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Busting My Brain

For some reason, I figured a Pandemic was a good time to pursue additional learning opportunities. Yes, I’m working on becoming a National Board Certified Teacher, but that didn’t seem like enough. No, let me rephrase that. It didn’t seem possible this year with the mayhem we’re experiencing.

There are four parts to that particular certification, and three of those parts were not possible for me to finish without returning to the classroom for the final quarter of the school year. Fortunately, I was able to defer those sections, and move forward with the fourth. The section I’m (hopefully) completing this school year is a test. I say hopefully, because I have to actually pass the test. It’s on Saturday. This Saturday.

Now that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? I didn’t think so, so when I got the opportunity to register for two online graduate courses for free, I jumped at it. One was three weeks, the other four, and they overlapped by a week. That overlap week was last week. That was a little tricky. I did the final project for one, the first week project (that took a lot of time… it felt more like another final project) for the second class, and I did some test preparation in between. That’s when the email from my district came in offering an online class for salary credit. For free. Yes, I did that one too.

Back to the exam, though. It’s a strange type of a test, because there isn’t exactly a study guide for it. You have to know your subject (in my case all content areas for students ages 7-12) and you have to know your students. You have to understand child development, curriculum, pedagogy, and how to write short essays. There are three of those essays, in addition to multiple choice questions. Piece of cake. Maybe. I generally do ok on tests, and I’m hopeful this pattern will hold up here.

Salary credit is not that easy to come by, at least not for free. As a teacher, I have to re-certify every few years (the rules keep changing). To do that I have to submit a copy of all my professional development hours. Sometimes, though, that professional development time can be used toward increasing your salary. Those hours are generally hours earned, for credit, at a university. Which generally means university credit hours costs. In my school district it takes fifteen credit hours to earn an increase in pay. That’s five graduate level courses, give or take. Some are worth more, some are worth less. It’s a big commitment of time and money. Usually.

Apparently the shut-down was the catalyst to offering these free courses. For me the timing was just right. I had endless hours to spend at home and a mind that was itching for some stimulation. I also participated in two webinars (no credit for those, just some good information I can put to use), and I have an online conference coming up (7 recertification hours for that one). In the mean time, I have an assignment due Monday, an exam to prepare for on Saturday, and a few more facemasks to sew before the weekend. In between I’m watching the news and counting down the days until the presidential election. I don’t know what the future holds, but hopefully I’ll be prepared to meet the challenges head on.


Back in Time – Seeing College Through Old Eyes

Here I sit, in the middle of a busy student union in the pre-eight a.m. hour, watching the campus slowly shake itself awake. Students are starting to trickle through the common areas, which have been buzzing with activity,  anticipating them. The Starbucks line is still mercifully short, and most of the other food stations are still closed. I can hear the clanging sounds of meal preparation in the background and the thump of janitorial carts as they break up the blare of television that seems inescapable in this building. It wasn’t always like this. It was always busy, but never this fancy, and there was music instead of the incessant drone of morning tv. It’s too early for the staff members to be taking breaks, and too early for most of the students to be anywhere on campus but in class, if they’re unfortunate enough to have one scheduled at this hour.  A crew of warmly dressed men takes up two tables, eating what appear to be their lunches out of foil and drinking brightly colored sports drinks. They talk and laugh loudly in Spanish.

I used to work here. For seven years this was my place of employment, this bustling, world class university. I was a drone. I wasn’t doing research, or earning a PhD, or changing the world. I was earning a paycheck, day in and day out. I worked primarily with other staff members, but I also dealt with faculty and students, and I enjoyed those interactions. I especially enjoyed the campus atmosphere. ssvThere’s nothing quite like it. It’s worlds away from a corporate atmosphere, with a lot of creativity and flexibility, but the budget was always an issue. Still, the work environment was usually pleasant and the benefits made the low salary somewhat acceptable.

Now I’m here as a visitor. I’ve had opportunities over the last few years to come back and participate in various projects and programs. Today is one such opportunity. My daily schedule dictated that I drop my son off at school at a certain hour, so I ended up on campus quite a bit before our scheduled meeting time. I figured I would put that found time to good use by coming over to the student union. It takes me back. I have eaten lunch here hundreds of times over the years. I’ve also done a lot of people watching. The people today are much the same as they were a decade ago. Styles change, and the students are far more worldly and tech savvy than they were ten years ago, but they are fundamentally the same.

