What College Couldn’t Teach Me About Being a Teacher7 min read

There was once a girl named Maria who was a sterling student, acing all of her classes and excelling in every subject area. In fact, the ease in which she traversed through school led her to obtaining a doctorate in education psychology, following her conviction to help students excel like she did.

However, when Maria began her work with special education students who had intellectual and developmental disabilities in a very poor inner city area, she struggled to inspire these students to learn and succeed. At first they were unruly, and Maria had no success teaching them in the way she was taught as a child. Sitting and listening was not effective for Maria’s students.

They did, however, like working with their hands. So Maria spent time teaching them to prepare meals and accurately measure the ingredients. She created puzzles that were stimulating and hands-on, and had these students who struggled with sitting still and listening interact with math rather than just hear and write it.

Maria saw massive gains in her students. Kids who were labeled ‘unteachable’ were excelling in ways no one had ever seen before. Children who came from poor families learned at levels usually reserved from kids from wealthy homes who could afford expensive education. The methods Maria created to teach her students were wildly successful in this school, and then at other schools who used her model.

Maria Montessori innovated a child-centered approach to education.

I became a teacher mainly because of the tremendous impact several teachers had on developing me into who I am today. My hope was that I could have that same impact on my students, not just in becoming knowledgeable learners (which the great teachers of my past did), but also because of how they taught me to become a better person.

And so I enrolled in the Education school at a local college. I took two years of classes all about understanding education theory, creating assessments, understanding content standards, and all the subjects that fit the job description of a “good teacher.” I was taught how to synthesize content standards into lessons. My professors taught me how to design effective assessments and how to read the data from those assessments. I took courses on pedagogy and wrote several essays on how I intended to lead my future classes.

Upon graduation from the program, I was well-versed in education theory; understanding cognitive constructivism, and could write a mean essay on behaviorism as a classroom management plan. I felt I was well-equipped to step into the classroom and put these theories and ideas into practice.

And then in my first week of teaching, a student told me that she’d been recently abused at home, and nothing in my teacher preparation program told me how to handle that conversation.

The first content standards I had to teach were on literature, and so I thought I’d have my students read The Great Gatsby, and we’d just have a bunch of deep conversations about the novel like the ones my friends and I would have in college.

If you’ve taught high school language arts before, you can guess how that unit turned out.

I had a strong set of ideals and believed I could subvert the system and avoid teaching certain content standards. The real world does not expect students to know MLA format, so why should I?

Unfortunately, my principal, as well as state testing did not agree, and I had to start submitting my lesson plans every single day to demonstrate my students were indeed learning specific content. So much for being a rebel in year one.

I often had to yell to get students to be quiet.

I didn’t know how to respond to disgruntled parents.

I was overloaded with work to bring home.

I had no idea how to say no to other teachers, administrators, and parents who requested extra work of me.

And frankly, my lessons were boring.

This was my first year of teaching. Sound familiar?

I learned quickly in this first year that all of the textbooks, classes, and research papers on teaching will not adequately prepare you for the real thing. I had this notion that the work of teachers was formulaic, and that if I could just follow a simple process, I could be one of those great, memorable teachers. However, I’ve learned since that those great teachers of my past hardly had a simple formula that they followed.

Finding the words for a student who shares about being abused can only come from wisdom and experience. Discovering a way to take a set of content standards, which at first glance can look boring and insignificant to a student (and teacher), and crafting them into an engaging and meaningful experience is not something that simply can be taught.

The truth is, there is a stigma that teachers are merely deliverers of content. First the teacher masters the content themselves, then gives it to students. The object is for students to retain that content long enough to demonstrate their understanding, and then discard it so that the teacher can deliver more. According to this stigma which has dominated the collective consciousness for over a century, everything revolves around this ‘delivery model.’ Classroom management equates to having a quiet class that allows the teacher to deliver. Lesson planning is about devising effective delivery. Assessment is about measuring that effectiveness. Professional development is about improving your delivery skills.

When I was a student, I thought of most of my teachers as content deliverers. From Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off (Bueller… Bueller), to the teacher on Charlie Brown (WA WA WA), teachers have been labeled in media as deliverers. I was trained throughout my education program in college to deliver. And frankly, after years of teaching, I still often slip into the mindset that my job is simply to deliver.

However, I learned in my first year of teaching, and every day since, that teachers are far from just being mere deliverers of content.

Teachers are creatives.

The work of a successful teacher takes immense creativity. Designing engaging work for students, having the ability to constantly improvise, overcoming obstacles and barriers, and crafting a space or setting for others to flourish are among the many daily tasks of a teacher. Creativity by definition requires that something be brought into existence. Whether crafting original lectures, designing curriculum, or having a certain look to bring thirty students to silence, the work of a teacher is creative and original.

It’s very easy to look at teachers who do big and elaborate projects with their students and think that they are the “creative teachers.” And yes, we can use them as models and examples of what we want to strive for. But don’t let those aspirations negate this fact:

What you already do as a teacher is creative work.

I don’t care if you subscribe to a more traditional model of teaching and have your students sit in rows and use textbooks, the work you do is creative. If you teach reading to 1st graders, you are doing creative work. If you coach soccer and have to decide on the best drills for your team to practice, you are being creative. If you work at a university and give one hour lectures five times a week, and you spend time crafting those lectures into a format you believe your students are understanding, you are creative.

Of course I think we should take this creative energy and utilize it to make learning as effective as possible, and that might mean shedding some of those traditional practices that do not engage and inspire learning.

But that’s for another article.

This one is about the undeniable fact that teaching is a creative profession. And if teachers adopt the mindset of a designer; someone who creates compelling experiences for their students, they might just be blown away by what they can create.

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.