Learning through Teaching

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Cori McKenzie ’06

I didn’t come to Grinnell intending to become a teacher. I came to Grinnell to major in English, discuss James Joyce and Anna Nicole Smith (R.I.P.) with roommates until 3 a.m., and learn the ins and outs of a variety of liberalisms. I actually didn’t go to Grinnell to become anything; I went to live, learn, and love in the present.

However, Grinnell has this annoying habit of making you care a lot more about the future than the present: there are so many students, staff, and faculty who do things to make the world a better place that you can’t help but start planning how you’re going take part in social change.

So I took some classes in the education department and discussed educational philosophy; I journaled about what it means to educate the oppressed and how the school as an institution can be an oppressor; I learned about how, why, and when to teach a variety of reading skills; I even did a summer research project on the construct of “teacher” and multicultural literature. By the time last fall rolled around, I had taken as many education courses as English courses, and I felt ready to actually be in the classroom. I was ready to become a teacher.

I was placed at Marshalltown High School in Marshalltown, Iowa, a fairly large school situated about 45 minutes northwest of Grinnell (some of you may even go there — some of you may have even had me as a teacher … like whoa!). Marshalltown’s economy is built on the local meat packing plant. As a result, students come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and nearly 30 percent are native Spanish-speaking children of immigrants. As I began my student teaching, I was excited about my placement because of this diversity — it seemed like an excellent chance for me to use education to empower those who tend to have little voice in their communities. (Cue “Gangsta’s Paradise” as I change into Michelle Pfeiffer’s leather coat.)

Of course, it didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. Even though I worked hard to craft interesting lesson plans around research-based methods, there were days when my students would have learned more from watching The Daily Show than they did in my class. (It’s actually possible that my students would have learned more from Jon Stewart than in any of my classes — hilarious, good-looking, and intelligent? Nobody can compete with that.) Even though I vowed to make my teaching meaningful to all of my students, many still saw learning as a waste of time. Fortunately, among the low points came small victories: my freshmen organized a canned food drive for victims of domestic assault; one of my sophomores wrote an incredibly reflective letter to her sibling; and my seniors wrote college entrance essays about duck hunting, sporks, and family that made me laugh and think about life in new ways.

For the first half of the semester, the roller coaster days killed me — I loved the brilliant moments, but each time a student flunked a quiz or disrupted others, I felt I had somehow failed as a teacher. Luckily, though, I had a whole community of peers and professors to whom I could vent. Every Thursday, the student teachers gathered with two education professors to reflect on our teaching and discuss educational research. Additionally, four of us carpooled to M-town, so between NPR clips about Mark Foley and Ace of Base remixes, we talked about frustrations and began to flesh out what the act of teaching meant to each of us. My non-teaching Grinnell friends sent me supportive e-mails, and Grinnell faculty members shared teaching stories with me over cups of tea and sugar cookies.

In the end, I can honestly say the Grinnell community was an essential part of my teaching experience because it helped me reflect on my teaching. Yes, I still have a passion for using education to create social change; however, I’m beginning to understand social change usually happens quietly and slowly. As a result, I’m learning how to enjoy both the little changes and small victories — to do an awkward little fist-pump dance when all of my students bring their books to class — and hope and plan to make a greater change in their lives.

Maybe all of this sounds obvious to you, but learning to learn from failure and enjoy small triumphs is the only reason I’ll be teaching again next fall—well, that and the fact that I know I have a whole network of friends and profs who will support me, help me enjoy the teacher that I am, and guide me toward the kind of teacher I want to become.

Cori McKenzie '06 is an English major with an Education Certification from Elmhurst, Illinois.