12 Teaching is a Journey of Learning | Michele Koomen

Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.
Nelson Mandela

A couple of years ago, while in the moment of teaching with our pre-service teacher candidates, I found myself characterizing teaching as a journey of learning. This phrase became a way for me to convey to future teachers, my students, the complexity, the process, the iterations, the dedication, the passion, the surprises, the hard work, and the deep reflection that are all part of teaching and learning and ultimately contribute to the pleasure and the angst that are part of being a teacher. I think often and deeply about my teaching. Like many of my students, teaching has been my calling since my youth. Over the years, my commitment to teaching and learning has not diminished. Indeed my commitment to teaching and learning has only strengthened as my vision of what it takes to be an excellent teacher has expanded. My professional work as a teacher is shaped by several core beliefs, all of which will be found throughout this section. 1) learning is socially mediated and constructed; 2) you cannot teach well what you do not understand; 3) all students can learn; 4) ethics and equity are not always visible in our work as teachers, but they should be fundamental to all the work we do and 5) teaching and learning is praxis.

I began my work as an elementary classroom teacher many years ago with a vision that is shared with many of my teacher candidates: to make a difference in the lives of children and youth. This vision propelled me to move away as a young teacher from teaching methods that felt boring and dull to more active inquiry based methods of teaching and learning. I did not realize at the time that my teaching methodologies were in alignment with a theory of learning called constructivism. Constructivism focuses on the human mind’s active attempts to make sense of the world and is influenced by the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky. Although I was not able to name the theory that was inherently part of my teaching, I continued active and inquiry based practices because I saw the results: my students were engaged and interested (and happy) in what we were doing in the classroom. I prematurely congratulated myself on making a difference with my students. It would be many years before I realized that I only made a difference for some students, not all.

I always loved teaching science and math to my students. It was easy to teach about the patterns, the order, the beauty, and the delicacy that are part of our natural world, however, I did not understand why the natural world worked in the way it did. I was curious about the way things worked and wanted to know more (or at least more than you might find in an outdated teacher’s manual). I began to strengthen my own background in science and mathematics by enrolling in undergraduate science and mathematics courses in chemistry, physics, geology and biology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. As I continued course work in the natural sciences, I started attending state and regional meetings of the national science and math teacher organization. It was at these meetings where I began to understand the enormity of the issue that a lack of content knowledge (in math and science) had on the confidence and of course the desire of teachers to teach math and science. I also realized how low confidence and phobic attitudes hindered the math and science education of the children I care so much about. My awareness and desire to change this downward spiral and provide hope and confidence to teachers (and their students) led to my action and subsequent enrollment in a master’s program at Fresno Pacific University in science and math education. It was at FPU where I became a teacher of teachers, which led me ultimately to Gustavus Adolphus College in 2000.

As would be expected, the structure and substance of the courses that I have taught at Gustavus have changed in response to a number of factors including my experiences of teaching with preservice teachers, my growth in understanding of the research literature in science, math and teacher education, my own contributions to the research, conversations with other teacher educators, feedback from students, observations of my students’ teaching in area classrooms, the increasing diversity and changing demographics of Southern Minnesota, and my own praxis and reflection using critical theory.

Ruminations and Taking a Closer Look at My Teaching. My central tenet that teaching is a journey of learning permeates the work that I do with my methods students. For many, the real value of the math and science methods courses comes at the end of the semester when they look back on what they have learned in the context of studying their own teaching.

Things that I do well in my teaching: I believe that all students, all kids, all people can learn. I diligently guide my students to see the strengths that each child brings into their classrooms, and not the challenges or deficits that are so often the focus of working with kids with academic or behavioral challenges. In my methods courses, I equip my students with a problem solving model and specific strategies that they may use to support the learning of all students. Together we read research, including my own, regarding inclusion and diversity, that allows the preservice candidates to enlarge their image of what it means to teach and to teach all.

I guide them to understand how research informs and improves our teaching first by reading research articles and second, and more importantly by applying the results of their own research in their teaching.

I continue to grow in my ability to facilitate difficult conversations with my students regarding issues related to classroom teaching and practice or invisible inequities in the classroom. In fact, I embrace difficult conversations, because if I do not show them in class how we navigate sensitive and difficult topics, how will they begin to do this with colleagues in their schools and/or become advocates for kids?

I enjoy my students. Probably the best and most unexpected outcome for me about traveling with students to Southern Africa was the relationships that you build as an instructor in the most unexpected places. The shared conversations that I had in the back of the bus or at the pool were some of the best parts of the trip for me.

I have high expectations for my students and I ask them to increase their own expectations for themselves. Let me explain with a major assignment called the Study of Teaching that students complete in the two methods courses for me as a culmination of our work together.

