Ms. Tullo — Portrait of a Great Teacher

Recently, I contemplated what it would take to really evaluate a teacher preparation program in contrast with the methods employed by the National Council of Teacher Quality.  My thoughts rested  with actual measurements of program effectiveness and quality, but they also rested with the graduates of the program and the education narratives they compose with their actual students in actual schools.  In an age when we valorize data from test scores far beyond their designed capacities, it is important to pause and see how lives are impacted by teachers in ways that affirm the aesthetic in teaching.

A number of my former students came to mind as I considered that question, and, among them, is Ms. Shaina Tullo, a member of Seton Hall’s Class of 2010 and an English teacher in the northern New Jersey area.  I taught Shaina in a number of classes from our introductory history of education and foundations course, to a course on the role of diversity in the classroom and her secondary English methods course.  From the beginning of her teacher education, it was obvious that she was sincerely dedicated both to reading and writing and to helping new generations of children learn to love them both.  Shaina always demonstrated a passion for the English language, a deep appreciation of the power that is embodied in language and genuine excitement at the thought of working with her future students born of her own discovery of what language’s power can do.  What was perhaps most impressive about Shaina as a teacher candidate was how consistently she reminded me of why I had originally become an English teacher.

Naturally, I was delighted when she agreed to let me write about her and her work in this blog, and she was very informative when answering my questions.  I will let her words speak on her behalf from this point forward:

How did you decide to become a teacher?  Which people and which experiences were most influential for that decision?

Ironically enough, I decided to be a teacher when I was in kindergarten. I actually have a photo of my kindergarten graduation with my “When I Grow Up”project which stated that I wanted to be a teacher and teach children how to read books.  Seems like quite a bit of foreshadowing, huh?  This was definitely drawn from my experiences in and outside of school.  To say I grew up from modest means would be an understatement.  School, and moreover, books became a method of escapism and wonderment that would carry me through the hardships of growing up in poverty.

Additionally, the unwavering support of my educators throughout my school years drove me to education. I have been blessed with some of the most diligent and beautiful educators throughout my school life.  Mrs. Goldenbaum, my first and third grade teacher, condoned my book habit at a young age.  Once, when crying because the librarian would not let a seven year-old me check out Joan of Arc, she marched me to the library and took it herself.  We had to renew the book about five times, but I finished it.  My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Weissman, was an invaluable member of my life and continued to push me towards more complex texts while nurturing my love of poetry and creative writing.  He would read my stories religiously—even the horrifically bad ones—and provide meaningful feedback.  In high school, Mademoiselle Cermak and Mr. Bischoff became surrogate parents, offering life lessons and advice on everything from prom dresses to boyfriends to the philosophical ramifications of existentialism. All of these people were monumental in helping me towards teaching.  They awakened in me the need to give of myself, to strive for excellence, and to love unconditionally. So, in a sense, the decision to become an educator was never something I pondered over. It seemed to be what I was always meant to do.

What is most important to you about teaching English?  Why is this subject important?

Teaching English, to me, is more than just analyzing symbolism or parsing poetry for deeper meaning.  To teach English is to study the human condition, to examine life as it should be lived and as it has been lived across cultures and time.  There is something so remarkable about finding truth, didacticism, advice, hope, despair, and fear within the written word.  My subject is important because it teaches students how to live life well, and is an essential component in understanding our humanity.  Other subjects, mathematics, science, foreign languages, are pursuits that will undoubtedly aid those in my classroom in being intelligible, functioning members of society.  But few subjects get to help formulate identity, as is the case in an English classroom.

What do you think draws most people to become English teachers?

I truly believe that English teachers are a special breed of people. We are, for starters, a very bookish bunch, but a reader does not necessarily make an English teacher. Those of us who are driven to teach English are profoundly inspired by text, by literary culture, and by words. We seek to guide others on this path because we believe it will profoundly alter their lives for the better. And those of us who are truly devoted to the study of literature, will continue with this pursuit in the face of resistance. It is too important a task and, thus, we are not easily shaken.

Explain your education as a teacher –from being a student, to being a student of teaching to being a teacher.  What was influential and helpful at all three phases of your education?

