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Students teaching students

Rigors of classroom hone skills of UNM apprentice teachers

Middle school student teacher Luke Cordova says that keeping his pupils focused on academics during a time when they are becoming aware of their social lives is tough.

He is one of many UNM College of Education student teachers discovering what techniques work best in the classroom and how much effort the profession requires.

"I think the biggest thing I've learned is not to take it personally when kids are acting up," he said. "Kids are willing to forget - they're living in the moment."

Cordova, 33, teaches sixth grade at Cleveland Middle School and is working toward getting his K-8 licensure with an emphasis in social studies.

Although he began observing his classroom in the fall, he didn't begin teaching until spring.

"It wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be," he said of his first time teaching alone. "Mid-way through the first class, I was comfortable."

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Cordova says he is learning about himself while finding what works and tries to be as flexible as he can with his students.

"I really don't want to be a dictator in the classroom," he said. "I really want them to have ownership of their learning experiences."

One morning a few weeks ago, Cordova encouraged students to stand up and read excerpts from an in-class writing assignment about whether schools should have uniforms.

Listening and watching students in a room full of stuffed animals, maps and vocabulary words, he asked them about the benefits and drawbacks of a society where everyone must look alike and applauded the students who shared their ideas.

Developing a sense of classroom community where students can debate and discuss is an important part of teaching, says Rosalita Mitchell, secondary education program coordinator at the UNM.

"They have to feel that this is a place where they can voice their opinions," she said.

Mitchell, who coordinates social studies, bilingual and world language student teachers for grades 7-12, also was a high school teacher for 21 years.

She emphasized that teachers need to reflect on how they are connecting with their students.

"The best way to become a teacher is to be a teacher for some time with a support network," she said.

Elementary, middle level and high school student teachers are usually paired with experienced teachers at their schools to share what they are learning and gain insight to the profession. They also attend seminars through the UNM College of Education once a week to discuss teaching methods, compare notes and perceptions, and help each other solve problems.

Dan Young, who coordinates teachers for grades six through eight at the College of Education, says student teachers are asked to keep a weekly journal for the middle level seminar class.

"We try to get them to move from describing their days to making sense of them," he said.

Diana Marquez, a ninth grade English student teacher at Sandia High School, says the UNM seminars have been extremely helpful.

"It kind of validates your experience and makes you feel that everything that happens is supposed to be happening," she said.

Marquez said she heard her calling when she participated in a teacher-for-a-day program as a student at La Cueva High School. She said she met a discouraged elementary student who was having problems telling time and decided to make an effort to help her understand.

"She took a different test and got a 100, and she was so happy," she said. "That was really the defining moment."

Now, as a high school student teacher, Marquez says that working around time constraints is one of the most challenging aspects of her job. She said she struggles with balancing what needs to be done with what students want to do.

"There is a lot of grammar and spelling to get through," she said.

Marquez said she works a few hours a night and one day on the weekend grading papers and creating lesson plans. Coming up with new ideas for tests and assignments is often challenging for new teachers, she said.

"We don't have a notebook that we can pull out with previous lessons and ideas," she said.

New teachers often don't realize that they will have to schedule conferences, be on bus and lunch duty, prepare students for standardized testing and write progress reports in addition to their lecturing time in the classroom, said Young, who oversees about 20 student teachers.

"I think teachers are surprised with the level of involvement necessary," he said.

Young says new teachers often struggle with the difference between who they want to be and who they have to be in the classroom. He said they are often too rigid or charismatic at first - either assigning too much work without getting to know their students, or making the personal connection without meaningful direction. After a semester of teaching, he says they usually become more balanced instructors.

Marquez, who is now teaching full-time, said she felt comfortable teaching on her first day. She said she wasn't nervous because she had prepared during her lesson-planning classes.

"I knew what I was going to do," she said. "I thought about it so much that it made sense and flowed very well.

"I was really excited because it was just me and the students. We got to make that bond and connection that we hadn't before."

Marquez says she has made the right career choice.

"I like being creative and thinking up the lesson plans - it's just so much fun," she said. "I like being on stage and I love personal interaction - the fun, the conversation. And you just get to know so many people."

Maria Dlinn is sure that she, too, has made the right career choice by training to become an elementary teacher. She says that working with 5-year-olds has been a life-changing experience.

"They are incredible human beings," she said. "They are interested in the world, they are interested in learning."

Dlinn, of the early childhood multicultural program at UNM, began student teaching with a city program in summer and finished her student teaching this month at Corrales Elementary.

She says she has learned that families of all kinds are vital in young students' educations, and teachers and parents should work together to raise children.

"Everyone has something to offer," she said. "Parents know their children. They have information that is very important that will make an impact."

Dlinn said she decided to give a lesson on fish when she taught on her own for the first time. She brought in books, a big, stuffed fish and real trout from the supermarket for the children to see.

Dlinn said she was amazed to find the children poking at the fish with gloves and discussing what they thought the parts were for.

"They were into looking at each scale separately and touching them," she said.

She says teachers should create lessons that pull from students' prior knowledge so the children can relate to what they are learning.

Aside from creating interesting lesson plans, Dlinn said teachers have endless duties. When they're not talking, they are assessing themselves and their students, she said, and they're asking, "What is going on with this child? How can I do something different?"

"Not until I was in the classroom did I understand the enormity of the work," Dlinn said. "There isn't one second that you're not working."

Mitchell says that practicing teaching instead of just learning about it really helps the student teachers that she coordinates begin to understand that the job involves much more than assigning homework and lecturing.

"I think they begin to realize how complex things are, how much from the outside comes in with the students, what's happening with their families, their neighborhoods," she said.

Cordova, who will continue his student teaching at Cleveland Middle School this semester, says that he plans to continue learning from his students while searching for the best way to teach them.

"I'm going to have to be humble and patient," he said.

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