Schools of Thought

6 lessons I learned as a student teacher

By Heather Sinclair Wood, CNN

Editor’s note: Heather Sinclair Wood is a writer-producer for the CNN Newsroom. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge, and a master’s degree in education from Mercer University in Georgia.

(CNN) - I’m a newswoman, tried and true. Journalist, news junkie, news hound, call me what you like. So when I decided three years ago to pursue a master’s degree in education, family and friends thought I was crazy. Having an advanced degree was something I had always wanted, so I figured why not earn a degree in a profession that I could possibly see myself doing one day? Two years of night classes and a few months as a student teacher seemed easy enough, and then I would have another career option under my belt. I thought of teacher and journalist as practically the same job - just a different audience.

So I embarked on the amazing journey, and a journey it was. But what I didn’t realize were the things I learned during my time as a student teacher in a suburban Atlanta middle school were eye-opening, humbling, and little did I know, would truly change my life and my job as a journalist forever. The way I see the world has changed dramatically, and I have a whole new appreciation for the profession that many take for granted.

Here are six lessons I learned when I jumped from one career to the classroom:

No matter how prepared you think you are, you’re not prepared
I was raised in the classroom of Mrs. Sinclair; my mother, a career educator, taught me everything I needed to know about life right from the realms of her school. My aunt is a teacher, my cousins and my sister. The love of teaching practically runs through my veins. So when graduate school required me to complete a four-month stint as a student teacher, I thought I was so ready. Years of papers, classroom observations and some of the best professors and peers a student could ask for equipped me for life in the classroom. But in reality, I’m not sure anyone can truly be prepared for what an actual classroom is like. I would have never considered myself a novice, but walking into that seventh-grade classroom in January was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Befriend the people who (really) matter
After nearly a decade in the news business, my first day at school came with all the nervous feelings any new job would have. Only this time, I actually had the petrifying power to alter a child’s life permanently. As I stuck my yellow visitor badge to my freshly ironed blouse, I was greeted with smiling faces and inquisitive looks. I know running through their minds were questions about why the “CNN lady” would want to be a teacher. They would soon find out that my passion for news carried over to my time as a teacher, too. I discovered almost instantly that the lunch ladies, custodians, secretaries, resource officers and librarians are the ones who keep a school running. Unlike CNN, where oftentimes you must look up the corporate ladder for help, schools operate as families in which every member, no matter his or her job status, plays a pivotal role in the operation of the school.

Middle schools can be war zones, as I found out, and you’re going to need some people in the trenches with you. Within my first two weeks, there was a broken nose incident, a chocolate pudding explosion and an index-card shortage that had me knocking on doors. I probably talked to the school principal only two or three times while I was there, but the men and women on staff became my heroes.

Always have a contingency plan
A few weeks into my student teaching, as my time as the sole teacher grew imminent, I decided to incorporate some new online tools into my social studies lesson plans. In graduate school, teacher candidates were encouraged to use technology in every way we could. Prezis, Weeblys and Wikis were drilled into our heads, and since computers had been an active part of my own education from an early age, I felt comfortable jumping right in.

But just as I was getting into the core of my material one afternoon, the Internet crashed. As the seconds ticked by and I tried to resurrect the lesson, students began to lose focus, and I felt myself losing them. This became one of my greatest lessons of the experience. No matter how fabulous or indestructible you think your lesson plan is, you should always have a Plan B. The schools of tomorrow are going to be equipped with state-of-the-art technology that fits the lifestyle and social culture of your students. But none of that helps when the technology doesn’t work at the exact moment 30 kids are staring at you. You may hear book-free schools are the wave of the future, but in reality, old-fashioned textbooks work just fine in a pinch.

There will never be enough time
Teaching is the most-exhausting job I’ve ever done. I learned immediately that comfortable shoes are worth their weight in gold. A busy day in the newsroom, for example, is hour after hour of breaking news: I worked a 16-hour day during the 2008 presidential election. Last year, we learned of Whitney Houston’s death five minutes before my show started. It’s unpredictable and intense.

But in the education world, it’s like breaking news happens every day. I arrived at school most days at 7:30 a.m. For the next nine hours, my cooperating teacher - the woman kind enough to let me student teach in her classroom - and I ran from one thing to the next; making copies, returning parent phone calls and e-mails, department meetings, discipline issues, maintaining order in the classroom and hallway, bus duty, assemblies and food fights. That doesn’t even include my No. 1 job - actually teaching students the required material for those intimidating high-stakes standardized tests. And don’t even think about using the restroom anytime you want. Nope. That too has to be planned, and usually that means holding it.

We think about the unthinkable
We’ve all had the tedious experience of being part of a fire drill. Growing up in California, I even had the privilege of earthquake drills. But I was in no way prepared the first time the announcement came across my classroom intercom: “We are now in lockdown.” A flood of thoughts and emotions ran through my mind. What do we do? Is this real? Is this a drill? Luckily, my cooperating teacher had been through this many times before. The door was locked, the lights turned off and the students gathered in the corner opposite the windows. Twenty-five young faces looked at me for reassurance, and I struggled to give any.

Once, it was drug dogs checking the lockers. Another time, it was a gunman on the loose at a nearby grocery store. A third time was simply a drill. There’s something very normal about preparing for an act of Mother Nature, but how do you even begin to prepare for a gunman in your school? This is the new reality in schools, and it still gives me the chills.

It is the most rewarding job you will ever do
In recent months, the world has seen some of the ways educators go above and beyond what they are asked to do. From the brave teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary who died trying to shield their students from a gunman to the Oklahoma teachers who quite literally stared down a tornado, teachers are no longer men and women who stand in front of a chalkboard. They’re counselors, mentors, nurses and first responders. So despite the sore feet and uphill battles, it was all worth it.

On my last day of school, three of my students serenaded the class with a song written for me. I cried because I knew I had changed my life and theirs. To every teacher out there, thank you for letting me be a part of your world for a short time. It has inspired me to be a better person in all aspects of my life.

Sinclair Wood's student decorated the classroom to say good-bye.

My mother still comes home each and every day with white chalkboard dust on her clothes. Her passion for what she does is evident, and I can only hope to have that passion in my career at CNN. I’m not sure where the road of life will take me, but if it does steer me toward teaching one day, I’ll know I’ll be more than a glorified baby sitter with summers off. I’ll be one of the lucky ones who see the change in the world I’ve helped to create.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Heather Sinclair Wood.

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