The Teacher Who Never Gave Up

The Teacher Who Never Gave Up: My Teaching Philosophy

Why educate students?

As a young child, I would create a classroom of stuffed animals in my living room and teach them the same things my own teachers had gone over during class that day. That was the beginning of my interest in teaching as a profession. Since that time, I have taken a circuitous route to become an educator, through various experiences as a tutor at Sylvan Learning Center, as a long-term substitute, as a teacher in a private high school and now as a student teacher in a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Willamette University. I have decided that my main goal as an educator is to be the teacher who is inspired and who also inspires her students.

My greatest aspiration in my teaching career is to be the teacher who is remembered as the one who challenged her students in such a way that the students have been able to take the knowledge they learned in her classroom to utilize it later in life. Bruner (1960) states, “schools must also contribute to the social and emotional development of the child if they are to fulfill their function of education for life in a democratic community and for fruitful family” (p. 9). We not only teach in order to impart knowledge, but also to help shape our students into adults who are able to make positive social contributions and to function fully as lawful citizens in our country. I would like my students to be able to make informed decisions about the impact they will have on each other, on their communities, and on the environment, using the critical thinking skills and subject material they will have learned in my science and language arts classrooms. As a result, my teaching will focus not only on the content but also on higher levels of thinking to process and apply that information to situations the students may encounter in the future.

bell hooks (1994) reminds us as teachers that “… our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (p. 13). I promise to teach my subject material thoroughly and to prepare my students to actively participate in and to improve their own communities. Whenever possible in my science classes, I will address local and national concerns, and I will teach ways for students to become stewards of our planet to conserve and protect the Earth and its natural resources. In addition to imparting knowledge for the tests and quizzes, I will to help my students to grow and to develop into adults who make a positive difference in their own homes and neighborhoods.

How do students learn best?

According to Bruner (1960) in The Process of Education, learning involves three nearly simultaneous processes. First, the student acquires the information and often this information runs counter to what the student previously knew. Then, the student needs to transform the new knowledge in order to make it fit the new assigned tasks and problems. Finally, the student evaluates if the way in which the information has been manipulated and made to fit is adequate to the assigned task. These are the episodes that we as teachers manipulate in order to maximize learning, through differentiation for TAG/SpEd and for the different intelligences. He reminds us “… motives for learning must be kept from going passive in an age of spectatorship, they must be based as much as possible upon the arousal of interest in what there is to be learned, and they must be kept broad and diverse in expression” (p. 80). I interpret the “broad and diverse in expression” comment in a couple of ways. First, I believe that a teacher needs to constantly differentiate for multiple intelligences as well as different ability levels. In doing that, the teacher will make sure that the students will be able to see and handle the information in the ways that best work for them. Secondly, I believe that the teacher needs to relate the material to something else that relates the concept to the student’s life. My experiences at Sylvan Learning Center specifically highlight my second belief.

At Sylvan Learning Center, I learned several valuable lessons about being a teacher. One such lesson parallels Bruner’s theories about education. When teaching basic concepts, it is important to help the student to pass through the levels of thinking from concrete thinking of the subject topic to higher levels of evaluating the topic. The trouble occurs when a teacher uses very formal examples and explanations that have nothing to do with the student’s life or the way he or she views things. Bruner (1960) reminds us that in order for a student to be more vested in higher level evaluation of the topic, there must be a connection that he or she sees as having immediate importance in life as he or she knows it. Many of our students at Sylvan had the question of “What does this mean in my life?” If a teacher was able to help demonstrate where the particular math skill or writing skill could be useful for the student, outside of the school, the student was much more invested in learning the skill.

I am a believer in interdisciplinary assignments. Since I studied both science and English in my undergraduate degree, I understand the necessity of literacy across all subject areas. I will always include literacy and critical thinking skills in my classroom. As I do a lecture, no matter the subject area, I always tend to include references to other things the students may have studied, or to things that they may have experienced. I may reference the historical times in which the original cell theorists lived, reminding the students what they had learned in social studies about the time period. Also, I will also try to include hands-on activities and projects that involve things that the students may take home with them. For example, something I may do in a classroom for middle school science is to get a set of “Tickle Me” plants (which move when you touch them, hence the name) for the students to grow in the classroom as we study plants and photosynthesis. In that way, they have direct experience with the concept being taught and hopefully this helps the students to take more away from the lessons.

