Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Downside to Being an Intelligent Teacher

Our ever-so-late Spring Break is winding down, and when it's over it'll be an 18-school day sprint to the finish line and we'll put another school year in the books. Of course, on 27 May when we hand the students their report cards and disperse for the summer, it'll probably feel like we've stumbled across the finish line than anything else.

This Spring Break, I haven't done much of anything apart from catching my breath from the previous week where I presented at a conference and took two Praxis exams. I've been spending some time with pretty much my closest friend and his wife, mainly because I haven't found anything to do. This evening I was looking at my bookshelf and realized the sheer paucity of books I've read this year thus far. Normally I'd down thirty books a year, but nearing the halfway point I've only read ten or so. This really concerns me because this a symptom of the biggest problem I've had teaching middle schoolers--I feel like I'm not learning when I'm teaching them.

I know it sounds a bit oxymoronic to learn while teaching, but I personally get my kicks when my brain is fully engaged and I'm learning and discussing. In these three years that I've been teaching middle school, I feel like I'm not being mentally stretched because the content I'm teaching requires very little mental effort to teach the content itself. After all, what I'm teaching is really ground-level skills, so I'm really only teaching what I've learned long ago. Simply put, the subject matter bores me because it's not challenging me. On many occasions this school year I've found myself literally daydreaming when I was teaching. Sure, my kids and even my observers didn't know it, but the mundane tasks of discussing simple plots, making sure students acted like normal civilized humans, and keeping students on task simply bored me.

I think this is the biggest hurdle that a middle school teacher who has a mastery of the content knowledge they teach has to master. When I taught high school, especially upperclassmen, discussions often strayed into territory that was not covered by the textbook, and I got a real kick out of pulling out something I read recently or some old research to bolster the discussion or activity. Even with my really bright students, questions that extend from our reading are really simple. So since there's really no need to stay sharp, my learning and reading has decreased--and that's not good by any stretch.  The last thing I want to be is someone who feels as though they've arrived in terms of knowing the content that they teach. If I were to do that, I would instantly stop being a good teacher.

I see too many of my colleagues, especially when I go to conferences, fall into this trap. They teach a fairly easy subject and decide to rest on their content laurels, instead focusing on new tricks for their classroom. Not that there's anything wrong with the latter, but if we're teaching a content area, I think we as teachers should continue our learning in the areas that we teach so we can bring new information to the table if need be. And to be honest, a lot of teachers need to be hitting the books so they can be at least a bit more competent at their subject field than the teacher's edition than they're teaching out of. We as teachers are our subject's ambassadors, and why would our students care about the subject we teach if we can't show them that we love the content of what we teach enough to have the knowledge to answer their questions with confidence, rather than shrugging our shoulders and saying that we don't know, only to change the subject.

In a perfect world, I'd get a phone call tomorrow from a principal begging me to teach honors and Advanced Placement (AP) social studies at a high school, but that isn't happening. However, I took the Praxis exam for Science as a step to getting an add-on to my certificate in Science, and I'm thinking about making the jump to teaching science in the near future. It's a subject that is near to my heart since, though I have a degree in history, I began college life as an aerospace engineering major and took six science classes in high school (As opposed to only four social studies!). Even if I don't quite get a job in a high school in the immediate future, middle school science offers me avenues to not just use knowledge I already have, especially in the field of earth science, to teach kids, but also give me subjects that I could read and increase the depth of my knowledge in. I've been dying to find some reading material on the history of Dutch land reclamation efforts as well as the science of flood protection, and becoming a science teacher would give me the proper itch that reading about that stuff would scratch.

Until next time.

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