Back to Elementary School

Teacher education professors shouldn't just study K-12, writes Shaun Johnson. They need to know what it's like to be in front of the classroom.

August 19, 2010

All around the country, it’s already or nearly back-to-school time. Lists are being made and checked off. And as back-to-school time arrives, earlier, it seems, each year, I realize that my entire life has been structured by the school year. With 13 years of K-12 schooling, four years of college, two years for my master’s, four years of elementary teaching, four years of doctoral study, and one year as an assistant professor of elementary education, I’ve never experienced any other timeline. Summers to me have always meant closure, cooling down, some boredom sprinkled with part-time work (or is it vice versa?), and the rush of readiness throughout August.

Why bring this up? Well, as is also customary during summer transitions, one year drawing to a close ushers in a period of reflection. What went right, what went wrong? As an elementary teacher, it meant erasing the names of the prior class and spreading butcher paper over the furniture. I noticed throughout my first year as a professor and teacher educator that the actual public school experience from which I needed to draw was fading. I could no longer recall the names of students from my final year class photo. When I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, my time in the classroom felt fresh, invigorating the wisdom I could offer my undergraduates. Now it’s getting harder and harder to find a relevant example from my own teaching. This can cause a teacher educator to defer to the cooperating teacher’s wisdom rather than my own vision.

On worse days, it feels like my doctoral training went to waste. The valued currency in academe is knowledge, more theoretical and conceptual than practical, although not in all cases. As a teacher educator, I have one foot in higher education and the other in elementary schools, so my situation feels a bit different. My intellectual identity is divided between the realms of the academic or conceptual and the practical. We always seek that moment of praxis like an addict chases that initial high. Often it’s never realized.

As summer approached, I felt a strong desire to reconnect to my practical roots, so to speak. I needed to legitimize myself as an actual teacher rather than someone taking notes and barking advice from a calm, comfortable place in the back of the room. I also thought my expertise could actually help, you know, students. But I had nowhere to turn. School systems are largely closed to people like me. My certification was long expired and it didn’t seem worthwhile to go through any process of renewal. As I’ve become more familiar with the education blogosphere over the last year or so, there has been considerable traffic devoted to new kinds of schools. What do you call them? Yes, charter schools.

I write that with a hint of sarcasm, but public school teachers, and administrators alike, are slightly suspicious of charter institutions. Some of which is justified because the charter movement is not turning out to be the panacea that reformers had hoped. Yet, the more successful models do offer public K-12 schooling and institutions of higher education examples of how to do things a bit differently, which is great. Traditions can be stifling. Charter schools also do not necessarily adhere to the strict certification requirements of most school systems, for better or for worse. One Washington D.C. charter school was willing to give me a shot for its four-week summer program. I could not have been happier, but could have used something to calm my nerves.

My return to the classroom consisted of 20 days teaching a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class for roughly four hours, split between language arts and math. I was given daily objectives for both subjects, but also had absolute control of how I addressed them. Most of my teacher resources from my days as an elementary teacher are in several 20-gallon tubs in my parents’ garage back in Pittsburgh. I did possess numerous picture and trade books in my office that could be used, as well as resource books for multiple subjects.

The week prior to the start date, I was out purchasing notebooks and pencils for the students. It was not that the school would not provide those, but teachers certainly have their own ways of doing things, and I preferr hard-backed composition books. I defaulted to my previous methods, acquiring a wealth of odds and ends from a dollar store to stock my own repository. Objects of desire — jump ropes, lollipops, bouncy balls, playing cards, snacks — could be purchased with “sheqels,” my denomination of choice because of its alliteration with the name of the summer school program. Other privileges, like lunch bunches or wearing a fedora hat for the day, were available. Over time, I got a kick out of these kids asking me for “sheqels,” something that was unlikely to ever be a part of their vocabulary.

I will spare readers with the details of my day-to-day teaching — the spontaneous outburst of a Michael Jackson dance party when I played a video of his on the Promethean board or unusually harsh tongue lashing a gifted third-grader doled out when she was teaching the class how to add fractions. Rather, I should get to the point: What can a professor learn from a return to a public school classroom? In particular to teacher educators, does our responsibility to public education extend beyond where we supervise to the larger profession as a whole? First, and this will be my strongest opinion of all: Teacher educators and education professors are not worth their salt if they do not return to the classroom with some regularity during their tenure. I plan to do so every summer that I can.

