What image pops into your head when you imagine the process of becoming a teacher? Is it of coursework? A trip to observe a classroom? The 'final' experience, student teaching? One less talked about -- and oftentimes squandered -- opportunity for teacher growth is the summer. It's easy for future teachers to have non-productive summers in jobs that have little to do with their calling. But, if you look, there are jobs that can become some of the most formative experiences for an aspiring educator. I was lucky enough to experience one such position firsthand.
I spent my first summer in college working as a camp counselor. Initially it seemed like a good way to connect with my first education courses from college: I would be working with children, managing behavior, and occasionally interacting with parents. However, as a student pursuing a license to teach middle school and high school, I found that the working with students entering kindergarten didn't translate as well as I had thought it would into my coursework. Working as a camp counselor was certainly a rewarding and enriching experience, but it didn't provide as much opportunity to grow as an aspiring high school teacher.
So, I began to seek out summer programs that were explicitly educational: where students worked with tutors or teachers over the summer in a variety of capacities. I considered many options but eventually ended up at a two-month program hosted in the Boston area. In addition to mentoring students in dorms, I also had the opportunity to develop and teach three-week courses in Improvisational Theater and Fantasy Writing. It was tough, but transformational. I couldn't get enough of it, and I'll be returning this summer for my fourth year as I prepare for a full-time teaching position in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I can honestly say that this experience was the single most important during my college years. In my classes, I discussed theories. In public schools, I observed teachers and occasionally taught a lesson under close supervision. In this program, I wrote 180 hours of creative writing and improvisational theater curriculum over two years, taught courses that ran for three weeks, and had the opportunity to reflect on my instruction regularly. My students drafted and edited short stories and plot maps, developed the skills of improvisers, and shared their work with their peers through performances and reading clubs. Professional teachers would observe my courses once per week and work with me for an hour the following day to analyze my teaching and identify areas for improvement. I taught some courses more than once, allowing me to edit and improve my lesson plans using student learning to inform my revisions. I was developing the skills used every day by teachers in an authentic, professional setting.
The impact of this program was immediately evident and continues to be relevant as I start my first job as a teacher in the fall. When I returned to college, I found myself more confident in my coursework, more competent working with students in public schools, and more aware of how much more I could grow as a teacher. As a student teacher, I felt at home running class when my host teacher let me take the reins. When I was interviewing for my first job, I routinely referenced my experiences at the summer program to show how I'd pursued educational training outside the experiences of most college students.
By getting creative during the summer and seeking out new opportunities that would improve my teaching, I was able to turn potentially wasted time into an impactful and formative experience. So, don't be afraid to seek out jobs that will help you build your skills and competencies in the classroom! It may not look exactly like my experience, but the three months of summer vacation are too valuable to go to waste.
-- Preston West
Preston West is a recent graduate of St. Olaf College who majored in English and received a Minnesota License to teach English and Communication in grades 5-12. Currently subbing in districts around the Twin Cities area, he'll begin his first full year of teaching this August in St. Paul, MN.