This is an autoethnography documenting a change in confidence of a pre-service teacher during the first semester of Professional Development School. There is no hypothesis for this study due to the qualitative nature of the research. The method used in the study was an analysis of personal prior perceptions of teaching, as compared to experiences in the teacher preparation program. This paper examines the pre-service teacher’s perception of teaching and teachers, classes prior to methods classes, prior teaching experiences, and perceptions of what a professional development school is. The findings show that the pre-service teacher gained confidence and felt like a professional teacher due to the Response to Intervention Model learned during a mathematics tutoring project, experiences with children, and assignments completed during the University of North Texas math methods class.
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When a student is in school, math does not stop at a certain time. Math continues into other subjects such as science and social studies. Due to its integration into many other subjects, it is important for students to have a strong background in math. During my first semester of Professional Development School (PDS), I got the opportunity to tutor some students who were struggling in their math class. Tutoring not only helped my students, but it also helped me to grow as a teacher. Before I attended the Professional Development School in my senior year, I did not feel like a teacher at all, although it was my passion to become one. This paper is a chronicle of previous experiences, an examination of these experiences, and a study of my progress toward feeling like a teacher of mathematics for elementary aged students.
What follows is an autoethnographic study of my transformation. “Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that uses data about self and its context to gain an understanding of the connectivity between self and others within the same context” (Ngunjiri, Hernandez, & Chang, 2010, p. 2). I used an analytical approach to pinpoint where in the Professional Development School experience I experienced a change in perception. I examined my teaching experiences prior to PDS, and then examined the math tutoring project, which resulted in my change from idealistic to realistic perceptions.
Perceptions of Teaching
Before I tutored these students in mathematics, I had some pretty utopian views of teachers. To me, a true teacher was a person who had all the answers. A true teacher was a master of every single subject matter. In my mind, teachers knew everything about everything. In the past, I could remember one time where a teacher said “I don’t know” when I asked a question, and it blew my mind. Teachers knew everything; how could they not know? When I thought of teachers, I never thought about the effort they put into the work; I believed they just magically had fun activities for us to do. I never realized how much work it takes to plan lessons that are relevant to the students and make each individual successful.
I thought that when I was in college, I would have so much knowledge that I would just magically know how to teach. In my past experiences, my teachers had known what to do at all times; however, when I started my senior year in college, while in a program called the Professional Development School, aka PDS 1, I did not feel that same confidence or wisdom that my past teachers had displayed.
Analysis of University Courses Prior to PDS
As I examined the education courses that led up to my participation in the PDS, I found some reasons why I had struggled with my perception of what it meant to be a teacher. This examination provided me with a deeper understanding of my development. During my course, Foundations of Education: The School Curriculum, we were instructed to interview a current, practicing teacher. I interviewed a fourth grade teacher who had been teaching for five years. Interviewing her helped me put together my idea of what a teacher really is. She thought that when she first started teaching, classroom management was the hardest part of teaching, not teaching the curriculum. She told me that creating lessons is not the difficult part of the job, because the district provides strong support for that.
Looking back, I know that the support is a good thing, because she receives assistance writing her lesson plans. However, my original interpretation of her statement prior to the start of my student teaching schedule was that building lessons plans came much easier to her than it did for me. Therefore, I concluded that this must mean that I was far less prepared to become a teacher than I had first thought. With experience also came the knowledge that the creation of lesson plans was not some simple benchmark that dictated how effective an educator is.
I was hoping that my university classes would help me feel more confident about my teaching abilities but they never did, at least, not until my PDS experience. Before PDS, my classes did not seem helpful to me. In my first Math for Elementary Educators course, we learned several concepts, including different number bases and number theory, with an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking. I assumed these classes provided tools to help me teach others about mathematics. Instead, I found myself struggling with the concepts and felt as if I were the one who needed a math review.
While this was a necessary step in my journey to becoming an effective educator, I became discouraged because these final math courses did not reveal the hidden secret of teaching as I had imagined they would. I suppose I assumed that all of my insecurity about my teaching ability would disappear upon the completion of these courses. I had set myself up for disappointment and was left discouraged because I had let myself believe that courses would magically deliver enlightenment. I now understand that this desire and longing I had for confidence in my own qualifications is something that can be satisfied through hard work in the classroom and dedication to the field of education.
I took several reading classes while at the University of North Texas. In the Cross‐Curricular Literacy Materials and Resources class, we made text sets. My professor encouraged the people who were majoring in math for the fourth through the eighth grades to make a text set about math. She told us that we could teach anything with a book. All the students who wanted to teach younger children, Early Childhood through sixth grade, developed basic counting or number books from their math related text sets.
