By Elizabeth Pask, M.S. Ed. and current doctoral student in Duquesne University’s School of Education
“Your life as a teacher begins the day you realize you are always a learner.”
-Robert John Meehan
How can I teach when I’m still a student myself? How can I train others in a field I am still learning about? These are questions I pondered as I embarked on my first university teaching experiences at Duquesne. As a current doctoral student in the field of school psychology, I wondered whether or not I had any expertise, any skill, or even any right to take on the responsibility of training and teaching other students in my field.
I am fresh out of classes and currently on my clinically based internship experience, and also very new to both being a practitioner and teaching at the university level. As I reflected back on my own graduate school experiences, memories of theories, laws, textbook readings, and case studies were some of the strategies from my foundational courses that were useful in helping me learn how the field ideally works. The most helpful learning experiences, however, were just that: experiences. A recent writer for The Flourishing Academic, Dr. Susan Hines, wrote that the best teaching and learning for new and experienced teachers alike happens when you create an experience. This is what I have been living since school got out, and this is what I have capitalized on in order to inform teaching in my courses.
The last year of my training program is all clinical, real-life experience. I am actually working as a practitioner in my field, which had initially seemed like an eternity away when I was first starting out. I am finding that those theories which seem old and dusty in their books are real, and are also not as neatly applied in the trenches as they initially seemed. I have been learning through my clinical experiences that applying what you learn in the classroom is sometimes messy when the nuances of reality come into play. For example, students do not fit neatly into special education eligibility categories like they sometimes did in the case studies that were presented in class. In another instance, nobody ever really discussed what to do after you realize too late that a previously undiscovered complex trauma history was interfering with a child’s abilities to perform well or what implications that has on the way you’re assessing or treating that student.
This reflection and new clinical experience was what helped me to shape my teaching approach. I wanted to dust off those theories, get them out of their books, and practice them with my students. I realized that I have the perfect opportunity to do so in this training year. I am able to use actual instances, complex cases, and my own mistakes to create applied, field based experiences to use as a major teaching tool. I realized that I could use my own learning and growing process and translate it to a practical experience. I also quickly realized that my students and I were learning together.
As a result of being able to use my clinical experience, my philosophy of teaching has been shaped into an action-oriented one, in which I ensure an understanding of theoretical groundwork for the course, provide structured and supervised practice, and assess using real life applications. I believe that sufficient knowledge of theory is imperative for foundational understandings of the world of education at any level; however, I have often found that theory is lost without application and action, which includes both knowledge and skills that later foster and cultivate practice in the ‘real world.’
Instead of feeling less able because I’m still “just a student,” I embraced the opportunities I had and translated them into learning tools for all of us. I was fortunate to make this realization at the outset of my teaching career. My unique position as a practitioner who teaches will always afford me the opportunity to keep being a student so that I can continue using my practical experience to teach other future leaders in the field.
Now it’s your turn: in the comments below I invite you to share a “real-life” experience that both complicated and deepened the knowledge you teach in the classroom.