(Thank you, Shaun, for sharing your wisdom with our student teachers and soon-to-be graduates)
Student Teacher Celebration
May 9th, 2016
(Shaun Mitchell, Central High School)
|Shaun Mitchell, 2016 CT Teacher of the Year Finalist|
2014 Theodore and Margaret Beard Excellence in
Teaching Award Recipient
Thank you, Dr. Crandall and thank you to the Fairfield University community for having me here today. But more importantly, congratulations to all you new and budding educators! What a beautiful time to become a teacher! We are on the edge of evolution in our profession. In the last seven years of my own career, I’ve seen teacher evaluation get coupled with test scores; I’ve seen the coming and going of a little thing called SBAC; I’ve seen the economic disparities between my suburban student teaching school versus my current urban school. I’ve seen all this and more - but instead of being discouraged at the state of education, I am all the more encouraged to get up every morning and fight the good fight in one of the most important arenas in our society: our schools.
To be here today, you all have gone through your student teaching and have seen firsthand the trials and tribulations of what it takes to be a teacher in the 21st century. It’s very different from when our parents were in school and it’s even changed from when we were in school. In 10 years from now it will be all the more altered. But then I’m reminded of the old saying: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
By and large, students have remained the same at their core over time, regardless of the technology that has invaded our classrooms. They still depend on great teachers and adults to show them the joys of learning and living; they still are highly social creatures just as they’ve always been; and they still have stories to tell - maybe even more so now than in the past. Education practices, too, like the students, although it may seem as if they have changed radically in the last few years, have also remained the same at their core. Content is taught, learning is assessed, and relationships are formed. Whether you use Socratic seminars, or Paideia seminars, exit tickets, or Do-Nows none of it matters if you don’t build relationships with your students. That has always been the one constant in an ever-changing educational landscape.
On the note of building relationships with your students, instead of waxing poetic about my educational philosophies, I want to impart some take home value in this and give you some advice for your upcoming first years as educators. These are tips I wish I was told when I was in your position. They got me through my first years and led me to where I am today.
(1) Tip #1: relationships with your students are everything. It’s what got me through my first year of teaching. You see I grew up in a small New Jersey town very similar to Fairfield - in a word: suburban. When I was propelled into my first week of teaching at Central High School in Bridgeport I was a fish out of water. To say I was culture shocked is an understatement. On top of that, I was drowning in curricula I knew nothing about that I’d soon have to teach over the next year. I vividly remember calling my mom every night that week saying I was going to quit. I actually wrote 3 different versions of my resignation letter. Then in a moment of clarity, I remembered why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. We all have our own reasons. Mine was to change lives the way my teachers changed mine - they turned an apathetic and scared little gay boy into a confident academic young man. They accomplished this by forming relationships with me. Trust and understanding: two crucial and reciprocated parts of the teacher-student relationship. Looking back to my own teachers for inspiration, I knew what I had to do that first year.
I started trusting my students. And I took time to understand my students. Like magic, something you can’t quite explain, I was teaching as a stranger in a strange land and I was surviving. My confidence grew along side my students that year. My lessons got better and more involved with each passing week. By May of my first year, I was a completely different person than I was 8 months prior. I’m the teacher I am today because of the relationships I formed with my students then as I do now. In that first year it was crucial for my career, and every year since, it has been mandatory. Take the time to understand your students. Curriculum be damned - it will always be there. And
it will be that much harder to teach if your students cannot have a relationship with you.
(Slide with my first classes ever.) These were the first students I ever taught. I will never forget them. They changed my life even more than I may have changed theirs. I took the time to understand them. Trust was created. And I’m happy to say that I still keep in touch with many of them today. Form those relationships and watch your classrooms blossom.
(2) Speaking of keeping up with former students, technology plays a big part in that. So my next piece of advice is to utilize technology as much as you are comfortable. The thing about technology and schools, is that both environments are in constant flux, so it can be daunting to keep up with it all. Technology comes with many different uses and with many different modes of delivery. There are some days I want to banish the creator of the smart phone to a remote planet you’d find in Star Wars. And then there are days when I wonder how my teachers lived without them in their classrooms. Between my phone, my laptop, my DVD player, and my desktop, technology is everywhere and I have to use it to keep up with my students who are being raised on it.
My student teacher, and your fellow classmate, Charlotte Pecquex used technology to build on a project I did with my students a few years ago. She took student voice to a new level when she recorded students’ writing around the idea of ‘struggle’ and edited them together using Garageband and iTunes, ultimately weaving a narrative of Bridgeport youth in their struggle to find the meaning of life. What a project! It was such an inspirational experience for me and the kids, just as much as it was for Charlotte. And without technology, a mere 10 years ago, this project wouldn't have been possible to make in a classroom.
In addition to Garageband, I want to share a few other technological aides that may make your teaching more efficient next year like making a classroom website. Classroom websites require a lot of work upfront, but the long term payoff is worth it for student achievement. Charlotte used Wix during her student teaching, while I took this year to convert to Google Classroom from Edmodo. With Google Classroom, I was able to host a virtual Oscars watching party for my Literature & Film class this year. We broke down the four walls of my classroom and it was awesome. School continued outside the traditional school setting.
