Reflection of Teaching Experience

Year 1 - Semester 2 Independent Inquiry


by Deena Sallomy

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness,
for better or worse teaching holds a mirror to the soul. Parker Palmer (1998)

Preliminary Research and Preparation

Oh no! I have known about teaching this math unit for about three weeks now - I'M STILL NERVOUS!!! The one subject I feel very insecure about, and I have feared for most of my educational career, is the one that I am responsible for teaching - Math. The first preparation I had to begin with was personal. I felt that I needed to come to terms with my fear, and feel really confident in what I was about to teach. Otherwise, my teaching would be phony and the students would be able to pick up on it. If I can't understand a concept, or don't feel comfortable about it how can I expect my students to accept my lesson and succeed in it? The process of developing more comfort with math is ongoing for me.

In order to prepare to teach a unit on math to grade one students, I had to become familiar and comfortable with the Curriculum Guide and Program of Study. By reading the material I would need for this particular group of students, I began to slowly feel more comfortable with the task at hand. I also talked to my peers and related my fears and insecurities to them. I quickly discovered that a great deal of my inhibitions are linked to past experiences with math. When this became clear to me, I then was able to face those emotions and move beyond them. I took the next step, breaking the unit into smaller ideas - individual lessons - and diving into the research.

I began to research my unit by exploring the Program of Studies and Curriculum Guide. When I realized what my expectations were, I began to research various activities I could use - this required me to dig into journals and textbooks. Once I had an idea of the format I wanted to use for the unit, I began to get lost on the Internet--there is a great deal of useful information of math online. I quickly learned that having to teach only six lessons in this unit was not very long, and the resources were endless. I had been transformed from a panic and lost state to an overwhelmed and lost state!

The activities I ended up choosing were picked in relation to resources, time allocation, students' interests, and in relation to the existing classroom environment. I had already decided to adopt a style of teaching that these students were not very familiar with. The teacher usually introduces a unit of study and has set up activity tubs (stations) where she would rotate the groups. I was bringing in a more interactive approach - my unit was to be taught in both small and large group settings. I believed it would be interesting to compare and observe the similarities and differences between my approach and that of my partner teacher.

Before finalizing my plans for this unit, I discussed my findings, resources and ideas with my partner teacher. From the beginning, my partner teacher offered to share her lesson plans and activity booklets. I asked her if I could instead look at these after I had completed research and study of the unit on my own. When I presented her with my plans, she agreed that everything was in order. She did suggest that I might be taking on too much at once with the whole store set-up. Also, she was concerned that I was constantly involved in the daily instruction instead of having the students explore centers. Nevertheless, she encouraged me and offered her assistance throughout the unit.

Daily Journal of the Teaching Experience

The following is an indepth analysis of my daily experiences with the planned versus lived curriculum.   In the math unit being discussed here, I introduce the concept of money to 26 grade one students.

Lesson 1:

The goal for this first lesson was to discuss the importance of learning about money, and how we use it on a daily basis. This lesson is in two, 30 minute parts, with a 30 minute break in the middle for gym class. The first part of the lesson is an introduction to the penny, nickel, and dime - physical features, and value.  The activity that follows gym class, Coin Capers, is related to the lesson that occured prior to gym.

I thought that this would be a simple start to this money unit. Well, to my surprise my lesson plan (which I had copied out on a piece of paper, and set next to me) had been altered within the first ten minutes. The structure I had chosen to begin our discussion - sitting in a large circle - and the idea of starting a new unit of study with another teacher was a little too much for these students to handle. Some students were overtly excited and unable to concentrate on the task at hand. In comparison to a regular lesson taught by their teacher, the students would "usually" settle down once the teacher has requested for their attention, or sometimes her presence would do the trick. With me, I had asked for their attention and waited for a few minutes yet I still hadn't captured their attention. The conversations that were occurring during those few minutes were relative to the lesson. The students were discussing the fact they were going to be able to playwith money - so I guess I had some form of attention.

