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Employing the Kids in Us

December 31, 2010

I’m currently working as a copy editor on materials that train teachers.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled. Having spent a number of years in the classroom, I’m relishing the chance to read through materials that will help new teachers become more effective. It’s electrifying—seriously!—to know how many new teachers are going to enter classrooms next fall armed with ideas and resources.

On the other hand, I’m retroactively disturbed by how little I knew when I entered teaching.

For one, I didn’t study teaching in college. I studied sociology, and developed a general awareness of inequities, a general desire to help bring more to those who have less. After I graduated, I worked for an elementary school, raising money for its scholarship program.

A mother saw me working at my computer and asked if I would tutor her daughter who was struggling to learn how to type. After just one session with Lisa, I was hooked, and a few months later became an assistant teacher. (Lisa, you worked so hard and your efforts paid off. Terrific job.)

The teachers who will read these materials, however, will be substantially trained before entering a classroom, and will continue to receive training and support throughout their first year. I’m excited for all their future students. They’re so lucky!

But my shortcomings as a teacher stretched in another direction, one that disappeared behind me, one I only now see clearly as I’ve finally turned back to look. What’s getting me in these training materials is a version of this basic question: How does this compare to how you were taught in grade school? It appears again and again. New teachers are asked to reminisce about their own experiences as students, to swap stories with colleagues, to apply their memories of the good and bad to their lesson planning.

J often points out the fact that when I was teaching, I worked with students up to twelve years old. Not a bit older. Meaning, I only worked with kids who represented the ages I couldn’t remember. Though I loved “studying” my students and perhaps was more attentive to their subtleties than I might otherwise have been, I realize how much was lost on the other side, how my own learning as an elementary school student was not available to me in my career. Why didn’t I choose to work with middle schoolers? I remember middle school. I remember high school. Why elementary?

What most worries me is the possibility that I gained more from my students than they gained from me. How appalling. It’s going to take some serious reminiscing about my teaching years to find comfort in my abilities as a teacher.

Mostly, I’m just interested in how childhood memories apply to careers. There’s a direct connection between grade school classroom learning and becoming a grade school teacher. I know several kids who, at seven, eight, and nine, are already showing signs of a teaching destiny. They’re the kids who ask Santa for sticky notes and baskets for organizing drawing utensils by size, who collect stickers for self-designed progress charts, who approach their teachers with dice game ideas for math class. Was I one of those kids? (My elementary school report cards are just checklists, with brief comments about my poor vocabulary, spelling, and capitalization skills. When did I turn that tide?)

J is a TV news producer. He’s working on a script right now, so I asked him, “Is there anything you did as a kid that directly relates to your career?”

“Yeah! I used to make videos with my brother. And plays. And comic books. I loved telling stories. The videos were the best.”

I should have known. I’ve seen his videos. Hilarious. Awkward. Terrific.

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