As I observe promising young teachers in action, I can’t help but remember my own experiences as a novice teacher.
Who Teaches Teachers How to Teach?
My first cadet teaching experience was at a juvenile correctional facility. I usually joke that I had a captive audience. But there wasn’t anything funny about it. My students were young men who were serving prison terms ranging from three to seven years. It was not a realistic “first-time” assignment for me. There was no misbehavior, not with armed guards in the hallways. There were assignments to complete, but we didn’t call it “homework.” In this school, the students were not going home for a long time.
There was lots of journal writing and group discussion. Most of the students could tell you exactly how they had managed to get themselves into a situation where their teachers had to pass through guarded gates to reach them. Most were determined to get a high school diploma and put their lives back on the right track.
I remember looking into those young faces and wondering how it would feel to have your life placed on hold for years, just when you were ready to make your mark in the world. I wasn’t so old myself back them. I had some plans of my own.
I remember the feeling I had each evening when I would leave the prison classroom and walk out, past the guards, through the gates, and on out to my car. I would take a deep breath of fresh air. Looking back, I realize that my first group of students taught me as much as I taught them. Through them I learned to appreciate freedom.
I went on to another student teaching position which was a little more realistic. Security was an issue at the urban high school, but at least the students were permitted to go home each night. It was here that I discovered that respect doesn’t come automatically to someone who wears a suit and stands in front of a blackboard.
A ninth-grader taught that lesson to me. He had run past me in the hallway. Running in the halls was forbidden. I told him to stop, but he trotted on past me. I stepped lively and caught up with him.
“Stop!” I said, breathing down his neck.
He finally pulled up and turned to face me. “Why?” he demanded.
“I want to talk to you for a minute,” I replied, and I proceeded to explain the importance of school rules. I was just getting warmed up when he interrupted.
“Your minute’s up,” he scowled.
Needless to say, the conversation did not end there. But the boy had made his point with me. If I wanted respect, it would have to be earned.
These days, sitting quietly in the back of classrooms, I observe hopeful apprentice teachers, looking for ways to help them grow into the profession. I give encouragement, suggest instructional methods, and offer teaching tips. But I think we all know who provides the best education for a teacher. Oscar Hammerstein said it well:
It's a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.