That's right folks! The school year is officially less than one month away. Usually, this time of summer signals me to start preparing for my next field experience and a semester of classes. However, this year is a little different because I am student teaching!
I always feel nervous before the start of a new school year. Another year of college as an education major means putting up barriers to self-doubt, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, and establishing a new schedule. "Am I good enough?" begins to creep back into my head.
I've always found the first day in the field to be the scariest. Honestly, field experience can be kind of lonely too. I step into the classroom --representing myself as a future teacher and guest-- with vulnerability, humility, and anxiety. Each field experience taught me much about teaching, pedagogy, and the education system. Throughout the last three years, I have become an active observer of my growth, resilience, failures, mistakes, and accomplishments.
So before student teaching begins, I would like to share some of my main takeaways from the past three years of volunteering in the early childhood education field.
Prioritizing yourself is one of the best ways to support your students
It is easy to become burnt out when working in the education system. Working long hours, taking on extra duties, staying after contract hours, and showing up for young children are mentally and emotionally exhausting. I often describe working in education as unsustainable because the system does not support educators' mental health and basic needs. However, it is the job that I love, so I strive to find ways to prioritize myself in my future career.
As an educator, you must show up for yourself to show up for your students. Setting healthy work-life boundaries, stepping away when necessary, and talking through your experiences support sustainability in your career as a teacher. If you do not begin practicing these steps as a practicum student or student teacher, you will likely be pushed to the side in your first few years as a teacher.
In a past blog post titled, "Let's Talk About It: Teacher Mental Health, Burnout, and Self-Care," I outline three sustainable strategies to prioritize your mental health and wellbeing: apply the RAIN practice; develop coping mechanisms; and set boundaries, focus on what you can control, and maintain reasonable expectations.
This past year, I prioritized my mental health by regularly talking to a counselor. For the first time in college, I did something for myself and my well-being. I became better at saying "no" and setting boundaries and learned how to recognize and express my emotions. I tried to designate time for activities that brought me joy.
I have observed too many educators and professionals push themselves to the edge. Educators feel pressure to be constantly selfless and give up everything for their job and their students. This treatment is disrespectful, unreasonable, and unsustainable. Teachers and teacher candidates already sacrifice so much of their time, energy, and money to support future generations. However, teachers must develop skills to advocate for their students and themselves.
You are not alone
As I navigated my teacher education program, I recognized the value of community and cooperation versus competition. Often, admin, school boards, and other decision-makers place teachers against each other in terms of performance. Some teachers face competition and comparison. Teachers may feel like they have to come up with "the best idea" for a lesson plan, and when they can't, they feel obsolete.
Teachers should not compete with one another, nor should they feel the need to compete. Competition isolates teachers and puts on more stress than they can handle. However, collaboration amongst teachers opens the door to brainstorming, creativity, teamwork, partnership, and learning. Even experienced teachers go to one another for help on a lesson, intervention, or other questions. Students' standardized performance is not a measure of teachers' worth or success.
The worth and success within my program lie in the cohort structure of courses, field experience, and program trajectory. This program structure admits a small group of people and carries them through the same courses and field experience together. I officially met my cohort in my sophomore year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force. With all Zoom courses, there were no opportunities to connect with my peers outside class.
Whenever I drove to my field placement, I felt lonely. I went through a constant cycle of class, field, class, field, and repeat. I did not know what my classmates were doing or how they were feeling about courses, placements, or life. After that semester, I realized I needed to check in with my classmates to establish our little community on campus.
In junior year, our cohort became fiercely close. We felt comfortable in our shared space to share our ups and downs, ask questions, rant, or simply be heard. I felt seen for once in a very long time. I no longer needed to explain; I just existed. Our little community of twelve supported one another through the hardest year of our college career. We celebrated accomplishments, validated experiences in the field, and selflessly collaborated during lesson planning periods.
Our cohort is still going strong. We try to get to know one another outside of classes and teaching. Whenever we meet up, we smile and embrace one another with warmth and understanding. This little community, this family of future teachers, will stand together through student teaching. As I travel abroad to Croatia in October, I feel reassured because I will have some of my cohort with me along the way.
You are not alone if your teacher education program does not have a cohort structure. Strive to find your community on campus through clubs, courses, or field experience. Sometimes, finding just one person with the same experience as you is liberating.
