How I Came to Be

Three teachers set my feet on the path towards becoming a teacher. In reflecting on my teaching autobiography I can see how each of these three was instrumental in shaping my professional practical theory. It was their teaching style, not the information they communicated, that had the greatest affect on me, both as a person and as a professional. At the risk of sounding flippant when discussing these great individuals, they are who I want to be when I grow up.

Mr.Stevens.jpgMr. Stevens was my 6th grade teacher, a burly, bespectacled, jovial man who taught with warmth, humor, and insight. He always put us in groups, sometimes of our own choosing but often of his, combining personalities and abilities together so that we together could become greater than we were separately. The best, or at least for me the most memorable example of this was his Legos.

Mr. Stevens collected Lego building block sets, and on the last few days of school he brought in his sets and spilled them out on different tables. Some had space sets, others town, and still others castle. As a fan of science fiction even at that young age I chose the space table, as did a number of other students. We started by following the directions, each of us divvying up jobs to create different parts of the model: the rocket, the towing car, the command tower. We finished our model and spent the rest of the day playing with it.

The next day we returned to the table and found that our model was in pieces again and the instruction book was gone. We were then told to make the same thing again, only this time we had to work together to remember everything. Very quickly we stopped trying to recreate the model and instead started working together to make a better one. We still divvyed up the jobs, but we also made suggestions and improvements to the other parts. At the end of the day each group showed off their model, and each group had together made something that was much better than the original. That day Mr. Stevens taught me the value of building something as a group, and I’ve carried it into my teaching with an emphasis on social knowledge construction.

Ms.Castanon.jpgMy second year of middle school was a watershed moment. My assigned social studies teacher had suffered a debilitating accident and they had hired young, inexperienced teacher to replace him. She said, “I want you to call me Sandy.” And so we did. Sandy Castañon changed my life. She taught me that my ideas were important enough to gain the attention of an adult; that my creativity was strong enough to warrant writing down; that thoughts carried to a logical end were more powerful than facts. It didn’t hurt either that she was beautiful and that I crushed harder on her than almost any other time in my life.

Sandy told me my creative ideas were good enough to be published, and I began writing in earnest. When I gave her chapters of my adventure stories to read, she did so not as a teacher but as a critic, in the best sense of that word. Her suggestions and observations taught me how to think critically about my writing and helped me to organize my thoughts. Today my creative writing and thinking are tempered with logic, and I am inspired to pass that gift on to my students.

Ms.Cochran2.jpgHigh school too held inspiration for me. For four years Ms. Cochran nurtured me and roomfuls of diverse, multicultural students in an under-performing, lower-middle-class high school. Freshman English, World lit, creative writing, AP English, as student and teacher’s assistant I learned my love of language from Ms. Cochran. She was always in her classroom, helping any student that was struggling, even during breaks and lunch. She used a variety of methods find ways that her students could latch onto the language and tease out the ideas of great authors. Ms. Cochran gave us structure, but let us explore new ideas and methods of learning.

The best example of this was the British Literature final project. While for her, I watched a class of 4th year students afflicted with major “senior-itis” dive into projects inspired by men and women from another continent that had been dead for centuries. The project had to be a creative interpretation based on one of the works they had studied that year. Some were inspired by Shakespeare, enacting scenes and parodies of Macbeth, while others worked with their hands to create a model of “The Prancing Pony” from Fellowship of the Ring or a paper maché Grendal, complete with removable arm. I still regret that I took AP English, and so was denied my own chance to videotape my project/opus “Beowulf Meets Godzilla”.

These were oftentimes not the smartest students, yet Ms. Cochran’s differentiated teaching style reached each of them in a unique way. She was open experiment and take a chance on a method of learning she had not tried, but that held the hope of giving a struggling student the help they needed. It’s a goal I have failed to achieve up until now, with only a few small exceptions. Thinking back on her class, I wonder if Ms. Cochran would be disappointed in me; and I know that would only be the case if I failed to learn from that failure.

This is what makes teaching in a standards-based classroom so difficult. It's like a strong river current, that pushes the teacher in a single direction: over the placement test, through the pacing guide towards the Exit Exam. When your job relies on hitting government-selected benchmarks it is difficult to stop, look at your students, and determine what they need individually in order to succeed. That is why it is vital for me to have a firm grip on the ideas of Differentiated Instruction, Critical Thinking, and Social Knowledge Construction, so that I can swim against the current and ensure that my students get what they need, in addition to what the state needs. I did not suffer one whit for lack of prescribed teaching standards, because I had good teachers. The same holds today – strong teachers will make strong students.