I was in 8th grade when I decided I wanted to become a teacher. Mrs. Judy Barnes, a five foot nothing source of energetic passion, was my inspiration. I cannot recall what it was about her or her style that made me resolve to become a junior high English teacher, but I remember thinking then that everyone deserved to have a Mrs. Barnes and that I could be that for someone else. By the time I was a junior, however, that vision was lost. My new hero was Mr. Paul DeBarthe, one of the most dynamic social studies teachers I ever had the pleasure to know. I remember his classes quite vividly; each hour was full of lively debate, shocking historical facts, and creative assignments designed to get us out of the textbook. By the end of my junior year, I no longer wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to be a part of fostering international relations, impacting big events, and making history.
As it turned out, I did not end up in international relations or education. I majored in English and French and held jobs doing accounting, working in state government, and providing web design and technical support. Until I began working for Lincoln Public Schools as a mentor for the highly gifted, any professional connection I had to education was mostly peripheral and I had not thought about Mrs. Barnes or becoming a teacher in years. My reason for entering the M.Ed.program was simply to learn how to be better at my job. I did not feel competent or effective in what I was doing with my students and I believe quite strongly in the power of education to solve virtually any problem. I fully expected the classes to be about practical teaching methods and theories. With few exceptions, that was not the case.
The first class in the program pushed me to the edge of my abilities and challenged some of my fundamental assumptions about education. I grew up in Kansas City, a relatively major midwestern city, where the lines between wealth and poverty were fairly well defined. Public schools on the Kansas side of the border were well-funded while schools on the Missouri side struggled for every penny and, consequently, families from all socio-economic levels in Kansas had access to some of the best schools in the country while wealthy parents on the Missouri side sent their children to private schools. As one of the ‘haves,’ I assumed that the solution to fixing the inequities between the two systems would be fairly basic; provide funding for the schools. In my experience, Kansans voted to approve every tax increase for education while Missourians voted against every increase ever proposed during the time I lived there. Now, I understand it is not nearly so simple. Throughout this program, I have started to see how complex the problems facing schools really are and how diverse the solutions will need to be. For example, given the tax base, an increase would not necessarily have provided the amount of funding needed to improve the schools in Kansas City, Missouri nor would it have addressed their issues with de facto segregation resulting from having wealthy white families send their children to private schools. Increases in taxes for educational initiatives may be a part of the solution, as could reallocating funding to equalize the distribution of resources, but neither is a complete solution or anything that can be implemented without voter approval. Strategies such as partnering with local businesses and securing additional funding from corporate partners are better options and ones that can be initiated by district leadership. I particularly appreciated the perspectives of my classmates who teach in schools that have a higher percentage of poverty and trauma than any of the schools in my experience.
Because my goal was to improve as a mentor, the classes that specifically dealt with classroom applications were the most interesting to me. In Positive Education, we explored educational philosophies I had not previously studied and the evolution of thought in education. In Reflective Practitioner, we observed expert teachers and identified an immediate problem and offered a corresponding solution in the district. In Literacy Instruction in the Digital Age, we identified useful digital strategies I could immediately implement with my students. In the Psychology of Teaching and Learning, we discovered the most effective techniques for learning along with the current theories for improving education. In Assessment, I created a plan for teaching and evaluating a unit. There was a concrete, immediate applicability element to these classes that made them particularly enjoyable.
Some of the other classes introduced information that I could see being useful for me in the future. Challenge and Opportunity for Diversity, for example, introduced issues that I have not really had to confront because, as someone who attended school in a predominantly homogenous district, I had few opportunities to interact with people of different ethnicities and cultures. Ironically, since coming to Lincoln, I have encountered far more diversity, but still have not seen the kinds of problems we discussed in class. There is value, however, in recognizing the limitations of my experience and understanding. I was surprised to find in our cultural interview assignment that even though I have many friends and acquaintances of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, etc., our thoughts, ideas, and values are remarkably similar. I would have liked to delve a little more deeply into how to identify and deal with our own issues and those of other people, particularly in class settings. For example, what are some ways to engender school wide or district wide change, or is making things happen on the classroom level the first step to creating a foundation of new thought?
Reaching All Learners was another class that introduced concepts that could be useful in the future or in other contexts. Generally speaking, the group of students I interact with exhibit few symptoms of the trauma we discussed in class, but it does not mean they are not suffering from trauma and it is helpful to know the signs. Understanding how Nebraska fails to support children in trauma is hard to absorb and made me feel helpless. However, failing to acknowledge the reality is an even worse failure. As a teacher or mentor, we have the ability to change lives. That, more than anything else, is what I took away from this class. Recently I have been considering how my target population intersects with children dealing with trauma. My research about gifted education and issues with adequate identification in Education and the American has led me to wonder how many children labeled as having discipline problems are actually highly gifted, particularly if they are also dealing with issues of trauma.
As I look back at my original goal of becoming a more skilled mentor, I believe I accomplished some of what I set out to do, but not in the way I originally intended. I have a few more tools to work with and a handful of new strategies and approaches to use, but I am primarily better because I approach my work in a more reflective fashion. I am able to view my role differently; not so much as a teacher delivering a lesson, but as a guide embarking on an adventure with my students.
I believe there is more for me to discover on this path, however, and I plan to continue traveling the trail. Through my research projects, I realize how invested I am in working with the gifted and I understand better the challenges facing that group of students. Lincoln Public Schools is somewhat unusual as a district because of the attention and accommodations made for gifted and highly gifted children. However, the attitude in many of the schools, both from the administration and the classroom teachers, is that gifted students do not need additional resources. That belief is even more pervasive in other districts, resulting in that population being underserved. From a numbers point of view, it makes sense. Improving outcomes for students who score below basic level has the potential to improve a school’s overall achievement score significantly, while gifted students cannot contribute a score any higher than proficient. Such an attitude is problematic and I would like to be a part of changing how people think about gifted students and the importance of meeting their needs.
Perhaps the most surprising outcome of this program was coming to the understanding that I still do not want to be a classroom teacher. I enjoy working with kids, so when I started classes I thought that I might pursue certification. I did, in fact, look into options for completing the necessary additional coursework. As I listened to my cohort discuss their triumphs and failures in the classroom and explored the various aspects of the field, however, I began to realize that I was more interested in innovations in education, in research, and in policy. I want to use what I have learned in these classes to influence change on a larger scale. If I have learned anything in the past two years, it is that the answer to reaching every student and making education more effective will never be a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to embrace a variety of solutions that can be applied in diverse ways, depending on the needs of the students. We also need to ground new strategies on the results of solid research rather than anecdotal evidence.
The landscape of education has changed a great deal in the years since my 8th grade self decided to follow in Mrs. Barnes’ footsteps and since my 11th grade self decided to deviate from that path. While completing this program did not return me what I thought I wanted in 8th grade, it did help to clarify my vision and give me a better conception of what I want my next steps to be.