I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a young friend, Maggie Long Lester to learn about her experiences and the path she took to become a teacher. She is in her first year of teaching science at a local middle school. I have known this young lady since she was born in fact my wife and I were at the hospital that day in 1987 and have frequently interacted with her over the years.
Maggie’s path to becoming a teacher is a bit unique but nonetheless has implications for the teaching profession, teacher preparation institutions, education leaders and policymakers as well as current and prospective teachers.
We began our conversation with Maggie’s response to my question “On your best day as a teacher what is happening?” She shared that
- It is not me in front of class and teacher-centered
- It is groups of three or four students working together to respond to set of questions and/or asking questions
- It is small groups of students talking, teaching each other and preparing/sharing their responses to questions with the whole class
- It is small groups of students engaged in the entire process sharing and learning process
I asked Maggie to share how she thinks the 31 students in her classes would describe that classroom environment. She suggested the following words/concepts:
Maggie is very proud of these characteristics as they focus on engagement, collaboration and skill building.
Maggie’s Path To The Teaching Profession
After graduating from high school in 2006 Maggie attended the University of Oregon and graduated in20010with a degree in Environmental Science and a minor in geology and business.
During her senior year, Maggie was required to do an internship in environmental science and chose to focus on education and worked with a team of other university students to design field trips with corresponding lessons based on Oregon ecology. This program targeted underserved schools. Her goal was for students to learn about the forest through multiple perspectives and the corresponding time in school and creating lessons and interacting with students encouraged her to consider the teaching profession.
She then became an AmeriCorps member with a local salmon stream enhancement project first as an educator and then as a manager. These experiences with students brought her to consider becoming a teacher. As a result she applied to Masters in Teaching at Western Washington University and recently completed her graduate degree.
During her time as an elementary school student, she thought that being a teacher might be something she would consider in the future, and even before she was in school Maggie and her friends played school and took turns being the teacher. During middle and high school she loved science classes and being outside but did not think about the teaching profession. So it was her university intern experiences and her responsibilities in the nonprofit organization, via AmeriCorps, that motivated her to become a teacher.
Surprises She Experienced
While Maggie’s pre-service education and experiences prepared her for most of the realities of the teaching profession, she shared that as a teacher she was surprised with the relatively high number of students without necessary support at home to be successful and the amount of information needed to track student and teacher performance.
She also shared that given the diversity of student experiences, there is a great need for opportunities to discuss and integrate social justice into classroom lessons, strategies, and conversations. Though this can mean challenging topics and conversations, it is important that we don’t ignore the relevant issues in society. Students don’t leave everything behind when they enter a classroom. However, it is challenging to put these ideas into action in ways that also address science content and standards. Maggie is committed to continue to address these challenges so that students feel engaged and that the education experiences are relevant.
Challenges She Encountered
We would expect any new teacher to experience challenges and Maggie shared the following challenges she encountered:
- I began teaching mid-way through the school year so I had a lot to learn about students’ previous experiences
- I had to explain how I teach science and what expectations I have of each student
- I had to gain long-term trust of students
- I had to learn about the school’s technology (what is available, how it works and assistance available) for science class
- I found that students know more about how the school operates than I did
- I needed to better understand student behaviors and how the school addresses student conduct (policies, procedures and support)
When Maggie is challenged she finds that the other two eighth grade science teachers are a great resource to share her experiences and receive feedback. She is fortunate to have a daily planning period (45 – 50 minutes) with the science teachers to prepare lessons and collaborate on strategies that motivate and educate their students. There are also half-day professional development opportunities throughout the school year to increase her knowledge and skills. She also engages teachers from other disciplines, for example every Thursday all eighth grade teachers meet to plan and implement activities such as service-learning that are cross-curricular. Together the teachers also address students with particular challenges as well as designate students for awards.
In addition, Maggie attends new employee targeted support workshops put on by the district. These monthly meetings are designed for new employees, and include many first year teachers, to give them space to discuss challenges, and learn new skills, tools and strategies. These range from self-care practices, to integrating technology into their teaching.
In terms of her formal university teacher preparation program Maggie valued the multiple opportunities to be in classrooms early via practicums, providing hands on experiences to better understand the day-to-day operation of the classroom and school, and field trips that grounded the concepts taught in the formal courses. These real-life examples of school life allowed Maggie to see how lessons are put into action.
Student teaching provided Maggie the opportunity to build on her comfort engaging students, exposing her to the realities of student behaviors and preparing her well for many of the realities of the classroom and the school. She was also invited to join the school’s professional learning community providing her the opportunity to engage with and learn from other teachers.
Maggie learned about both the classroom and the school, understanding what is expected in both environments. This focus on school climate, the quality and character of a school, oriented her to understand its impacts student behavior, outcomes and impacts. The focus on school climate also surfaced the diversity of students and how to create an effective engaging environment for each student to be successful
In terms of professional development opportunities Maggie appreciates a focus on the application of concepts to increase her skills, rather than a single focus on concepts. She provided the example of next generation science standards and professional development focusing on specific ways they are similar and different from existing standards and how to implement them into lessons and courses.
Wish Would Have Known
As Maggie reflected on her initial teacher experiences, she wishes she would have known:
- That every day requires patience, grace, freedom and flexibility to ensure teaching is relevant and students are learning
- Not to let one person ruin the day
Advice For Future Teachers
As Maggie reflected on her experiences during her first year of teaching she offers the following advice for new teachers:
- Patience is a virtue, take your time and learn each day how to have a positive impact on students
- Create opportunities to get to know each student and what is relevant to them
- Bring your whole self into the classroom
- Build relationships with colleagues and do not allow yourself to be isolated (work as a team with other teachers).
Maggie’s story reminds us that not all teachers follow a direct path to the profession and that there are multiple experiences that lead individuals to consider becoming a teacher. It should not be a surprise that Maggie’s environmental science orientation leads to her focus on engagement and collaboration connecting diverse individuals and systems for the greater good. Maggie’s preference for problem-solving and professional development oriented to working with colleagues and applications in the classroom aligns with research on acquiring and enhancing knowledge and skills. Maggie’s advice for future teachers to be patient, get to know each student and build collegial relationships is great advice for all educators and in fact for many occupations that deal directly with people of all ages.
As I mentioned in the opening, while Maggie’s path to the teaching profession is a bit unique it is not that uncommon for graduates with Bachelor Degrees in other disciplines to decide to enter the teaching profession. It is very helpful that Masters In Teaching programs are available in institutions of higher education. Along with supporting these programs, education leaders and policymakers can greatly enhance teacher preparation programs and orientations for new teachers by (1) encouraging and supporting more attention to school climate so that teachers understand how the quality and character of schools impact student development; (2) ensuring new teachers have the ability to collaborate with peers and feel comfortable sharing their challenges, strengths and strategies for mutual benefit; and (3) assisting new teachers to have the knowledge, skills and dispositions to engage students from diverse backgrounds so that each student is effectively motivated and educated for school and life success.