Mastering teaching

Many teachers get their Master of Arts degree right after they receive their teacher certification. These Master’s programs are generally designed to be completed in two years, while extending the learning and expertise of those involved. My path to my Master of Arts degree was not that straightforward or simple, but I think that made it a better experience for me.

When I earned my teaching certificate, I was already the parent of two school-aged children. My time was in high demand, and I made sure to use it wisely. I began working towards my Master of Arts in Educational Technology (MAET) in 2017 by taking summer courses. This was the best decision for me as it gave me the opportunity to dedicate my time and energy to getting the most out of my classes. Taking my classes over the summer gave me more time to reflect on my practice and integrate my learning from my Master’s classes into my next school year. Seeing how my teaching improved by implementing the practices I learned simply reinforced their importance in developing my skills. I was able to improve my teaching every year, such that the story of earning my Masters is also the story of becoming a better teacher.

Explaining a concept during a lesson

All of the classes in my course of study were valuable in their own way, but there are some that stand out in particular. These were classes that challenged my perspectives and the way that I thought about technology, learning, and confronting difficult problems. CEP 810: Teaching for Understanding with Technology gave me a new perspective on technology and learning. CEP 812: Applying Educational Technology to Issues of Practice helped me think through wicked problems. CEP 800: Learning in School and Other Settings broadened my perspective on how and when learning happens. These classes each had a profound impact on my approach to teaching.

The first course that really introduced me to the content for my MAET degree was CEP 810: Teaching for Understanding with Technology. This class introduced me to a different way of thinking about both learning and technology. Teachers know that teaching and learning are linked but not always the same. CEP 810 introduced me to such works as How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school by Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000). This book was eye-opening in the way it looks at how people learn, and the connections that need to be made in the classroom to ensure that this happens. It made me consider what I could adjust in my lessons to draw on my students’ previous learning, and connect new content to old content. It made me consider structuring my lessons in such a way that the interconnections were apparent and improved the learning process. I have actively taken the steps as a high school math teacher and seen the improvement when students have those connections to draw on to enrich their understanding.

Image source no longer available online – originally pulled from wikispace

CEP 810 also introduced me to a thinking framework for technology in my classroom, the Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge (TPACK) framework. This framework helped me to understand that technology is a tool for understanding. Just as any other situation, a teacher needs to choose the best tool for the content they are trying to teach. This does not always mean a digital solution, but should be the method that will help students make connections to the content and deepen their understanding. Even as we move our classrooms into the 21st century, we should not be distracted by technologies for their own sake, but make sure they enhance our students’ learning experience. This perspective has led to the intentional use of technology in my classroom, in a way that helps students understand. For example, I will use platforms like desmos to allow my students to play with graphs and notice patterns between graphs and equations. A process that would be tedious and time consuming by hand, but with technology becomes an interactive exploration. However, when I am trying to determine if students understand a solving process, I have them show me their problems on individual whiteboards. Using the right technology at the right time has become one of my strengths in my classroom, and it helps me make sure my students are really learning. 

Taking CEP 812: Applying Educational Technology to Issues of Practice was a bit of a surprise to me. Unlike the title may imply, it was not just about throwing different technologies at problems to see what would stick. It was about confronting the fact that many issues we face in education are “wicked problems”, problems that can not be solved simply, and sometimes can not be solved at all. As educators, there are things we can do to address some of the wicked problems we find in our classrooms, and that is what we explored during this course. It was refreshing to have these wicked problems acknowledged in a college course, and to receive some strategies when attempting to solve them. Some problems teachers encounter are not things we can fix, such as students’ home situations, or community difficulties, but understanding them and how they impact our students can help make our classrooms better and more welcoming for all of our students. Other problems we can influence do not have a simple solution, and need to be constantly confronted and managed. The wicked problem I researched to confront was one of these, about how students do not see the relevance of high school math. The class led me through asking the right questions about my problem, to looking into research, to reaching out to my peers to see how they dealt with similar problems.

