This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on April 1, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
During my recent sabbatical, I had the unique opportunity to teach full-day sessions for 14 weeks in two different K–12 settings. Here’s how that happened. I decided to propose this unique sabbatical project because my students regularly asked me about the clinical experience phase of the university’s library science program. The prospect of taking PRAXIS exams (two are required for library science certification) in a testing center and completing background checks and required Pennsylvania Department of Education paperwork were all student stressors. And although those of us teaching in the program can explain and mentor student teaching experiences in a library setting, our students knew very well that most of us had done our student teaching many years prior. Since then, the overall process has evolved to include complications such as required certification tests, background checks, fingerprints, and such. More to the point, I wanted to actually live the experience as a student might.
I didn’t arrive at my faculty position in this department via the more traditional route. I came to university teaching by way of the military, time in corporate America, and teaching at a community college. At this point, I do have a couple of master’s degrees, higher education teaching experience, and am a practicing and certified Pennsylvania Professional Public Librarian, but before my sabbatical I was not K–12 certified. Once my sabbatical project was approved I set out to “walk the walk,” doing the same steps required of our teacher candidates. First, there was some additional course work I needed to fill in certain gaps in my higher education-focused master’s degree in library science. Accordingly, to prepare for the sabbatical, I completed four courses outside the library science domain. Next, I obtained the clearances I did not yet possess or were not current enough to satisfy school district requirements, completed the requisite medical exams, and processed the paperwork at the sponsoring school district in order to be voted in and invited as a “student” teacher by the schoolboard.
I first taught in an intermediate school library. To say the least, and especially because of not having children, teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth graders was a unique experience for me, and far more interesting and challenging than I expected. Full days of teaching energetic youngsters proved to be quite exhausting, and there were all sorts of new obligations and responsibilities; hallway monitoring, escorting sick kids to the nurse, for example. Throughout this experience, I found myself living out my collegiate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lectures. It’s one thing to talk about multiple means of representation and stepping out of one’s comfort zone when lecturing undergraduate students. It is quite another experience to actually do so in an unfamiliar classroom setting. Reading fairytale stories to fourth graders, using my best, but still not very good, character voices, was a learning experience way beyond anything I was used to. Nevertheless, my less than stellar storytelling skills notwithstanding, working with the kids was a fantastic experience.
My next seven weeks I spent at a high school. This experience was more like teaching my undergraduates at Kutztown, but at the same time, it had clear differences. It was interesting to work with students about to embark on the next phases of their lives, whether it was the military, college, or the workforce. For those headed to college and the military and uncertain about what to expect, I could fill in a lot of the details. Working with these students was rewarding because it helped me better understand seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, soon to be college students.
I finished up the sabbatical by taking the Library Media Specialist and Fundamental Subjects PRAXIS exams, earned 12 additional graduate credits as a result of the student experience, and was awarded K–12 Library Media Specialist certification by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. More importantly, I gained a needed perspective on the whole experience. Now, when students ask me, “What it is like to take the PRAXIS,” I can describe the testing center (potentially stressful, little cubicles, timed exams on computers), and I can offer real suggestions about how to study for and face those stressful exams.
Because of the sabbatical teaching experience, smaller details of the current certification experience are now in my grasp. If a student asks about the PDE 430, or clearances, or the special education course sequence, I can accurately comment on those elements. I can also reassure my students with some degree of authority that they will succeed in the journey, just as I did. Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the whole experience was how it enabled me to see how things look from a student’s perspective. After teaching for some time, it’s easy to lose that perspective and tremendously beneficial to once again be able to “walk the walk.”