SYNTHESIS OF GRADUATE WORK

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Why I became a teacher… 

I have always been “good” at school. I always did my homework on time, had my hand raised high in the air to answer questions, and followed directions the first time they were given. Every task I accomplished was a dopamine rush similar to leveling up in a video game.

Luckily, content and skills came easy to me and I had a family who helped quench my thirst for knowledge by taking me to museums, after school programs at the library, and answering all of my questions with thoughtful, Socratic discussions. 

As I traveled through the education system, I came to realize that not every student shared my enthusiasm and understanding. I did not understand and would frequently become frustrated that my peers didn’t want to talk about the books I was reading or even pay attention to the teacher! I found myself more and more taking over group projects. And when I finished my work early, I occupied my time watching my teachers and my peers interact. 

But then, I was recommended for the gifted program and learned about leadership and communication. My peers that used to frustrate me now were objects of fascination. I wanted to know why. Why didn’t they follow directions? Why didn’t they understand the material? Why did they look so confused? It became a game. And as I figured out how to interpret their questions and see problems from their point of view, I became valuable to them. 

I became the girl with the answers. If the teacher was busy, I was the person other students asked for help. I became very popular on the bus the mornings we had a test or a quiz. When I finished early, the teachers began asking me to walk around and help other students. In middle school, I took an elective as a teacher’s assistant and was brought behind the scenes. It was wonderful. 

This trend continued In high school when I would stay in at lunch with my English teachers and help students. I loved the challenge of finding the explanation that would elicit the lightbulb moments in other students. I loved asking guiding questions to pull answers from students’ brains. I was hooked and I knew I wanted to teach.

Master of Arts in Education

I’ve been tasked to talk about how my graduate studies have influenced myself as a teacher, but as I reflect upon the last few years, it’s difficult to separate what I’ve learned from life experiences from what I’ve learned from school. At the beginning of this post-graduate journey, I was a first year teacher. Now, as I near the end, I am a fifth-year teacher, a wife, and a mother. A lot has changed…

Engaged, Graduated, and Hired

I graduated from Oakland University with my Bachelor of Arts in English with Secondary Education in 2015. I was recently engaged and looking forward to adulthood with intense optimism. I spent the summer working retail, applying for jobs, and attending interviews. In August, I was hired as a Spanish teacher at Grand Blanc Middle School East in Grand Blanc, Michigan. I couldn’t wait to get started! 

Married, Added and Accepted

2016 was a year of several changes for me. After teaching for a year as Miss Breitner, I got married August 13, 2016 and became Mrs. White.

My principal asked me to teach three sections of 7th grade English Language Arts and two sections of Spanish. I also began my first graduate class at Michigan State University. 

That first online graduate class was EAD 860: The Concept of the Learning Society. What a symbolic way to begin. There were several things I needed to get used to as I worked through this first class. Not only had it been a year since I’d been a student, but I had never had an online course. The instructor created the course to be student-paced and all the due dates were flexible. It was a great way to ease into formal learning again. Not only that, but the entire class was a discussion about formal and informal learning, and how culture influences our perception about learning. 

It was truly fascinating thinking about the differences between how children learn compared to adults. Children in school don’t have much control about what they learn. When adults learn, however, they are typically attending professional development for work, or exploring a passion. 

With this in mind, my teaching began to transform. Using what I had learned about in The Concept of the Learning Society, I began thinking about different ways of delivering instruction to reach different types of learners as well as modifying lessons to allow for more student choice.

I had forgotten how much I missed school and exploring new ideas through reflection and discussion. 

Reading

2017 was the least eventful teaching year out of the five.

My principal asked me to teach a section of Reading for Success in addition to my Spanish classes. Reading for Success is a class for students who don’t qualify for special education, but are not reading at grade level.  

Interestingly, I was scheduled to take TE 843 Secondary Reading Assessment and Instruction the Spring 2018 semester. This was the perfect opportunity to work with my colleague teaching the same class and mix it directly with the class I was taking. The students were wonderful as together we employed new strategies in the class. The students were so excited to help me complete my school work. They felt like the work they were doing had extra meaning and worked diligently.

One of the first things I did in my Secondary Reading Assessment and Instruction class was giving a readers survey. This multi-page survey asked students about much more than their reading habits. It also asked them about their favorite hobbies, favorite music, how many books they have at home, what they’d like to be when they grow up, and whether or not they enjoyed reading.

This surveyed offered a peak into my students’ lives and gave me an opportunity to connect with them on a deeper level. I was then able to better suggest books they would like, find articles on topics they are interested in, and help them think more critically about what the text says, how the text says it, and what the text means.

