This Teaching Life: How I Taught Myself to Teach
reviewed by Jessica Fitzsimons Riccio & Angela Calabrese Barton - 2006
Miss Stellwagon, my first grade teacher, was my first teacher. She taught me about favorites (I was not one) and about talking in class (I was one) She taught me that discipline meant humiliation and loss of self-esteem, which diminished you (p. 5-6).
Reflecting on her lifetime in schools as a student, a teacher and a researcher Selma Wasserman situates both the complexity of the relationship between teacher and student and the importance of self-reflection or looking at self in her autobiographical account This Teaching Life: How I Taught Myself to Teach (Teachers College Press, 2004). One of the central themes presented in this text is Wassermans lifelong struggle of coming to know teaching as an educative art rather than simply a skill in which to be trained. Using stories from her life in the classroom, Wasserman demonstrates that education is about understanding and using that understanding to make good, informed choices, while training involves the passive process of indoctrination. Embedded in Wassermans account of her struggle to educate and be educated is her unflappable belief that learning to be a good teacher is about learning to reflect-in-action and to engage in self-scrutiny.
If there is a difference between training and educating, it seems that what I was doing fell decidedly into the training camp my students were being well trained as lesson learners. But I failed them badly by not teaching them to become autonomous individuals, capable of making their own decisions, of solving problems with a can-do spirit, of developing a palpable zest for learning. And without any inner glance, I was certain that what I was doing was good (p. 21).
Distinguishing between education and training is not a novel idea. However, what makes Wassermans text compelling is her willingness to engage her struggle to live the difference between the two. What emerges from Wassermans reflections is a text focused on the struggles, triumphs, and realities she encountered in the course of her career development. Yet, she presents this personal narrative in a way that reaches out to teachers, seeking spaces of common ground that allow her personal experiences to be shared by other teachers in their own career trajectories.
For example, in the very first chapter, Wasserman recounts her experiences in Miss Stellwagons first grade classroom. Her reflections on Miss Stellwagon, THE teacher, capture the very images that frame Wassermans initial beliefs about and practices as a teacher: That teaching is about a prescription and a bag of tricks; that a well functioning class is one where students are passive and the teacher is in control of students; that student learning is tantamount to a teachers ability to cover the curriculum at all costs. These deeply thoughtful images shared by Wasserman are at once painful and honest, reflecting the normative practices of schools. While Wasserman opens her text describing that in first grade, she learned that in order to be successful in school one often had to be humiliated, she also fast forwards to her own early teaching career where she, too, in the name of teaching well, engaged in teaching practices that might have been hurtful to childrens self esteem:
I worked hard at preparing for my primary graders worksheets that were cute and equally hard at marking them, pointing out errors with red Xs, and indicating whether I thought the childrens work was good. In marking the worksheets, I believed with the conviction of the unenlightened that I was being helpful, that children would rejoice in learning where they had blundered. I didnt for a minute consider that such feedback might be hurtful to a childs self-esteem, or how feedback could be worded so that the sting of failure might be reduced (p. 19).
As this passage shows, Wasserman does not shy away from reflection upon difficult and embarrassing memories in order to build a practice that educates (p. 20).
Following this introduction, Wasserman structures the remainder of text around twelve chapters. Chapter 2 translates her reflections on teaching as educating into a vision of what a highly qualified teacher is, and Chapters 3-12 offer a set of ideas or practices that she believes highly qualified teachers use to foster true education, rather than training, for both the mind of the teacher and of the student.
A highly qualified teacher, according to Wasserman, is one who helps to transform the educational system by being thoughtful, self-initiating, reliable, positive, problem solvers, who have clear ideas and beliefs, can put new ideas into practice and are reflective in their practice. The interactions that highly qualified teachers have with students are aimed towards promoting student thinking, student to student interaction, and mutual respect. This vision, while not inconsistent with the overall goals of federal policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind, stands in stark contrast to the qualities of teachers who are highly qualified as described in these documents, i.e., a highly qualified teacher is an individual who holds a bachelors degree, full state certification as defined by the state, and demonstrated competency as defined by the state in each core academic subject the teacher teaches (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Again, what marks the difference between these two sets of criteria is how education is framed: Is teaching and learning about how teachers learn to relate to students and to subject matter or is it about covering the curriculum whether that curriculum is a list of science standards or a set of requirements a teacher must meet.?
Wasserman than uses this vision to set up the remainder of the text around those practices, which she believes enables a reflective teacher to engage students in meaningful and empowering learning. In particular she addresses the following concerns: Putting new ideas into practice, attending to individual learning needs, creating rich, engaging and interactive learning environments, using evaluation to promote learning, caring about individuals, unifying groups, building habits of thinking, learning to reflect on practice and providing evaluative feedback that is enabling.
