Our guest blogger this week, Kem Opperman-Torres, teaches Spanish and Study Skills at St. Martin’s Episcopal Middle School in Metairie, Louisiana. She is entering her seventh year at St. Martin’s where her two boys also attend school. You can follow Kem on Twitter @SraTorres and participate in a monthly #AIMchat with other AIM teachers from around the world. Kem is always eager to share ideas and connect with other AIM teachers (especially those in the United States). You can connect with her on Edmodo (Sra. Kem Torres) or Facebook (Kem Opperman-Torres) as well.
When it was suggested to me that I consider completing the AIM Teacher Certification process, my first thought was, I’m not ready for certification! In my mind, AIM certified teachers were shining stars like Sylvia Duckworth, Richard Smith or Lisa Shurtz. I considered the 50 certified teachers listed on AIM’s site to be an exclusive list that I would dream of joining in 4 or 5 years. I was certain that I was unprepared to become certified and that a year would not be long enough to complete the process.
However, with encouragement from Wendy, I decided to take the plunge. Since I’m always preaching to my Study Skills students about ‘Failing Forward’, this seemed like a good time to practice what I preached. As it turned out, this attitude was perfect for certification. I decided that I had much to learn, that I would probably make many mistakes and I should engage in the process with a student’s hungry desire to learn.
I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to move through the modules. The video clips of teachers and students made for entertaining learning. In the evenings, I could relax in my living room and watch a panel discussion from a module. Then I could go to work the next day and implement what I learned. I found myself eager to see what was in the next module and how I could apply it to my classes. At times, I’d watch a video from one module and then peek into another topic I was interested in as well. I was free to watch and re-watch items I was struggling with. This flexibility helped me customize my learning to the areas that were relevant to my classes.
Eventually, my wonderful mentor, Karen Oraas, suggested that I start videotaping my classes for her to see. This is when the ‘failing’ began. I can honestly tell you that I deleted the first few videos I made almost as soon as I began to watch them. It was terribly difficult to watch myself teach. Do I really sound like that? Do I really gesture like that? Do I really look like that? But in the spirit of ‘Failing Forward’, I set up my iPad on the tripod again and made a few more videos.
This time I pretended that I was not watching myself but instead I was watching a video from a module. I brought an objective eye to the teacher in the video and asked questions about her performance. What can she improve? What is she doing well? What does she need to learn more about? This dialogue that I began with myself was one of the most important aspects of the certification process. I began to critique myself regularly, not only when I watched my videos, but as I was teaching. If I had learned something interesting from Wendy’s ‘background’ video the night before, then I attempted to implement it in class the next day. At the end of the day, I’d watch myself and see if I’d succeeded. At first, most days… well, I failed. But in time I had more and more successes. I even became brave enough to send Karen some of my better videos.
Instead of just critiquing myself, now I had feedback from a master teacher. Karen was far nicer to me than I was to myself. She gave me so much positive feedback and helped me feel confident about my teaching. She gently pointed out areas I needed to improve and encouraged me to build my skills. Instead of dreading her feedback, I found that I was looking forward to it. I not only filmed myself, but I had my students make videos of their story retellings. Then we were able to see how well they were progressing. Karen was able to look over my students’ written work as well. She gave me advice on what areas were weak and how I should encourage them to improve their performance.
It is hard to express how helpful it is to have someone observe you as an AIM teacher. My middle school head or my department chair can observe me in a general way, but sharing parts of my class with my mentor was completely different. Her whole attitude is about helping you become a great AIM teacher. She uses her many years of experience to specifically improve your AIM skill set. For me, this was priceless. I do not have an AIM expert in my area that I can call on for help. Even though Karen was nearly 3,000 miles away from me, I felt like I had a co-pilot in my class. Even on days when I was not filming myself, I still brought Karen to the room with me mentally. How would Karen say that class went? Was I making sure all the students were speaking? Did I vary my questions to require critical thinking skills and elicit complete sentence responses? My class looked different through these new eyes and I reflected more on my successes and failures on a daily basis.
Now, as I draw near the end of my certification, I am savoring my final opportunities to share my classes with Karen. We have created a short list of final submissions that focuses on areas both of us think are critical for my skill mastery. I look forward to returning to my classroom in a few weeks with a critical eye on implementing all that I’ve studied and reviewed over the summer break. I dream that my students will notice a marked difference in the teacher that is beginning this year, compared to the teacher that walked into the room a year ago. As Karen has pushed me to strive for more, I have also pushed my students to reach new heights. My students speak and write with a confidence that I’ve never experienced in my classes before. I am so proud of all we have already accomplished together last year, and I look forward to the many triumphs that lie ahead.
In the end, it turns out that being ready for certification is not as important as being open to certification. If I had waited until I was ready for certification, I may have never gotten there. It is the certification process that is making me ready to be a stronger and more critical teacher. On my own, I would not have grown in that way professionally as quickly as I did with my mentor.
If you are eager to learn more and to hone your methodology as an AIM teacher, then you should put certification in your sights. Look over the certification page on the site and move toward the basic requirements. The time you will invest during your year of certification is certainly time well spent. You will thank yourself later for taking up the challenge. Sometimes in life it is best to close your eyes, count to 10 and then say, “Ready or not, here I come!”