I consider myself a teacher at heart even though I am not a certified teacher, nor do I plan to become one. Whether it’s working as a substitute instructional assistant, as I currently do, lunch clerk, or on recess duty, I am always mindfully teaching.
This position as an instructional assistant is allowing me to gain real-world insight into how schools operate, what struggles both students and educators face day to day, and how I can best help to make a positive difference in our public educational system and our community. These observations and experiences are priceless and will be helpful later down the road when I’m designing curriculum or conceptualizing a research study in the career that I am pursing – educational psychology.
At forty-one, and having sent my own daughter off to college, I’m beginning the second half of my life’s adventure. Part of my new adventure includes pursuing a career that I believe aligns with my desire to affect positive change in society and is also well suited for my personality, curiosity, and love of learning. I have chosen the field of educational psychology because it allows opportunities to create curriculum, teach, and model to educators on how to implement the curriculum, as well as develop new research that can potentially have a wide-reaching impact. I see a progressive movement working to address emotional needs and behavioral issues in schools, such as trauma informed schools and more mindful teaching of emotions in our classrooms. These are great steps forward, but there is still plenty of room for growth.
As a researcher, I would love to expand on these current positive changes by developing curriculum for elementary classrooms, kindergarten to sixth grade, that includes basic understandings of how our brain is working when we learn new information, how our emotional states affect learning, and the remarkable plasticity of the brain. I would like to help create the mindset in our educational system, that emotional intelligence intelligence curriculum is as important to our students’ education (and society) as math and science. I would approach it as a preventive measure against chronic behavioral issues, as well as by adding a greater resilience factor to those predisposed to mental illness either biologically, environmentally or both. I see it as a ,win-win, for society to have a growing population of critical thinkers that who have both the intellectual knowledge, combined with and the social-emotional intelligence, that helps to foster healthy communities.
One of the best things about working in this position as a substitute IA is the opportunity to get to see so many different approaches from school to school. I sometimes see striking differences from schools that are fairly close in proximity to each other yet feel like they are worlds apart on many different levels – from playground facilities to teachers’ lounges.
For example, it’s interesting to see how the teachers’ lounge varies from one school to the next. You can almost see the parallel between the tenor of the school and its students by looking at the teachers’ lounge. If it’s not a nurturing environment where you are able to eat your lunch in a clean place and have break from your day, then it can be toxic to the morale of the teachers and other staff. It tells me that they are possibly understaffed, maybe they have lost sight of these seemingly small things, or they are just too tired to care. I imagine that the students feel that, too. These types of observations fascinate me as I go from school to school, classroom to classroom, and lounge to lounge.
I generally work in schools with greater socio-economic challenges or in self-contained special needs classrooms. While these positions can be very challenging, I’ve found them to be extremely rewarding and have to remind myself that I’m getting paid for this. While I’m not a certified teacher, I still take great responsibility in understanding what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, which is why I devote time outside of my working hours to spend on educating myself. Sometimes this includes reaching out to family or friends who are teachers and asking for recommendations of books or other helpful advice.
I have observed a certain level of anxiety in the air in many of the classrooms with special needs, so I think it’s helpful that I come in with a fresh attitude and calm demeanor. Would I be able to sustain that on a daily basis? Probably not, and this is something I am mindful of when setting my schedules. Transitioning in and out of these positions so often can make building relationships with students and staff more challenging but not impossible. I’ve learned some things that don’t work and some that do. I make notes of both, and I use them to help improve my ability to be an effective educator and teammate.
When I work with children who express behavioral issues, I consider the behaviors to be an outward expression of an inward need that is not being met, with my goal being to help meet that need and/or helping them learn how to meet their own need(s), so that they can learn. I believe students can flourish when they feel safe and are treated with respect. I mirror back to them what I see, which is their intrinsic basic goodness. This is something I truly believe in – basic goodness in all human beings.
What doesn’t work is getting into a power struggle. I did this once and regretted it immediately. I was new and attempted to imitate others around me, thinking that they knew better than I did about what to do, because of my lack of experience. I was wrong. I learned this lesson and now listen more to my gut instincts. I believe that when you come from a place of genuine caring, kids sense this. When you let them know by your own behavior that you are not there to catch them getting in trouble, but instead because you are genuinely concerned about them and the “why” of their behavior, actual positive change can occur. I often attempt to help to equalize the power dynamic that can occur in a student vs. authority figure relationship and work to create more of a team approach.
Life for our students outside of school can be exceptionally challenging, and at times they’ll speak to me about this in such a matter of fact way – an “adult way” – that it’s both upsetting and inspiring. I feel honored to hear their stories and do my best to simply listen without judgment or show when my heart is hurting for their circumstances. When you take time to get to know your students, you can understand how what is asked of them at school can seem quite silly in comparison to the stresses they may be experiencing at home: the lights being turned off, lack of food to eat, or physical and/or mental abuse, to name a few. They can become jaded, cynical, and maybe even hopeless that what they do really matters. I want to show them that what they do matters – who they are matters.
Sometimes this is as simple as noticing a child’s head is down on the lunch table in the morning during breakfast and stopping to inquire if they are feeling okay. Sometimes they are just tired, but sometimes they have more to share and I’m glad I stopped and asked.
Other times it’s staying actively focused during recess. I look out for kids’ faces and body language to assess bullying, physical and/or verbal. I see recess as an area of opportunity for better teaching and modeling behaviors of play, sharing, and even how to be a good sport when they lose.
Oftentimes, it’s as simple as getting a jump rope game started, and before you know it, you have more students wanting to play than you have time for. This is what I love! Sometimes it’s picking up the basketball and asking a kid who doesn’t seem to have anyone to play with if he wants to shoot some baskets with me and then slowly having some other kids trickle over. Before you know it, they’re all playing together. I can’t tell you how many times I do this expecting them to say no, but that is a very rare thing.
My teaching philosophy is threefold. First, I see the human being before seeing the human student. Second, I mirror back to them what I see – their true light of intrinsic goodness. Third, I look past the outward expressions of their behavior and inward towards their human potential and help to ignite this inside of them. I believe that if children feel safe and valued, their ability to learn improves exponentially. The child must feel validated, heard, and safe while still being responsibly challenged for any beliefs that could work against the opportunity to grow their mindset and reach their highest human potential – whatever they decide that to be.