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Middle School Teacher Interviews

Michigan Middle School Teacher, Cossondra George
Winnipeg Eighth Grade Teacher, Miles MacFarlane

Interview with Cossondra George, Michigan Middle School Teacher

Cossondra George recently set aside time from her hectic day to talk to us about her experiences as an educator in Michigan. During her twenty years in the classroom, Cossondra has taught social studies, math, American history and technology to middle school students. Today she is a math, language arts and resource room teacher for seventh through ninth grade students. Cossondra attended Northern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Education, with minors in social studies and math, as well as an MA in Special Education, focusing on learning disabilities. During our exchange, Cossondra described her average day in the classroom as well as what she knows today that she wishes she’d known as a beginning teacher.

cossondra-georgePlease describe what your typical workday is like as an educator.

While there is no such thing as a typical day for a teacher, some things are predictable. I arrive at school about 45 minutes before our contracted time, about an hour before students begin to arrive in the halls. I use this quiet time to prepare for my day, mentally as well as physically. Lessons often require certain materials be set up in advance so I make sure everything is as ready as can be. The remainder of this time is spent planning for next week’s lessons, completing special education paperwork, or talking to other teachers about students we share. When students begin to arrive, a crowd tends to congregate in my classroom, wanting to chat, get help with homework, or just hang out.

Once the first warning bell rings, I make sure to be in the hall, greeting students as they enter and reminding them of materials they need. The day races by in a blur of students and classes. Being a special education teacher, the hats I wear are many. Part of the day, I have students in my own classroom for math classes. Other hours are academic support hours where students come to my room with assignments from other classes they need help on. These hours are the most hectic, with up to 15 students, all of whom are often working on different assignments, with varied support needs. Some may just need a point in the right direction, others need a quiet place to finish independently, but most of these students need as near to one-on-one help as I can manage. Another hour of the day, I co-teach a language arts class. This hour I work with another teacher to provide instruction to a class comprised of both regular education students, as well as some of the students on my caseload. We share the duties of instruction, some days she leads while I support; other days, I am the lead teacher, with her circulating, providing additional assistance to struggling students. We may divide the class into two sections, and take one group to another classroom for more direct instruction, or keep them all together.

I do get one hour of ‘prep’ time. This hour is when I schedule all parent meetings, Individual Education Plan Team meetings or other informal meetings. Days I do not have scheduled meetings are spent working on special education paperwork, grading papers, planning, making copies and more.

After my last class of the day, I make sure my room is ready for the next day. I always write on the board hour-by-hour what the day’s objectives are, as well as list the materials students need to bring to class on a smaller board in the hallway. I make sure my desk is relatively cleaned off, and I can easily locate any materials I need for the next day.

What aspects of your job are the most challenging and how do you overcome them?

The most challenging aspect of my job is motivating students. Working with special education students, I often find that by middle school, they have given up on themselves, certain they are ‘stupid.’ I have to find ways to individually motivate them, help them experience success, and bridge what they can do based upon where the curriculum expects them to be. I find that by making an effort to know my students as people, learning their interests outside school, and recognizing things they are good at, I can encourage them to push themselves to try new things. It is a constant uphill battle, with many backwards slides.

What do you most enjoy about being a teacher?

The kids. I love the unpredictable nature of middle schoolers: their humor, their wisdom, and their fresh take on life. I especially enjoy the opportunity to have students for multiple school years, watching them learn, grow and mature.

Can you share any time management advice for teachers striving to create a balanced professional and personal life?

Be organized. It sounds trite, but it is the only way you will survive. I have three lists going all the time: #1 Must Do Today, #2 Must Do This Week, and #3 Dream List (things such as cleaning out desk drawer, organizing files, etc…)

Also, don’t ever get behind on grades and paperwork. Once you are behind, it is overwhelming and it becomes too much to conquer. Take the time each day to complete your Must Do Today list.

Finally, take time to reflect on your work, your lessons, your students and your own journey as a teacher, either in a blog or an old fashioned journal. The process of writing will help you clear your mind, formulate solutions to problems, and give you a running record of how far you’ve come.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known during your first year of teaching?

I wish I had known that my students would so profoundly change me. From them, I have learned patience, endurance, tolerance, and humor. Going into my teaching career, I was focused on what I could teach my students. Now, I realize they have much more to teach me than I will ever be able to give back in return.

We thank Cossondra for sharing her varied experiences and heartfelt wisdom with us and wish her all the best with the rest of the school year. To connect with Cossondra, visit her blog, Middle School, Day by Day.

