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As pre-service teachers we get the advantage of learning in the field, and this comes with some pretty awesome perks. We get to see what other educators (usually the best and brightest at each school) are doing in their classrooms. With eyes wide open we enter each classroom, pen and notebook in hand, and we write, draw, diagram and record everything we see, so that we can use it in our own way.
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Observing in the field comes with the program, kind of like when writing up a report “comes with the job.” Or getting comments thrown at you left and right as a waitress “comes with the territory” of working in the food service industry. I know, I was there once, for a long seven years. But watching your predecessors is not just watching when you’re talking about education. It is so much more than that. We notice how teachers talk. We listen to the exact words they use, and notice how they speak with each student. We study teachers’ wait time, their glances, their walking paths around the room. We notice subtle nuances that those outside the world of education wouldn’t look twice at. We ask what program, curriculum or website a poster or chart is from and we buy it to put on our own classroom wall. We even sometimes buy the same classroom décor and make plans to set up our own future classroom that way. Maybe that one’s going to extremes. But we watch, we record, we take it all in, and we are encouraged to utilize what we have seen and learned from our experiences with veteran teachers in our own classrooms.
After a lot of observing (and learning) all over the city, I am finally settling down into my cooperating teacher’s classroom, a place I will call home during my student teaching in the spring. I will be student teaching in a 2nd grade classroom at Blaine Elementary in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. I met my cooperating teacher last school year and immediately connected and, more importantly, admired her teaching style and creativeness in the classroom. This year I had the opportunity to meet with her and the 2nd grade team over the summer to help curriculum plan, building and revising the scope and sequence of the 2nd grade language arts, math, science and social studies curriculums. This is an experience that was invaluable to me. Although I have gone through methods classes in all academic content areas, it is sometimes hard to wrap your head around all of the standards, all of the curriculum, and how all of it fits together. It is difficult to see the big picture when you are working so closely with a few specific standards for each lesson or unit you are planning. This experience helped me see the big picture, and understand where, in terms of 2nd grade, each thing fits.
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I also attended Blaine’s professional development trainings and classroom set up days the week before school. Here I was able to learn more about the school and its direction and vision, as well as all of what goes into getting ready for that first day of school. I have “started a school year” before, four years in a row. But each of those experiences were not in the role of a classroom teacher. I was a dance teacher, setting up a dance space for twenty-something classes a week, in which I would see each student only thirty to sixty minutes each week. I also was an RTI teacher assistant. I didn’t have my own space, but rather I traveled from classroom to classroom to work with different groups of students, using (for the most part) their classroom supplies and materials.
This was my first experience setting up a classroom for my own (with the help of my cooperating teacher) group of twenty three students that would be our students for the entire year. I don’t get to see them for a forty five minute dance class and then send them on their way. I don’t get to use other teachers’ materials and then walk out of the classroom to an office to do my planning. I get to see these students all day, everyday. I learned how to set up the physical space to accommodate that. Along with setting up the classroom, we created classroom management procedures, character-building activities, classroom decorations, and personalized the space for our students. I got to see what a classroom environment should look like for a group of twenty three 2nd graders to learn in for a school year: welcoming, a community, a place to call home, a collaborative environment, something students can take ownership and pride in, a space that is full of new discoveries but full of organization. These are a few words that come to mind when I think of my cooperating teacher’s classroom and the environment we created together for our students. I hope that our students would describe it that way as well.
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After a week of PD and classroom preparation, it was time to meet the munchkins and jump in. My first couple of days were very much observing, watching and recording everything my cooperating teacher did. Soon after, I took on small roles in terms of classroom management: lining students up, leading them to specials, helping with dismissal. Now, after a month of adding on responsibilities little by little, I am very much an integral part of the classroom. I work with small groups during centers in mathematics and differentiated instruction during reading, I assist teaching lessons in each subject area, I continue to help plan and set up, and I am currently preparing to teach my own lessons next month. Things are moving fast, but I am learning every step of the way.
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So far I have learned a great deal and found a lot of ideas I will take with me into the classroom. The classroom management system we’ve set in place, based on positive reinforcement, is one thing I believe in strongly and will definitely continue to use in the future. My cooperating teacher’s ability to connect with students and talk to them not like babies, but not like adults, rather somewhere in between that is just perfect, is something I admire and hope to be able to get the hang of sooner rather than later. Her writing activities to review, reteach, and reinforce phonics and grammar are activities I will use in my own teaching. And her ability to differentiate mathematics lessons is amazing, giving me ideas and lessons I will record and use in the future.
When I was told I’d be working “in the field” a bit during my second fall semester, I didn’t realize how much that meant or to what depth I’d be integrated into the classroom so quickly. I am happy to have dove right in, as I feel that if I were still only observing I would not be getting nearly as much out of this experience. I feel as though I am such an integral part of the classroom now, that I am truly a teacher of these students. They look to me for guidance, for assistance, for learning, and that is an amazing feeling.