I felt that time needed to be taken out to deal with discipline issues, and if I didn't do it right away I would be dealing with it continuously. A strategy I used to deal with the behaviors was to stop the lesson and wait. This usually got the students to stop and listen. After the second or third incident, I simply stopped once more and discussed the fact that if we have to continue doing this we would be using up our activity time. This was very frustrating to me, because I felt that having to spend time managing the students was taking time away from the real lesson at hand.

When it came time to learn about the physical features of the coin and discuss its value, I began to feel a little anxious because I could detect a sense of frustration from certain students. This was evident to me by their immediate withdrawal from participating in the lesson, or losing focus. Some students voiced their frustrations by declaring "this is too hard". Others seemed to understand the concept and felt frustrated with their peers who were struggling with the idea that a dime is the same as ten pennies. For some this was a little too much to take on in one day, while others swallowed up all the information and were able to answer all my questions. It was apparent that some students had had very little experience in handling and working with money outside school. This was one aspect that I had not considered.

During the first part of the lesson, I looked at the clock and realized that I only had a little time left before we were off to gym class.  After gym class, the students would return to work in small groups on completing an activity. Yet again, I managed to alter my lesson quickly in order to provide the students with enough information to work on the activity. In the initial plan, I had expected that we would start to count by 1s, 5s, 10s, up to 100. I realized that  was not going to happen in four minutes, so I introduced the activity and demonstrated the task. I repeated the examples once we came back from gym class.

The activity was called "Coin Capers". The students worked in groups of 3 or 4 to figure out various combinations of coins - for example, 1 dime, or 10 pennies, or 2 nickels, etc., all make up a dime. Overall, the activity was a success with some groups needing guidance. Some groups refused to face the challenge and decided not to participate. When I added an element of casual competitiveness, it seemed to alter the class atmosphere. The reluctant students became more motivated, and tried to complete the task before their peers did. My teaching strategy was to declare that "this group has two answers" or "that group is just about done". This activity was also somewhat of a formative evaluation in that it allowed me to observe whether I had made any impact on the class, or if they understood the lesson.

The feedback from the teacher was positive at the end of the first lesson. She stated that I handled the group very well, and maintained their interest. I was able to recognize behaviors and deal with them adequately. In regard to the lesson, she felt that it went very well. I had challenged some students who needed to be challenged. When I approached her, I had a handful of critical observations that I had made about this lesson. I felt that I tried to speak above the students' voices during the first part of the lesson, and that I may have given them too much information to handle. I was frustrated at the beginning of the lesson, but I slowly realized that I had to remain calm and instinctually deal with student reactions to the lesson. I also had to be able to modify the lesson on the fly because of time constraints.

After going through today's lesson I felt a little better as to my ability to teach math, and to attain adequate classroom management. For the next lesson I planned to teach less and encourage the students to take an active role in the lesson itself. I hope that this will sustain their interest.

Lesson 2:

The goal of this lesson was first to review the activities from the day before, and then introduce the quarter. When this unit was originally planned, the quarter was not to be introduced until the third lesson. However, I was using a worksheet - which I had been very excited about - that dealt with the quarter, and therefore I was forced to introduce it. The decision to use the worksheet was solely my own. When I suggested the worksheet to my partner teacher during the planning process, she thought that it was a great idea. However, she did mention that some students might find it difficult. I integrated music at the beginning of this lesson, a coin rap to recite the value of each coin, and as a class we practiced it and added some actions as well.

Sitting in a large circle, we discussed the features and value of the quarter in comparison to the other coins. Just as planned, the lesson took on a more interactive component. The students were responsible for answering questions and illustrating their answers on a white board, which was placed in the center.  There seemed to be a little more order and cooperation from the students today. During the second half of the class the students were given a sheet that illustrated various coin combinations, and a bag of coins to use to calculate the total value of the combination. The students added the coin values and wrote their answers in the piggy bank at the end of each question.

