Aspiring Educator Learns Nothing Prepares You For Teaching Like Teaching

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WALTHAM, Mass. — All this week, for our special series on teachers, we've heard from academics, administrators, union representatives, parents, teachers and students. In this story, we're going to hear from a teacher-in-training.

She's one of the educators of the future. And she's finding out that nothing prepares you for teaching like teaching. Because no matter how many education courses you take, once you have a classroom of your own, all that academic theory can quickly go out the window.

Meet Christine Dunn. She's a 26-year-old graduate student at Boston University's School of Education, and this semester she student-taught at the Kennedy Middle School in Waltham.

"I am so excited to truly have my own classroom," says student teacher Christine Dunn. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
"I am so excited to truly have my own classroom," says grad student Christine Dunn. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

"People assume that teachers' days end at 2:30," Dunn says, "but for me it's sometimes been ending at 2:30 in the morning!"

That's because she was teaching four classes of eighth-grade English a day while also taking classes of her own two nights a week at BU. Dunn says her education courses have been valuable — but nothing beats classroom experience.

"I used to script out everything that I was going to say, but that kind of ended," she recalls. "Like, if we had a discussion or something I'd already scripted out my question, so I was completely leading them to these answers that I'd predetermined. And I realized you have to trust the kids to think on their own."

Now that she's spent several months student-teaching, she also has new skills to apply, like this no-nonsense approach:

"I want to make sure that everyone's eyes are on me when I'm speaking," Dunn tells a class of eighth-graders on the day I watched her teach, "and if you're not I will have you go back to your seat."

The importance of that kind of disciplined classroom management is something Dunn learned on day one of student-teaching.

"There were the kids that wanted to test me," she says. "They knew I was a student teacher. They knew that they could maybe try and get away with things. And Meredith told me from the beginning, 'Don't let that happen, put your foot down. I'm giving you the right to be mean.' And, with that, then I never had a problem."

"Meredith" is Meredith Wilson, Dunn's mentor at the Kennedy school. Wilson has been teaching there for six years, and she says one of the points she stressed to Dunn is the importance of maintaining authority.

“I used to script out everything that I was going to say ... I realized you have to trust the kids to think on their own.”

Christine Dunn

"She needs to go into her own classroom next year and be able to have those same high expectations," Wilson says, "so that they can start the first day and go all the way through to June. Otherwise, you'll have a problem in March."

Wilson also coached Dunn to give clear instructions, to think about what she wants her students to learn rather than just what activity to have them do, and to do something known as cold-calling.

Dunn used that technique when I watched her say this to her students: "Be prepared: I will call on anybody if there aren't volunteers for journal today. So be prepared for everybody to share, OK?"

Wilson explains why she's taught Dunn this technique: "What we love about cold-calling is that the idea behind it is not to 'get' students; the idea is to have everyone answer the question in their head first. That way, everyone is answering the question silently in their mind because they know they could be called on. And so I watched her do that earlier, which is really exciting to see."

Dunn finished her student-teaching in mid-May and has three more courses to take at BU this summer. In August, she'll have her degree. She's already started applying for positions and hopes to have a classroom of her own this fall.

And even though she's learned firsthand how rigorous teaching can be, she says it hasn't scared her off.

"I found this year that it's not just a job for me; it's something I'm dreaming about even when I'm not here. So it's consumed my life. It's been the most challenging year of my life but absolutely the most wonderful. And I am so excited to truly have my own classroom."

This program aired on May 25, 2011.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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