Wasserman uses her vision of a highly qualified teacher as well as her experiences skillfully. In each chapter Wasserman shares her own experiences of working on one of the teaching practices that makes for a good teacher, and she pairs it with a vision for how a highly qualified teacher would exhibit such a practice. In doing so, Wasserman stays true to her narrative. She shares her own experiences, including painful mistakes and thoughtful awakenings, making the account believable and profoundly grounded in the realities of learning to teach. For example, she tells of her experiences as a new teacher obsessed to cover the curriculum over any other goal, unaware of the lack of self reflection, and the process of facing the reality of owning my statements and learning to observe and apprehend how my statements affect others, discerning whether they are effective in producing the desired learning results (p. 24). She candidly admits that it is only in recent years that she has learned the power of can do and cant do spirits in children and the effects of these concepts of self on academic performance (p. 47). Wasserman is able to describe these developments in her own teaching in ways that demonstrate the impact that the growth has had on her own self as a teacher as well as on her students. For example, Wasserman recounts how her own efforts to challenge students to think independently were difficult because it was new territory for both teacher and student. She suggests that the process involved an edge of fear and uncertainty on behalf of the student to embrace this new way of learning centered on the students individual needs. However, she also admits that learning to shed the chains of teacher control was equally frightening for her (p. 63).
Additionally, each chapter is structured to scaffold the readers efforts to think through how they might engage in the same reflective and teaching practices suggested by Wasserman. For example, in the chapter focused on Unifying the Group, Wasserman describes the feelings so many teachers can not escape when trying new methods. Exhaustion, frustration, and a lack of confidence in your ability to get to your expected learning goals is commonly encountered when strategies like cooperative and problem based learning are attempted in the classroom. Utilizing these practices of thinking and learning is frequently the first time our students have been asked to place their views and interests at the center of their learning. This takes time for both students and teachers to adjust. The art of asking questions, designing classrooms that can support discussions, making students partners with the teacher in learning, and providing evaluation without tears are all discussed as issues on which teachers could reflect.
As urban science teacher educators, we easily relate to the stories presented in this text and to Wassermans struggle to learn to teach well. Teaching strategies are not prescriptions, and meaningful learning does not come about solely through a bag of tricks. One of the most urgent challenges we face in building meaningful learning opportunities for youth in high poverty urban schools is that many of our science teachers leave these schools after one, two, or three years not because they are not qualified, but because they burn out in their efforts to improve science in their schools. While there are many explanations for this phenomenon, including a lack of adequate resources, overpopulated classrooms, and little curricular attention devoted to science, one contribution to the challenge is that most urban science teachers do not grow up in urban centers, are not educated in urban schools, and lack a deep and profound understanding of who urban youth are and how the subject of science might meaningfully be related to their lives. Learning to be self-critical and to use the questions raised by such reflections to build a knowledge base around teaching is the foundation for preparing teachers who are interested in creating balance among basic skills, knowledge in the discipline, and connections between learners and complex real world situations, especially when the students life experiences are vastly different from those of the teacher.
While we find Wassermans style and approach compelling, we are left with a question: How do we foster such a self-critical stance among teachers, especially in an age of high stakes accountability, page a day curriculum, and reductionistic descriptions of highly qualified teachers and effective teaching? In other words, how can we foster a way of being in schools that has largely been dismissed as too subjective, too personal, and too expensive? How can we design a school environment that includes school talk time? As Wasserman implies, time is needed for teachers to talk about lessons and about students to enable increasing degrees of reflectivity. Other factors that make this goal difficult to negotiate include the overwhelming number of persons and organizations who also want to play a part in the transformation of schools. The dynamics of working with so many invested parties leaves many feelings, identities, and ideas out for public scrutiny in a way that can make teachers vulnerable and cautious about future participation about opening up their practice for scrutiny. So, in what ways can we ensure that teachers are given the security and space to contribute deep and rigorous reflection without leaving their voices unheard due to competing reform efforts? Finally, on a positive note, how can teachers realize the time, effort, and reflection put forth as a credit to themselves as agents of change?
Overall Wasserman has provided us the story of a 30-year journey as an educator efficiently packed into a useable, approachable memoir. The examples she shares of her students and her own progression are honest, common situations that come up in everyday teaching practice that are not often discussed. Her desire to tell these stories acts as a medium to eliminate teacher isolation, promote transformational teaching practices, and elevate students perception of themselves as capable and valued persons in the learning environment. Due to this broad appeal, this book is well suited for pre-service teachers as foreshadowing, new teachers as a supporting voice of reality, and experienced teachers as an agent to challenge and encourage reflection upon the freshness of their own practices. This book should also be made known to policy makers as a voice of the true challenges of teaching so that no child is left behind, and as an indicator of the true skills educators must develop to become highly qualified teachers, unlike all of the Miss Stellwagons, who may meet basic competency definitions of qualified, but who diminish the can do spirits all students need to possess to be successful.
U.S. Department of Education (2004). No Child Left Behind: A toolkit for teachers, Washington, D.C.: Education Publications Center.