ALWAYS BE CURIOUS AND ASK QUESTIONS
One of my favorite childhood anecdotes is a daily mantra. Every day since kindergarten, my dad has sent me off to school with "Have fun, learn a lot, and ask good questions!". This message sparked my love for learning at a young age. His mantra has carried forward to today, as I am making a transition from student to teacher.
Even as I am changing roles, one crucial thing stays the same: learning. As a student in the field, paraprofessional, and student teacher, I constantly learn about children, pedagogy, teaching styles, family partnership, and so much more. Learning is an inherent part of teaching. There is always new research and evolving social values on what defines "effective practice."
So, instead of viewing your field experience through a perfectionist lens (this is something I am still working through), view it as a learning opportunity. Your cooperating teacher (CT) is there to model and answer questions. They are the ones who see you practicing your skills and working through any self-doubt, self-consciousness, or nerves. Use them as a resource!
Showing up to a classroom is not enough. Hands-on teaching fuses with hands-on learning. Be curious about your teacher, your students, and your school. Build a critical lens through which you analyze your CT's teaching style. What would you like to include in your practice, and what would you not? Field experience is a constant practice of self-reflection!
YOU DOn't know everything!
Toss that perfectionism out the window! Mistakes are inevitable. Like most teachers know, mistakes are a part of the learning process. All field experience, including student teaching, is practice for a lifelong career of learning and growth.
Textbooks, lectures, and online discussions can only get you so far. Not until you put theory to practice do you realize what works for you as a teacher. Sometimes, your most creative idea won't go to plan. Sometimes, students won't listen, or you will have to scratch a complete plan for something new on the spot.
One of my most difficult realizations was that students drive their learning. They made me aware of when they were confused, impatient, bored, excited, engaged, and curious. I have never once taught a lesson in the way I planned it. Despite writing ten-page lesson plans writing word-for-word what I was going to teach, almost nothing according to plan. For example, I had to think of an entirely new lesson on the spot when teaching a unit on living and nonliving things when we were not allowed outside!
Teaching will never be something you can perfect. It usually takes teachers years to understand their style and feel comfortable in their role. One of my professors explained teaching as a balance of art and science. The most effective, engaging teachers have a balance of both. Some may weigh more on the creativity in lesson planning and engagement while others on the content, theories, and pedagogy surrounding teaching.
This job is a lifelong journey of evolution, development, and change. A "perfect" teaching style does not exist. Not only because a teaching style depends on personality and method, but also because each class is different and has different needs. Instead, an effective teacher is the one to develop, evolve, and change.
SOmetimes, children are the best teachers
The youngest generation has much to teach us about being better humans and teachers. Before absorbing societal stereotypes, microaggressions, implicit biases, and mindsets, many children are the most open-minded, kind, curious, silly, blunt, and critical people I have ever met. I feel so lucky to work with children this age because I actively work to support, strengthen, and mold their personhood and light.
Young children teach so much through their behavior, communication, and actions. They say what they want and need, so teachers can adapt curriculum and activities to meet them where they are. They navigate the tough job of growing up, discovering their independence, and exploring the people they are becoming.
My time working with young children has pushed me to become a better person. I expect myself to emulate problem-solving skills, self-regulation, emotional expression and regulation, empathy, kindness, and creativity. There are mutual benefits to showing up for myself and showing up for students.
Working within any branch of human services is complicated because humans are complicated. But the novelty of every class and every day in the classroom keeps many teachers going. Sometimes, you have to find inspiration and motivation in the smallest moments. Young children have so much to share about themselves and the world. Sometimes, what they have to say is revolutionary.
. . .
I still have so much to learn about myself and teaching. I've found a symbiotic relationship between my self-growth and my development as an educator. This relationship will strengthen as I enter student teaching and continue my international travels.
A final word to all of my fellow educators, teacher candidates, and other education professionals: you are not alone. By sharing my experiences and thoughts about the last three years, I hope to create a welcoming, educational community. We educators must stick together in a world that does not wholly recognize, represent, or respect us.
So, if this post resonated with you, or you have a lesson you would like to share from the field, please comment down below! Let this post be a conversation starter about the importance of talking about our experiences because they matter! Anyways, take care of yourselves. I appreciate you making it through this long post.
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This post reflects my Spanish language experience, my trip to Spain, and my budding identity of being "bilingual."
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Meghan Hesterman (she/her) is a child advocate and education blogger. While a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), she created Journal of a Future Teacher to share her journey in becoming an early childhood teacher.