Knee-Deep: A Final Reflection of Collaboratively Teaching Grad Students

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The final week of summer semester draws to a close today and with it my time as a collaborative teacher, working alongside one of my professors for the last seven weeks. I have two previous reflections after week one and three you can check out here and here. I do not know why, but I have really enjoyed using the submerged-in-water metaphor. I feel it has served as a strong visual that compliments each stage I have experienced. Ultimately, I only ended up about knee-deep into the collegiate waters–a very safe depth. I almost chose hip-deep, but I do not feel that visual would be honest. When you’re waist-deep in the water, the chances that a current will come along and sweep your footing out from under you goes up exponentially. I never during my time this semester felt I could be suddenly without steady footing. My mentoring professor made sure of this; I was given flexibility and a safe place to interact in the university professor’s world sans the heaping responsibilities typically bestowed on a professor. I remain thankful for this. In the last two weeks I was allowed to teach one class entirely on my own and then get immediate feedback from the students on my performance. The experience certainly rubbed against my nerves, but I mostly looked forward to the opportunity. The feedback I received came with mostly positive reinforcement and were constructive, while some of the feedback forced me to look in the mirror and recognize some areas of improvement. Inside today’s post, I reflect on this feedback as well as my final impressions of the experience and what it may mean for me professionally moving forward.

In much of the feedback, I was reminded what I am good at as a teacher. I typically do a good job of facilitating discussion and pushing questioning forward and positively reinforcing students efforts to wrestle with new information. My lesson was organized and allowed for opportunities for students to construct their ideas in small groups as well as a large group, and the tasks in the lesson were designed to fit the timing of the class well (approximately 3.5 hours). The feedback was encouraging and reinforced some of my sentiments I shared in my ankle-deep post that students at all levels have similar needs with well constructed lessons and support.

Admittedly, I–like many–have difficulty taking up criticism. I get a little anxious merely typing that out. The criticism I received from my lesson was entirely constructive, but I found myself immediately ready to push back against some of it. Call it an impulse I guess. What makes taking up these criticisms the most difficult is they typically call you out on parts of your approach to teaching you can completely control, but you were blind to it. The critique I was given that I had the most difficulty accepting was my lack of professional dress. (It burns to even write it down now!) This comment really stuck with me because it was accompanied with the idea that I could be taken more seriously if I dressed more professionally during the class despite me being a student as well. Mentally, I fought this idea. I really did not want to accept that my summer dress code somehow detracted from my relevance as an instructor for the course. While the critique was difficult to swallow, it was an apt one and one I had complete control over. I chose over the course of the semester to enjoy dressing in my khaki shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops–it is summer after all! But I recognize now that a student’s expectations of how I should look is different than my own interpretation of being a student too. This is an important lesson. In my typically teaching context, I maintain professional dress (outside of a few casual Fridays); I gave myself a pass because of my different context, but really I should not have in hindsight. If I wanted to be taken up as a source of authority, I have to dress the part whether I find that expectation fair or not.

The only other critique that stood out that I agreed with was how I did not have students move around much. Movement helps with engagement no matter the age group. I may have had great discussion designed, but I did not ask them to move or give them an opportunity to move much. Those hours really can drag on without enough movement. I valued this comment most as I am starting to teach on block this upcoming year, and movement for my students this year will pivotal to maintaining their engagement.

Beyond the feedback of that one night, my experience overall is one I will cherish. The inside out look of developing and implementing a compact summer course is an insightful experience. I am most thankful for the ongoing conversations I had with my professor. I could ask questions, add my commentary or ideas, and even vent a little. Our discussions were rich with opportunities to organize lessons as well as be flexible and move with the flow of the classwork as needed. I got to interact with students who could very well be my peers if not for my experience in the classroom. I worried initially about my interactions with them as a group, but they were thirsty and willing to learn from me. These moments were encouraging and drove my conversations at times with my professor. There were times I took for granted what these students needed; I wanted to avoid ever making them feel I thought of them as unsophisticated and tried–usually too hard–to not over-explain tasks or waste their time. I learned that when I take the time to problematize a task or to push them in a task I was really honoring their sophistication, showing I believed in their ability to take up the complexity of the task. I have done this with my high school students too. I was pleasantly surprised to observe learners of all types and sizes need to be challenged and supported equally.

The one place I disappointed myself and probably my professor was my lack of follow through on leaving comments for the students on their work. Feedback is so critical! I had every intention of providing some for these students, but outside of the the first assignment, I failed to follow through on this endeavor. I found myself caught up in my other two classes and my duties at my job. Ignoring feedback was too easy for me. My brain decided that a tacit agreement to leave feedback when possible was not strong enough for me to enforce it on myself. I think I would have really enjoyed leaving feedback had I made myself do it, but when other assignments loomed and time seemed precious, I always chose not to engage in providing feedback. This is an aspect of my time this semester that I would go back and change. Certainly, giving feedback would be essential and unavoidable if I was the primary instructor of the course, so avoiding it as a student feel inexcusable to me. This is an area I need to continue to grow in and develop a sense of urgency and need no matter what level of student I teach.

One of my favorite activities that I observed and participated in with class happened on our last regular class night. We culminated our discussion centering on non-fiction texts with class working in small groups and then in larger groups to develop a type of non-fiction text continuum where one end of the spectrum represents the dry, textbook-driven text and other is boarderline fiction in how the text reads and approaches its audience. I found this to be powerful and meaningful event for the students. To build the continuum, the professor and I had asked the students to bring in a non-fiction text; we brought some as well. You can see from the picture below what the continuum ended up looking like. Having the books physically there to represent a class-derived rationale was a masterful visual; it brought the fluidity of non-fiction text in the language arts classroom to bear and for greater consideration.

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Generating a continuum for non-fiction texts was one of my favorite culminating activities of the semester.

At the end of this experience, I have determined I would enjoy teaching at the collegiate level and that I would certainly be capable, but I think what I would enjoy most about it is if I was able to maintain some relevance by still being a classroom teacher as well. What I see myself pursuing honestly after my doctoral studies is a chance to adjunct at a local university where I can teach the earlier English education classes while maintain my primary work at my high school. This could change of course. I try not to predict what doors will open and instead just be ready for when they open. If nothing else, I learned through this process that teaching, no matter the level or age group is a collaborative and on-going experience that is rich with social interaction and opportunities to grow.

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