Reflections from a first year teacher

Last week, my sister, who is studying to be an elementary school teacher, asked me what my philosophy on teaching was. Like any effective teacher who has time on her hands as the school years comes to a close, this lead me into a spiral of reflection and, as any literary major would do, I began reflecting, analyzing, and contemplating the most important lessons I learned this year. 

The first lesson occurred as my freshmen discussed To Kill a Mockingbird (what a classic). To be completely honest, I went into the unit flying by the seat of my pants. Every day, I walked into my classroom and told myself (and Rhonda, and Hilary), “Well, we will see what happens today”. About halfway through the novel, something magical occurred. During a discussion, a girl said “stereo-tip” instead of “stereotype” and of course, the immature freshmen boys roared with laughter. It resulted in the girl crying, the boys eventually apologizing, and me feeling terrible for putting her in that position.

As I reflected on this experience and the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird, I realized that one of the most important lessons Atticus teaches us is that we cannot change other people’s actions; we can only change our perceptions. This is not always an easy task, because it means we must give up our natural tendencies, judgments, and frames of thinking. It is changing our thinking from “he is a brute for spitting in my face” to “I am glad he spit in my face to save Mayella a beating”, from “I can’t believe that guy just cut me off” to “Maybe this is an old guy who is lost, from “That was a snotty text messages” to “Maybe she was quickly texting that”. It takes conscious hard work to change your thinking to this structure. Believe me, I have been doing yoga for eight years to help this process and I am still learning.

I think we also see this concept in our personal relationships. For example, Dr. Phil has a quiz on his website called “Love Languages”. The core concept is that we all give and receive messages of love in different ways; some of us require quality time, some of us require small gifts, some of us require word of affirmation. While I am not sold on the validity of the test (since it is just 25 very ambiguous questions), I think the concept relates back to what Atticus Finch teaches us: that we all perceive things in different ways. When I first started dating my boyfriend (and because I am a product of Ponderosa Poms), I would spend hours writing him sentimental cards only to receive a Hallmark card with only his name signed in it. To me, I would rather someone use words to express their affirmations rather than buy me gifts whereas he is a man of few words. As Dr. Phil would suggest, we just have different love languages. Or, as Atticus Finch would preach, we just have to crawl around in someone else’s skin to understand their motives. Had I known this earlier in our relationship, I probably could have saved some tension.

The second lesson I learned occurred through a variety of experiences and out of the classroom. As I look around, particularly at my seniors, I think about how far we have come. As I look around the room, I realize how much progress I made with these seniors and, as any psychology major would do, I analyze how we got to this place.  

I think the most important lesson I have learned this year, through my students and other personal experiences, is that people are fluid, not fixated creatures. As adults (and I preface ‘adults’ by reminding you that I am just 23 years old), we forget that people are living, growing, learning creatures. We are quick to judge, quick to punish, and quick to sculpt a fixated schema about people. Of course, at a human species, this is a natural tendency because we are bombarded with so much information at once that our brain organizes it into schemas. However, we must be aware of this process. So often, someone says or does one thing that we automatically prescribe “ungrateful”, “boorish”, and “malicious” to their personalities and we decide we will never like them again; we forget that everyone is growing, learning, and reflecting just like ourselves. I am guilty of this all the time when I see old high school classmates back in Parker; I remember what I thought about them in high school and forget that, like myself, they had the opportunity to grow up and are probably not the same person.

Teaching caused me to view my life in stages of two. I could craft the most brilliant lesson plan and I must allow myself a run through before I can call it perfection. So many things occur during the first time you teach a lesson that you could not possibly ever think about. These could be simple things, such as activity order, when and how to pass out papers, or how much time to allow on assignments. It is always the second time that I teach a lesson that it comes to life. I am now taking this approach with everything in my life; I must experience a situation two times before I pass judgments, because inevitably, like teaching, the first time is a run through and gives me the opportunity to reflect, learn, and grow as a person before the second. It is like driving. The first time I got in a car, I almost killed my dad and I by running into a curb and then proceeding into a tree. However, being a fresh driver, the first experience allowed me valuable lessons and to this day, I have never made that mistake again. I practice this with my students all the time. As a first year teacher, I am prone to making many mistakes. So, when my students forget to put their name on their paper, do not double space their essays, or answer their phones in class, I remind myself that this was the first run through and I make notes to change for next time. What this requires is patience, which, in our busy lives, we are not prone to accept.

I think about myself at the very beginning of my teaching career (about 9 months ago) and am amazed at the growth I have made, both as an educator and as a person. There are ways I tackled lessons and situations that, after reflection, I would do completely different at this stage in my life.  I have to remind myself that I am a fluid individual and throughout my entire life, I will continue changing, growing, thinking, contemplating, and learning.

I am fortunate to live the life that I do and every day, I walk into my classroom, wondering what my students are going to teach me about life and interactions with other people. I am sharing this with you to say thank you for your participation in this journey. While you may not realize it, every interaction, every situation, and every lesson helps me to become a more effective teacher to my students and I am fortunate to have the experiences that I do.

Together, we are all saving lives, one lesson at a time.  

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