Below is my “Reflection and Philosophy” that I had to write as part of my application for the GA Excellence in Teaching Award that my College nominated me for… I find it appropriate at the end of a school year to take a moment and think about what I believe in as a teacher- and what kind of teacher I want to be… besides a tired one.
In my office, I have several words on the wall in large letters that form the foundation of my core educational beliefs. The first- hung above my door to remind me as I leave to teach, to present, or to collaborate in a meeting- says “Think”. Unless people make sense of information for themselves and see the value of that information, learning will be a useless recitation of facts- useful for a test, but neither remembered nor used later. As a teacher, I believe that students should do the “work” of learning. It is through a critical understanding of the juncture between our content, our students and our expectations that we can understand ability, culture and our relationships with others. To understand their own beliefs about teaching and learning, students must first see things from other perspectives, including those foreign to, and especially, those perspectives opposed to their own.
The second word in my office- hung on my wall so I see it as I enter, preparing to get on the computer or to start a project- is “Create”. While I want students to think and to reflect, I want them to create a new reality from their understandings. I want them to apply their knowledge and individualize it to their needs and the needs of their classroom. Thought contained in the head is of no value. Thought transformed into action is a powerful agent of change. I cannot expect students to make change unless they have had practice doing so.
Finally- hanging above my computer, where I see it when I look up to think, or take a phone call, or even yawn- is the word “Believe”. Belief means not a blind acceptance, but an optimism in the human condition- a belief that people are inherently good and that given a nurturing environment, people will grow and deepen in their understanding of the world. With belief, teachers know their actions have meaning; that their lessons extend far beyond the classroom.
Core values, however, have to be translated into real experiences that have a purpose. I believe firmly in a progressive form of education in the spirit of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. While I as a teacher may have some control over the environment, I have to release my own ego in order to learn from it. Thomas Merton (1968) refers to this process as “transcendence”, in which it is clear that through teaching, one learns, and by learning, one can then teach.
The College of Coastal Georgia is a new baccalaureate institution, approved by the Board of Regents and the USG in 2009. Our brand-new B.S degree program in Early Childhood/Special Education is one of the few dual-certification programs in the state. I was hired as the only full-time faculty member in Special Education to help design, build and implement that program, as well as to help build the four-year College. I got to work with my colleagues to design a program that would be a model for teacher education, and a College that makes a difference- and this past Spring, we graduated our first bachelor’s cohort- a result of a lot of fast and hard work. Everyone here at CCGA has an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. My dean has said that his job is to “get the horses out in front and let ‘em run”; and so, my job has been to run with it.
My overall goal for the students in our program is simple: “Teach any student, anywhere, anything”. Additionally, I tell students that my job is to help them “Get jobs. Keep their jobs. Enjoy their jobs”. As a dually-certified teacher at the elementary level, they are to take any area of the content, and adapt and differentiate it for any type of learning difference and any type of culture. They will have to reach and teach every child who enters their classroom- all while understanding and appreciating the differences that may exist between children or between themselves and a child. This means that my success is measured not by the compliments I receive by my college students, or even by our graduation rate, but by their impact on the students they teach. Yes, test scores and graduation rates are important. But what I teach my students is to understand, care for, and grow the children in front of them- all aspects that I try to model in my classroom. I may be a college professor now, but I have not left off teaching children; I have simply expanded my classroom by teaching their teachers.
When asked “What do you do?”, my response is always, “I am a teacher of teachers.” I take my job very seriously; myself, much less so. I strive to make my classes involved, intense, and focused on the eventual outcome of working with children- all while enjoying the process. When armed with a set of skills, understanding of a particular subject matter, and a passion for making a difference, teachers can reach, guide and transform students, thereby transforming themselves. In my teaching of my undergraduate students, I have sought to make real this concept of transformation and engagement. I bear a responsibility to my students to provide them with skills, experiences and concepts that will enable them to effectively function as teachers themselves within the context of school. Because we just graduated our first bachelor’s students, I don’t have good data about how successful we have been. However, I received an email from a student last week that said “I ‘m looking forward to my own classroom. You’ve really prepared me to help these children.” I look forward to keeping in touch with my students and seeing how they continue to grow.
Although I am tremendously complimented by the College of Coastal Georgia’s recognition of my teaching, excellence happens within a context- I am able to do what I do because of the leadership of my College, my School, and the other faculty members with whom I work- and especially the students who were willing to take a risk with a new College and a new program. The College of Coastal Georgia and the School of Education and Teacher Preparation is growing and seeking to be the best, and I’m honored to be part of that forward movement. Excellence is a journey- you can measure the progress, but you never reach the destination. As in life, there is no final outcome in teaching, learning and education. I know that I can always improve- and even as I write this, I am thinking of better ways to improve my research, my syllabi, my instruction, and my relationships with students, other faculty and the local schools. I love what I do as a teacher of teachers- and that means creating excellent teachers for all students, thinking about the process of teaching, and believing in the humanity of every child, every student, and the power to make a difference.