Teacher Identity

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With my class in front of the tourism building

This is a topic that I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and I’ve finally decided to delve into it. I’ve had a few experiences recently that have made me think about my identity as a teacher, and I’d like to reflect a bit on that evolutionary process. I would love to hear from other teachers about your experiences!

This is my third year of teaching, and I’ve been reflecting on what has changed as I’ve settled more into this role. Being a teacher is what I’ve always wanted to do; I’ve never imagined doing anything else. I still feel that I’m very much at the beginning of this professional and personal journey, and there are many days when I feel that I’ve failed utterly to teach any of my students anything. Those are the days when my only consolation is that perhaps I’ve learned something, at least, even if no one else did!

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Playing a vocabulary game

One of the areas in which I’ve struggled and learned the most over the last three years is classroom management, an experience I suspect is true for many new teachers. Classroom management is challenging, and the teachers who I most admire seem to have mastered the art of creating a community where students feel welcome, safe, and challenged to learn and grow. Boundaries are clear and expectations are high, and students feel secure, rather than attacked or belittled. That’s the kind of teacher I would like to be, although right now I’m often far from it.

I haven’t had nearly as many classroom management challenges here, with a class of eight university students, as I had in my two years teaching high school classes with twenty or more students. There have been more challenges than I expected, though, especially related to attendance, work completion, and staying focused on topics appropriate for the classroom.

As I’ve handled these situations, I’ve been reminded of an experience I had last year. One student with whom I thought I had a strong, positive relationship learned partway through the year that she would probably not graduate, since she didn’t have enough credits and she had not passed the state graduation exams in reading and math. She was understandably upset, and she expressed her emotion through aggressive behavior in my class. When I redirected her, she became angry with me, and for a couple of weeks she refused to come to class. If she did attend, she refused to participate or talk to me.

It was a hard couple of weeks for me, and it was very difficult not to take her rejection personally. Seeking advice, I went to talk with her guidance counselor, since I knew that they had a good relationship. I asked him what he thought the problem was, and he said, bluntly, “It’s you.” I didn’t know how to interpret that statement, and I asked him what he thought I should do, then. He said, “I think you should just keep being yourself. Continue being you, absolutely and consistently.” I did, to the best of my ability, and after a few weeks the student came to me and apologized. We didn’t have a perfectly easy relationship after that, but it was a relationship of respect. At the end of the year, she was in fact able to graduate, and it was wonderful to celebrate that step with her.

I haven’t forgotten the counselor’s advice, which is echoed in Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. Writing about the importance of a teacher’s identity and sense of self, he says:

Face to face with my students, only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches – without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns. . . . The premise is simple, but its implications are not. It will take time to unfold what I do and do not mean by those words. But here is one way to put it: in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood – and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.

As a young teacher, I am still discovering and developing my identity and selfhood. I’m sure I will continue to do so for the rest of my career. Every now and then, though, I get glimpses of what is possible. Palmer continues:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. . . . The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.

This week, with my students, I experienced a moment of that connectedness. My students are writing a blog, along with a group of my ESL students who I taught last year in Minneapolis. The students write posts on different topics, and they comment and ask questions of each other. This week’s topic was “How are we the same and how are we different?”

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Our blog

One of my students from last year, originally from Ecuador, has had a very difficult time adjusting to life in the U.S. This week, he simply wrote, “Do not write English” on his blog page. One of my students here in Carmen Pampa asked me how he should respond, and I told him a little bit about the student’s story, and the experiences he’s had as an immigrant in Minnesota. Without saying anything more, my Carmen Pampa student immediately began to type. This is the message he sent:

Hello friend how are you???
I am agree with you is difficult but not different. We need to be very strong and up next level of English.
I think that we are of different countries but the same heart.

I was humbled and amazed by his compassionate, empathetic response. He was able to see, and express, the essence of connection: “We are of different countries but the same heart.” I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this interaction. It was a heart-opening moment that gave me a little vision of what I hope to do more and more as a teacher – to create space for connection, to be myself as fully as I can and in so doing to allow my students to do the same.

