I love teaching. I knew I wanted to be a teacher in 3rd grade, a story that is both familiar and a little boring. I wanted to be a teacher like my mama, and like my beloved teacher who noticed, understood, and appreciated me. The far more interesting part of the story is the vast distance between that idealistic little girl with the braids and freckles to the critical and transformational teacher-educator I am today.
My relationships with students, my curricular planning, and the classroom environment are all aligned to be student-centered and to meet extraordinarily high hopes and learning goals: my students will become passionate, politicized, and intellectually engaged members of our profession. I work hard to show, not tell, what a teacher does and why teaching is one of the most important and challenging careers that we can choose. I create demanding assessments, but students often don’t realize they’ve even been “graded” after one of our exciting performances or projects. Even as I am teaching my students, they are always teaching me. They help me be a better teacher with their input into the course discussions, their questions, and their feedback. My goal is to ensure the environment of the classroom is one of a community – a group of people who respect and support each other; a place where learning happens with risk-taking, and brave exploration of new and exciting ideas.
Students who come to college with the intention to become teachers are often very much like my third-grade self: wide-eyed, good at school, and eager to be – for a new generation – the amazing teacher that someone once was for them. Of course, one of my goals is for them is to become excellent teachers, but I also realize that so much of that growth will happen after they leave us, when they are in their classrooms with their own students, working with generous, more experienced, teachers and mentors. In our classroom, the focus is on adding fuel to that little spark that brought them to me, because the long-term fuel for our profession is our own passions.
As teachers, we stoke our passion for teaching and for learning by engaging in creative lesson planning and exercises in collaboration with colleagues and peers. But it is still sometimes hard to maintain energetic practice in the current moment of neoliberal, over-tested, overly-scripted school environments. Therefore, a parallel goal for me is to help pre-service teachers understand the forces at work in our schooling systems. From ongoing settler colonial assumptions about success to the shape-shifting forces of racism and xenophobia, I work hard with students to help them uncover the assumptions present in their own ideas of schooling, and in the schools they will encounter. We center the work of teachers and scholars of color, and by looking through their eyes we can begin to confront the ways the system has oppressed and often brutalized learners from all backgrounds. This shift in thinking is not easy for students, especially the 85%-plus white folks who are in my classes, but as a teacher of teachers it’s my job to insist that my students be prepared for serious intellectual engagement in the critical discussions of our profession.
I tell them: “You must be serious thinkers, not front-of-classroom automatons if you are going to impact your students, their schools and communities, and ultimately contribute toward a more just democratic US nation-state.” Being a teacher is inherently political, as we tread contested ground (both literally teaching in a settler institution on Native land, and trying to balance between upholding the institution and working to change it at the same time).
Learning – and teaching – should be at least highly engaging, and at best, so much fun we forget we are working. As an interdisciplinary scholar with wide-ranging interests, my courses involve history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, and of course math and writing. There should be something for each student to hook onto. One of my favorite teaching methods is “going meta” with the class – I ask them to participate in an assignment similar to one that they might do with their own classes. They help plan and design it, from making a rubric together, reading books in book clubs, teaching each other, and hence sharing responsibility for course learning outcomes. Each student brings their interests and passions to the work. I also encourage community engagement, partnering with local schools to establish long term projects such as a school garden or an after school program.
In assessing my students’ work I provide them with multiple opportunities to demonstrate their work and their learning through performance-based assessments, such as producing something for dissemination in the community, hosting a mini-conference on campus, or sharing book reviews with the local schools and libraries. I encourage my students to develop their own reflexive practices, by supporting them as they write a final paper that discusses and synthesizes what they have experienced and learned that term. Whether in a maximum security prison or the most well-equipped university classroom, everyone gets the opportunity to wrestle with their own growth in this final paper.
I further model this metacognition by continually assessing myself and the course – often out loud. I will sometimes share something I’ve read in the paper or heard on the radio along with a brief paragraph about it, loaded with the questions it is provoking for me. I often wonder, along with the class, about what steps we need to take next in our journey together, or even whether I need to make changes to some assignment based on student feedback. I provide multiple avenues for them to provide feedback and ask questions, from time to discuss in class to opportunities to write to me anonymously on an index card; Further, I learn from ongoing collaboration with peers; even when we are not co-teaching we share our work on a regular basis.
And yes, I write my own reflection paper at the end of the term, using the same formula I ask students to use: think about your learning from three angles: personal, interpersonal, and text-based (where text is not just words, but any classroom material). What did you personally bring and how did you change and grow? What have you learned from the interactions between yourself and classmates and instructor? What did the class materials contribute to your learning? This activity really does help me grow as a teacher – and as a human – and at the same time, it keeps me humble as I read students’ papers.
When I show up as a learner and risk-taker too, students are sometimes confused at first, but mostly they come to appreciate my emphasis on the intellectual stretch and the de-emphasizing of grades and competition. By giving them constant constructive feedback, they come to understand that we are trying to grow together, not to just get an “A” for their transcript. My dear friend and mentor, the late Arthur Pearl, told me his grading philosophy: “You can get one of two grades: An A, or not an A yet,” meaning that as a student you always have room to grow. If you don’t have an A yet, keep stretching and taking risks. If we all do this, and support each other, we will all get beyond “A’s and B’s” together.
Contemplating a mural: Is it art or is it graffiti?