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I discovered that there are things I can do to make the math I teach seem more related to real world problems, and I have implemented some changes to my lessons to incorporate some of these pieces. While this has been helpful, and students have responded positively, it has not completely solved the problem. It does not have a simple solution, but that does not mean I ignore it. The strategies that this class taught me have continued to be useful during my development as a teacher. When I am struggling with something in my classroom I still take a look at what the research says. I still reach out to my peers to see if they have had something similar in their classrooms, and how they deal with it. Knowing that there are ways to deal with difficult issues and unsolvable problems is a valuable takeaway in the education world. These strategies helped me manage the very difficult problems brought on by the pandemic, and having my school convert to online teaching. Teaching math online with very little warning or time to prepare was a wicked problem that I needed to take on. I reached out to my peers, and polled my students, and always looked for things that I could do better. I was able to address those things that I could improve, and change things that were not working as needed. I was very proud of how my students made it through the online year, and I know that my willingness to make changes to confront the challenge was an important part of that. The lessons I learned in this class helped me a great deal. Having the strategies to adapt to the wicked problems and challenges of modern education made me a better teacher. 

CEP 800: Learning in School and Other Settings took a deep dive into learning, and how it happens from the learner’s perspective. The class explored such theories of learning like behaviorism, cognitivism, and social learning. It was interesting to see how each of these types of learning can be seen and used in any classroom. The classroom routines and norms that teachers are quick to try and develop at the beginning of every school year reflect the theories of behaviorism. Developing good habits in our students to help them do better in their studies on a daily basis and in the long run is well within the scope of behaviorism. While I was aware of how building habits and having a reliable classroom routine helped with the management of my classroom, it was fascinating to see how this builds the right environment for learning. I have since been careful to be intentional about the classroom habits and norms that I foster in my students. Cognitivism had been covered in my CEP 810 class, but it took on an essential piece in CEP 800: identity. The way that students learn is strongly influenced by how they see themselves, what their identity is. If they do not see themselves as a ‘math person’ they may struggle with my subject based on that alone. So encouraging a growth mindset that counters negative identity in relation to math is a crucial component to showing my students that they are all capable of learning math.

Image from here

I also learned that students who are struggling with their identity need to feel welcome to lower their anxiety and make it possible for them to learn. This has led to a conscious effort on my part to make sure my classroom is welcoming for all of my students. This means I immediately address language that marginalizes students, and I am very careful with my own language. In my beginning-of-the-year survey I ask my students what they prefer to be called, and if they have a preference for their pronouns. It is so important for my students, who are high school students, to feel accepted in the classroom, before they can tackle the academics. They need acceptance to free up the cognitive space so they can learn difficult topics like the math I teach. So the first thing I do in my classroom is work on my relationships with my students.

The social learning we covered in CEP 800 was also an eye opener. It really reinforces the idea of modeling not just as pedagogy, but as a way to build the norms and habits that we want in our classrooms. For example, when I make a mistake while teaching a lesson, I make sure to take the time to talk about it. If a student catches my mistake, I thank them, and talk about how even experts can make mistakes. If I catch it before my students, I will ask them if they can find it, and then talk about how I could tell I made a mistake, the strategies and thinking I use. Many students at the high school level have become so afraid of making mistakes that they will not try a problem on their own, so I model making mistakes. I also enjoy encouraging other aspects of social learning, such as having students collaborate in groups, or hosting number talks, and have added these to my teacher toolbox. Having talked about learning before, I was not sure what I would learn in this class, but the insights gained were incredibly valuable. This class may have made the most impact on me, as it always considered students as the individuals they are, and helped me understand how to respect and honor that, while attempting to teach them.

Sometimes, the classes we take at university and the applications needed in the classroom seem disconnected. This was not the case for my chosen course of study in my MAET program. I feel lucky that so much of what I have learned had direct application to my classroom, and the improvement of my teaching practice. I have come to realize that being a good teacher, with or without technology, requires a lot of reflection and risk-taking. Moving forward, I will need to continue to be reflective and adventurous in my teaching, as the classes in my Master’s courses pushed me to do. It has made me a better teacher, and I will need to maintain this mindset if I want to continue to improve.