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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Building relationships with, and learning from, classroom teachers

Emily Schneider-Krzys

These suggestions are drawn from my various experiences student-teaching in urban classrooms. Happily, over the course of four years, I have had the opportunity to become a (temporary) member of four different high school classrooms, both on my own and as a coordinator for a team of other student-teachers. Looking back, I find that each year I have become progressively more able to appreciate and learn from the teachers in whose classrooms I was placed. Some of this progress has to do with the accumulation of experience – the more we do things (such as entering and blending into a classroom), the easier they become. Another part of it has to do, I think, with my growing confidence in my teaching skills. I am more likely now to expect that the classroom teacher I work with will respect me, something I was very unsure of my first time in a class. Because of this confidence I am more able to speak honestly with my classroom teacher about challenges that I face in their classroom, including difficulties in our relationship. Finally, I think the biggest shift in my ability to learn from my placements came out of something that a classroom teacher said to me in a moment in which I was questioning the value of my accumulated experiences and my teaching skills. Noticing my dejected expression after class one day, the teacher asked me what was wrong. When I told him that I was depressed because many days I didn’t feel like I was getting any better at teaching, he said simply, “No one’s a professional at this. You just do what you can and try to keep learning.” In this handbook entry I suggest five tactics that I have found best help me to do my best and to keep learning. I hope you will find them helpful…

the right attitude
It often seems like everyone is looking for someone to blame for the failures of urban schools. We hear in our education classes, read in the newspapers, and see on TV the awful conditions and the looming presence of a substantial achievement gap between white students and students of color and also urban/rural students and suburban students. This atmosphere makes it seem normal to go into a placement at a school looking for what’s going wrong. Personal experience often makes us turn a critical eye to specific aspects of our students’ lives. We compare their failures to our successes and seek the culprits who are perpetuating that difference. Some people blame parents, some blame entire communities, many blame the school system, the principals, or teachers, still others blame President Bush, or even modern society. However, although all these factors may significantly affect a student’s education, because the majority of our interaction is with the classroom teacher, it is often easy to point to that teacher’s practices as the source of student failure.

You may not agree with every philosophy or classroom policy your teacher espouses. Nor is it likely that you will agree with every word he/she says. In some classrooms you might even want to plug your ears. However, pushing beyond those differences to see your teacher’s best practices and successes will ultimately be incredibly useful to you both as an extra-classroom teacher and a future educator.

It is vitally important when beginning a placement at any school/classroom to go in with the “right” attitude. Often I find that student-teachers enter a classroom with the idea that they are going to “save” the students. Both student-teachers with traditionalist attitudes and student-teachers with progressive attitudes often enter a classroom through what Linda Powell calls “a discourse of deficit”. Essentially, many student-teachers see only what they can impart to a classroom rather than looking for what that classroom – its students and its teacher – can teach them.

In many ways, there is no better resource for learning about teaching and yourself as a teacher than a position as an extra-classroom teacher/student-teacher. There is a vast amount to be learned from simply being in a classroom and absorbing how that environment functions. Remembering this fact when you enter a placement will help you to observe the many positive aspects of any classroom. Even attitudes and practices you initially see as negative will eventually help you to hone your own beliefs and ideals.

Communicating with your classroom teacher regularly and efficiently is a necessary part of any classroom placement. Logistical questions such as when you should be there, which students you will be working with, what activities the teacher expects you to complete, what to wear, and many other small, but extremely important details should all be dealt with before entering a classroom. It is also important that you and your classroom teacher create a space for discussion within the semester in which you can check-in with each other about how the experience is working/could work better and (re)visit any unresolved issues of classroom management, practice, or vision. It is important that the guidelines for your communication with your classroom teacher be established at the beginning of your relationship. What works best - e-mail, cell phone, message at the main office? Where and how can the teacher contact you? When – at what time and it what situations - is it appropriate for you to contact the teacher?

It can also be extremely valuable to get to know your classroom teacher outside of the restricted context of the class you are working in. This can take place in the form of casual conversation or a more formal interview. Often these conversations will give you powerful insights into the motives behind the teacher’s teaching style/practices and also help you to think about your personal trajectory in the field of education. One of my team’s most rewarding experiences in their placement was learning about their classroom teacher’s professional history in the course of several interviews. Although working with Mr. Wilson had occasionally been a somewhat difficult experience for the student-teachers who were uncomfortable with his sometimes cynical attitude towards his students, learning about the personal depths of his commitment to his students and to education vastly shifted their opinion of him and their experience in his classroom.