A cornerstone of the Department of Education at Gustavus is a Conceptual Framework that is communicated as a “three-part cycle of learning — knowledge > experience > reflection.” Over the past few semesters this conceptual framework has been closely tied with a research project that students in the math and science methods courses complete. Students develop the knowledge portion of the conceptual framework through readings, class discussion and classroom investigations; they apply their knowledge through experiences within the classroom by teaching math and science lessons using research based practices in local elementary schools; finally they reflect on their teaching by looking closely at their teaching using phenomenological inquiry. Phenomenological inquiry is a research method that is designed to “awaken teachers to see beyond their habituated perceptions, and in so doing become more mindful of individual children, classroom dynamics and their teaching practices” (Kesson, K., Traugh, C. & Perez, F. 2006) and thus work toward improving their own practice.

As part of their phenomenological inquiry, students are asked to video tape their science and math lessons. As they analyze their videotapes and after teaching notes, the pre-service teachers apply qualitative research methods, including a modified literature review, and analysis to uncover patterns or trends within their classroom teaching, all toward the goal of improving instruction and learning. Learning to apply qualitative research methods within the context of classroom teaching at the same time that they are learning to teach is a formidable challenge for our students and is something that they resist. However tenuous the start, students over and over again, describe the merits of looking closely at their teaching and the value of this research project for them as teachers.

One student wrote:

The study of teaching was valuable to me because it allowed me to really look at my own teaching, and interaction with the students. Through out the course we look and study a lot about other teachers and theories of best practice, however by looking at my own teaching I am able to see the positives of my teaching and also the things I need to continue to work on in the classroom. By studying my teaching I was able to see that questioning was something I need to continue to work on in the future as I continue to teach. It has also taught me, that it is important to continue to study my own teaching, because unless I take the time to reflect and study what I do in the classroom, I won’t know the things I need to improve on.

Another wrote:

I thought the study of my teaching was valuable because it allowed me a time to evaluate myself as a teacher. By looking at a topic like gender bias I am going to be more aware when teaching as to how I am treating different groups of students. This will hopefully make students feel that they are all treated fairly and allow them to achieve their highest academic potential.

I know that this research assignment challenges my students and pushes them further than many expect they can go. Their completed projects and their achievements are clearly exceptional and really serve as a capstone of their own learning as teachers at Gustavus. I am exceptionally proud of what they learn about themselves as students and as future teachers. Last spring, I invited several students to present their work in the Creative Inquiry Exposition. I have already invited several more for the spring 2010.

As I wrote above, learning to apply qualitative research methods within the context of classroom teaching at the same time that they are learning to teach is a formidable challenge for our students and is something that they resist. However tenuous the start, students over and over again, describes the merits of looking closely at their teaching and the value of this research project for them as teachers. Comments on the SETS such as “much of our class is stressed and frustrated with the amount of work, so I feel these surveys will represent more negative aspects than usual” support the notion that students are indeed struggling with the overall Methods’ course workload and have yet to realize the value in all they are asked to do. They begin to see their own study as part of their metacognition of teaching as a journey of learning. I will end this section with an excerpt from a letter by John Clementson (May 15, 2009) for my fifth year review that encapsulated Teaching as a Journey of Learning:

Each semester, as part of our elementary methods block, Michele engages her students in an in-depth research project (Reflective Inquiry) aimed at examination of their own teaching practices. Many students find the graduate level readings to be difficult and at first offer significant resistance to the project. Michele carefully explains the material and urges students to move forward with their projects. Once students are able to overcome their initial apprehensions and the cognitive dissonance created by the project, they find the work to be extremely interesting and informative. One of our senior seminar students recently reflected on the project as part of her senior portfolio. She wrote:

I was given the Reflective Inquiry assignment during my Science and Math Methods course. We were told to choose an aspect of our teaching during practicum and to reflect on that aspect. I was instantly overwhelmed and confused. What was reflection? Why did it have to be so labor intensive? As I delved into the project more, I realized it was something I had been doing all along. All I needed to do was document it more formally. Through the completion of the project, I began to narrow my reflection to specific areas of teaching. I was also able to have more meaningful conversations with peers and colleagues about these areas because I took the time to think about them and process my own experiences. My previous views of reflection as a tedious and unimportant chore of teaching changed because I saw directly how my reflection benefitted the students I was working with. My feelings of responsibility to these students made the reflections worthwhile, and the research I found to back up my implications showed me that reflection is something that must be done often and with good intention. I have taken this experience with me into my student teaching semester. Notes are taken during each lesson and I am able to use them in my reflection post-lesson as well as in conversations with other parties about my teaching. Reflection is a tool that I needed to learn to use in order to fully appreciate its benefit.