Expecting and Expanding

July 2018, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. Once again, my classes changed. I was teaching a section of Speech and Drama, a section of Spanish year 1 and a section of Spanish year 2. I had to learn how to balance even more as I prepared for my life to change indefinitely. 

Changed

It was about two weeks before the final exam for EAD 863: Training and Professional Development that I gave birth to my daughter. On March 29, 2019, Elizabeth Catherine entered the world. Those first few days at home, I finished my EAD 863 final exam with her sleeping on my chest. That summer, I completed two classes by walking with her to the local Starbucks and working. 

Watching her discover the world inspired me  as I completed my assignments. I felt more thoughtful in my responses as I was so happy and full of hope for the future.

That’s one of the reasons CEP 818: Creativity in Teaching and Learning and CEP 841: Classroom and Behavior Management in the Inclusive Classroom were such influential classes. Not only did they come at the tail-end of my graduate program, but they came during a transformational time in my life. I have used so much from those classes in my classroom that I don’t even like thinking about how I taught before.

I am much more intentional in how I assess students’ understanding, especially when doing creative projects, which I have increased.

I have always had good classroom management, but after the graduate course, I have more strategies and go out of my way to make my expectations clear before giving directions. I feel good knowing that I am the kind of teacher I want my daughter to have someday.

Unexpected

Which brings us to the present. Late March 2020. So much about the future is uncertain. 

I am writing this for my capstone. The final piece before I have my Master of Arts in Education. Although I don’t have plans for going further into formal education, I know that I have the heart of a student. I will never be satisfied unless I am constantly learning new things, using new strategies, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t, and fixing. 

But this is the end of an era in my life personally. For the first time since I was four, I will no longer be a student at an institution. 

Following the pattern of my graduate work mirroring the milestones in my life, I am writing this while the country is dealing with a pandemic. SARS-COV-2 causes covid-19, a disease that is highly contagious and severe. Schools in Michigan were closed on March 13, 2020 and I have been working furiously to communicate with my students, and trying to understand how to move forward.  

But having been a student in online classes has certainly given me a large advangage.

  • I know how to work from home and be productive.
  • I know how to mix text and media to share content more effectively.
  • I know what worked and what didn’t from a student’s perspective.
  • I know how to collaborate with peers online.

Experienced

The classes I’ve taken at Michigan State University in pursuit of my Master of Arts in Education have opened my eyes to how much of the iceberg is underwater. In my undergraduate classes and student teaching, I only saw the top. I learned about formative and summative assessments, creating lesson plans, unpacking standards, and delivering content. 

In my classes devoted to literacy: TE 843 Secondary Reading Assessment and Instruction, TE 846 Accommodating Differences in Literacy Learners, and TE 848 Writing Assessment and Instruction, I learned how to be more attuned to my students’ needs as individuals and incorporate their interests into my lessons. I learned that there is more than one way to assess student learning and that flexibility and compassion on the teacher’s part are more likely to lead to student achievement. And finally, I learned to appreciate all of the ways students communicate both inside and outside of the classroom. 

I give students more choice, let them set their own goals, and support them when they stumble. My classroom is a safe space to take risks and fail. I give students more opportunity to explore the content and share what they’ve learned. I’ve noticed student performance improve, student engagement improve, and student behavior improve as well. 

As for my leadership classes: EAD 860 The Concept of the Learning Society, EAD 801 Leadership and Organizational Development, ED 800 Concepts of Educational Inquiry, and EAD 863 Training and Professional Development, I learned mostly that I do not want to be a school administrator. My passion lies with teaching and while I’m grateful I’ve learned more about what goes on behind the scenes in a school system, I’m happy to not be in charge of it. I do now have a greater appreciation for how complex and difficult the jobs of principals and superintendents are. Because of these classes, I am quick to thank my administrators for any professional development opportunities they sponsor and to defend them to my peers when they complain their observation feedbacks are taking too long to be returned. 

Finally, in all of my classes at MSU, I’ve learned that there is much more that I don’t know. It is now my responsibility to go out and read books and articles, watch lectures, listen to podcasts, hold conversations with peers within my district and beyond. I can and will expand my network and seek out information. I will continue to teach with compassion and creativity. To reflect after each day and adjust my lessons and approach as needed. I will work to improve myself each day and each school year. Because I am a teacher with a Master of Arts in Education and my learning does not stop there. 


Photo Credits top to bottom:

  1. Ann Breitner
  2. Mark Breitner
  3. Marci Curtis
  4. Amanda White
  5. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg.jpg