To my dismay, some students shed tears of frustration, while others counted the number of coins, and a few actually calculated the value of the coins. In other words, there was chaos. When I collected the sheets and marked them, I discovered that only three students out of twenty-six, had achieved a perfect score on the sheet. I had apparently put a little too much emphasis on the results of these worksheets. I think that I may have translated the scores on this worksheet into an indication of my teaching and how much the students had attained from my lessons. Achieving a "perfect score" was the goal I had set for myself. The sheet itself heightened my expectations of the students to a level they are not quite ready for yet.

This experience taught me a valuable lesson about myself and about my teaching. I had automatically transformed a lesson on paper into a personal disaster. Instead of stepping back and looking at the lesson and the level of the students, I took the outcome of the lesson as a personal failure. I felt that I had failed my partner teacher and the students. I had actually reached a point where I began to doubt my career choice. After a big bowl of ice cream and some tears, I calmed down and took a big step back and began to revamp the next day's lesson. With further research and consideration of where the lesson had gone array, I took on a new approach for lesson three. I was aware of the pace I needed to maintain, and I knew that I needed to be a little more conscious of the students, and their experiences in regards to the activities I presented to them. By reviewing the past two lessons, I was able to follow a pattern in my teaching style.  I had been focused on the lesson itself at times and had overlooked the real life student experiences that were occurring before me. I also needed to relaxjust a little more.

After only two lessons into this unit I have began to see changes in myself, and in the way I approach various situations. The greatest lesson I learned today is how NOT to take a lesson so personally. This is much easier said than done. For lesson three I plan to review, repeat, and reflect!

Lesson 3:

The goal of today's lesson was to review the concepts from the previous two classes by working on a set of exercises that allowed students to practice their coin values. I did not believe that this would take the whole hour to complete.  Therefore, I chose a group activity from the Money Monster book, which talks about purchasing pets with various coin combinations. I planned to have the students follow along as I read the book and demonstrated the coins that were being used to purchase a particular pet.

I had few expectations coming into the lesson today. I guess you can say that I was protecting myself and wanted to experiment with the notion of "teaching in the moment". Constrained by my extensive and well laid out plans for the previous two lessons, I had been a little tense and unaware of my surroundings and students. I was focusing on myself instead. To my surprise, today's lesson flowed smoothly. The students seemed a little more at ease and followed directions. The difference was that I focused less on myself, and more on my students, as I taught in the moment.

During review, I put five questions of varying levels on the board, and asked students to pick one they could solve. There was this one student who usually did not participate in any class activity or interact with any other students. He was diagnosed as being "selectively mute" - he had not spoken one word at school for about a year or so. I noticed him sitting at the far end of the carpet and counting with his fingers. I was reluctant to call upon him to answer a question, but when he looked up and smiled at me I took the initiative. I asked him if he would like to come up and solve the first problem, and, to my surprise, he did. As he walked up he received encouraging words from his classmates. As he wrote the answer on the board I became all choked up with tears of joy - for me that was my first heartfelt teaching moment!!! Needless to say, I was on a natural high for rest of the day.

This lesson went along pretty well, as did the activity. The students were very much engaged in the activity, and displayed their new found confidence by asking if they could help others. The activity itself was completed and handed in after about fifteen minutes, as opposed to the last activity, which took about twenty-five minutes. I had supplied the students with bags of coins, and various other manipulatives to use while working on their activities. This activity seemed to boost certain student's confidence and learning about money, which was really satisfying to see.

As a result of shedding tears over my last two lessons, I began to view the process of teaching and lesson planning in a new light. The plan in your head is mainly for yourself to have, but what happens in front of the class is for all to share. At the end of the day I began to wonder "why do I need to bother with the planning aspect when I know that when it comes down to it, whatever is supposed happen will happen?" I am not saying that we need to disregard all aspects of lesson planning. I personally have experienced the benefits of having a lesson plan. It offers you stability and at the same time flexibility. In essence, it is a blue print of ideas, goals and objectives to cover in a lesson; it also allows you to be responsive to new ideas as presented by students. Preparing a lesson beforehand allows the teacher to organize the classroom and be physically prepared, as well as psychologically prepared. Based on my personal experience, it is not effective to write yourself a script to read aloud. Knowing the "big idea" behind a lesson is the key to a successful and innovative lesson that can be student-centered.

