"Many of our current challenges are unprecedented," the president explained. "There are no standard remedies, or go-to fixes this time around. That is why we are going to need your help. We'll need young people like you to step up. We need your daring and your enthusiasm and your energy." I will continue to offer my enthusiasm and my energy -- and hopefully I will be daring enough to learn new skills and strategies for the betterment of my students and my community.
Critical Incidents in Education
Before I share specific school experiences I have had, I want to express my own perspective on teaching and education. I have always been very impressed by the thinking of John Dewey, who is considered the "Father of Public Education" in America, and also I've been influenced by the more contemporary strategies put forward by Albert Bandera, who is well-known for his theory on "self-efficacy" (positive goal-setting), that helps students and teachers in the classroom setting. But as to Dewey, a trailblazer who had the vision to express the important values on public education that he believed strongly in -- even if what he said and wrote went against the popular opinion, which it sometimes did -- he is an icon whom I admire. Dewey is to the institution of public education what Thomas Jefferson is to the Bill of Rights.
Dewey believed in teaching kids how to think and how to be problem solvers. I believe in a very profound way each teacher should also be a trailblazer with the students in his or her classroom. That is, many if not most of the students have had teachers who were indifferent to or ignorant about those students' cultures, uninterested in the child's parents' socioeconomic status, or to the child's need for one-on-one attention. And so by reaching students who hitherto were alienated from teachers, an alert, sensitive teacher is blazing trails.
John Dewey believed that education goes well beyond what it can do for the individual. Education, in Dewey's opinion, "…is the fundamental method of social progress and reform," (Dewey, 2002). One thing that John Dewey believed in which makes a tremendous amount of good sense to me is that schools should work hard to produce "thinking citizens" rather than "obedient workers." As a teaching assistant, that is what I have tried to do in all situations -- help students learn to think out issues and solve problems.
John Dewey was patient with many things in society, but he did not show a lot of patience for waste in education. In Chapter III of his book The School and Society, (Introductions by Spencer J. Maxcy) he directs his attention to "Waste in Education." He's not talking about the waste "of money" or "waste of things" -- but rather, he is writing about the waste of a "human life." He believes (Dewey, p. 78) that the school systems are "isolated" and that "all waste is due to isolation."
My Own Experiences:
I took Dewey's philosophy to heart and put it to use in the classroom where for 4 years I was an assistant with 10-15 special education students. Every day the teacher had projects for each of these students, specifically designed for each individual student. I was appraised of what the special education assignments were for each of these children, and I did my very best to carry out the assignment of helping them help themselves, Dewey-style.
No time was ever wasted in our class; never did the teacher assume these students were just biding their time nor did she ask me to just "manage" their behaviors to get them through the day. Every day was a new day, anything that has gone sour the day before had been forgotten or forgiven, and we had fresh flowers in the classroom as well as interesting interactive technologies as well as colorful, real-world art and posters on the walls.
The parents of children with learning disabilities, who have been in special education programs (there are approximately five million such children with varying disabilities currently in public and private schools in the U.S.), have deep concerns of course as to the quality of instruction their children are receiving. Through my training I have learned that by staying in close touch with parents -- especially the parents of minority children and children with special needs -- I can have a greater positive influence on that particular child. There was one boy I helped by relating well to his parents; he was an African-American with learning disabilities who was also given to behavioral problems, and who actually could have been mainstreamed into regular classes except for his deportment problems.
His mother showed a lot of interest in how our class was conducted, and worried at first that her son would cause problems and would be punished because of acting up; not that she did not want him disciplined when necessary, but she believed that because he was black he might fall into a stereotype situation if the white teachers (this class has Caucasian teachers) were not open-minded. She had gone through unpleasant culturally related problems in the past, and was initially wary of white teachers.
Also, she worried that if something untoward happened between her son and the teacher that the union would back up the teacher and leave her son high and dry. But by spending extra time with her and with her son, whenever time permitted and I was cleared to have that important interaction by my supervising teacher, she could clearly see her son was receiving the best possible education and that fairness and justice were just as important to our class as academics. She could see we were doing our best to motivate her son in a positive way, and once she was comfortable with myself and the teacher, her son's attitude improved, his grades improved and there was a much more peaceful tone in the classroom.
One psychologist who has made important contributions to the study of learning and the motivation needed for learning to be a meaningful experience is Bandura. His influence in the field of learning and psychology is far-reaching. He is perhaps best-known for his learning concept of "self-efficacy" which he describes this way: "Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives" (Bandura, 1994).
In other words, when individuals believe they can accomplish certain things at certain levels of achievement, they then become motivated to show that they can do those things. And by doing that assignment, or that project, or getting a good grade where there was doubt, that student may gain a heightened sense of control over his or her life in other ways. This goes for special education students as well as students in the mainstream of education.
I have never believed for a moment that my role as a teaching assistant was limited to tagging along behind the teacher or be responsible for cleanup after class. That is not what alert, competent teacher assistants (TAs) are supposed to do. Indeed, according to an article in the scholarly journal Education 3-13 (McVittie, 2005), TAs have been "increasingly deployed to work with children with special educational needs (SEN)" in both the U.S. And the UK (McVittie, p. 27). In an empirical research study conducted by McVittie, forty-two TAs completed questionnaires sent by the author to indicate their willingness to participate, and were further interviewed. .
The point of the investigation was to assess whether or not TAs were being employed effectively. On average, about half of the TAs interviewed indicated they worked from 50 to 75% of their time working with students with special needs. All of the TAs participating stated that they were given the teacher's weekly plans to review but each also said they were not involved in the development of those plans (McVittie p. 29). On a positive note, sixty percent of TA respondents said they "planned activities themselves" with reference to the SEN-related classroom dynamics but fewer than half (on average) were involved in producing reviews of students' achievement (McVittie p. 29).
The bottom line for McVittie (p. 30) is that TAs "must be included in the communication system" and adults (including parents and administrators) must have "professional regard" for all support staff, including TAs, which will help TAs' self-esteem and will encourage their use of initiative "when supporting colleagues" (McVittie p. 30).
The bottom line for me is that my teacher is also a colleague, a mentor, and a supportive professional who comments on the quality of my work with the students. We communicate well together and in fact after four years working in the same self-contained classroom, we are like a little family. It makes going to work and school simultaneously a pleasure rather than…