Before you read this, some context:
Because I spend so much extracurricular time with National Board Candidates, I use Cognitive Coaching as my communication model. During the school day I record positive evidence of student learning and strategic teacher actions; at the end of the day, I review the notes with my student teacher as I emphasize her strengths and locus of control. In short, it’s very structured and feels very practicumish.
By fourth quarter, though, our routine is totally destroyed by a four-week hurricane of standardized testing (AzMerit, AIMS Science, ACT, AP, Dual Enrollment…). During this time, I have my kiddos create a 100-foot mural, documentary, and museum artifacts for the play Julius Caesar. Essentially, the student teacher and I flip the classroom: the kids do most of the reading at home and we design the mural and projects in class. We make the kids interview for jobs and work in large collaborative departments. By the time the chaos of standardized testing is finished, our kids are proud of their mural memories and the student teacher leaves with a highly-coveted Problem Based Learning portfolio. Everyone is happy and successful and we all dance off into the sunset.
Or so it’s been the last two years.
Then came this terrible, horrible, despicable year.
Two weeks before we started the Mural Project, I made the rash decision to change the book from Julius Caesar to 1984. My friend and grade level teaching partner was suffering severe personal conflicts, but was suddenly and absolutely inspired to teach 1984. I was worried about her tackling the unit alone—it’s a monster book that requires extensive historical context and an obsessive attention to language—so at the last minute I made the decision to focus the project on 1984 so we could plan together.
I made this decision without reading the book.
I made this decision without any plans for the unit.
A week after we started the unit, my teaching partner committed suicide. I can’t focus on the fact that she was my first friend in Flagstaff; that I spent my last three birthdays with her; that we camped together… I can’t focus on the fact that I told her on Friday to call or come over anytime except Monday night—that I emphasized not Monday night. For the discourse of this blog, these are the professional facts: my friend, teaching partner, and classroom neighbor died without any warning and we didn’t have the option to cancel school or take three weeks off: we had 1500 teenagers to protect.
On the day I had planned to introduce the Mural Project, I over-articulated my syllables as I cry-read the official death announcement to my class. The kids and I spent two days sobbing and occasionally pretending to Gallery Walk last year’s Mural Project panels.
Without being asked to, my student teacher paused the project, put the classroom back in rows, and taught the first eight chapters of the book traditionally. Five days later, we resumed the project. I was present, but not present. I didn’t explain the project to her. I gave vague directions and then sat on the ground coloring with the kids. I’d get moody or impetuous. I would completely change plans seven minutes after obstinately declaring a new change of plans. I’d be manically peppy for first hour and zombie sad by seventh. I sent her home three times because I was too embarrassed to be watched.
I stopped meeting with her. I stopped giving her feedback. I stopped communicating one-on-one with her. To grieve and support 135 students who are grieving is physically, mentally, and spiritually draining.
When her university supervisor came for her formal observation, I sobbed and asked her to be moved. I confessed about not supporting her, about not talking to her; I confessed I had selfishly sent her home. The supervisor explained my student teacher had graded all of my work from home and had written the University to let them know she was fine and wanted to stay. She had also sought advice from a wise older teacher on campus about what she should do.
I can’t even imagine the personal weight of this experience for such a young teacher. On a pedagogical level, she’s witnessed some remarkable absurdities: my Teacher of the Year video was filmed the day of the crisis; we started AzMerit testing five days afterward—in the midst of death threats to the local high schools and university and during the NAU shooting trial…
Full confession on the table, I failed my student teacher this semester, but I suspect she’s learned more about teaching than any other candidate in the program. Out of absolute necessity, she learned how to take charge and thrive when everyone around her was weak. She witnessed first-hand how brutal and beautiful the public school system can be. She witnessed the healing power of art and creativity. She learned how to observe and then act. She learned how to reflectively record notes about her own progress and advocate for her own needs.
She taught herself how to become a teacher.