Lesson 4:

The biggest challenge of  lesson four was the preparation. The activity of the lesson was to play Money Bingo. To prepare for this, I had to put together a Bingo sheet that displayed the coins. The idea was that I would call out a certain coin value (ie. 45 cents), and the students had to cover the coins that would total that value. Once they had covered a line or the entire card than they could call out "Mingo"! Preparing the card took about 45 minutes, including several trips to the photocopying machine. This was one aspect of teaching that I never thought to account for. After all the time, the cutting, and pasting, I realized that I had no "free" square - at that point, I wasn't too concerned with that!

The first half of the lesson was spent reviewing coin values, and comparing the price of objects (i.e., which object costs more or less?). I discovered that bringing in objects to place in front of the students made the experience much more real to them. The students who usually find a million other things to look at during a lesson were actually interested and participating in the discussion today. It really made me realize how authentic our learning needs to be. Teachers need to "show" what they are teaching, and attach a reason or purpose to the lesson - especially in math.

The Money Bingo activity was a little chaotic with 26 students yelling out "Mingo". I quickly had to set regulations on the game (i.e., you can only call out once). During the game, I discovered that certain students had caught on to the concept, while others were still struggling. But, one particular student, who usually did not care about anything and did what he liked while sitting in the back sucking on his thumb, seemed to really want to understand this activity.  So much so, in fact, that he started to cry. It was hard for me to see students crying because of what I was teaching them. I thought they must feel like I was torturing them. My partner teacher had to reassure me that certain students who were finding the material challenging had finally started to apply themselves instead of giving up. She thought I was making good progress! However, I wasn't sure if that made me feel any better. Overall, the students seemed to have had fun participating in the activity.

As I reflect on this lesson I have come to realize the importance of leaving the structured worksheets behind and allowing for time to "play" with math. Of course, I understand that there needs to be a balance of both elements, structure and play, within a learning environment. For some students, playing Money Bingo seemed to ease their frustrations and allow them to just have fun while practicing their coin values. A good lesson for me was that I could present the lesson and materials in another context and truly enrich the student's experiences.

Lesson 5:

The goal of lesson five was to prepare students for the final activity, which was setting up a store. We started by singing our coin rap, just as we had done at the beginning of every other lesson. The first half of this lesson was spent listening to me (unfortunately) explain their activity of the day. We discussed purchasing items with a certain amount of money, and finding out how much money we would have left (i.e., I had 10 cents, I spent 7 cents, I have 3 cents left). Simple concept, you would think.  I had accounted for only fifteen minutes of explaining the activity, but due to the response I was getting from certain students I found myself repeating and repeating the ideas through various examples. In so doing, I found that some students slowly began to let down their guard and accept the task. The students were a little more open about asking questions and answering for that matter. I also found that if I had the students come up to the front and figure out the problem, it would give their peers motivation to think about the problem themselves.

The students were responsible for naming their store.  After much discussion and a group vote, they named their store "The Grade One Pick-Up Store"! I almost died! What did the principal think when she saw this name on the blackboard? However, I felt that this would allow the students to have a sense of ownership in their store and their learning. We decided what to sell at our store and compiled a list of merchandise. Because of time restraints, I took responsibility for bringing in and pricing the merchandise. Usually, I would have had the students do this. I would have liked to have the students take an even larger part in planning the store itself and possibly developing advertising; yet, once again, time was an issue. That aside, I truly think that it was an excellent learning experience for us all.

Today's practice exercises were simple for some students, and challenging for others. This has been one aspect that I have constantly faced throughout the unit. How do you adapt a lesson or activity to reach everyone's needs? As a teacher, I could only work with a certain number of students at one given time. So, what happens to the rest (especially when I am the only one in the room)? Preparing a unit of study to meet a particular student's needs in the subject matter for a certain grade level, which also meets the provincial standard, was a huge challenge. I felt I had to include information that I was legally required to teach, and at the same time adapt the ideas into a format that would meet the needs of a diverse group of students. I was also working with a constrained amount of time in teaching a full unit - six lessons - which is a realistic teaching scenario. I haven't answered all of my own questions about this dilemna yet.

