Interview Questions – A.K.A. my autobiography of education and teaching

To the student teacher who requires my response to some very big questions about teaching – 

Here are the responses to those questions… sorry about the delay! I hope this all helps. I realize (and you probably did too, when speaking with me during your time here), I am a rather verbose person. So this is lengthy, but to me, it’s all relevant! Not much I do is “brief,” which totally drives my students crazy 😉

I became a teacher because it was something I always wanted to do. I believe I had some very lovely teachers in my elementary school years, and this probably implanted the idea into my mind. As I got older, I learned that connecting with other humans was my favorite part about life. I also loved showing people new things. At some level I think I really liked school, but it was more about building relationships with my peers and teachers. I have also always been very concerned with the well being of those who are down-and-out, struggling to make life work. To be honest, this is the only career I have ever truly wanted to pursue.

I have learned countless things from teaching. Every day I learn something new about myself, my students, and the way the world works. I learn about how humans function and what doesn’t work when trying to help them. I learn that every single person has a tough time getting out of bed in the morning to some degree – I suppose I have always known this, but each student reminds me (especially in our school, where so many of these souls have faces such tough times). The biggest thing I have learned from this job is how important it is to never give up on any one. No one is so far gone that you can’t show them love and kindness. Sure, you must let some students go. They are not ready to make positive changes in their lives. As my mom always says to me, “You can’t save everyone.” However, that is not cause to stop believing in them or feel animosity towards them. On that note, it’s so important to greet every student when they walk through the door with this attitude: “Good morning. I’m glad you’re here.”

Last year was my first year at this job. It was a year filled with fears and challenges. We had many students who were rowdy, uncouth, and totally disinterested in learning. I was not expecting that. Chris helped me a lot through those struggles – by reminding me that our students are some of the most challenging in the district. There’s a reason they are at our school. Another thing that helped me is was simply getting through last year and having more experience under my belt. Every day is a new day, and every day I feel that much more equipped to help our students.

Before coming to Takoda Prep I worked for Learning Disabilities Association of Minnesota for two and a half years. I worked as an intervention teacher with small groups of ELL students in several schools around the Twin Cities. LDA contracts with these schools to provide these types of services. You can find out more about the work they do here: (http://www.ldaminnesota.org). I am not technically licensed to teach ELL, they simply hired me at a time they really needed to fill a position, and then I just never left. Because I was providing intervention services and students were not receiving credit for the work they did with me (this was all funded by Title III), it was okay that I wasn’t licensed in the right field. Anyway, I loved working with these students, and they taught me so much about how to approach English as a discipline. At my current job, I don’t work with many ELL students (sometimes in the Adult Basic Education program next door), but my intervention teaching work gave me insight into what is difficult about learning to read and speak English. I also got the opportunity to work at LEAP High School in St. Paul. This is a school strictly for immigrant and refugee students. That is where I met students from all over the world (not just Spanish speaking countries, which is what my experience was previously limited to). There was a majority of students from Burma; they were Karen, Karenni, Chin, Mon, and various other ethnic groups from this country. If you haven’t heard of these groups of people, they are a more recent group of refugees coming to St. Paul from camps in Thailand (mostly). I encourage you to look into their history and pathway to America, because they will be a growing population in the Twin Cities schools in the coming years.

This work was so important to my experience as an educator because, like many others, I always wanted to teach abroad. However I must admit that I have a hard time leaving home. My roots are deep in this community, and at the end of the day I want to be where my people are. Through my work at LDA I was able to learn about so many different cultures and practice teaching English without ever leaving Minnesota. We are an amazing state in that way, and I’m thankful to LDA for giving me that experience and kick starting my career.

Before getting that job I worked as a substitute teacher. That time of my career is a blur – and if you ever sub, you will know what I mean!! But it did give me the opportunity to see many different schools and classrooms. That was incredible – and is so, so important when learning about styles of teaching and schools.

I attended Hamline University for my undergraduate degree. My degree is in English with a focus in Creative Writing. I have a minor in Secondary Education. My license is Communication Arts and Literature, 5-12.

Furthermore, and in some ways more importantly, I attended Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley for my high school diploma. This is important to me because it showed me an alternative form of education – we spent half our day on our art (mine was Literary Arts). To me, high school education would be so much more successful if we could give students more of a path of study. For me it was writing. But it could also be mechanical, technical, IT related, medical, etc. Students could graduate high school ready to work in a field or ready to continue their education in whatever way they wish. Be it the same field they had been studying or a completely different one. Anyway, education reform is not my game (at least not right now).

My advice to you, as a prospective teacher, is to be committed to the job as much as you can each day, and each day that will be different. It will try every part of your being but it cannot break you. You are in control of that breaking point – and if that control means leaving the school you are at to go to another, that’s what it means. Listen to your soul. You will never know what the right decision is before you have to make one. You just roll with it and learn from your choices. Life!

You must also remember to take care of your soul once you leave the building. It is a vocation that causes your mind to buzz at all hours. Find spaces to escape that buzz – be it yoga, writing, whatever floats your boat. Also remember that your partner tends to have a weight on them from this work as well. Honor their role in keeping you sane and remember when to vent to someone else or expel energy in a different way.

Being at Takoda Prep has molded my teaching style to be a flexible and exceedingly differentiated one. These students all come with a different set of issues and skill sets. We are all in the same room together – one-room schoolhouse! – and I have to find pathways that work for each one of them, often on the spot. To me, the goal of this space isn’t to turn these students into academic braniacs. We’re not an IB school. Instead, it’s to give them a safe space to practice reading, writing, math, social skills, and computer skills (to name a few). It’s to get them graduated and help them make a plan for what to do after they graduate.