Something changed in my mind when I became an actual assistant professor. I supervised pre-service teachers as a graduate student, which is part of my job now. However, I feel like the pressure to be an “expert” on teaching and learning is greater as my previous memories of being an actual public school teacher evaporate. The initials behind my name confer some kind of status that I take very seriously. As a teacher educator spending a good deal of my time in public schools, how can I profess if I no longer put my own abilities to the test? So, I stand by my new rule: if you’re going to tell young people how to teach, then do it yourself. The opportunities are out there. This all depends on how flexible both the universities and the local school systems are. In my case, I was only responsible for a six-week graduate course on campus, affording me great flexibility. However, the local school systems are not flexible with whom they allow to teach, which is understandable. Yet, my certification expired because my former county did not consider earning a Ph.D. in an educational discipline to be a method of maintaining credentials. There should be policies within local school systems to allow professors of education to do at least some teaching in local schools.

My second major epiphany: institutions of higher education, especially colleges of education, ignore charter schools at their own peril. Like it or not, these schools are here to stay and the Obama administration values them highly. Stores of private cash are moving into charters while the remainder of “traditional” public schools struggle with less each and every year. We ignore them at our peril; well, what is our peril? Relevancy, perhaps? Currency or legitimacy? I wonder if schools of education can be taken as seriously regarding efforts to reform education or improve student outcomes given that alternative kinds of schooling — independent, home, or charter — are rarely afforded a second thought. There are ideas out there worth considering. Being a professor of education in a major metropolitan area, both the ideas and the opportunities to practice them are there.

I can additionally take issue now with the myth that teaching at the college level somehow approximates instruction in the elementary classroom. It’s possible that the parallels in secondary education and leadership or administration are more visible. But I have been told at various points in my experiences that teaching undergraduates is a way to practice my chops. Furthermore, my instruction in the college classroom models for pre-service teachers what they should be doing for their elementary students. All right, I can see that, though it’s a stretch.

Part of my job in teaching social studies methods, for instance, is modeling innovative strategies. I perform them for students so they can see how they’re done; however, I am rarely under the impression that the connections to the elementary classroom are as explicit. In fact, some of the strategies I’ve relied upon in the past simply did not work so well when applied in the charter school. For instance, a four-week program does not allow much space for making tremendous progress with new students. But in teacher education, my mentors and I both encouraged undergraduates to use inquiry, cooperative learning, and other so-called “hands-on” strategies. Fine. But these students were having none of it. I had to strip the activities down to their essence. That is, rather than actually implementing centers or a Jigsaw, I spent the first few weeks simply rehearsing rotations, getting in and out of groups, and reading directions.

By the latter part of the third week and into the fourth, we were able to get through some simple group activities without students trying to switch groups or complain about their partners. Rotations went somewhat smoothly, without too many “management casualties.” But I remember telling my undergraduates, “You can’t always assume that students know how to work together; thus, you have to rehearse these strategies first.” This was usually a throwaway comment on my part, but now I am reminded of how difficult it can be to set up parameters for group work. It is ultimately struggles like these that will benefit my own pedagogy and the impression that I can make on my pre-service undergraduates. They need to see me as an actual teacher and not some kind of demagogue who seems out of touch with practical realities.

I’m sure more examples of my awakening abound. As I begin a semester anew with a fresh cohort of pre-service teachers, more evidence will emerge of my newfangled confidence and wisdom. In all seriousness: I think I’m a much better professor and a much better teacher as a result. All I needed was a little jolt to both my intellectual and professional identities to give me new purchase on the teaching of teachers. Beyond the effects on my academic efficacy, I’ve established a valuable new relationship with this school that I hope continues throughout the year and next summer. I feel for the hard work that these younger folks who are running the school have ahead of them. I appreciate the close commitment they have to the community and the personable relationships they have with parents. Also, who can deny that their students, even the most troubled ones, have a unique story to their lives, relevant to success in the classroom and respected by all in the school who care very much about all the students’ well-being?

As an aside, there was one student, the strict third-grader I referred to earlier, who became obsessed with these little energy cubes from a health food store that I snacked on throughout the day. She was such a great person and did such great work that I sneaked one to her from time to time. I wanted to give her a bag at the end of the program as a gift, but alas, the store was sold out. I’ve since bought her a bag and am off to the post office shortly to send it to her. At the moment I write this, I’m reminded of why I got into this profession. I’m reminded of what makes me good at what I do and it’s been a shame to be out for so long. Now that I had a brief return to elementary teaching this summer, I challenge both education professors and those in other disciplines to do the same.


Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.


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