Read about how to become a teacher in Michigan

Interview with Miles MacFarlane, Winnipeg Eighth Grade Teacher

We recently had the great fortune to interview Miles MacFarlane, a middle school teacher in Winnipeg, with 22 years’ experience in the field of education. Miles earned a BEd in Secondary English at the University of Newfoundland, and began his career teaching in a remote, fly-in First Nations reserve. He lived there for five years and was also vice principal prior to taking a three-year temporary assignment as Coordinator of Education Technology for 35 remote schools. During that period, Miles pursued a Master of Arts in Education and Human Development with a Concentration in Education Technology Leadership from George Washington University (GWU). After the temporary assignment was completed, he settled in Winnipeg, teaching fifth grade for three years in an elementary school. For the past eleven years, he has taught eighth graders all subjects at a middle school that Miles describes as being “amazing” and “progressive.”

miles-macfarlanePlease describe what a typical day looks like for you, Miles.

My day starts very early. Because the rest of the day has work, family, and community commitments I get up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. for ‘Me Time.’ I sit at the living room window with the iPad and a cup of coffee and read my RSS feed, connect with my professional learning network on Twitter, my friends and family on Facebook, and write for my blog. At 6:30 a.m., I get breakfast and lunches ready for my wife and nine-year-old son while listening to the morning news on the radio.

Before school starts I like to spend time with colleagues in the staff room over the crossword. This time is a mix of trivia, catching-up, and professional sharing.

Because I am responsible for all subjects and I have the same group of students for the entire day, we have tremendous flexibility over our day. This lends itself to fully integrated, project-based learning experiences where, apart from PE and Applied Arts programs, the designations on our timetable are arbitrary. The students and I look at what projects and activities are in progress, look at deadlines and project goals, then set an agenda for the day.

At any given time students could be working on different things in different places. A lot of what I do during the day is helping students with short and long-term goal setting, project management, and locating resources. Managing the online learning spaces (Edmodo and student blogs) occupies time throughout the day providing a context for discussions with students and becomes the student’s portfolio. I tend to eat lunch in my classroom and invite students to visit, continue their projects, or get assistance during the lunch break. It is a nice and casual, low-pressure time that goes a long way to creating community.

After school is primarily family focused: puttering around the house, visiting, eating supper together, and reading or writing in the evening with time for school or committee work as needed. I have recently re-enrolled in the GWU Ed Tech program so coursework will change the nature of my evenings and ‘me time.’

What aspects of your job are the most challenging and how do you overcome them?

There are so many cool and interesting things to do and try as a teacher but there isn’t enough time to do it all. My strategy is ‘serial innovation’ in which I see an idea, get excited, perform some initial research to implement, reflect, and understand the issues connected with the idea, then move on to the next one. The only problem with that strategy is that I don’t usually stick with the same thing long enough to develop mastery but I can be helpful to other teachers as they seek to innovate.

What do you most enjoy about being a teacher?

Looking around a busy room with kids interacting, exploring, learning, creating, engaging, questioning, is a thrill. I love experimenting with technology myself and tossing a new tech tool/app into the mix with some visions of what it could do, then seeing students pick it up and run with it is exciting.

What best practices can you share for integrating technology into classroom activities?

I don’t know if it is best practice, but here are some thoughts: Don’t expect tech to be perfect. Consider tech trouble part of the learning experience. As students learn content, they are also learning the tool. Collectively, in your classroom, you probably have all the technology knowledge you need to get things going. Blur the line between teachers and learners and capitalize on the skills in the room.

You don’t need to be an expert with the technology. Know what it should be able to do and use that understanding to spur creative thought in your students. They can search tutorials on how to use it and teach others when they find solutions. (I’m sure one of your curricula somewhere will have something about identifying needs, creating a strategy for locating, synthesizing, and applying information.) Teaching students how to learn is much more valuable.

Can you share any words of wisdom with recent graduates who are preparing to start a teaching career?

I am full of pithy sayings related to teaching. Here are the ones that best define my own beliefs and attitudes about teaching:

  • Take what you have and get on with it.
  • Everyone in the room is a learner, including yourself.
  • Don’t teach, help students discover.
  • Your students have lives outside school. So should you.
  • Take time to understand motivations driving behaviors.
  • Manage the workload:
    – formative assessment: write on kids’ work as you circulate, only take it home if you have to.
    – summative assessment: use criteria, rubrics, and self-assessments, it focuses the feedback.
    – mark the hell out of the first couple of paragraphs then focus on content. (Thanks for this advice, MJ!)
  • Get connected with educators online. Twitter and blogs are valuable sources of professional learning.
  • If you can’t find anything positive in a situation, you need to look harder.

We thank Miles for setting aside time from his hectic day to share his valuable suggestions for new teachers. Visit his blog, Miles’ Tomes for additional educational inspiration, or connect with him via Twitter @milesmac.