That leads me to the role of education in our society. Schools need to meet each student where they are at – we are all such different human beings! We all have a completely different idea of life, love, and decision making. When I first learned about Myers-Briggs brain typing, it opened a world of doors to me. I don’t look at this psychology as a way to prescribe skill sets and career paths – it’s more of a framework for understanding the self and how one can hone in on the truth of one’s being. But in the bigger picture, we need smaller schools (duh) and more personalized educational pathways. Again, education reform isn’t my game, but at least in the alternative school we can get closer to this personalization.

I don’t believe this role changes from rural to suburban to urban youth. Although I do understand that perhaps more low-income urban youth have faced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). I don’t have data to back that up – I’m totally making assumptions based on my experiences in the world of education and youth work. You likely have more information on this based on your master’s program. Basically, in my opinion, teacher training needs to emphasize understanding of how trauma affects young people and how important mental health care is for ALL humans (especially ones facing ACEs).

Your next question, “How were you educated about America’s past and other cultural groups?” lends itself well to what role I believe education has in society. What we do here at Takoda Prep, the way we teach alternate and Native focused histories, is something that should be done in all schools. I don’t personally think I was properly informed about America’s true history in my elementary and secondary educations. I did grow up in a fairly diverse suburb, which I loved. But I don’t think my school did the greatest job in teaching me the true story of our country. But if they didn’t, I don’t know who did. I must admit that I don’t have the best memory of what I learned in high school (a fact that will likely be the same for my students, ha). On the other hand, Perpich did a fine job of expanding my cultural horizon, from a foreign film analysis class, to an assignment to write a short story set in the throes of a conflict in another country, to a world literature class reading Chinese novellas.

Hamline did an incredible job of showing me alternate histories. Hamline as an institution is so social-justice minded (and not in a SJW way), that I was able to actually study literature by non-white and female writers. I was able to hear professors who were so informed about these histories and experienced them first hand. Jermaine Singleton is one of the most incredible educators I have ever had, and his class “Reading Whiteness” taught me to take a look at what meaning race has – taught me that we can’t ignore race and pretend that racial discourse causes more problems. We have to talk about it, probably forever. Because of the history of this country, racial issues (intrinsically tied up in socio-economic and gender issues, among others) will need to be discussed, confronted, and challenged for a long time coming.

All of this prepared me in many ways to be an educator – many of which are subconscious. But the single most important way my education has affected me is that I can reflect on what it means for me to be white and the fact that every person I encounter comes from a different culture than I do. I am constantly telling my students that culture can be as big as the one world culture of this planet on which we live, can be as small as the culture in your immediate family, and everything in between. I ask them to tell me what they think. It has been difficult for me to always accept their ideas as they are – I always want there to be one answer that is the “rightest.” I learn to filter this feeling of mine every day – and it helps to be surrounded by people so different from myself.

Urban teachers can use students’ cultural assets every day! Get to know your students – what do they define as their culture? What are the benefits of their culture? What are the boundaries of their culture? Talk, talk, talk about it! And then remind yourself that in their mind and body, they have a self that is not necessarily defined by their culture. It is defined by the little culture that lives within their heart – that is every shifting each day. The more you get to know your students on a personal level (which is easiest to do in an environment like ours at Takoda Prep), the more you can infuse their assets to create meaningful lessons and experiences. And then, just when you think you’ve reached them through their own culture, throw in a completely different one. For example, we read Persepolis this past quarter. It is a graphic novel about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. I do not have any Iranian students, but they loved the book, and I think it really showed them similarities of the human condition across cultures.

I don’t know that I could speak to the norms and taboos to be aware of, because I am a white, middle-class teacher who is still learning these norms. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Native people, black people, Asian immigrants, or anyone else. The most I can say about this is just to be aware of your underlying assumptions before going into another culture’s space and constantly reassess the meaning of experiences and situations. Ask yourself – “Is what that student just did a result of their family? Their culture? Or just because they are a teenager? Or something else?” And ask them, also. Bring in community members to speak to them – about anything! And learn from these people. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in a culture, just be sure not to trample it in any way. At the same time, always remind yourself that you have a space too and your feelings/opinions are valid.

Native students in particular come from a history that has  trampled them over and over. Black students as well. Many students of color have had this experience. Low-income students, immigrant students, ELLs, on and on and on. And even students who don’t fit any prescribed categories – people have a hard time at school across the board. Our education system is designed, for the most part, for a certain kind of student – one who is detail oriented, self-driven, has family support, has all the right prior knowledge, and is analytical. If you don’t fit the bill, you better figure out how to play the game. As educators in an alternative setting I believe we have the chance to change the status-quo. We can make the system work for the kid. Not all spaces allow teachers to do this – but then again, there are plenty of incredible teachers out there who do anyway.

All in all, to be a teacher is to make your own way. Pedagogy is a very personal thing. Right now, I’m sure, you have an idea of what kind of teacher you may be. That’s a wonderful thing to reflect on, constantly. Five years from now, it will be quite different. I’m so excited for you to get into your own classroom, as I can tell you have a contemplative and caring being. It’s so daunting  at first, and perhaps it always is. In many ways, I am still a new teacher. Writing this has been helpful for me as well, so I thank you for that experience. I realize it extremely long, haha. Sorry about that. I am a writer when I am not a teacher.

Good luck with the rest of your schooling, and remember you are welcome in this space! Maybe we will see you again someday.