My goal for integrating literature and math was to find books that helped reinforce the math concepts that I would be teaching in the classroom. I would have liked to have found an existing text that could relate a story or a character to some concepts behind central mathematical ideas. However, the lack of available materials specific to the type of curriculum that I was attempting to teach, gave me the idea that I could develop my own materials and use them in my classroom in the future.
Early Teaching Experience
One of the most important experiences that prepared me for my future in teaching was my part-time job. During my third year in college, I worked as a preschool teacher. This was a trial run; I had never worked in a Pre-K program before and my supervisor wanted to see how it worked for me. I started the job with no supplies and no expectations from my bosses. I worked Monday through Friday from 2:20-6:00 p.m. with children aged three through five years old. I started working as a preschool teacher, not just to have some extra income, but to give me experience working with young children. At work, my supervisor expected me to oversee the children during snack time and recess, organize one craft for the children to participate in per day, and organize some gym games for them to play.
My supervisor had me create lesson plans, but I simply had to report which activity we were going to do and at what time we were doing it. I did not have to go into any detail about the materials needed, the technology used, the content or language objectives, or the student outcomes. My supervisor never made me do math circle time, calendar time, story time, the pledge, or have more than one craft a day; however, I believed that it was my responsibility to do those activities with my students. I wanted my students to be ready for kindergarten; these were extra activities I would have my students do when I taught.
I started our calendar/circle time each day by saying the Pledge of Allegiance and the pledge to the Texas flag, followed by a focus on the calendar. We reviewed what day it was that day, what day yesterday was, and what day tomorrow would be. We talked about the weather, what it looked like outside, and we made predictions for the next day. Every day we added a paperclip to a paperclip chain for the number of days we had been in school. The students were also able to add a tally to the “how many days have we been in school” chart. We then sang and danced to a song about the days of the week, and the months of the year. A student in my class taught me how to say the names of the week in Spanish, so we also said the days of the week in Spanish after we finished singing and dancing. We ended our calendar circle time with a song about colors and how to spell them.
During our story time each day, I read a book with a reading level between kindergarten and second grade. I tried to have a corresponding craft with each book. Depending on the age of the students and their ability levels, some students wrote a sentence or two about their craft in their journals. Someone once told me that patterns are the basis for all mathematics. With that in mind, I collected buttons, counters, blocks, and Legos that the students could use to make patterns. Every day, before they were allowed to have centers in the classroom, they had to show me at least three patterns that were at least ten pieces long.
The job was a great experience for me. I formed great bonds with my students and their parents, and I got to experiment with the ideas I heard about in my university classes. Although I did learn a lot about classroom management with my students, I still believed that I did not know how to teach them. I desperately wanted somebody telling me what to do, but I did not have that luxury. Instead, I figured out how to be a decent preschool teacher on my own. Unfortunately, knowing how to teach preschoolers basic fundamentals, like the colors and days of the week, did not give me the confidence or knowledge to teach upper grade level math.
The Professional Development School Experience
At that time, I started the Professional Development School (PDS) experience. According to NCATE (2001), “[P]rofessional development schools are institutions formed through partnerships between professional education programs and P-12 schools” (p.1). The goals of these experiences are to prepare student teachers and teacher candidates through a mixed variety of techniques including challenging settings and structured course design. These institutions are fully functioning schools that have specific, guided coursework to help student teachers through an inquiry-based approach. Each of these schools is unique and different from one another. The variety of different settings and environments challenges student teachers and allows for their own growth, as well as the growth of the students they are teaching. “PDS partners are guided by a common vision of teaching and learning, which is grounded in research and practitioner knowledge” (p.1). These amazing schools combine the wealth of knowledge from their staff in order to meet all of the educational needs of the students in the classroom, in addition to using their shared resources to help student teachers adapt to the learning environment and prepare them to become successful. All of this is accomplished while maintaining the highest educational standards for both the students in the classroom and the student teachers.
One way that staff members at professional development schools can often help student teachers ease into the role of teaching is to create responsibilities and new classroom structures to help share the responsibility of the students’ learning. PDS partnerships are “committed to providing equitable learning opportunities for all, and to preparing candidates and faculty to meet the needs of diverse student populations” (NCATE, 2001, p. 3). The goal of PDS partnerships is a long term one. The focus on relationships, strategies, and roles in the classroom support their efforts in building an educational system that can withstand the test of time. Ultimately, it is possible for PDS partnerships to share influence in policies and decision-making at the district, state, and even national educational levels.
