Effective teachers, educators, and mentors learn with their students, and they never stop seeing themselves as students. They are my third grade teacher who was actively involved in her community and took the time to learn about our families, to bring our families into the classroom, and to bring our class into her family’s home at the end of the school year. They are the college instructor who admitted his own philosophical questionings right there with us, giving the floor to students who were inspired by what they knew, empowering students to share and engage in class by acknowledging the value of their thoughts and passions. Even outside the classroom, every individual we meet—whether younger or older, student or teacher—has something to teach us, an ability to open up our perspective on the world so that we can make a connection and learn. Being open to listen to others’ teachings and the opportunities they bring to nourish the lives of those around them is what it means to live in a community and be engaged with life. Teachers have an opportunity to create a community in which everyone is heard, something we all need in order to feel valued by others and to value ourselves and our ideas.
A teacher’s job is to first, support her students in their fullness as humans, to see them for who they are and not who they appear to be, and to ignite their engagement with learning by helping them make connections between what they care about and what they are expected to know. Teaching concepts and facts can only happen at the level of student learning when this first piece has been cultivated and students can at least begin to see what’s happening on the whiteboard or in their textbook as related to their lives.
In addition to fostering connections between life and learning, teacher and student perspectives on learning must come from a place of growth. Being “smart” is not something that a student either is or is not; rather, one’s “smartness” or one’s “intelligence” is an ever-changing ability to critically think, understand concepts, make connections, and to most importantly never stop asking questions. In the Spanish language, the verbs “ser” and “estar” both mean “to be,” but “ser” is used to describe more permanent statuses of being, and “estar” is used to describe more transitory statuses of being, things that can change over time or in different situations. After studying Carol Dweck’s growth mindset concept, getting to know students who are facing family life or social challenges beyond academic work, learning about the struggles of students whose first language is not English, and recognizing that every culture and every person values different aspects of life, my current understanding of “smart” is that a student “está” smart for particular reasons or in particular areas, not that a student “es” smart all the time or in every circumstance. We can become smarter about certain things, we can become more critically engaged with life, and we can always keep learning.
I bring Spanish into my philosophy of teaching statement because learning and understanding different languages teaches us so much about life and about how learning happens. It opens up our cultural perspectives when we learn new words, and it allows us a glimpse into how a different language’s use of description and metaphor might signify a difference in perspective or emphasis on aspects of life that in English-speaking cultures might be completely different. To live in California and want to teach and to not see the value and necessity of allowing Spanish to flourish in all of its vibrancy in the lives of students in their educational settings is absurd. Spanish speaking students are going to continue to be part of the community in California schools (and I hope they continue to be Spanish-speaking students as they grow up), and differences between teachers and students are always going to exist. Learning to see students as fully alive, culturally rich, knowledgeable, and capable human beings is necessary for creating a classroom or learning environment where each student feels connected to the community of learning and is willing to engage with all of her or his being.
Before taking Education 180 and really thinking about what intelligence means, I thought of it as something people just did or didn’t have, that they could learn different things and develop different skills, but that the level of one’s “smartness” was what you were born with. Articulating this sounds ignorant and problematic, and if I had articulated this in words prior to taking this class, I hope I would have questioned it; but subconsciously and throughout my educational experiences, I came to think of learning and school in that way. Growing up, I was often told that I was smart and I could see the result in the kinds of grades I got, but I never thought about why I got those kinds of grades or what factors (family life, inspiring teachers, personal perspectives on learning, etc.) allowed me to succeed in the ways that were expected of me. My mindset was that intelligence was “fixed,” and I saw other students struggling and figured that there was something inherent in our abilities that was different. It didn’t really occur to me that the conditions for learning in a traditional classroom are only supportive of some students, as was discussed throughout the quarter and particularly when Downtown College Prep visited and share about how they engage students in their classes in non-traditional ways. Almost (and I say almost because I do not know if this is always true) all students are capable of understanding concepts and making meaningful connections, but for many, the ways in which school and learning are presented to them does not inspire or motivate them, given the many factors that affect a student’s ideal learning environment or the conversations and experiences that she or he needs in order to grow as a student.
Learning cannot happen if students are not asking questions and creating their own paths to understanding by studying what they love and learning how it relates to what they need to know for school. Part of why I do well in school is that I have always found connections between school material and my life and interests. Once I can make a connection between a subject and something I care about, I suddenly see the subject in a new light, and I want to learn more. Though this can narrow learning opportunities in the long-run, this first step is vital to creating motivation and inspiration for students to pursue their work. When they can see how learning something new will enrich what they already know about subjects that interest them, they’ll actually want to learn. I saw this happening in my placement, where students were doing research projects on subjects of their choice, and they were actually engaging with learning in ways that rarely happened with other class assignments.
To guide students to their own paths of understanding, teachers must know their students as individuals with the capability of engagement in life in order to support them. Ultimately, though, students must be the ones making the connections. Many students are not brought up to see their passions and interests as worth pursuing because of economic or social reasons, and this may be what inhibits them from bringing their interests into the classroom. As a teacher, the role in fostering this connection-building is to encourage students to be fully who they are, to bring their passions and interests, whatever they may be, into the classroom in meaningful ways. For example, students often get in trouble for bringing skateboards to school or for talking about non-academic subjects during class, but given enough freedom to engage with these “extra-curricular” interests in the classroom with the teacher’s support, students can become more engaged in both their studies and their interests. This might look like students working on research projects on topics of their choice or leading presentations in class to demonstrate things they know about and enjoy doing. In section we saw a video project that students had made, which was an opportunity for them to become the “teachers” and create something together. These opportunities can empower students, a vital aspect of learning that can inspire them to engage fully with their education and learning.
Students also must be engaged with their natural environment and community in order to be fully engaged in the classroom. We are surrounded by nature and live in a physical environment; to not know this space and the other living beings around us is to be disconnected from our very basic existence. How can students be expected to engage with historical information from 100 years ago, with biology terms they cannot pronounce, with mathematical equations, if they have never even truly seen the space and nature around them? Nature is a space for learning not only about the world, but also a space to discover through silence, reflection, and observation, what it means to be a human being on this planet. The same is true of engaging with community and seeing oneself as a valuable and connected part of a community of people. Engagement outside the classroom will ultimately bring engaged perspectives and ideas into the classroom, and teachers can help foster this by asking questions about the social and natural worlds students live in and by bringing students physically to nature and their communities through field trips.
School is an enormous portion of our lives from the time we are in preschool to when we eventually graduate. Rather than sectioning off “school” from “real life,” school can be part of students’ “real lives” when teachers and schools help bridge connections between the communities of class, school, family, and the neighborhoods students live in. What would it look like if students from childhood to graduation and beyond lived with engagement to all aspects of their lives, aware that school is real life, not just preparation for real life? As a teacher and as a human being, I see every moment as an opportunity to engage and be present with the teachings and inspirations that exist in each member of a community, in nature, and in our ability connect with both.
This teaching statement is my final for my Education 180 class the University of California, Santa Cruz. Throughout the quarter, I spent 30 hours in a local high school classroom, observing an English teacher and helping students.
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