Life in the Classroom
The tasks that teachers perform vary based on their individual jobs. They do have some things in common, such as being on their feet a lot during the day, teaching lessons, and giving tests. Also, most teachers work many hours outside the classroom. Their “official” workday may end after the last school bell rings, but they often prepare tests, grade daily assignments, and grade tests while they are away from school.
In addition to teaching in the classroom, most teachers keep regular office hours so students may seek their help outside of class. This may involve helping students who are having problems in the class, or providing extra instruction for those who are falling behind. In addition, teachers hold parent-teacher conferences several times a year. This gives them an opportunity to talk with parents about the students’ progress.
Most teachers work from late August through June. Some also teach summer school, and others work at a different job, or take the summer off. Many teachers spend at least part of their summer attending workshops or taking classes, to learn how to be better teachers.
Teaching Through Play
Teachers who work with preschoolers know that these children learn mainly through play activities. To teach language skills, they use such activities as storytelling and acting games. To teach the importance of getting along with others, teachers might encourage children to work together to build a neighborhood in a sandbox. To introduce math concepts, they could show children how to balance and count blocks when building a bridge. To teach science concepts, they might show children how to make different paint designs by mixing colors together. Teachers also use creative activities such as art, dance, and music. In most preschool classes, each day’s activities include a mix of individual and group play, quiet time, and active time in groups.
Like preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers sometimes use play techniques with their students. According to Kuegler, kindergartners are often at different levels—some are very advanced, and others cannot even count to ten. In her class, she teaches letters and sounds, works on simple math problems, and begins teaching students how to read. She says the hardest part of her job is keeping all of the children involved. Plus, she must spend extra time with children who need more help. She says when these children finally grasp the concepts they had found so difficult, she is overjoyed.
Working with Elementary Students
As students move up into higher grades, elementary school teachers help them expand their knowledge. They teach students to be better readers, and they teach them math problems such as multiplication and division. They also teach students about history, science, English, and geography.
Teachers in an Atlanta, Georgia, elementary school use a creative method of teaching their students. They use puppets. The children make their own puppets and write scripts for puppet shows, which are based on subjects such as social studies, literature, and science. One teacher says that by using puppets, the students learn to understand, not just memorize, information: “It gives the kids a chance to get inside a story and feel what they’re hearing and seeing, rather than letting it just wash over them as a bunch of facts.”8
Being a Creative Teacher
Mary Cotterall says the best method teachers can use is to teach students how what they learn relates to the real world. For instance, when students want to know why they need to learn math, she tells them this: “If I have a birthday party and one hundred people are coming, I may want to serve cupcakes. Some of the guests may eat two cupcakes, and some may eat three cupcakes, so I need math to figure out how many to make.” She also teaches her students by involving them in creative projects. For instance, to teach Michigan history, she coaches her students in a musical play. For two months they rehearse their lines and their songs, and then they perform the musical at the end of each school year. Cotterall says the play has worked very well, and it has taught her students a lot about history: “In fact, when they go into fifth grade and study American history, they sometimes break out in the songs they learned when they were in the musical!”9
Many secondary school teachers share Cotterall’s philosophy about relating what students learn to the real world. Daniel Robb, a teacher in Massachusetts, is one of them. Robb wanted his advanced geology students to understand how the ice age has shaped the landscape. So, each day he and the students went outside the classroom and walked around the town. Together they observed the beaches, hills, swamps, valleys, and rocks, and they discussed how these land formations had developed over time. In the classroom, they talked about what they had seen. They also built models of miniature glaciers, and discussed how sediment moves through bodies of water. By the end of the class, the students had seen for themselves how the land where they lived had been formed. They also understood why geology was important. Robb tells of a conversation between one student and his father, as they walked along the beach. The boy pointed at a large boulder and said, “See Dad that’s granite, and it had time to cool, so its crystals are all lumpy. But if it had cooled quick, then it would be all smooth, so we could make a knife of it.”10 After hearing this, Robb knew he had done more than just teach students about rocks. He also helped shape their interest in why nature had caused the rocks to be there in the first place.
Sometimes secondary school teachers work in unusual places—such as a farm. Teachers at Walter B. Saul High School in Philadelphia work at the school’s one-hundred-acre farm, which is located across the street. The farm has cows, two kinds of sheep, a llama, horses, pigs, and chickens. Saul teachers help prepare students for careers in agriculture, horticulture, or veterinary medicine. One teacher, Dave Snyder, says that the farm teaches students about much more than just how to care for animals, or how to raise crops. It also helps them get over their fears of trying new things, taking risks, and getting dirty. He believes these are important for students to learn, as he explains: “Those are life skills that make a student successful no matter what their future.”11
Teaching Special Needs Students
Special education teachers work with students who have many different disabilities. This means their specific teaching methods will vary based on the students’ individual needs. Spilsted typically works with children in small groups. If she is teaching them reading and writing skills, she might spend an entire class working on word sounds. She explains: “One day we might work on the long sound of the letter ‘U.’ We first talk about the sound, and then maybe we’ll use magnetic letters to make words with the letter. Then we’ll read a story that has a lot of words with long ‘U’ sounds, and follow that with a writing exercise.”12 Spilsted uses the same basic practice to teach math concepts. She describes a math problem to her students, and then she uses objects such as blocks or pennies to illustrate it for them.
Teachers may teach in a classroom, or they may teach on a farm. They may teach students to use e-mail, or how to hand-write letters using cursive. They may teach little tots in preschool or seniors in high school. Yet no matter what subjects or classes they teach, all teachers measure their own success by the success of their students.
8 Quoted in Candice Dyer, “Helping Hands,” Teacher Magazine, May 2002. fn9. Cotterall, interview. fn10. Quoted in Daniel Robb, “No Stone Unturned,” Teacher Magazine, April 2002. fn11. Quoted in Debra Gordon, “Farm Team,” Teacher Magazine, November 2001. fn12. Spilsted, interview.