PDS was an overwhelming task for me at first. We were not just in a new school environment, but we also had rigorous classes. The classes included methods of teaching science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics to young children. Every class had multiple projects that extended beyond class meeting time, requiring long hours of work and research to complete. In my math methods course, we were assigned a tutoring project. We were to transform struggling math students so they would be at grade level in eight weeks, which seemed daunting at first.
In class, we learned how to administer a diagnostic test to our students. Based on the diagnostic tests, we learned to plan what we were going to teach our students. We then tutored our students using the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. Every week, we were required to submit our plans by Friday. In our plans, we recapped the learning the students had that week and gave specific details as to how we knew learning occurred and explain what specifically was effective and had facilitated learning. In addition, we wrote about the learning that occurred for us as educators each week and gave specific details as to how we reached our conclusions. Furthermore, we needed to elaborate on the interventions that facilitated learning, and then recap our plan, stating what worked, what did not work, what would have made it work even better, and then to include the plans for the next week.
The plan included the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) test, our introduction to the lesson, the instruction for the lesson, and what practice opportunities we gave the students. In this section of weekly planning, we described the planned, structured practice where students were guided through the process, followed by guided practice in which the students worked together, and then independent practice where students worked individually. Finally, we included a game and an assessment so we could accurately determine if the students understood the concept.
The RTI model was based on the theory that some struggling students have not had sufficient opportunities for learning. It was designed to give students multiple opportunities to learn before referring them for special education testing (Lenski, 2011). According to Ricccomini (2010),
RTI employs a series of instructional tiers with increasing instructional intensity. Within the RTI description, there are several main components, but one especially important component that must be properly addressed is the emphasis on classroom instruction, which includes both content and instructional approach. If instruction for struggling students is not carefully developed and planned, RTI efforts will likely have little positive effect on improving students learning of mathematics. (p. 1)
Reflection on the Tutoring Project
At the beginning of my eight week tutoring project, I faced some challenges. It seemed as though other things kept happening during my tutoring time. Spirit squad was at the same time as tutoring, as well as fire drills which never ended up happening. These challenges happened during the first two or three weeks, and after that, things settled down. The spirit squad did not have to meet anymore, and the school had a fire drill in a non-tutoring time. Although I did not fix these problems, I was relieved when they were resolved. I would not have had time to teach the children any material if these interruptions had continued for the full eight weeks.
Another problem I faced at the beginning was running out of time. I was afraid that the students would not do well if they did not feel comfortable with me, so I put aside time at the beginning to just talk and get to know each other. I am happy that I did that, because I grew close to the students I tutored. However, the few times I set aside time to talk with my students left little time for actual tutoring, causing me to rush through the planned lesson. I overcame this challenge by not designating this time at the beginning of tutoring. We would talk when we walked in the hallway to the cafeteria and while I was setting up the table. That was plenty of time to talk about their day and other non-tutoring related topics.
Another challenge I had with running out of time was the students taking too long to get ready for tutoring. We were supposed to have tutoring from 2:10-2:40 every Wednesday and Thursday. When I came to pick them up from their classroom, they were not ready to go. I overcame this challenge by telling my students what to expect and bring. I told them that every single week, they would need to be ready to go by 2:10, and they would need to bring a whiteboard and a dry erase marker. This helped, but I still wanted more time. I asked their teacher if I could keep them for the last ten minutes of school, and then I could release them to their after school destinations. She thought it was a great idea and from that point on I had at least thirty minutes with them.
The last challenge I faced was overcome in just a week. The first week of tutoring, although I had made and submitted my plans, I had not prepared for my tutoring session. When it came time for me to tutor the students, I was flustered and nervous. I read my lesson plans verbatim, and it did not seem natural. Fixing this was simple. I usually submitted my tutoring plans on Friday and reviewed them again on Saturday while I made my game. I also reviewed them again the day before I tutored. Going over the content a few extra times made me confident while teaching, and made the tutoring go much more smoothly. As the weeks progressed, going over the plans a few extra times made me think about the games we played, and how I could make them more fun for the students. This allowed me to have better content in my lessons and better games, and consequently made the students enjoy the experience even more.
