The Summer Saga

This is my first chance to sit down and write since entering grad school. It’s been a rough ride. That’s not to say I expected it to be easy. It is, after all, a one-year program for a graduate degree and a teaching certificate. And there have been highlights, too. My cohort is full of really energetic and passionate people. I don’t have much of a support or social network, so finding a place among them was both unusual and rewarding. There were a few great teachers. I especially like my cohort leader. And I’ve felt good about my choices and the work that I’ve done toward certification.

But in my very first class, on my very first day, the professor strongly implied I was going to flunk out. Then he took a number of cheap opportunities to embarrass me in front of the class. I did learn a few things from one of the textbooks, but the teacher spent most of the term asking what we thought the “best class ever” would look like, to which we would respond with things like, “the teacher cares about the students!”

Yeah, that’s great, but how do we get there? How do we build that relationship with the student? Those questions were never answered in the class. We just kept talking about how if had a magic wand we would make all the boo-boos go away, and everything would be candy-cane-gum-drop-magical-fun-land. We never really talked about the theories of learning that we were supposed to be, well, learning about. I actually learned a lot more about theorists like Vygotsky and Piaget in my human development psychology class that I took as a prereq for grad school.

The rest of the summer courses were all about social justice and equity. First we talked mostly about race. It was a great class. I like to think I’m a progressive type of guy, but I think it opened my eyes a little wider. It’s always a little uncomfortable in those classes, though. There’s always one white woman exclaiming, “It’s all fault of white males,” as if she isn’t also white and living in extreme privileged. And I get it—I really do. White privilege is something I’m born into and I don’t always fully understand or appreciate the challenges it poses to others. But I also don’t think it’s really helpful to just blame “the white man” because that’s pretty divisive language and, as a white male, I tend to get a little defensive. We need to start looking at racism as more of an institutional system, a feedback loop that keeps certain groups oppressed. And we need to work to fix those systems together.

We had a class dealing specifically with English language learners in the classroom, which, inevitably, leads to more discussions about race and social justice. There were more cries of how white males are the root of all evil. My classmates started seeing racism in everything, including a video of two people dancing (seriously, that’s all it was. I think the teacher might have put it on to mess with us).

But my classmates came up with all these complicated explications of how this was an example of racism. I didn’t get it, and I said so, so I got a bit of reputation for being the casually racist white male. It was frustrating, too, because I’d just finished taking the exact same class at a community college, again, as a prerequisite to get into grad school. Still, I recognized the supreme importance of that class, especially for teachers who would likely have non-native speakers in their classrooms.

We had a course in inclusive classrooms (read, “kids with physical and learning disabilities). I could see the practical application for my future and it familiarized me with things like individualized education programs (IEPs). But the teacher was new to the university and had only ever taught elementary students before. It was the most disorganized class I’ve ever taken and there were a lot of instances where my classmates skipped an assignment but got full credit, while I stupidly got docked points for missing part of an assignment, but actually the teacher just hadn’t looked at the next page (despite a note that I’d put on the first page).

And, finally, we had an “engaging adolescent learners” class that never once talked about engaging adolescent learners. Instead, we just rehashed the first social justice class but from a slightly more historical perspective. In other words, we learned about Roe v. Wade and the civil rights movements.

The summer was hard. The workload was an adjustment. I missed a lot. I had to severely limit my work schedule. I went home for the first time since 2010 for my brother’s wedding, but I didn’t do anything more than attend the ceremony since I had so much work to do. I completely stopped writing and reading, except for classwork. I didn’t see friends very often. Much of the summer passed and I barely went hiking or enjoyed the sunshine.

I loved my cohort, but I didn’t always feel in sync with them. They found the second summer term much easier than the first, while I struggled with both. I felt that there was such a heavy concentration on social justice issues that the entire teacher profession was reduced to being social justice warriors. Obviously, that’s a huge part of it, but I felt like there is more to teaching than that. And I wasn’t sure we ever really examined how to solve any problems. We are quick to point out that there are problems everywhere, but somehow the solution always seemed to be something vague like, “get to know the student on a personal level.” Well, of course. Why wouldn’t a teacher do that for every student anyway? But once you’ve done that, then what?

It’s not like I don’t think these things are important, but by the end of the summer, I was really checked out and sick of talking about social justice. I’m not getting an ESOL endorsement or going into special education. Having some background knowledge is helpful, but I was frustrated because I felt like I really wanted to learn how to be a good teacher, and we hadn’t really explored what teachers do or how they do it. I also realized, though, that the fall term was about to start and with it, the real graduate teacher education program. I had wedding coming up and my first placement working in the field, both of which weighed heavily on my mind. I tried to put the summer behind me and look forward to the future.

photo credit: pnwbot bia Flickr

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