by Dr. Emily S. Meixner
What does it mean to be a teacher? I often think about this question as I prepare for the two methods courses on reading and writing pedagogy I teach to the students enrolled in the undergraduate secondary English education program at my school. For my students, being a teacher means knowing what to do – knowing how to teach a particular text or topic. I get it. I remember the panicked excitement of my first few years of teaching and how important it was to fill each period of the day with something interesting and substantive. And so, much of what I do in my methods courses is practical and about building a repertoire of pedagogical tools that my students can employ as they teach.
But building an expansive toolbox isn’t enough, and the tools I share with my students aren’t going to sustain them throughout their career. They are going to need many, many more ideas and strategies. My students are also going to quickly discover that there’s not just one right way to teach a topic or text. As their students change, period-to-period as well as year-to-year, so must their teaching.
As a result, being a teacher isn’t just about methods, it’s also about developing habits of mind that keep my students asking questions about what’s happening (or not) in their classrooms and then seeking out better texts, more effective methods, new technologies, and more authentic assessments in response . As a result, my methods courses also need to be about cultivating “teacher thinking” and fostering in my students a desire to know more – about what they’re doing, about what they’re not, about what they know, about what they don’t, and about what is possible in their instruction even if they have never observed it or experienced it themselves.
Teaching is, therefore, about knowing what to do and possessing habits of mind in service of the thoughtful creation of new knowledge; it is about figuring out what to do and doing it, often alone, without support, or in the face of personal, institutional, administrative, or financial resistance.
This usually isn’t what my students have in mind when they consider their future work. They don’t yet see themselves in conversation with the teachers and researchers whose books they are reading in class. They can’t imagine that they might become instructional innovators. And, they haven’t even entertained the idea that they might someday share their innovations with other teachers in other schools (perhaps even in other states or countries). In my methods classes, most of my students don’t imagine that they could become teacher leaders.
But they should. Seeing themselves in this way will be essential to their professional growth. It will also build the optimism, stamina, and resilience they are going to need as they move into their future classrooms. As a result, my methods classes must also become a site in which my students begin seeing themselves as professionals contributing to their chosen profession. This means that I must provide them with on-going, concrete examples of what this looks like as well as opportunities to imagine what their own path might be. For example,
- Talking explicitly about my professional reading, my involvement in professional organizations, and my experiences at local, regional, and national conferences – showing how each of these things contributes to my professional knowledge and well-being.
- Regularly incorporating materials written and developed by alumni into the curriculum of both my methods courses.
- Inviting alumni (usually in their first five years of teaching) to talk about their teaching in my methods classes.
- Sharing materials and ideas I receive as a result of attending conferences presentations given by English teaching alumni.
- Requiring students to create a 5-year professional development plan that will serve as a professional roadmap in their early years of teaching.
Each of these items makes public the ways in which teaching is about knowing, thinking, innovating, and taking action. Additionally and more recently, I have tried to expand and reiterate these experiences in my program more broadly by providing opportunities for current students to
- Network with alumni who return to campus to provide mentoring through evening professional development seminars (“How to Teach…” seminars).
- Read the materials posted on the English teaching bulletin board outside my office which features articles I’ve written as well as those either written by or celebrating the work of other English teaching alumni, and
- Participate in a summer potluck/book discussion on a recently published professional book with English teaching alumni and education faculty.
For the students who graduate from the secondary English education program at my institution, these experiences are paying off. Learning to see themselves as engaged professionals, as teacher leaders, even before they graduate has translated into increased professional engagement in their early years of teaching. Many of our novice teacher alumni attend local, regional, and national conferences; participate in teaching-related Twitter chats; contribute to our English Teaching alumni Facebook group; return to campus to share their ideas and success stories or to learn from their peers; join professional organizations; serve as mentors to other teachers in their schools; blog or publish articles about their teaching; seek out graduate programs that will enhance their teaching; and, finally, present at professional conferences.
If we want our novice teachers to lead, we must teach them that this is what teaching means. This is what teachers do. And we must teach them this crucial lesson before they accept their first teaching position. (We can do it!)
Dr. Emily S. Meixner is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of the Secondary English Education Program at The College of New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @EsMteach, or contact her via email firstname.lastname@example.org.