In addition to this reminder that there needs to be immediate importance attached to the topic being presented, the most important lesson I learned from my experience at Sylvan Learning Center is that many students simply need encouragement and positive reinforcement. I met many underachievers at Sylvan who simply did not care about how they performed in school. Often this resulted from very little praise and support given in the home for good grades. I found these details out directly from my students, since they would openly share stories of their home lives because they felt comfortable within their relationships with me. Much of the time, no one had cared about education or doing well in school at home, so the students had never learned to take pride and ownership in their own work.

B.F. Skinner wrote at length about the various ways in which praise, positive feedback, and a rewards system could influence the student to succeed in learning. Skinner (1973) wrote, “The conditions the teacher arranges must be powerful enough to complete with those under which the student tends to behave in distracting ways” (p. 4). At Sylvan Learning Center, I experienced the positive effects of direct praise and instant feedback as well as rewards in the form of a token economy. The praise and rewards system provided an extrinsic motivation for the students, especially since we connected the praise with the receipt of the token. In this way, the students attached a monetary value to the praise and feedback, which they would later spend on something they wanted.

Through my positive interaction with these students, providing plenty of kind words, praise and excitement for each success, I saw these students blossom. These students learned to care about doing well for themselves, because they saw me become excited with them, highlighting every success no matter how small. I feel that the token economy helped to initially hook the students into doing well by providing extrinsic motivation, but the relationships I built with the students, coupled with the praise, helped to translate their motivation for doing well from extrinsic to intrinsic. From my observations and experience, the students internalized the motivation into personal ambition and desire to do well as they went through our programs, starting out rough with the token economy, building to the pride when the teachers praised and encouraged the students for their efforts and finally developing into the self-driven motivation the students gained because it felt good to do well.

In many classrooms, I know that it is difficult to maintain and to continue this attitude. As a teacher, I will work hard every day to propagate this attitude in myself and in my classroom. I will celebrate each and every success with my students, to remind them I really do care. I will thank them individually for their effort, even if it is not successful. I promise to never forget the heart of the teaching profession, this nurturing of the student's mind and sense of self.

Middle school and high school are generally difficult times for students so nurturing this sense of self is key. At these age levels, positive reinforcement is a necessity. Since the students at this age are developing emotionally and physically, they may be unsure of themselves and their own abilities. As I have already stated, I will provide direct praise and tactful feedback as a way to provide motivation in a way similar to that which Skinner explored in his theories. I promise to value and respect each and every one of my students, without showing favoritism and without excluding any student.

In the classroom environment, there should be a certain kind of safety, as I already have pledged to accomplish. bell hooks reminds us that the classroom experience should be passionate, in which both the student and the teacher bring their collective passions into the environment. She says, “… the classroom ought to be a place where things are said seriously – not without pleasure, not without joy – but seriously, and for serious consideration” (hooks, 1994. p. 150). I think that bringing in your passion as a teacher into the classroom allows the students to see the depth and importance of the material you bring to teach them. This material then can be taken more “seriously,” not in the way of a grave or morose manner, but in a respectful manner, even in the midst of a boisterous discussion.

I am also a fan of the lively, but respectful, discussion, in order to bring enthusiasm into the classroom. Bruner (1960) reminds us that we need a balance in the classroom, with enthusiasm and order. “Frenzied activity fostered by the competitive project may leave no pause for reflection, for evaluation, for generalization, while excessive orderliness, with each student waiting passively for his turn, produces boredom and ultimate apathy” (72). Unless a student is intrinsically interested in a particular subject, it is very difficult to find a reason for that student to pay attention during the lesson and it will result in apathy with the student. I believe in the importance of being enthusiastic about the subject you are to teach, as well as being enthusiastic about education in general. I feel that an enthusiasm about the material from the teacher helps to make the topic more interesting to every student, balancing out the boredom that the subject may bring out in a student. The teacher’s passion will affect the students’ learning in a positive manner.

A teacher also has to love teaching. I have seen many teachers in schools in which I was a substitute teacher that simply go into work every day without enjoying what they do. These teachers have told their students, "I don't care if you do your work. I still get paid." I believe that this defeats the purpose of being a teacher, since their students will not get to experience a love of learning, simply because these teachers do not care in the first place.

