Wednesday, 02 March 2011 21:50

Looking for a Better Way

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I first gave serious thought to becoming a teacher in 1992 during my final semester as a sociology major at the University of Virginia.  I took a Sociology of Education course and loved every minute of it.  In class we discussed and analyzed American schooling in a way that was completely new and exciting to me.  When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, but teaching was increasingly on my mind as a potential option.   

I worked a bunch of part-time jobs back home in Los Angeles in the year that followed while I figured out my next step.  By far, my favorite job was working as a teacher’s aide at Overland Avenue School.  I split my time between two fifth grade classes and did yard duty before school and during recess.  I loved working with the kids, and I was fascinated by the innerworkings of an elementary school classroom.  I even loved yard duty.  Each day after work I read all the education books I could get my hands on.  Theodore Sizer’s well-known Horace trilogy was especially influential.

One of the fifth grade teachers knew I had a growing interest in pursuing a career as an educator, and she gave me many extra responsibilities, including the opportunity to teach lessons to the class.  I will forever be grateful for these opportunities because they gave me a strong sense of how fulfilling and interesting teaching could be.  At the time a student-teacher from UCLA was working in the same class, and I learned about the UCLA Teacher Education Program from her and her field coordinator.  By the Spring, I decided to apply to that program and finally live out my dream of attending the school that was only a mile or so away from my childhood home.

There were many pivotal moments during my year at UCLA that shaped my development as a person and as a teacher enormously.  One came after I taught a lesson as part of my first student teaching placement.  I was sitting outside the room with one of my supervisors, Sharon, who had come to evaluate me that day.  Our conversation centered on classroom management, a topic in which I had become quite interested.


I shared with her that I was becoming frustrated with the way classroom teachers typically managed students.  The topic of classroom management seemed to be mostly about rewards and punishments and controlling kids.  Rewards and punishments were a dominant part of the classrooms I visited, and they were presented in courses and textbooks as the only effective way to manage students.  It seemed as if no other legitimate options existed when it came to the topic of how teachers could operate their classrooms.

Sharon told me that other approaches were out there, ones that emphasized mutual respect and high expectations.  I was eager to learn more, but, unfortunately, when I began my first teaching assignment the following year at Loyola Village School in Westchester, I still hadn’t learned enough to create a management system based on respect and high expectations alone.  As a result, my classroom management system was based on rules, rewards, and punishments.

It was the only approach I knew.

Around this time, a book that my friend Kelley and I had written during our final months at UCLA was in the process of being published.  That book, How to Be an Effective Teacher, contains many ideas that I’m proud of and still use to this day, but it also features a classroom management section based on rules, rewards, and punishments.

I now wish I could tear those pages right out of the book.

Once the new school year began, I was immediately uncomfortable with the management system I had put in place.  I now consider classroom management a strength of mine, but back then I was not a good classroom manager.  In using rewards and punishments, I felt I was being coercive and manipulative in my relationships with my students, and I wasn’t doing a good job of promoting the larger ideals that I believed I should be promoting.

That first year was rough for me as I tried to manage my students in a way that was more consistent with my personality and with my overall philosophy of education.  I was determined to develop a system that would empower children to become enthusiastic, motivated, self-directed learners who worked hard every day.

I knew what I wanted.  I just didn’t know how to get there yet.

My situation would become a lot more interesting the following year.  In future blog posts I will describe how my second year of teaching impacted my development and launched a journey that continues to this day.  From this journey I have learned that wonderful approaches are out there, if one is willing to keep searching, keep reading, keep experimenting, keep talking with colleagues, and keep staying open to new ideas.

I am excited to share my thoughts with you.  Over time I will describe how my search for a better way has touched every aspect of my teaching - classroom management, curriculum, instruction, assessment, communication with parents, and, most important, how I relate to my students.

If you are also searching for a better way, if you are motivated to think outside of the box, and if you are determined to improve your teaching a little bit every day, please join me as I share my thoughts.  Please share yours as well.  We all have a great deal to learn from one another.



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