Take the initiative to establish communication with your classroom teacher along both of these lines. Teachers have a billion things to remember and do each day; by being proactive in your communication with your classroom teacher you keep your presence in the classroom from becoming an extra burden. Keep in mind as well, that many teachers have not worked with an extra-classroom teacher before, or they may have worked with an education student from a different class or program than your own. Being honest and forthcoming about yourself and your needs – both personal and academic – will help your teacher get to know you and to assist you in becoming part of the class more smoothly.

asking for advice
Since many of us enter classroom placements as part of an education class, we often have a wealth of opportunities to reflect on questions about practice and theory within our college class’s curriculum. Many times it is more natural to work through problems and challenges with the professor of the class or in group problem-solving sessions with our peers. Because of this we often forget to recognize the classroom teacher as an incredibly well-informed resource. So often student-teachers (myself included) return from their placement and work in their college classes to resolve issues of practice. What do I do with the student in my group who isn’t participating? who doesn’t speak English? who won’t share? Even if the classroom teacher you are working with holds policies and practices very different from your own vision of education there are very few other people, besides the student him/herself, that can give you as much information on a student’s history, learning styles, abilities, and struggles than the classroom teacher who sees that student week after week and watches them read, write, and perform in school.

Even the most unpalatable of situations, where a classroom teacher responds to your inquiries with a comment such as, “He’s just a stupid kid…stupid and lazy,” can give you insight into the student’s social and academic barriers – even if that insight is that the student probably struggles to perform in that teacher’s classroom because of the teacher’s negativity. However, in my experience, these sort of awful situations are extremely rare – first, because most teachers are incredibly compassionate towards their students (why else would they stay in their profession?) and second, because teachers who welcome student-teachers into their classrooms generally have a more tempered understanding of their students’ struggles.

“fellow educators”
Mr. Wilson opened the folder I gave him containing the syllabi of each of his student-teachers’ classes and a letter of introduction from each of their professors. He read out loud the salutation written at the top of the enclosed letter. “Dear fellow educator”. “That’s nice, I like that,” he said, smiling. It seems like many teachers are often hungry for the type of intellectual inquiry into the theory and practice of education that they experienced either when in school themselves or see underlying their own classrooms. Having education students in their classroom often reawakens or stokes these interests. Considering your classroom teacher a “fellow educator” along with you and your professor and even, perhaps, all people working towards a better future for education is a powerful show of respect to your classroom teacher and a useful resource for you.

In her book, Reading Families: The Literate Lives of Urban Children, Catherine Compton-Lilly writes of her own research into the home literacy experiences of her students and the shattering of her assumptions about urban families. Compton-Lilly found that, contrary to common belief, in every home she visited parents had collected books for their children, constantly took part in learning activities such as reading to their child before bed or simply watching only educational television, and were highly committed to and interested in their children’s educations. In her essay, Compton-Lilly identifies a distinct need to change public perception of urban parents and also the need to honor and accept them as informed co-educators of their children. Reading Families reminds us to examine the assumptions we hold about education and failure in this country and also to see education as a social process, which takes effort and commitment from all elements of a child’s life. There is much to be gained from moving past blame to accept and respect a child’s parents, fellow community members, and teachers as “fellow educators”.

As student-teachers/extra-classroom teachers, we often have the opportunity to bring diverse materials into the classroom and try out a variety of (progressive) teaching techniques. It is important to share these ideas and materials with your classroom teacher. Fettered by standardized testing and scripted curricula, many teachers welcome student-teachers into their classroom to provide their students with material and learning experiences that are severely limited in today’s public school classrooms. Many teachers who would include “extraneous” poetry, music, and artistic projects in their classrooms often worry that they don’t have time to find appropriate and interesting materials for their students or are “out of touch” with kids today. Sharing your excitement for a writing/reading lesson taught entirely with hip-hop lyrics or a poetry writing project elicited by a Van Gogh painting with your classroom teacher will often become a meaningful trading of ideas between the two of you. Taking the initiative to share with your teacher your own ideas and educational practices will also give you a greater sense of agency in affecting the broader “system” of education.

Working with a classroom teacher in any school can and should be a powerful and useful experience for anyone interested in education. Some ways that I have found to insure that a placement experience is as meaningful and positive for me as possible are to enter the classroom with an open attitude, communicate with my classroom teacher, and build a relationship with him or her by asking for advice and considering him/her both a fellow educator and a co-learner. However, on any given day and in any given placement it is incredibly hard to remember to follow each of these guidelines that I have set for myself. Working in a classroom, whether you are there one day a week or everyday, is an often overwhelming and confusing experience. Yet, each time I visit, I find I can take one more small step towards functioning as the type of student-teacher I know I could be and towards taking every opportunity for furthering my education that I have available to me. As a student of education I know that the learning and acquisition of knowledge is a slow and complex process that demands that I keep my ears and eyes open, be patient, and have hope. As a student-teacher who is learning and acquiring the knowledge and skills to be a teacher, I know I must demand the same of myself.

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