Having challenges to overcome made me grow as an instructor. I had a few personal epiphanies that added to my growth as well. My first major realization was that no matter how old students are, putting manipulatives in their hands will let them see math with a new perspective. Math manipulatives are objects that are designed in order for students to perceive a mathematical concept by manipulating it. Manipulatives help students learn in a hands-on way. During one of my first tutoring sessions, I asked the students if they understood; of course they said they did. I was not confident that they did understand so I tried teaching again with the base ten blocks and, all of a sudden, it was magic. They understood place values; their faces lit up with excitement. At that moment, I grew as a tutor. I now understood that students will pretend they comprehend to avoid embarrassment. The older students will resist the manipulatives at first, but after they see the magic of it, they will keep using them. In the future, no matter what grade I teach, I will keep manipulatives in the classroom. After tutoring, I am hooked on manipulatives.
Another observation I made while tutoring was the importance of having content that is relevant to the students. At the beginning of tutoring, I tried to have an introduction that they liked, but I did not know them well enough to make it relevant. The more I got to know them, the more I knew how to engage them in what we were doing. I started designing my games for Annie and Nino instead of for an abstract group of fifth graders. When my content became more interesting and relevant for them, they began learning more. Understanding the importance of relevance was a huge personal gain I made during my eight week tutoring adventure.
I have learned much in my eight weeks of tutoring. There are some things I wish I had realized earlier in the process. Some recommendations for me as a tutor would include tailoring tutoring to a child’s interests. When a child is interested in a topic, he or she opens up to learning. Another recommendation I have for myself is to guide children’s learning in a way that they discover answers for themselves. Instead of telling them something, let them play with math manipulatives and discover the concept for themselves. Students will better understand concepts if they teach themselves. Another recommendation I have for myself is to hold high standards for all of my students. My students understood some things so quickly that it shocked me. I decided that I need to be able to bump up the intensity of every math concept. That led to the last recommendation for myself: I recommend planning extra activities. There were times where we flew through the content and we had nothing to do but play a game about a concept they already understood. If I plan for extra activities, I can move on to the next topic more easily. The next time I tutor students, I will be successful because I will follow these recommendations for tutoring.
I would not change anything about the assignment. Although at first I did not like sending lesson plans and reflections to my supervisor, it helped me to sit down and take time to reflect on the weeks’ lesson and to think about what I should do for the next week. Without those weekly emails, I would not have been an effective tutor. Using the RTI framework helped me with my tutoring project, because it helped me focus on the instructional needs of my students. RTI requires that all instructional decisions be based on the student learning data. It helped me learn what to teach and what instructional approach to follow.
Me as a Teacher of Mathematics
This project helped me feel like a teacher because I got to know my students and I was confident in what I was teaching. Having the opportunity to test my teaching skills in the classroom instilled in me a sense of self-confidence that I value now more than almost anything else that I gained from my university experience. Being exposed to the constant challenges of actual classrooms immersed my mind in education, so much that it became one of the most important parts of my life. This experience has been one that is irreplaceable and I am thankful for having been given the opportunity to better myself as an educator in such a unique and useful way.
The nature of the project forced me to think about education constantly. Because I had to think deeply about the tutoring I was giving the students, it started to become second nature. I knew what the students would enjoy and how I could get them to understand the math concepts at hand. Teaching them with manipulatives and games also helped us all relax and have fun during the tutoring time. Toward the end, teaching seemed effortless and it was as though I had transformed into the teacher I had dreamed of becoming. This tutoring project gave me the confidence I was lacking and helped me realize that I am a teacher.
I learned many lessons from this eight week tutoring project. I learned that scheduling can be unpredictable and sometimes it seems like there is not enough time to teach. I learned the importance of quick and effective transitions. The more I think about my week’s lessons plans, the smoother the lesson will go and if I plan thoroughly the first time, teaching will be much less stressful. Students need hands on learning. Even if they do not want to use manipulatives, it must be an ongoing effort to search for new ways to aid students in need. I learned that students will lie to save themselves some embarrassment. Although it was an overwhelming task at first, I am thankful for this assignment. It helped the students I tutored get to grade level and it provided me with confidence. I learned that students need a curriculum that is relevant to them or they will not give it their all. But most importantly, through my math tutoring project, I learned that not only am I a teacher, but I am an effective one!
- Lenski, S. (2011). What RTI means for content area teachers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(4), 276-282.
- NCATE. (2001). Standards for Professional Development Schools. National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Retrieved from www.ncate.org
- Ngunjiri, F., Hernandez, K., & Chang, H. (2010). Living autoethnography: Connecting life and research. Journal of Research Practice, 6(1), 2. Retrieved from http://jrp.icaap.org
- Riccomini, P. J. (2010). It’s not just for reading. Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook, 3(2), 17-18.