I wrote this post last Tuesday but haven’t been able to publish until today.  As such, some of the references are slightly dated — but only by a week!

Last week was my STEP orientation. It was a good week, filled with friendly faces and the seeds of big ideas.

One instructor, whom I’ll be shadowing at a middle school summer program starting tomorrow, discussed the importance of the first week of class. How it sets tone and expectations for the rest of the year. Shows students how soft or tough you are, how much they can get away with, if you’ll treat them as equals, whether they’ll have fun with you.

It reminds me of a scene from Frank McCourt’s autobiographical Teacher Man, where he earns his students’ respect on the first day of class by publicly eating a sandwich from the floor that one rowdy ninth grader had just thrown across the room.

“Petey said, Yo, teacher, that’s my sandwich you et.

Class told him, Shaddap. Can’t you see the teacher is eating?”

No sandwiches were thrown my first week. My Stanford cohort is pretty well-behaved. In case you’re curious, there’s 88 of us, 22 identifying as male, 66 as female. Oddly, I’m pretty sure that’s also the split between elementary candidates (22) and secondary candidates (66). It’s a racially diverse group, though the largest plurality, if not majority, is white.

We spent the first week exploring ourselves as a group, the profession of teaching, and (briefly) the idea of teaching for equity. If first impressions hold any special meaning, I thought it’d be worthwhile to reflect on the week’s main foci.

Our directors dedicated significant time to socializing, through optional and non-optional formats. At each session you were placed with a table of randomized peers. Most activities had an icebreaker at the beginning and required collaboration. Outside of class, the STEP staff hosted an ice cream social, a campus tour, and a BBQ dinner.

Though I felt an irony about paying Stanford-level tuition for these sorts of social experiences (an irony that I doubt I’ll shake this whole year), I am grateful. The STEP staff recognizes that many students are at Stanford alone, from other states or entirely different countires. It’s important to facilitate relationship-building, especially as the program ramps up in intensity.

I’m also grateful because I think teaching, in a professional nature, needs to be more social. I’m not the first to worry about the “blackbox” of the classroom, and how we teachers can better collaborate or exchange constructive criticism. Before you can build a relationship of reciprocal feedback, you need to have a relationship. Like many master’s programs, I suspect much of STEP’s value lies in the connections made throughout the program. Both as a teacher-in-training and an ever-networking professional, I’m grateful for the social space of this first week.

What I’m still digesting is this week’s strong emphasis on unpacking teaching as a profession. After reading an article by Lee Schulman titled “Theory, Practice, and the Education of Professionals,” we were asked if teaching was a profession. If so, why or why not?

Everyone responded with a combination of yes or yes but. It was interesting to take time to discuss what it mean to be in a profession versus a career or a job, what it meant to balance theoretical learning with practice. Or at least, interesting to me as an English candidate who actually enjoys bickering about semantics.

More tangibly, we explored what professionalism requires in digital spaces. In many ways, teachers now have to assume that they’re being snapchated at any moment in the classroom. What does digital privacy look like when your students can access your public — and often your private — social media accounts? How does our hyperconnectedness to parents, colleagues, and students affect how perceptions of instruction and how we communicate expectations?

Our professionalism discussions raised more questions for me than it answered. I believe that was the intent. Regardless, we start working with middle schoolers tomorrow, so the discussion was timely.

Equity is hard. STEP prides itself on being a program with the pursuit of equity at its core. Equity as a word was included in many narratives our first week. Yet by Wednesday, I felt what many students of color in my class explicitly expressed: there was a lack of real conversation. Being at an institution of such immense privilege, I was feeling a strong need to build a common vocabulary and shared understanding around equity, privilege, discrimination, oppression, and identity. If I was feeling that pressure as a white, hetero cis-male, I’m sure others felt it much more acutely. We’re all using the same words, but what do we all mean?

To the STEP staff’s credit, we have a later scheduled course completely dedicated to equity. And it’s hard to facilitate a such a weighty group discussion with 88 people at once. On Thursday the STEP staff hosted a multi-hour afternoon session with a “six-word story” teaching for equity exercise and a group reading of Leo Lionni’s Fish is Fish.

fish is fish by Leo Lionni

From Fish is Fish, by Leo Lionni

I did not feel that afternoon allowed adequate space for dialogue, but it was a start. I hope there is more of this space, soon. Or more as an entire community, before we divide too quickly into subject-specific groups.

No first week is perfect. Though I have reservations about our introduction to teaching for equity, I’m generally satisfied with how STEP kicked off. My list of burning questions has tripled in the last five days — maybe I’ll compile them in a public Google doc, as I’m sure the world (i.e., the mysterious digital you) wants to know. For me, the question-cultivating is a good sign. I want to start everyday munching on a bowl full of questions.

This upcoming week, we meet the middle schoolers. We work with kids! For my first time, these will be “my students.”

Featured photo credit: “Homemade Sandwich” by fflav