The Unexpected Journey:
A Personal Reflection on my Student Teaching Experience
Today was Halloween, and the excitement had been building all day. I left the lunchroom with the other teacher to go monitor second recess, only to be approached by the principal. He told us that we were going to have cancel recess for the day because the kindergarten parade was starting soon. To make matters worse, one of the other third grade teachers needed coverage, so my co-teacher took her class and I took ours…the only problem was that none of us had any plans for the 15 minutes before our specials.
I took the class upstairs, all the while running through any possible lesson plan. The class came inside and I told them to sit on the rug – it was decided. I wrote the word “departed” on the board and asked them to spell as many words as they could using the letters from “departed”. 15 minutes later the board was covered, each child had contributed at least 3 words and it was time for gym…I had made it. As I walked the class to gym I thought about how crazy it was going to be during the parade. I could not wait - I loved elementary school.
Four years ago I entered Swarthmore College with one specific goal in mind - I wanted to teach high school German. I immediately began enrolling in education and German courses, and declared myself as a German major with an education minor. During my junior year I arranged to student teach at the local high school for German in the spring of my senior year, and I spent the last half of my junior year living and studying in Germany. I was certain of my future…or so I thought.
The important piece of information missing from the first paragraph is that I also spent time at Swarthmore studying elementary education, which I quickly came to love. Shortly after declaring my major in my sophomore year I decided to double certify and student teach both in the elementary school and the high school, thus satisfying both of my desires. In order for this plan to unfold within the four year time frame of college, however, it meant that I would have to student teach full time in an elementary school classroom during the fall of my senior year and half-day at the high school during the spring of that same year. As I write this reflection, I wonder if I would have changed this plan had I known then what I know now about my future teaching plans.
What I know now, after spending 13 weeks in a third grade classroom at the local elementary school, is that I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my time as a teacher in an elementary school. At first I found this revelation to be somewhat disconcerting, mainly because my whole life up to this point had been focused around getting my German teacher certification. I even spent weeks debating the merits of my choice, trying to decide if I should simply continue with my current path and certify in two areas or end after my first semester and drastically change my original plan. It turns out that I decided to change my plans and remain focused on elementary education, and my reasons for this decision will become more apparent throughout the course of this paper.
I was told by a professor at the beginning of my student teaching semester that this experience would be completely different from that of anything I had done at Swarthmore to date, and although I believed him, I do not think I fully understood the implications of his words. Not only was the semester different in terms of my personal schedule and what my responsibilities were; however, I also began a journey of self-discovery that eventually changed my whole perception of the future and where I stood in that picture. My journey began the first day I entered the classroom at SRS and has yet to end, for I am still finding reasons for the decision I made, both positive and negative.
I have spent a lot of time so far discussing the journey I made and the decision I came to, but I have spent very little time explaining exactly what it was that led me to understand what I as a future educator wanted. Perhaps that greatest step in my journey came when I reassessed my reasons for entering the field of education in the first place. I always knew that I loved working with people and especially kids, but I was also positive that a desk job was not for me. As odd as it may sound, I want nothing more than to live a life without boredom, and teaching is one profession where such a life is very possible. However, as I taught every day in the elementary school, I realized how different my experience would be at the high school level, simply because I would be teaching the same discipline (German) every day. Although the content would differ for each class and each day, the beauty of the elementary classroom was that one could be involved in five different activities for three or four different disciplines in less than one hour, and sometimes less than thirty minutes. Not only does the content for each discipline change daily, but the disciplines themselves change every 30-45 minutes. The fast paced nature of the classroom I taught in became exactly the type of classroom I wanted to teach in. I began to see how much fun it would be to move from one subject to the next throughout the course of the day, and just how many interdisciplinary options I would have, especially since I would work with the same twenty-one children all day long. I asked myself, “What could be less boring than this?” Looking at the vignette at the beginning of this reflection, I also consider just how wonderfully chaotic the non-academic portions of a day at an elementary school can be, and I do mean wonderful.
I do have to be honest though, for I did not base my entire decision to teach using some sort of “boring” scale, but rather on my true love of learning, across the disciplines. I enjoyed so many different subjects in high school, including physics and history, chemistry and English, math and languages. However, as I moved through my schooling and the concepts to be learned became more specialized, I moved farther away from their study. However, I rediscovered my love of these subjects while teaching in my third grade classroom. I knew that I could never spend the rest of my life teaching geometry or earth science, but I loved helping my students to understand the concept of Pi and discover the wonders of the natural world, rocks and minerals. I enjoyed working on a world cultures project for UN Day as much as I did teaching them how to create poetry. Where else other than the younger grades does a teacher have the privilege of teaching so many wonderful and worthy subjects? How else could I use my own love of all knowledge to inspire or encourage other students to find their own passions and loves?
I understand that some of the statements I have made so far in this reflection may seem a bit extreme, for I do realize that there are plenty of jobs that would allow me to use my love of knowledge and help other children find their own passions, all the while remaining active and engaged. However, I know that teaching is the profession that suits my own personality with the strengths and desires just mentioned. Even more so now, I realize that after spending so much time working with elementary school students, just how suited I am working with smaller children. I feel at ease in front of them and enjoy their innocence as well as their ability to discuss and learn at a high intellectual level. What I do want to make clear is that I am not saying this could not happen in a German class at the high school level, and this fact seems to be part of my ambivalence.
Part of my decision to not student teach at the high school level in the second semester is due to scheduling conflicts. I also know that had the semesters been reversed, and had I student taught at the high school first, I might not have made the decision I did. This ambivalence leads me to keep open the possibility of certifying for German at a later date, though I do know that at this very moment I am certain that elementary school education is where I want to be. What remains important in the journey I took this semester, though, is that I may never have come to see elementary school as a true passion of mine if I had not had the opportunity to teach there before I went to the high school. I am grateful for the twist of fate that led me to this decision, but also to my experience.
My own student teaching experience could not have gone better, and I do admit that the positive nature of my time at the school played a huge role in making the decision easier. However, had it not been for some innate desire to teach at this level, regardless of how unknown it was to me before I began this past semester, I do not think I would have come to the conclusion I did about my career path. Looking back I am led to believe that the single path on which I began my journey on came to a fork, and it was at this juncture that I was asked to make a choice. I could have continued on the same path, seeing my elementary school experience more as a “back-up” and German as my ultimate goal, but instead I chose to try a path that was as of then uncharted territory.
Although the path metaphor may seem a bit cliché, I feel it fits my situation perfectly. The new path was difficult at times, and many days and nights were spent meeting with my advisors and talking to friends and family, all in an effort to determine exactly what I wanted for myself. It was not until late in the semester, when I was asked to meet with the chair of the education department to set up my high school placement for the next semester that I finally made my decision. Even now I am still left with some ambivalence, though this is not because I feel as if I made the wrong decision. I strongly believe that I have such a love for education that I could be happy wherever I teach, regardless of the subject or level. However, I do feel that at this present time my strongest calling is towards the elementary school classroom, and I never would have discovered this passion were it not for my teaching this semester.