In closing, I’d like to share another Carmen Pampa student’s response to the question “How are we the same and how are we different?” It captures well the sense of wonder, gratitude, and community that I felt during this particular lesson:

We are the same because:
We are humans.
We are intelligent people.
We have a family.
We have good friends.
We live in a good place.
We pray.

We are diferent because:
We are from diferent cultures.
We like to do diferent things.
We like different sports.
We prefer diferent kinds of food.
We have different habits or customs.
We would like to travel for different places.
You are different because you are extraordinary.

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4 thoughts on “Teacher Identity

  1. I never wanted to be a teacher – seemed to me that they got a raw deal while I was a smart-assed screw-up in high school. I also started to have extreme dislike for babies and children after my first nieces were born (but don’t worry, we’ve much happier relationships now.) How I ended up in the teaching field was a miracle.

    I really fell in love with guiding and watching the kids, discovering their world and things about it for the first time. I started in a childcare setting, teaching babies while speaking ojibwe. I was absolutely hooked. In love with kids, in love with teaching.

    Moving on from a care setting with ~10 babies to a public school classroom with 20 four-year-olds was a real eye-opener, but I ate up every hour of every day with pure joy. I spent the first half of the day, for an entire school year, observing the woman who would become for me a dear master teacher. She was firmly in command of her small charges and classroom, always knew what to do in a crisis, had a place for every thing and everything in its place, led the students through thoughtful and polite rituals (like thank you cards for volunteers and guest speakers) with flawless grace, and maintained a perfect balance between a shock-and-awe and a love-and-caring learning space.

    I try every day I am with students to live up to her example. To this day, I have no idea how she had such poise, every day. She was tireless, and dogged about getting the pre-schoolers in the high-five program to be “kindergarten ready.” The odds against the kids didn’t seem to affect her, ever, whereas I could and did rage and grieve over the lack of nurturing many of the students faced in their home environments. Young, inexperienced, generational-poverty-stricken parents, raising kids in the projects, exposing them to neglect, abuse, substance abuse, and all of the other things that will turn their kids into the next generation trapped in the same cycle that screwed them before they were even born.

    My mentor teacher just…did her best work, and she did it every day. No slacking off, no inattentiveness. She did her best work with the kids and asked the kids to do the same. She kept her energy, focus, and spirit on her job, and didn’t let anything else get in the way, or follow her home.

    I’ve no idea how she did it. She’ll be retiring soon, in two years I think.

    From watching and working with my mentor teacher from Oct 2008 to Oct 2012, my priorities in the classroom seem to be:
    *trust my teaching abilities (I get results, and I don’t have to second-guess myself just because someone else does things differently)
    *act with integrity (be as good a person as I want the kids to be, and never say or do anything in the classroom that I wouldn’t want the kids to see, repeat or imitate)
    *order in the classroom (key teaching phrases to elicit behaviors which meet standards and expectations; neatly arranged room and supplies; posted, explicit rubrics for learning, behavior, etc.)
    *inspire a sense of wonder (exposing kids to a range of age-appropriate materials and information, and providing experiences and explanations which allow for breadth and depth in explorations)
    *seek balance in teaching, for the kids, for myself, for my colleagues (between play and work, social development and academic development, equality and authority, independence and interdependence, honesty and discretion, authenticity and time, etc.)
    *never stop learning, and share authentically with my students about my own learnings and passions
    *in the interest of preventing burnout and preserving my spirit, honor the serenity prayer.

    The journey from 2008 to now has been riddled with painful lessons, but my capacity and my passion for teaching are strong and I treasure my job – even when I don’t. 🙂

    Love and prayers for you, my fellow teacher and friend. Hope this is helpful.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Amber! What a blessing to have such a wonderful mentor teacher. I’m grateful for the colleagues and mentors who offer me that example too; as you said, it’s about doing the work, every day. And it’s good to know that we’re not in it alone.

    • And I should add that you’re one of the teachers who I consider a great mentor and example – I’m glad to be doing the work with you. 🙂

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