The progression from student to teacher is a very gradual one and, perhaps, the minutia of it may be lost on the outside world.  I would say the most easily traceable difference is the progression from philosophy to practicality.  As a student in high school, most lessons are very philosophical and idea heavy.  We discuss motivation, draw inferences, and express feelings.  As I moved into being a student of education, particularly as I moved through the teacher education program at Seton Hall, more and more practical aspects are integrated into education.  No longer was I dealing with the abstract, I was creating lesson plans, units, assessments with purpose.  This is practical.  And, of course, being a teacher, comes the most practical of all the stages in which most of which I produce is utilized.

I will say that Seton Hall was a remarkable institution for guiding me through all the phases of this process.  That my field placements started much earlier than other teacher education programs was invaluable.  I was able to have tangible and meaningful experiences in classrooms, such that I never experienced the “first year jitters”when I finally had my own classroom.  At that point, it seemed as though the classroom was a natural extension of myself. To this end, the various lesson planning and assessments done throughout my program at Seton Hall were so helpful.  Not only do I frequently use many of the artifacts I produced during my undergraduate years in my own classroom, but I also have the skills required to create high quality items for my class.  Throughout my four years as a teacher, I have consistently been complimented on the quality and caliber of the artifacts I generate for class.

What are some of the most important things a future teacher should learn before entering the classroom?

First and foremost, a future teacher should master his or her content. I cannot explain how invaluable this is in preparing yourself for a classroom, for without a deep knowledge of content, real learning cannot happen.

To this end, practical components of teaching should be mastered before entering the classroom. Understanding the basic tenants of teaching pedagogy and lesson planning, methods for employing differentiated instruction, and the philosophy and justification for differing types of assessment should not necessarily be mastered, as mastery will take the sum total of many years of teaching, but any future teacher should have a good working knowledge of these concepts.

I would also say that a lot of the important things a teacher will learn (classroom management, quick-thinking, the ability to balance work and social life) can only truly be learned in a classroom. In your first year, in your first classroom, you will fail.  Lessons you thought would profoundly change the lives of your students will be met with glazed eyes and snores.  This is natural, and will help shape you into the educator you want to be.  So, in a sense, the most important thing a future teacher can learn is the ability to forgive oneself, embrace failure, and learn from mistakes.

Can you describe a “typical”day teaching?  What is most memorable to you day by day?

A typical teaching day starts with arriving early and basking in the quiet of the halls for an hour or so before the students arrive.  This gives ample time to ready myself (literally and mentally) for the day.  The actual teaching component of the day flies by. This year I taught six classes and I always felt like the most enjoyable part of the day was the actual class time I spent with my student.  Almost all of my free time (lunch, prep periods, after school) is devoted to talking with or helping the students in some capacity.  This is the blessing (though some may call it a curse) of being a popular teacher in school.  The students often want to spend time with you.  I would recommend taking this time with the students as much as possible and within reason.  It is these quiet moments outside of class where students need you most.  They come under the guise of “hanging out”at lunch, but the amount that is shared in this time period is paramount.  Consequently, it is these moments that endear the students to you and you to them.  This allows for an environment of mutual respect and understanding.  It creates a mentor/mentee relationship in which you can become a positive adult role model for the students.  For a lot of students, particularly where I work in an inner city, having a grounded adult is very important as this may be the most stable time period in their whole day. These are always my favorite moments when teaching.

One of my favorite anecdotes surrounding teaching was this year during the spring musical.  I directed our production of Little Shop of Horrors which was an amazing experience but also a very stressful one as our theater program was very new.  As a former performer myself, I really did work the students very hard throughout preparation for the play (the theater kids started the rumor that I was tougher than the basketball coach). But, on opening night, when I was backstage with the kids who were all very nervous, I told them that the most important part of the play was to have fun. This alleviated so much tension and prompted what became a traditional backstage dance party.  It was so wonderful seeing the kids loosen up and enjoy themselves at what would have otherwise been a very stressful moment.  And, as it turned out, our production was nearly flawless.

