Experience Is the Best Teacher
Experience Is the Best Teacher This Teaching Life: How I Taught My self To Teach by Selma Wassermann. New York: Teachers College Press. © 2004.176 pages. ISBN 0-8077-4500-6.
Wassermann begins her book by looking back. From her “humble and inept bumblings” (xiii) as a new teacher to retirement from a university position, she recounts the experiences of her 50+ years of teaching. She believes, and I have to agree, that most university programs do not prepare student teachers for the real world of teaching. The author writes about the “art of teaching as a subtle and multifaceted dynamic of strategies, skills, and interactive processes” (13) that are learned through self-evaluation and reflection.
She, along with an associate, surveyed teachers and put together a teaching profile that described the behavior of highly competent teachers. Wassermann says that this collaboration became a mirror, forcing her to look at herself and providing guidelines for her own professional growth.
She follows an experiential, rather than a consecutive, timeline in recounting her professional development. Her story was, at times, hard to follow because she jumps quite a bit around her decades of teaching. Wassermann quotes her previous books, papers, and workshops many times to describe her experiences in learning. Larry Cuban, in his foreword, says that her book is “interwoven with stories of her classrooms . . .” and “is a zigzag journey of personal growth” (x).
Wassermann, who is not afraid to admit her mistakes, puts everything out on the table. She never shies away from what she did or tried that may not have made sense to others or been popular in education at the time. One example is when she took a sabbatical from her university post. She chose to go back to the classroom and teach a difficult group of fifth- and sixth-grade special-needs students. Wassermann describes how she tried to get the students to examine their own work and evaluate themselves and one another. They also were to make their own decisions concerning learning; decisions such as individual daily work schedule and study time were put squarely into the hands of the students. From Wassermann’s account, it didn’t work well. She steadfastly pushed forward, though, and saw small gains at the end of the year. She portrays her sabbatical as “without doubt, the hardest professional year of my life” (99).
At times, teachers might have to admit that what they are doing isn’t working-that a particular teaching method may not be appropriate for all students in all situations. Most of us can relate to those difficult years that leave us wondering why we continue. Wassermann does a good job of reminding us all that no one is perfect or has all the answers, and that there is no magic solution to the problems we encounter. Yet, even through the hardships, we still do what we do because we find some satisfaction in This Teaching Life.
Alana Ingram is an elementary teacher for West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District in Texas. She has worked in both public and private education, and has been a member of the Sigma Beta Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi for five years.
Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Fall 2005
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