Making Lemonade From Lemons: Reflecting on Difficult Experiences
I walked around the classroom, watching the 1st-graders at work. I had asked each one to draw a picture, then write something on the paper about what they had drawn. When I had begun my student teaching experience several weeks earlier, I learned that the children had not yet done any writing and so I planned this activity to get them started. When they finished and left school for the day, I said proudly to Mrs. L., my cooperating teacher, “Look, everyone wrote something!” She looked sourly at the papers in my hands and said, “It was awfully noisy in here.” Her words certainly deflated my enthusiasm, but they also told me what was important to her-peace, quiet, and teacher control, rather than children actively learning.
A Less Than Ideal Experience
That 10-week student teaching experience so many years ago was difficult for me to get through. As a child development and teaching major, I had learned about creating positive learning environments, treating children with respect, and developing the whole child. In this classroom, however, expectations of obedience, stillness, and having the right answers to the teacher’s questions were paramount. Mrs. L.’s teaching style was to sit at her desk at the front of the room and read from the teacher’s manual that accompanied the reading series adopted by the school district. On the day I arrived, she said, “I’m so glad you’re here. Now I can get some things done.” She meant things like cleaning out the storage cupboard in the classroom.
When I had been at the school for just a few weeks, the principal came into the room one morning and told me that Mrs. L. had contracted pneumonia. “But you can just take over for her while she’s gone.” Clearly, I was viewed as a teacher aide, and now a substitute teacher, not as a pre-professional who was there to learn. My presence was a lucky occurrence for the principal, who did not have to find a replacement for a teacher who had become ill. He did not take into account that I was a learner who needed support and guidance as I completed my teacher education program. And I’m sure Mrs. L. had no idea how to mentor me.
My university supervisor was even less helpful. In our seminar meetings, we student teachers wanted to discuss our experiences in the classroom and to ask questions and get some guidance from him. But Mr. W. had other ideas. Somewhere he had learned that it was good to connect with “the here and the now,” and so he kept urging us to discuss that. Whatever that was! We had no idea what he was getting at and became increasingly hostile toward him as the weeks went by. In my case, he never once set foot in the school where a friend and I were teaching to observe us or to talk with our cooperating teachers. At the end of the semester, however, his evaluation of me included low marks. I never understood that. How could he grade me as poor in any area when he never saw me teach?
Was my student teaching experience unsuccessful? Certainly not. I passed the semester with an acceptable report and found a position the next fall in my chosen school district as a kindergarten teacher. Perhaps more important, I did learn some valuable lessons. I now knew the kind of teacher I did not want to be and why I did not want to be so. I had seen poor teaching and supervising in action. I had seen the opposite of what my professors and role models meant when they talked about the developmental domains, the “urge to grow,” or “arranging for children’s success.” My experience served to reinforce for me the importance of those principles I had been taught.
My student teaching was a difficult experience that tried my patience, as well as my strength and energy; in the end, however, it was a great learning opportunity. Since then I have been a cooperating teacher, hosting preservice teachers in my classroom; a university supervisor, guiding students through their own student teaching experiences; and am now an associate professor of teacher education, helping to prepare students for their student teaching semester.
Using Adversity To Grow
I have shared my experiences with university students many times. Some insist that the great amounts of tuition money they spend each semester should assure them a wonderful internship experience with a topnotch classroom teacher who models all the best practices they have been taught. I tell them that we cannot guarantee that outcome because of the way the system works in placing them in classrooms, and I am not sure that a “perfect” placement is the best learning experience, anyway. Adversity generates strength if you are open to it (Daly, 1995). The disposition to think positively serves teachers well. As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Learning comes from analysis of our experiences and planning for change in response. If we just complain and blame others, we waste time, energy, and an opportunity to learn.
Selma Wassermann (2002) recounts her own student teaching experience, which was far from ideal. She was placed with a teacher who did hurtful things to children’s self-esteem and their ability to learn. Even as a pre-professional, she knew that such an approach was wrong. She could see the effects of disrespect and unkindness and knew she would never repeat those behaviors in her own classroom. Wassermann (1989) wrote an article suggesting ways for teachers to encourage children to learn from their mistakes, rather than punishing them for making them. “What did you learn from this?” or “Can you see any patterns here?” also are useful questions for teachers to ask themselves when they make mistakes (as they will!) or when life hands them adversity. “How can I make sure this never happens again?” has been a useful query for me in my own life. I encourage my students to use the same strategy.
Reflection Rather Than Direction
Teachers sometimes have difficulty asking reflective questions rather than dispensing advice. It is something I work on all the time. The centuries-old traditional role of a teacher was to tell the truth-to give information, advice, answers. We were to be the font from which all knowledge flowed. Children were to sit quietly and listen, and absorb our words. My cooperating teacher, Mrs. L., certainly seemed to follow that traditional approach. We now know that not only is this not possible-witness the explosion of information due to modern technology-we also know that merely telling is perhaps the least effective way of teaching anyone anything-even adults.
