My Teaching Story
By Ted Kesler, Elementary Education, White Plains, NY:
When I started teaching, I worried that I would become stale, teaching the same subjects year after year. I had a perception of teachers, late in their careers, who had become jaded. I was dismayed by negative perceptions about teaching by the public, propagated by popular media. Friends and family would say, “You have it so easy. Your day ends by three p.m. and you have long summer vacations.” They would ask, “Why do you have to prepare? Haven’t you taught this grade level already? Can’t you just go in and teach the same thing?” But each year, I had a new group of students who formed their own distinct community of learners, with their own distinct strengths and needs. I also taught different grade levels across the years. I constantly read professional books and articles, attended workshops and institutes, and actively participated in professional learning networks, including NCTE. I learned new theories and practices that helped me continue to improve my teaching, such as implementing a balanced literacy framework, a differentiated spelling system, reading and writing workshops, a constructivist approach to math, and infusing literacy in content area work.
I developed what Duffy and Hoffman (1999) call “informed eclecticism.” By this term, these educators meant that effective teachers use ongoing evaluation to thoughtfully adapt to the learning context. They know many methods and materials, and which methods and materials (or combination) to apply in specific situations, depending on students’ needs. Responsive teachers must be lifelong learners in order to develop adaptive practices. They acquire “a state of mind characterized by a desire to leave a mark on society, a persistent curiosity about how to proceed, a willingness to take risks, and a propensity for seeking new solutions to the dilemma-ridden task of serving kids of varying backgrounds and abilities” (p. 14).
By actively pursuing networks of professional learning, I came to the attention of my school district’s superintendent. So when the New York Times reporter, Jacques Steinberg, contacted him in the fall of 1996, seeking a third-grade teacher to follow for the entire school year, the superintendent named me. That summer, the New York City public school chancellor, Dr. Rudy Crew, had called an end to social promotion. He decreed that all third-grade students must be reading on grade level by the end of the school year, based on teachers’ evaluations of their reading and their results on the ELA standardized test. If not, they would be required to attend summer school and then retake the test. And if they continued to underperform, they would be retained in the grade. Jacques wanted to investigate how this mandate played out in a typical third-grade class.
My class had the perfect demographics for Jacques’ investigation. I had 32 students, with a wide range of social classes, races, ethnicities, and abilities. As Jacques wrote in the first article about my third-grade class: my students were “an eclectic mix who represent a broad cross section of the city’s public-school students. No racial or ethnic group is dominant in the class, or in the school. . . . Some live in stately co-ops, others in the nearby Frederick Douglass housing project. Because the school and its district, Number 3, have gained a reputation as being progressive, several students in the class commute from as far away as Washington Heights and the Bronx.” (The New York Times, Nov. 19, 1998). In addition, I was undeterred about opening my classroom to this very public scrutiny. I was committed to serving my students as usual—the joy and the struggle—regardless. What ensued was a nine-part series of articles. (You can read them at Teds Classroom.)
As the first articles came out, I learned to become articulate about my teaching decisions and practices so that they would not be misconstrued. I had to be metacognitive and speak aloud my moves: “Jacques, I’m taking Andre out to the hallway to speak to him privately about an incident that happened at lunch.”; “I’m using mixed-ability grouping now because it will provide additional support for reading this material.”; “I’m keeping LaToya in for lunch to finish her story that’s due by Friday.” After the first article was published, we started seeing letters to the editor in the newspaper, and receiving piles of mail from all over the country and other parts of the world. I realized that I was truly representing urban, public elementary education on a world stage. I taught as if the public address system in my class was broadcasting live (this was before the age of streaming online video), and I could firmly justify every move I made as a classroom teacher. In short, being such a public school teacher made me improve.
My journey since then took me to The Reading and Writing Project of Teachers College, where, in 2008, I earned my Ed.D. in Curriculum and Teaching. I now teach both pre-service and in-service teachers and teachers on sabbatical programs at Queens College, CUNY, continuing my commitment to public education. I continue to work extensively in New York City public schools (and other school districts around the country), providing literacy professional development and conducting research. I continue to engage in professional learning networks, now using many of the affordances of online learning communities. I have taken on more leadership roles at NCTE and other education organizations.
Now, 30 years into my own career, I look back and say, “Wow! What a long, strange trip it’s been.” I’m an intellectual. I’ve always been an intellectual. And I’m NEVER at a loss for what to learn next to become a better educator. And when I do my best as an educator, regardless of the modest pay, I am aware of the enormous positive impact my teaching provides students to go out into the world and be brave. I can feel proud of the work I do, and that feeling is invaluable.
Duffy, G. G., & Hoffman, J. V. (1999). In pursuit of an illusion: The flawed search for a perfect method. The Reading Teacher, 53 (1), 10-16.