Born to Teach Kiwis

I hope you read that as if you were singing “Born to Be Wild.”

Today, Mrs. Toller told me I was a natural teacher.

Naturally, I was over the moon.

I mean, this woman is among my teaching idols. Not only is she a fantastic teacher who pushed her students up a full two grade levels in work, but she also manages the district’s music school (which is basically a second full time job), teaches me about New Zealand’s education system and culture in general, and for the past week has been the single parent of three boys who are each in a different school building (primary, intermediate, and high school) while her husband is in America, fixing up a house that they plan to rent out to Section 8 tenants.

And you know, she never takes out the stress on anyone here. Not the students, not her colleagues, not me. She’s completely cool and collected even though she’s constantly having to run errands and answer emergency phone calls and e-mails.

So, when she said she was glad I was in the classroom to help her, I felt as if Beyonce had just thanked me for being a terrific opening act and getting the crowd hype and ready to go.

When she asked if I could share the Kahoot! I made for my vocabulary lesson, I was honored. I will happily share my lyrics with you, Queen T.

It’s funny because a lot of things she has complimented me on are things that I was told were good but needed to be tweaked in my placement.

For instance, the fact that I’m not loud and have a quiet presence. I don’t like to yell at or over students, and in general, I prefer to approach things through a laid back humor. Usually this humor is self-deprecating or sarcastic, although recently I have been branching out to new realms of witty quips.

Now, these are all good kids, so while it works for them, I probably will have to modify (not change, modify) this with each different group of students. I hope that when I do have to modify, I’m like Mrs. Toller who is simultaneously calm and personable and happy, but when you are in trouble, you are very aware that you are in trouble. She’s absolutely no nonsense, but she takes the time to explain why your behavior is unacceptable.

And then, she went even further and complimented me on three things that really hit home.

  1. My ability to give clear explanations.
  2. My ability to tell students exactly why they are doing what they are doing.
  3. My ability to make education relevant to the students.

These are, in my opinion, three of the most important aspects of education. If one of these aspects is missing, you and your students are going to feel it.

So, basically, I was born to teach in New Zealand–something I honestly did not expect when I chose this country to come student teach in. I came here because I liked hobbits, but now I’m finding joy every day in entering the classroom. Something that was unfortunately somewhat lacking within my American placement.

Now, this isn’t to say, “I hate American schools. I never want to teach in America. It’s a dark pit of misery and infighting and lack of funding and unteachable miscreants,” because none of that’s true at all. It’s just to say that student teaching is hard, like really hard. Essentially, you’re required to take on a full-time job at the same time as being a full-time student. There’s a constant fear of angry parents and angry professor, and there is no safety net. Or at least, there wasn’t really for me. Instead, I was gifted with the constant neuroses that I wasn’t meeting the expectations set before me by my mentor teacher or supervisor and that I was failing my students in my sometimes misguided attempts to meet these expectations. I constantly struggled with the questions: “Am I good enough? Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?” I cried weekly.

Now that I’m just a teacher–I’ve finished all of my Penn State assignments–and my supervisor’s requirements have been met, I’m able to find a style that is distinctly mine. I have standards to live up to, sure, I have to fulfill New Zealand requirements of education, but how I meet them is completely up to me. Plus, the style of education here is perhaps better suited to my personality, so it’s a particularly good fit.

I know I may not achieve this same feeling of success and meaningfulness in the near future–as my mother has pointed out, the culture of students being the owners of their education and knowing how to be responsible with this power of choice and discovering answers on their own instead of being told, is not the prevalent one in America. Most students are still used to a lot of very rigid structure and lectures (or heavily scripted activities) and that’s how they have been taught that they should learn. The fact that New Zealand is tapping into the natural learning process of trying things around and working through things in your own time is radically different–and honestly, probably scary for teachers and administrators and politicians. After all, if they’re working at different paces, how can we know that they’re learning? How can we assess their progress? How can we keep control over their education and continue to push them along to higher standards? How will we stop them from messing around if we let them sit on couches?

And that’s the thing: we can’t. At least, not to the same extent America has been in recent years.

We can assess them and know their progress, but some kids will naturally be further ahead than other students because that’s the way human beings work. Like it or not, I will never be as good at math as my roommate (who is the same gender and age as me and also an honors student) or at art as my brother (who comes from the same gene pool as me). And they will likely never be as good at writing as me. A large part of it is natural interest, but I think there’s some ability in there as well.

The natural interest part is what New Zealand does well, because it allows students to tailor their education in ways that suit their natural interests so they’re able to learn more than if they each had to sit through the same lesson which only half of them connect with.

If there is a worry that some students will push themselves harder than others, teachers can see to that individually, but in general I believe that turning a good deal of the process of education over into students hands (in a thoughtful and well planned way) can see great benefits. After all, it’s proven that when we expect the best of people they generally perform to that high standard, when given the proper support.

And, if there is worry about students on couches being unable to manage themselves. I’m currently looking at three middle-school aged boys squished into a love seat, quietly working on their laptops and helping one another out. There is no pushing or messing around or giggling because they managed to hack onto YouTube (which by the way, isn’t even blocked here) or a game. They have been treated with respect and been firmly and clearly and kindly told what the expectations are for them, and they have risen to it.

This is the kind of environment I hope to bring to America, because it’s one that I believe will help the students thrive, and if you think about it, this environment already can be found within America–at the university level. And since colleges are frequently attributed with being rigorous and hard and a necessity to get a job, why wouldn’t we make more levels of our education system like that if not to better educate students, than to prepare them for potential college or vocational careers in which they are the responsible party?

(Side note: I was open to teaching middle school students before now, but pretty unsure about whether that was a good idea. Honestly, I know these students are different, but to some extent middle schoolers are middle schoolers, and I think they’re great!)

Featured image by Abaconda Management Group

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