Through my experiences in education, I have reaffirmed my love of teaching. I am passionate about the vocation, as well as the material that I teach. I love to read and to learn about science, as well as many other subjects. I am a Jill-of-All-Trades, one who never wishes to stop learning and growing throughout her life. I love to see the influence I have on a student, whether it is sparking that interest in science, solving a math problem or falling in love with a new book. I believe that this passion with what I do and what I learn will serve me well in my future years as an educator.

I plan to have diversity in my classroom strategies. In science, sometimes there is a need for direct instruction, but I will not do direct lectures for longer than 15-20 minutes during a class period. Depending on the subject material, I will incorporate labs, cooperative group work, and class discussions. For a language arts classroom, I would like to implement a form of workshop, since I love the idea of each student being able to work at his or her own pace on something that he or she had direct input on. I have also toyed with the idea of doing an altered version of workshop using groups in a science classroom when doing guided inquiry labs, so that the students can play and explore with science, which is one of the best ways for a student to fall in love with the subject. Perhaps my ideas sound a bit chaotic for a classroom, but I believe that in order to meet the needs of the content and of my students, I need to have a variety of strategies on hand. I want my students to love whatever subject I am teaching as much as I love it.

What should we teach?

The most prominent influence on my philosophy of education is Jerome Bruner. Through my experiences during tutoring, I learned several things about how students learn and these observations are directly in line with what Bruner theorized in The Process of Education. Bruner (1960) first brings up the valuable point that “To learn structure, in short, is to learn how things are related” (p. 7). In this case, I can use a personal example to illustrate what I saw reinforced in the students I tutored. When I was in middle and high school, I absolutely hated math. I did okay in the subject, but it made no sense to me. I hoped I never would have to deal with math again. I ended up in a Biology major, then a Human Physiology major, both of which required Physics, Statistics, and Calculus. Calculus and Physics intersected quite often, and since I loved discovering how things function in our world through Physics, I grew to appreciate Calculus. In Statistics, I applied much of the biological knowledge I had accumulated up until that point to analyze data and experiments. Since I saw the relationships between science, a subject that had always fascinated me, and math, a subject I hated, I grew to understand the more difficult subject and I now enjoy math and its applications. In Sylvan Learning Center, I saw the same pattern emerge. If I was able to apply and relate an obscure mathematical concept, or grammatical rule, to something that the students enjoyed, they retained and were then able to recall the concept or rule that had evaded them until that moment.

In a similar vein, Bruner describes something he calls a “spiral curriculum.” It uses a combination of relationships between the individual concepts in a particular subject curriculum in order to build knowledge. One starts with the foundation of a concept, to see the big picture of what is being learned. Then as new facts and details are introduced, prior facts and details are related to the new ones, as well as to the overall concept. In this way, no new information stands completely on its own, and due to the relationships, the students are better able to retain the information and then to apply it to new situations. I am in a firm believer in this style of teaching, since facts that taught on their own, studied specifically for a test, and then never referred to again will not be transferred into long-term memory. Without the details being transferred into long-term memory, there is no point to the “learning” that is done, since it is not something that will stay with the students beyond several weeks’ time.

Conclusion

I believe that in Language Arts or in Science, a teacher needs to bring elements of other classes and the outside world in order to make the topics come alive and interest the students. In my classroom, I plan to do interdisciplinary lessons as often as I can, linking Science and History, or Science and Language Arts, or Science and Math, or Language Arts and History. The world in which we live is not one where all of these subjects are in isolation, and sometimes teachers tend to forget this. I believe that the students will retain the information for longer when they have more connections and examples to make it interesting on personal levels. In addition to this, the idea of the spiral curriculum is one that I will implement in my lesson plans, since I have seen evidence of its success in the Sylvan Learning Center curriculum. Building on a foundation lends to a much more stable house than building it on straight soil, so why do we, as teachers, build on what we hope has been planted from previous teachers, without referring to and reinforcing the foundation?

In conclusion, through my personal experiences with education, my tutoring experience at Sylvan Learning Center, my teaching experiences in New Jersey, and my academic investigation of the class theories of education, I have developed an expression of my educational philosophy. I can summarize my philosophy as follows. I vow to dedicate myself to the heart of the teaching profession, nurturing and encouraging my students. I will never cease the cycle of learning within myself, so that through example I may be able to spark a love of learning within my students. I will value and respect my students, fortifying their self-esteem and self-worth in each interaction. As my students grow older, I would like to be the teacher who remains in their memories, as the one who cared as well as the one who touched their minds.

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