I found the same phenomenon when I attended my college reunion last month. It had been 25 years since I spent any time at my alma mater, but I felt as though I never left. rush-rheesGranted there were several new buildings, and some of the old asphalt paths had been replaced by lovely brick roads, and there seemed to be new carpeting everywhere, but otherwise it was the same. In those day, instead of an ipod in my ears, I had a walkman in my pocket, but really, everything else seemed the same.  I know that universities are on the cutting edge of change, and that many of those students were pursuing fields of study that hadn’t been imagined when I was an undergraduate, but in many ways universities are like time capsules.

Universities will always draw young people who don’t really know what they’re supposed to do next in their lives. Young people who have been programmed to accept that the automatic next step after high school is college. They will also draw those who have walked across fire to get there. Young people with passion and desire to learn and fuel their futures. And of course, don’t forget the not so young. The people with more age, wisdom, and experience who are hoping to expand their minds and their worlds through higher education.  All of these students keep the universities running, so the business of research can continue and our world can keep evolving.

I’m proud to be affiliated with this university, and with the two universities from which I hold degrees. You don’t have to be a university student to benefit from the contributions of a university environment, but you may find yourself on the cutting edge of something great if you are. I hope I can help my son understand this as he moves through high school. I hope he is one of those engaged students bent on changing the world, and not one who is there to punch his ticket before moving on to the next life achievement checkpoint. I hope he sees what a wonderful opportunity he has in education. I hope he succeeds and is happy in whatever field he chooses. So many hopes. Do you think it’s selfish to have so many? It may be, but I offer no apology, I want him to learn from my shortcomings and make the most of his opportunities. Soon I’ll be looking at the university experience through a different lens, from that of a university parent. One who pays tuition. Gulp. One step at a time, though. For now I think I’ll head over to my meeting, and see if I can help change the world.


Daily Prompt: We Can Be Taught!

What makes a teacher great?  Being a teacher, I have some pretty strong opinions on the topic. I think back to my own school days, as everyone does, and pick out those teachers who stand out. Why were they the best?

unnamedIn elementary school, it was my sixth grade teacher who made the greatest impact on me. He was funny, knowledgeable, and compassionate. Learning in his classroom was fun, but the standards were high. He made it clear that we would be well prepared for Junior High by the time he was done with us, and we were. He also had a more playful side, and on blustery days when there was no outdoor recess, he played endless hands of blackjack with his eleven year old charges.

Later on, I had Dr. T. He also had high standards. Really high. He, too, knew his field inside and out. He pushed us to think beyond our own teenage existence and orchestrated opportunities for us to connect with Hester Prynne, Lady Macbeth, and the Joads. He took us to the university library and taught us how to find reference materials (pre-computer era) and write research papers. He was a stickler for details, and he taught me to be a critical reader and ruthless editor. Sometimes I wished he wasn’t so demanding, but when I arrived at college, it all became clear. He saved me. As a result of his demands, I could write.

As an educator myself, I have some thoughts of what makes a teacher great. First, are their students engaged with the topic? This sounds easy, but when you have to teach a particular curriculum, which you may or may not be excited about yourself, it can sometimes be a challenge. Not every student is going to be thrilled to learn the quadratic equation, just as not every student will find joy in poetry. Your job as an educator is to sell it, and it can be a tough sell. Knowledge of technology can help a lot, as can having an open mind when it comes to learning new teaching techniques and trends.

School_House_Rock!A second hallmark of great teachers is that they entertain. Kids are media savvy, and many have short attention spans. When I was a kid, a filmstrip was a thrill. Those days are gone, which is why I believe that great teachers are also entertainers. Infusing lessons with great stories, a little drama, the occasional joke, and a spirit of fun can go a long way toward student learning. If I’m being entertained, I don’t mind going along for the ride, even if I didn’t sign up to be there in the first place. Think back to Schoolhouse Rock. My generation could sing the preamble to the Constitution, explain the function of a conjunction, and tell you the types of adverbs all because a little learning was squeezed into our Saturday morning cartoon lineup. Genius.

Finally, great teachers know their stuff and know their students. I have to understand my content inside and out, and I have to develop multiple ways of sharing it with my students. I’m always assessing what they understand and what they still need. I’m watching them, reading their work, listening to their conversations, and thinking about the next step. I gather resources, put them together into learning experiences, and evaluate how effective they were. I reassess and determine where to go from there. You really can’t get that out of a teacher’s guide.

Great teachers are a little different than the rest of the world. They may not have the prettiest classrooms, and other teachers may not always understand exactly what they’re doing, but their students love to learn, and ultimately that is what it’s all about.