rocks that offered me not only their own best selves but also a surprising reminder of how far I have traveled in this profession.  Three rocks that changed in the tides but remain rocks, just as I changed in the wake of experiences with students and yet remain a teacher.

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Endings & Beginnings

The 8-week Summer 2011 semester ended on July 20, 2011.  For some reason, I decided teaching 10 credit hours in the summer would be a piece of cake…after all, I had previously taught all the offered classes multiple times.  Of course, the appeal of earning enough money to pay outright for M’s school tuition and replace the back deck may have had something to do with the motivation to say ‘yes’ when my team leader approached me.

As usual, the semester was anything but easy; it has taken me nearly 3 weeks to digest the happenings of the term.  My Applied Math class was full of students lacking the mathematical background to really understand and process the material, a narrow majority of my Arithmetic class felt that attending once a week during a summer class was perfectly acceptable, and the bright spot on my schedule, Pre-Algebra, was so full of super-stars that they often eclipsed the students who needed additional assistance.  I started the semester with a little over 60 students; in the end, 35 or so finished their respective classes.  Along with the professional challenges there was, of course, personal turmoil.  Yet, somehow, 8 weeks passed; the chapter closed, and the stage is set for a new slate of students to open their own mathematical chapter on August 25, 2011.  I’m sure I will learn just as much from them as they will learn from me.

As my semester was coming to a close, a new chapter in life was opening for my son, M.  I had decided back in February to sign him up for a week-long summer camp at our local children’s zoo.  It seemed like it would be a fun adventure for him; they were scheduled to ride the train, as well as feed the goats, koi, parakeets and giraffe for the week’s major activities.  There were also crafts and games galore along with a daily snack.  It was, I reasoned, a safe environment for him to spread his wings and flap around a bit without actually leaving the nest.

When the big day came, my husband and I stood with M and waited patiently for the zoo workers to unlock the gate.  I took in the whole scene…those parents with older children were lounging on the benches, checking their cell phones for news updates, old hands at the drop-off scene.  Those of us with younger kids were standing, unsure of what to do, clutching backpacks and taking photos to pass the time.  Eventually the gate was opened and we walked M to his classroom; it was a happy place with colorful blocks, carpet squares, art supplies and 15 or so nervous 3 and 4-year olds.  M was a bit unsure as well; my husband had to stay with him for 30 minutes or so on Tuesday and Wednesday, but by the time Friday rolled around, I was dismissed with the flap of a hand shortly after delivering M to the classroom.  At pick-up time, I watched, hidden slightly behind an overgrown bush as M led the charge of 3 and 4-year-old boys down the hill, all of the them screeching like monkeys, laughing and playfully shoving each other.  M had, I realized, developed ‘friendships’ with the other children; children I had not specifically vetted or decided he would play with.  He had taken the opportunity of zoo camp to not only go to the edge of the nest and flap around a bit, he had hopped out of it to meet the other baby birds, formed opinions of them, and interacted in a way I had not anticipated.  In short, he had begun to develop a social circle beyond my choosing; an important step toward true independence and eventual adulthood that both elated and saddened me.

This fall M will continue flapping his wings away from our nest as he begins pre-school; the continuation of the chapter we opened on a hot, sticky summer morning.  This fall also marks the beginning of a chapter in the lives of my new students.  The brave-hearted among them will follow me as I lead them on a 15-week tour through the brambles of Pre-Algebra / Elementary Algebra.  Like my son, those students will also stretch their wings and flap around the nest we create together, but eventually the student leaders will emerge and begin to hop away, and they will take those destined for success with them.  There will be new friendships formed among students and faculty and in December, I will find myself 2 or 3 Facebook friends richer.  It’s a beautiful thing and the ultimate compliment in this digital age.

On M’s first morning of zoo camp, my husband wanted to stay close by in case M needed us.  We went to kill time and stay cool in Best Buy, where my husband decided he needed a new video camera to record our boys’ lives.  We bought the camera, but I need no video to clearly  remember the moment I saw my son running pell-mell down the path toward adulthood, just as I have not needed video to revisit the moments of my teaching that truly saddened or elated me.  In our lives, chapters are constantly opening and closing…it’s what you do when the chapters open and close that matters.  Embrace new experiences, create a safe nest and when it’s time to gently nudge someone toward their own greatness, let them spread their wings.