When I work with new teachers, I often feel compelled to tell the story of my friend Michelle who was afraid to be a mother. Married for three years, Michelle and her husband David were in heavy talks about parenthood. David was eager to be a dad and Michelle wanted to share his enthusiasm, but she had concerns about her parental fitness. In conversations with me, Michelle admitted that her models of parenting were pretty impoverished. Her memories of childhood were clouded by images of an impatient, tired mother, and a father whose work kept him away from home for weeks at a time. "I know what good parents should sound like, how they should act," Michelle confessed, "but I'm afraid I won't be able to make it happen, and that I'll suddenly just become my mom."
When I tell this story to new teachers, it's usually in response to their fears about the kind of teacher they'll become. Many have been spooked by the phrase "salience of the traditional," a term that describes the strong tendency to teach the way you were taught, regardless of contradictory "input" from a teacher preparation program. By the time new teachers are entering their first classrooms, they have a solid understanding of effective instruction; in addition, they have been asked more than once in their methods classes to compare what they've learned about best practices to their own experiences as students in K-12 settings.
The majority of beginning teachers I work with recognize that many of their examples of teaching effectiveness are as bankrupt as my friend Michelle's parenting models. These new teachers worry that despite their immersion in courses and fieldwork that introduced and reinforced best practices, they will become their least effective teachers — the ones they remember assigning pages of vocabulary worksheets for students to complete while they read the paper; or those who assigned reams of homework that was collected but never returned; or the strict disciplinarians who didn't show flexibility and respect in their interactions with children.
To address new teachers' concerns about how they'll develop over the course of their teaching careers, we spend time in one of our first mentoring workshops doing an exercise called Mental Snapshots. It's an idea I picked up from a graduate class based on a technique borrowed after reading an Alice Walker essay about a trip to China, A Thousand Words.
Here's how it works:
1. I read a couple excerpts from Walker's essay, where she creates vivid word portraits of images from her trip.
2. I ask everyone to think of a memory from their K-12 education that is particularly vivid, even indelible because they still remember the event clearly.
3. I ask everyone to take a mental snapshot of one part of their memory — to capture a moment in their minds the way a camera captures one instant in an on-going scene.
4. When they have their mental snapshot, I ask teachers to write a caption for the image that begins this way, "This is a picture of . . . "
I give teachers a couple of examples from previous snapshot writers, including the following:
This is a picture of my elementary school music teacher, Miss Springer. She's sitting in a circle, cross-legged on a large rug with the whole class. We're talking about the Hansel and Gretel operetta we're going to perform in the spring. She's explaining how auditions work, and I'm already thinking I want the part of the wicked witch.
After we've written mental snapshots for 5 or 10 minutes, I ask for volunteers to share some of their memories. Almost everyone has at least one snapshot that involves a classroom scene and/or an interaction with a teacher. These are some memories they read aloud:
This is a picture of my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Christianson, who after introducing the "regular" spelling curriculum to the class, pulled me aside to introduce a separate curriculum that I would be using (spelling was never my strong suit). I loved the new curriculum. It was the easiest set of words, and there were no practice sheets.
Or this more simple portrait that shows a history of success:
This is a picture of me winning the school's Geography Bee in middle school; I was the third person in my family to win.
Once we've had a chance to think about the stories we've heard, I ask everyone to return to their snapshots, to choose a memory that includes a classroom setting or a memory of a teacher, and to think about what they learned about teaching from that episode. I explain that the lesson was almost assuredly implicit. The teacher wasn't deliberately trying to teach her class about effective (or ineffective) instruction, but instead the message was delivered in the content of the lesson, the nature of the interaction, or the architecture of the classroom design. The teacher who wrote the first snapshot about her separate and unequal spelling program, for example, extended her "This is a picture of" moment by adding the following:
From Mrs. Christianson, I learned that teachers need to be observing, assessing, and changing curriculum based on the students' needs. I hope to use this experience in my own classroom.
And the teacher who took a snapshot of her experience in the Geography Bee wrote poignantly about what she learned about teaching:
Mrs. Summers was our social studies teacher and she always encouraged everyone to participate in the Bee. She didn't make a big deal out of our winning and embarrass us in front of our classmates. She addressed us individually. What I take away from Mrs. Summers as a teacher now is that even though you know a middle grade student could excel at something and might enjoy it, there are sensitive emotions involved in putting yourself out there and showing confidence in your brain, body, and self. A Geography Bee is an extreme example, I know. But some students, instead of pulling them aside in front of their peers, might appreciate a note on their paper or a book slipped into their desk or homework folder instead. Mrs. Summers was certainly a no-nonsense kind of teacher, but that didn't hide her heart and her sensitivity to students' emotional needs.
If new teachers sometimes worry about the subtle but significant influences their negative histories as students may have on their own teaching practices, then I want to encourage them to use reflection to articulate their concerns, to find colleagues with whom to share their ideas, and finally to realize that every one of their indelible memories, the good and the bad, include important lessons about teaching and learning that can help them grow as professionals.
It is my hope that by starting conversations about some of their unforgettable student memories, new teachers will be reassured that they have control of what they accept and what they reject as they develop as teachers.