Lesson 6:

The last lesson of the math unit! It has been both exciting and exhausting. The sign for the store had been made, colored, and decorated with coins. The items for the store had been setup and priced, and I had filled their coin bags with a total of $2.00 worth of various coins. The goals of this lesson were to provide closure for the unit, to provide an opportunity for the students to practice their learned skills in a realistic atmosphere, and to evaluate their learning and my performance as a teacher.

The "The Grade One Pick-Up Store" activity took over the entire lesson. The objective was to allow the students to partake in a designed environment where they may use their coins in purchasing two separate items, providing correct change, and interacting with their peers. Once a student had had the chance to purchase an item, they were then responsible for taking on the shopkeeper's role. As every student purchased an item, the roles were switched. Each student was able to participate by buying items two times.

As the students settled into the activity, they began to incorporate social skills into their role-playing, such as "thank you for shopping at our store" and "have a nice day". I received positive feedback from the students and my partner teacher. When I heard students telling their classmates during gym class that they had "the best store ever", and were excited to leave gym early to come back to the store - well, it meant a great deal to me. The students seemed to be engaged and motivated to take part in this activity. They even offered one another positive feedback and waited quite patiently for their turn to participate. Who would have thought that they would choose math over gym?

Part of my assessment of the success of students, and the unit, involved observing the students interact in the store. Students who had struggled throughout the unit really enjoyed this activity and seemed to finally gain better understanding of money. Sometimes a paper and pencil test is not the best method of evaluation, because students are unable to demonstrate what they really know. The store activity gave the students an authentic way to demonstrate to me what they had learned.

Teaching Reflections

One of the biggest challenges of teaching this math unit was probably the planning component. I still question the purpose of planning to some degree. The perfect plans I had designed before I started teaching seemed to include all the aspects of a "good" lesson. However, what my lessons lacked was the humanistic component - the students themselves. I learned that a lesson does not usually begin when you thought it would; daily routines do need to be accounted for, and classroom management is an important part of a lesson which no one really tells you about.

A comment I made in my daily journal questioned whether classroom management is part of a lesson or should be considered a separate element. Not even a month ago, I would have told you that management is not part of a lesson, and is mainly a disruption to the lesson. Now, I can confidently say that it is an integral part of a lesson. If there is a behavioral problem, I found that it could easily be connected to lack of interest, frustration, or boredom with the lesson or topic. Student behavior could also be related to many other facets stemming from events outside the classroom, and even health issues. If it is occurring during a lesson, it is then part of the lesson. A lesson, then, is not instruction alone. A lesson encompasses a multitude of factors that can aid the learning environment, or be a hindrance. These factors include lesson structure, subject, activity, classroom environment, time of day, day of the week, holidays, and most importantly, the students themselves.

The plan that is put together at the beginning of a unit, or a lesson, is merely a road map for the teacher - it is not a one-way road to follow. If I have learned anything about lesson planning, it is that flexibility is the essential element to a successful and healthy learning experience. If a teacher has an idea of what they want to achieve in a particular lesson, than that alone should be enough. Having a written script of the lesson eliminates the personable and responsive aspect, and focuses on the teacher's needs instead of the needs of students.  The most important thing I learned was to follow my own instincts while teaching.

