Laura Atkinson is a research associate in the School of Social Transform at Arizona State University (ASU) and a doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction-Special Education. Laura is currently serving as the coordinator of the Urban Professional Learning Schools Initiative (UPLSI) Master’s program. She spent over a decade teaching general education and special education before receiving her MA in special education (with a focus on Learning Disabilities) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Laura served as the Director of an $8.5 million dollar grant at Mississippi State University (ACHIEVE Mississippi). She has also served as a lecturer in curriculum and instruction at ASU where she has taught undergraduate and graduate level classes in regular and special education. Additionally, Laura coordinated an accelerated, immersion teacher certification program and supervised student teachers. Her research interests include pre-service teacher education, professional development for teachers, culturally responsive pedagogy, and professional learning schools.
Recently I was walking with a colleague of mine on campus as a group of students passed us by. “Laura, is that you?” One of the students, a tall, handsome African American man, was looking at me. I studied this unfamiliar man and behind the mature face, trousers, and tie, I recognized the young undergraduate I had taught nearly a decade earlier. Tim had been in my reading methods class and I had supervised him during his student teaching experience.
As Tim and I spent a few minutes catching up on highlights from the past seven years I asked him what he was doing on campus. “I’m working on my Master’s in Educational Leadership. I want to become a principal.” Tim’s still sheepish smile radiated pride as he looked down at me, revealing the young man I had known so well years earlier. I remembered that even then Tim stood out for his natural leadership abilities. I couldn’t help but joining him in that sense of pride, wondering if I could have played a small role in his desire to continue higher education.
That evening as I prepared for bed I thought about my encounter with Tim, and shook my head with a chuckle reflecting on the twists and turns my journey as an educator had taken me on. I know this sounds like a cliché, but I got in to teaching to make a positive impact on my students’ lives. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child’s face light up when they grasp a new concept.
As an elementary school teacher, I was motivated and energized when I could figure out how to support students through that zone of proximal development—which can be extremely frustrating—to the light bulb moment of, “I get it!” I quickly realized that helping children to make it to those moments was not the same for all kids! I understood that different children needed different access points, different ways to demonstrate learning, and different assessments. That understanding helped me to broaden my repertoire of practice. For example, in one of my language arts lessons students had to decide if they did or did not like their assigned stories and then support their opinion at a book club meeting. They could do so by creating a power point, writing a book review for the newspaper, creating a commercial, drawing a picture, acting out a scene, or expressing their position through a song or writing. I used multiple assessment measures to evaluate student learning and incorporated my students’ interests into evaluation experiences. After this particular assignment a handful of students approached me and shared, “That was the best language arts test ever!” Although I was learning how to create the light bulb moment for a lot of children by differentiating learning and assessment, I had a burning desire to learn how to create that moment for all students.
My desire to become a better teacher tugged me toward graduate school, although my heart was firmly planted to the students and teachers I worked with in public elementary schools. I entered graduate school longing to be back in the classroom working with my students. I attempted to resolve this tension by approaching a professor about my desire to return to the classroom and pursue my graduate degree simultaneously; instead I was encouraged to teach a couple undergraduate classes in the teacher education program. Initially, I was not thrilled with the idea of teaching this age group, but I decided to give it a try. I agreed to teach two methods courses for pre-service teachers in the elementary education program.
My first year of teaching undergraduates, I learned something about learning and something about teaching. I learned that transformative learning could occur in every student—regardless of their age—if they are engaged with the subject matter and it is related to their own lives. College students had those “light up” learning moments just like my elementary aged students. Even though college students are young adults, I can still make a difference in their lives. They may not run home to mom and dad shouting, “My closed circuit lit up a light bulb!” but they may walk into an elementary classroom understanding that a struggling learner can also be brilliant in many facets of their lives. In addition, I also learned that teaching young adults still requires me to get to know my students and their lives in order to create a learning environment that is culturally responsive. When young adult learners enter that zone of proximal development I still need to dig deeply into a well equipped toolbox to know how to support them. So what’s in that toolbox? I take a genuine interest in my students and their lives, I am constantly and critically reflecting on my teaching practice, and I always try to connect the course material to their lives so that it is meaningful and applicable. In essence, I can say that teaching students—younger or older—requires an understanding of learning.
My encounter with Tim is a reminder of why I love my job. Learning is a transformative journey, whether it’s for young children learning to write their names or for young adults learning how to teach kids how to write their name. Running into Tim reminds me that it doesn’t matter what age your students are, if you genuinely care about your students, critically reflect on your practice, and get to know them—REALLY get to know them—then teachers can support all students in having more of those “light up” moments.