Teaching, to me, is the perfect job. It’s challenging, interesting, urgent, and serves an enormously important purpose – that of supporting and preparing people for future jobs, relationships, and ethical situations. Teaching is something that requires thoughtfulness, reflection, and a desire and willingness to constantly improve; teaching requires constant learning. It is also something that people come to from a variety of different paths, and each of these paths brings its own set of experiences, strengths, and stumbling blocks.
My teaching path began in 2010, when I started work at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). My job was to teach kids how to look at, understand, and make art. However, I had no formal training in studio art, or education, though I did have a degree in Art History. Everyone else who worked there seemed to eclipse me in knowledge and experience; I was surrounded by former classroom teachers, long-term practicing artists, and people who had worked at summer camps for years. I can recall sitting in a room on my first day and feeling incredibly uneasy about my ability to teach anyone anything. I had spent years talking to my peers about art and artists, but I couldn’t imagine a way to translate those ideas to young people.
Despite my nervousness, that job ended up being one of the most rewarding that I’ve ever had and set me on my current career path. I had a wonderful group of colleagues, an extensive library of resources, and, most importantly, an incredible mentor to guide me. My time at the AGA showed me how constructive it can be to value the knowledge that students bring to the classroom and to help students see connections between themselves and their objects of study. For example, I once taught a group of students about Andy Warhol’s images of John F. Kennedy by first discussing the film X-Men: First Class, a comic book film that takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, whenever possible, I encourage students to make personal connections to course content and to think critically about how the methods discussed in class may impact them as professionals. I feel that these connections increase engagement with the class and allow for deeper, more meaningful understanding of the content.
After leaving the AGA, I moved to Connecticut and began teaching an SAT prep course. I approached that work from an interesting angle: Being Canadian, I had never taken the SAT. My naiveté could easily have been a hindrance, but I decided instead that I would use it to help me understand my students better and to view our classroom as a space where we could learn together. To that end, I approached each lesson by thinking about how my students could develop the skills they needed to tackle problems independently by starting in a familiar and collaborative way.
Most of my SAT lessons proceeded in the same basic way: I provided my students with the background knowledge that I believed they would need and modeled the skill or approach they should use. Then we collectively worked through problems with increasing independence. Eventually, students attempted to solve problems on their own, in much the same way they might outside of the university classroom. In this way, I built students’ confidence and familiarity with the subject matter and increased their understanding of how they might approach problems on their own. For example, in an SAT Math lesson, I would begin by talking about the differences between various types of triangles. Next, I would ask students to apply these principles by using them to solve trigonometry problems. Initially, we would solve one problem as a large group, and then break down into pairs to continue. By the end of each session, students were tackling these math problems on their own, in preparation for the independent work they would do on the actual SAT. This way of teaching is something that I learned at the AGA, and I now know that this approach is called the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). I found it incredibly gratifying to see students trying and succeeding at something they thought was beyond them just a few hours earlier. I now use this approach whenever I try to teach students a new skill.
At this point in my life, I realized that I truly enjoyed the challenges and rewards that came from teaching, and I decided that I wanted to be an educator in a more permanent way. However, because my academic background was in Art History and Linguistics, not in Education, I felt like I first needed to study Education formally. In order to remedy that gap, I went back to school and began a PhD program in Literacy Education at Syracuse University.
At Syracuse, I was lucky enough to have an incredibly hard-working mentor teacher with whom I worked as I began as a TA and then became an instructor for a course for pre-service teachers called RED 326/625: Literacy Across the Curriculum. I remember feeling nervous when I began as a TA, and thinking, “I’ve never taken an Education course – how can I possibly help teach one?” Luckily, there were many moments when I was able to provide support to my students based on my previous experiences. But more importantly, I was given many opportunities to experiment in the classroom as a TA, and to reflect constructively on those experiments. For example, I designed and taught a lesson on technology and literacy. I worked closely with the instructor of the course to think through what the lesson should contain, and then I tried it out as she observed me. Afterwards, she led me through a debrief where we talked not only about how the lesson could be improved, but also what worked well. Then, as I prepared to teach the same lesson the following semester, I was able to use my notes not only to address the areas that needed to be amended, but also to repeat and expand the parts that served my students the most.
During my time at Syracuse, I was introduced to the ideas of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Essentially, UDL is a framework for ensuring that lessons are inclusive and engaging for all learners. In the same way that a ramp allows everyone, including wheelchair users, to enter a building, UDL outlines ways that teachers can ensure that everyone can understand, interpret, and use information and skills. A big piece of this framework is the acknowledgement and use of multiple ways of representing information. In other words, rather than only sharing information in one way, such as through lectures, instructors can represent the same information in multiple ways, such as through written texts, videos, and experiences (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2013).
Based on these ideas, I try to incorporate multiple modes of representing and expressing knowledge every time I teach. For example, as the instructor of record for RED 326/625: Literacy Across the Curriculum at Syracuse University, I made space for students to use a variety of methods to communicate their understanding of the course content: we had both large- and small-group discussions; short in-class writing opportunities; longer and more in-depth written assignments; and responses to readings that encouraged students to approach the text in the ways that make the most sense to them. I also went beyond PowerPoint-based lectures to include other modes of conveying information to my students, such as through video, in-class demonstration, and a field trip!
Additionally, I believe that kindness is an integral part of successful teaching, and this has been a constant thread as I have learned and grown as an educator. At Syracuse University, I was lucky enough to have small class sizes (no more than 25 students), which allowed me to get to know students on a one-on-one basis. I strove to make my classroom a community in which everyone learns from one another, and modeling a respectful and collegiate attitude is an important part of this. I have high expectations of my students, but I do provide flexibility when it is warranted.
Above all, the most important thing I have learned during my time as an educator is the value of observation and reflection. At Syracuse University, I was fortunate to be given lots of chances to see expert teachers in action and to talk about different approaches to the same material. Seeing other people teach not only inspired me to try new things, but also shifted my own view of teaching in general. I used to think that the best teachers were naturally gifted, but now, I know that many teachers spend an enormous amount of time thinking through previous lessons and finding ways to improve. For example, during my time as an instructor for the Writing Our Lives after-school writing program, I noticed that my students seemed disengaged from the writing assignments that our instructional team had devised. Through critical reflection and careful listening, we realized that while our students appreciated some of the assignments we gave them, they desired more flexibility. To give them this, we created a series of one-time projects that students could easily drop into when they were available. This is the kind of teacher I want to be – one who leaves every lesson with a clear sense of not only the successful aspects, but also the areas that could be tweaked to make the next time even better.
National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2013). The Three Principles of UDL. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl/3principles
Pearson, P. D. and Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The Instruction of Reading Comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.