Not forgetting parents, the Remind App for your phone has been an amazing tool for keeping an open line of communication with my students and their parents together.
Whether it be homework reminders, school announcements, or requesting a conference, this has changed with way I communicate with my students and their families. As the director of our school plays, I also can keep in touch with my cast and keep them updated with rehearsal changes. We all know communication is key.
My challenge to you for next year is to incorporate some kind of technology into your classroom. Whatever makes you comfortable. As with anything new, you’ll be putting yourself out of your comfort zone at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be a pro.
(3) And speaking of the pros, my last bit of advice for you all is to seek out mentors. Given that, mentors come in a variety of places within your professional and personal life. And they come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders. Everyone’s experience is valuable. Nothing makes this job easier than finding those few colleagues in your building you look up to for guidance, help, and the occasional venting session. These are the people at the base of your support group - your day-to-day colleagues. In a career that can differ from district to district and building to building, they are the only people who know what it’s like to work in your school. They get you. You get them. You both know what teaching and learning look like in your building. Make sure you seek them out and build the base of your support group.
Adding onto your in-building colleagues, it’s also good to have a regional perspective of what education looks like. To help you there, seek out colleagues in other districts. This room is a good starting point - you all will be teaching in many different districts throughout the area and beyond. Gain the insight of what it looks like to teach elsewhere. You know through your student teaching seminar that everyone’s experience in the classroom is different and each experience is valuable learning for other educators - sometimes even more so than PD workshops.
Another place to find out-of-district colleagues is by seeking out professional organizations in your area. I was lucky enough to participate in one right here at
Fairfield University following my second year of teaching. The Connecticut Writing
Project brought Bryan Ripley Crandall into my life and since then my career was elevated to a level I didn’t know existed. Through CWP and the encouragement of Dr. Crandall I’ve had the opportunity to travel the country giving and developing workshops on literacy and writing - next up is Atlanta in November!; I’ve met with colleagues across the country to hear what teaching looks like in all 50 states; and most importantly, I’ve sharpened my teacher leader skills by working with teachers and students throughout Fairfield County. Without CWP, I wouldn't be Bridgeport’s Teacher of the Year and I certainly wouldn’t be on the Commissioner of Education’s advisory committee with my fellow Teacher of the Year finalists.
Professional education organizations bring together like-minded individuals to elevate and celebrate our profession. They develop the teacher leaders who are going to drive education into the 22nd Century. There are many organizations to fit the myriad of interests in education. Find the one that suits your needs and being making change on a larger scale.
And finally, I like to round out my mentors with people who have no idea what it’s like to be on the frontline of education. Perspective is relative. If we spend all our time in the classroom, it’s hard to see from the outside in. And that’s where our non-teacher friends come in. They may think we’re crazy for doing what we do, but secretly we know they’re crazy for not doing what we do because we know it’s the best job in the world.
No, teaching isn't always the glamorous depiction we see in the movies. And no matter how hard I try to be Michelle Pfiefer from Dangerous Minds, I know my students are real people with real needs and there are no cameras to catch my triumphant and vulnerable moments in the classroom. We do this because we know the future is dependent on the education of our youth. We do this because we know the future of education is dependent on getting and keeping good teachers in the classroom.
You will have hard days - it’s just the nature of the job. But for every bad day, there will be a million good reasons to keep your head up and get the job done. It’s also important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. Yes, our profession is very serious - as we cannot underestimate the future. But you have a responsibility to feed and nourish your mind, body, and soul. Recognize your breaking points and have an exit strategy. Humor and laughter certainly help in that department. With humor in mind, I wanted to share these memes with you to start closing out our time together. Sometimes it feels like a thankless job especially when people tell me I’m lucky to have the summer off or that my day ends at 2:30. Or my personal favorite: when the government tells me my student’s test scores are a direct result of my teaching, not bearing in mind the variables that socioeconomic and socio-emotional factors add to the equation.
But then it happens out of nowhere. You get a letter from a student who you changed forever when you were just doing your job. Or you get an unexpected hug from a student because you noticed something about them nobody else did. Or you simply gain a students’ respect because you gave them respect first. And you swell up with emotion and remember why you got into this profession in the first place. I want you all to think of just one of the many reasons you became a teacher - just one. And when you’re having a bad day or you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, remember this one reason. Remember me telling you this. You are all remarkable people for wanting to dedicate your lives and careers to the betterment of our students and by default, the betterment our collective future. I want to thank you personally for being my colleagues, whom I hope to learn from in the future.
This really is the best job in the world. You are embarking on a journey that will last the remainder of your lifetime in ways that will surprise you and inspire you. I wish you all success in your careers and I hope you find as much joy in this job as I have. Graduating from Fairfield University I know you are well prepared, so go forth – armed with your knowledge and passion - and change lives. And on behalf of every life you will change, I simply say thank you. Thank you for your time.