It is not possible to possess all the information children need today and pass it on to them. The best we can do is give them some of the basics they will need, then help them learn how to find the rest. And we know from Piaget that allowing people to construct their own knowledge is a more effective way of teaching (Mooney, 2000). We must resist the urge always to tell, and instead learn to ask and reflect. It is a more effective way to help teachers and students learn from their life experiences. Using such reflective phrases as, “It sounds like you are saying . . .” or “I hear some confusion in your voice. Perhaps you aren’t sure about that yet,” can help a person clarify her own thoughts and feel some control of her own life.
When children are undergoing a difficult time, rather than trying to neutralize the experience, we can use reflective responses (Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, & Soderman, 1988), or active listening (Gordon & Browne, 1996) to help them cope. I once did this for a 4-year-old boy who arrived on his first day of preschool sobbing miserably. As a visitor, I offered to help him while the other teachers were dealing with the rest of the group. He did not resist as I picked him up (I would not have persisted if he had) and walked down the hallway of the school with him in my arms. In a low, calm voice, I repeated phrases like “You really don’t want to be here today” and “You’d sure like to go home.” I did not try to cheer him up by telling him this was a great place to be with many fun things to do, or that he would make lots of new friends. It may seem that this approach would increase his distress. After about 15 minutes, however, he had calmed a bit; I reentered the classroom and sat with him on my lap in a chair toward the back of the room. The children were up front listening to a story about bugs. I spoke quietly to him, making comments about insects, and when the class went outside to collect bugs in paper cups, he and I went along. He became very interested in this activity and soon was on the ground, busily searching for ants, no longer needing me to help him feel comfortable. Since I was a visitor and would not be back the next day, I urged one of the teachers to speak to him and begin creating a relationship with him, which she did. Several months later, I saw the teachers and asked about this child. He had adjusted successfully and had experienced no more emotional problems related to coming to school.
If adults are lucky, we have at least one friend to whom we can vent our feelings. He or she will not give advice or try to solve our problems for us, but will just listen with sympathy and/or empathy, trusting us to be able to deal with our own issues and manage our own lives. I have had students ask for my help or advice in dealing with a problem. They leave my office after a while, thanking me for the assistance. As I review what I actually said, I can think of nothing that seemed really helpful, in my opinion. What I had done was listen and sometimes use reflective phrases, such as, “It sounds like you’re saying . . .” and “That must have been a difficult decision for you” or “So you’ve decided to. . . .” Even though they sought my advice, they really knew what they wanted to do. Pointing out this fact can help them see themselves as good problem solvers and increase their level of self-esteem and feelings of competence. If we solve every problem for children, they lose the opportunity to feel competent; they may learn to be dependent and ultimately rely too much on others for help.
Some years ago, a friend put her 3-year-old son in a new child care center. At first, he was very unhappy there, and he cried each time she left him. She said to me, “I know he doesn’t like it now, but when he conquers his fears about going to this center, he will feel so good about himself.” It was a new idea to me, and I have remembered it. We cannot save children from all unpleasant experiences, nor should we. Of course, we must protect them from serious physical and psychological harm. But hard times are a part of life, and if we insulate children from them, they never learn about their own strength and resilience. Many adults can recall the exhilaration they felt when they conquered a fear or survived a difficult time, such as losing a job and eventually finding a new one. Why should we deny children the opportunity to experience that same feeling?
It is even appropriate to encourage children’s risk-taking. Mooney (2000) describes an incident in which a teacher encourages a young girl to push herself into climbing onto the roof of a playhouse being built by children. Margaret wants only to hammer nails, but the teacher insists that if she chooses to participate, she must do what the group activity for the day is-installing roofing shingles. The child is not forced into doing anything; she is merely prevented from taking the easy, comfortable way out. Eventually, she conquers her fear, and, from atop the playhouse, with joy and exhilaration, Margaret demands some nails to attach a shingle. This approach may seem harsh at first, but the child was not hurt, only unhappy, and in the long run benefited greatly.
Allowing children to take risks and deal with the consequences is not always easy. Those of us who chose to become teachers did so because, among other reasons, we like children, and liking children typically means being kind to them. Standing by as they attempt things that may result in disappointment or a scraped knee may be hard. But we must allow them to test their abilities and strengths and discover their own powers. That is active learning and construction of self-knowledge-the best kind of education. My student teaching experience was not a happy one, but its difficulty allowed me to grow in ways that an easy semester with a mentor who fit my image of a good teacher could not. I had been given many lemons with which to make lemonade, and was the better for it.
Daly, C. B. (1995). How the lawyers stole winter. Atlantic Monthly, 275(3), 22-23.
Gordon, A., & Browne, K. W. (1996). Guiding young children in a diverse society. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Kostelnik, M. J., Stein, L. C., Whiren, A. P., & Soderman, A. K. (1993). Guiding children’s social development (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: Delmar.
Mooney, C. G. (2000). Theories of childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget and Vygotsky. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf.
Wassermann, S. (1989). Learning to value error. Childhood Education, 65, 233-235.
Wassermann, S. (2002). Leaving. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10), 792-795.
Sue Grossman is Associate Professor, Department of Teacher Education, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.
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