Parker J. Palmer (1998) speaks about teaching in the microcosm, and placing the subject in the center of the learning space. In chapter five of The Courage To Teach, Palmer brings a new perspective to teaching, which can be associated with the lesson planning component. He believes that we should foster an understanding of the subject we are teaching and "bring it to life" for our students. He favors a subject-centered approach to teaching. In order to bring a subject to life, there needs to be a strong belief in what you are teaching; "Passion for the subject propels that subject, not the teacher, into the center of the learning circle - and when a great thing is in the midst, students have direct access to the energy of learning and life" (Palmer, 1998, p. 120). Palmer's message became more meaningful to me towards the end of my unit when we started planning our store. The goal of creating a story gave the students the opportunity to truly take an active role in their learning, and it placed the subject, being partially the students and learning about money, in the center of the learning space. The last lesson was not taught from a script, but more so from the excitement and passion that both the students and I felt - we had a blast, and we all learned and strengthened our connections to each other. In my opinion, it is what happens during a lesson with the students that is the most important part of teaching. It is the time when I really began to understand my students, and relate with them.

Jardine, LaGrange, & Everest (1998) discuss having an element of integrity for the subject you teach, for the most exciting result is to pass that integrity on to your students. This subject integrity is closely linked to the subject-centered approach that Palmer (1998) explains in his book. All of these authors reflect on the benefits of an encouraging, and open-minded learning space. In regards to my teaching experiences in the past eight months, I can only hope that I have begun to tap into that integrity of the subjects I have taught. On a conscious level, I had strived to view my students with integrity through the good and bad days. I see that as being the initial step to fostering the type of classroom that Jardine, LaGrange & Everest (1998) and Palmer (1998) talk about.

I have had the opportunity to reflect on my strengths and weakness as a teacher and a learner. I think that I need to learn how to incorporate a multitude of learning styles and interests into a lesson. This had been another challenge that I was faced with during my teaching time. As a teacher, I found myself wanting to work with everyone and help them  - especially when those tears started to roll down. The most interesting thing is that I also shed tears during this experience. This has made me think that it is okay to see your students and yourself struggle through a lesson or activity, that this is a natural part of learning. At the same time, as a teacher, I need to offer support and guidance for my students so that they may strive for success and not begin to foster negative feelings towards a particular subject.  Ayers (1993) speaks about creating an environment for learning in which both the students and the teacher may be honored and seen as whole people. In chapter three of his book, To Teach, Ayers (1993) includes a passage from an exemplary teacher, who states that, "Teaching, if it is to be done well, must be built on vision and commitment; learning, if it is to be meaningful, depends on imagination, risk-taking, intention, and invention. Stripped of these elements, teaching is mechanical and sterile and learning is the stuff of pigeons pecking for food or mice running a maze" (Ayers, 1993, p. 65). During the past couple of weeks, I have been fortunate enough to experience this from both the teacher and learner perspective. As a teacher, I needed to have a goal and a vision in mind for my unit and the students. As a learner, I had to be willing to take risks and put my fears and identity on the line. Without imagination, I fear that my math lesson would have consisted of numbers and rote work.

On a personal level, I have been able to reflect on my experiences and learn so much more about who I am becoming as a teacher, and how much I have grown as an individual. Having the opportunity to initiate a unit of study and follow it up to the end has provided me with a sense of ownership over my learning - an important element for anyone to have. Through my teaching experience I have formed special bonds with the students and fellow peers. I have also been able to develop my professional identity within a classroom setting - which is very closely linked to my personal identity. I believe Palmer (1998) is right: "Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse teaching holds a mirror to the soul" (p. 2)

Through the process of planning and teaching I have gained a deeper understanding and awareness of my role in the teaching profession. There is a challenge to be found in every day I teach, a talent to be discovered, and a moment to cherish that which touches my soul and reinforces my devotion. Reflection seems to be the key to personal and professional growth: reflect on your lessons, your students, and yourself and your experience will guide you the rest of the way. All of this has been a treasured learning experience that will be looked upon years to come. It is now a part of me.

Learning is the only thing that which the mind can never be tortured by, never fear or distrust,
and never dream of regretting. Parker Palmer (1998).

Works Cited

Ayers, W. (1993). To Teach: The journey of a teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.

Jardine, D. W., LaGrange, A., & Everest, B. (1998). "In these shoes is the silent call of the earth": Meditations on curriculum integration, conceptual violence, and the ecologies of community and place. Canadian Journal of Education, 23 (2), 121-130.

Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage To Teach. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Inc.

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