Another one of my favorite times of year involved my work at my former school where I was the yearbook adviser. Our club sponsored all the social clubs, and we would frequently put on dances as a fundraiser. Being after school with an army of children, having about two hours to transform the gym into something other than a gym was always very stressful but also the most fun we had all year. The gym was always beautifully decorated and we always had successful dances, but seeing the kids pull together to create massive pieces of decoration was always tremendously rewarding. Our post-decorating dinner of pizza always impressed upon me a feeling of family, as we would laugh about whose tape ran out or who had paint on their faces.

One of my other favorite accomplishments that actually deals with the classroom involves my juniors from this year. When I first started teaching them, I realized the students in my class had never written academic analytical papers or conducted research of any kind. To be blunt, on average, their writing skills had been far below grade level.  I spent an extraordinary amount of time after their first papers were due teaching academic writing, research, and analysis. Finally, in March, I sat down to grade a stack of Othello papers and was absolutely impressed with the body of work I had received. Not only were my students writing academically, but they were uncovering nuance of text that I myself had not considered. I actually almost cried over how far they had grown and how much they had developed. It was definitely a gradual development throughout the year, but those papers really did move me.

How important are your fellow teachers to your daily work?

My fellow teachers are very important to my daily work. I have been blessed in both schools where I have worked, in that my fellow staff members were always extremely helpful and outgoing. There has always been a support network available to share materials, collaborate with projects, or share snacks on a particularly bad day.

Cross-curricular planning is also a very vital method for improving student achievement, as it ensures students’abilities to make connections and draw upon multiple intelligences. Having a teacher to work with is very helpful in this regard. Most recent, I taught The Things They Carried as a cross-curricular component to my juniors’unit on Vietnam in US History II. A lot of students said this was their favorite unit all year, as it provided faces and emotion to what would otherwise seem like a very rigid history unit. In turn, my students brought with them a breadth of knowledge as to the context of the events in the novel.

Also, given the demographics of where I teach, I often rely heavily on the foreign language department of school to provide translations and assistance when interacting with the parents of students who are non-English speaking families. Having the interpersonal relationships with these staff members help create a classroom culture that is both accommodating and welcoming.

What is your teaching “philosophy”?  What beliefs and commitments guide your teaching?

I am actually going to copy the first paragraph of my philosophy of education as it appears in my teacher portfolio:

First and foremost, each class has a different culture and personality dependent upon their past educational experiences. This is equally true of teachers. To teach is to find a marriage of class culture and teacher philosophy. As a teacher, I find myself consistently engrossed in developing my craft of teaching, especially when done in order to better meet the needs of my classes’cultures. Thus, the philosophies represented are a testament to my current beliefs and practices. They are in no way finite. I am committed to constantly adapting and changing my beliefs and practices in light of new data or new student needs. When it pertains to the teaching reading and writing, I find that five major beliefs shape my philosophy: (1) I believe that there is an inherent and necessary need for the study of reading and writing (2) I believe in the power of reading as a method of attaining lifelong thinking skills (3) I believe in the wide-reaching and pervasive importance of writing (4) I believe that assessment of reading and writing needs to reflect true learning by emphasizing process over product (5) I believe technology and the teaching of reading and writing is not exclusive.

Is there anything you would say to one of your students who wants to teach?

I would tell one of my students who wanted to teach that this career is about sacrifice. We give of ourselves so much, and, sometimes, we do so without thanks. But, if you can endure the long hours and can commit yourself to a life where your accomplishments are often immeasurable or unknown, then you will be rewarded in profound and extraordinary ways. You will see students grow to unbelievable heights and you will shape them in ways that they themselves may never notice. It is a beautiful life with so, so many rewards, and I fully recommend it.

I have been a part of conversations between other faculty members and students who have advised students not to become teachers, “Be anything but a teacher. Be something better,” they said. I even had a professor say the same thing to me in college when she found out my major. It is a hard job, yes, and it pervades your identity. But there are few careers that offer such tremendous rewards as teaching. It may take the right type of person, but when the person is right amazing things can happen.

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Filed under Portrait of a Great Teacher, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

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