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101 uses for popsicle sticks

• Mary Laura Bragg

I embarked on my adventure of teaching high school history when I was 24 years old.  I embarked on my adventure of being a parent when I was 40.  One of those adventures involved training, the other didn’t.

The irony of the situation is that I felt no more prepared on my first day of teaching (for which I was trained) than on my first day of being a mother.  For both adventures, I learned on the job.

There is an art and science to teaching; the science is what I thought I would learn in my teacher preparation program.  The art was what I thought I brought to the table.

In my perfect world, a teacher must have the following (in no particular order) before entering a teacher preparation program:

  • A deep understanding of their content.
  • Critical thinking skills.
  • Excellent writing skills.
  • An understanding that teachers don’t stop working at 3:00 and have the summers off.
  • A thick skin and an ability to laugh at themselves.
  • A love of kids.

I am an alternatively certified teacher – but before you write off my comments as “oh, no wonder you weren’t well-prepared to teach,” hear me out.

I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history.  I know my content.  What I needed was to learn the science of teaching.  What I got – by taking college of education classes, mind you, was not much.  I was teaching high school kids while taking classes at night (good thing I was 24).

The professor of my classroom management course was an elementary school teacher – 30 years ago.  And while I appreciated and respected her approach to keeping 20 first graders in perfect order by using a red, yellow, or green card behavior chart, what I needed to know was how to keep 31 juniors from killing each other and me.  And remember — this professor taught classroom management to teachers that were in the traditional teacher prep program at the institution.

So I figured it out.  I did what I could.  I didn’t smile until December.  I tried to put the fear of God in them the first day of school.  I tried to make it clear that I was the queen of the classroom.  And every year, by trial and error mind you, I became a better and better teacher.

After 8 years teaching high school history, here is what would have been helpful for me to have learned throughout my preparation:

  1. State academic standards, and the state assessment that measured them. About as obvious as the fact that Johnny Manziel was going to win the Heisman.  Yet according to NCTQ, only 24 percent of teacher educators believe it “absolutely essential” to produce “teachers who understand how to work with the state’s standards, tests and accountability systems.”
  2. Different forms of assessment, and how to use the results. Yes, merit can be found in well-phrased, well thought-out multiple choice questions, but true/false are just fact recall.  And any student can look up the date of the Battle of Hastings.  What I need to know is if they know the facts enough to understand why it was in 1066.  And in order to do that, I need to know how to create that kind of assessment.
  3. How to teach reading through my content area.  Would have been really helpful since I loaded my kids up with primary sources.  I threw away two textbooks and destroyed two copiers at Kinko’s so my students weren’t reading about the Declaration of the Rights of Man – they were reading the Declaration of the Rights of Man. And had I been given any instruction in how to reach non-readers, I probably wouldn’t have seen as many vacant stares as I did when I called on students to read out loud.  The silent pleas of “please don’t pick me, PLEASE don’t make me read out loud” were heartbreaking.
  4. How to teach writing. I had two fantastic high school English teachers that made me learn every grammatical rule in the world (including the Oxford Comma.)  But they also made me write, write, write.  And read, read, read. And so that’s what I did with my students. I’m sure there were seven better ways to teach them to write, but I didn’t know about them.
  5. How to teach students with disabilities.  Yes, I realize that two of my students in 2nd period American History have Asperger’s Syndrome.  It says so right on their IEP.  But I need more than that to serve their needs.
  6. How to use every precious minute of instructional time I had.  By the way, policy makers out there – you don’t necessarily need to extend the learning day – you just need to make sure that the teacher preparation programs at the universities you fund ensure teachers know how to use the time they have.

And it would have been nice to have known the following before I actually entered the classroom:

  1. The standards against which I would be evaluated.  Although it really didn’t matter since my evaluation was usually the last week of every school year.
  2. The supports available to me for instructional needs.  See number 5 above.

And just for fun, here are four things that were pretty much a waste of my time and money:

  1. 101 uses for popsicle sticks (okay, this may be unfair, but I’ve lost count of the elementary school teachers who mention this.)
  2. How to create a bulletin board 
  3. A class on “The History of Education in the US”
  4. A class on “Issues and Trends in Education”

The best class I had during my preparation?  An independent study in which I created a semester course complete with primary sources, published (and peer reviewed) articles, writing assignments – both formal and informal, and meaningful assessments.

The worst class I had? Educational Psychology.  Not because the subject matter wasn’t somewhat relevant, but because the professor spent each Tuesday night class reading the bolded vocabulary words on each page.  She got paid for that, and I got nothing.  Which, in turn, means that there were students during my first several years of teaching that just flat out got “nothing” from me.

I hope that my daughter has gotten more than “nothing” out of me during these first several years of parenting.

About the author

Mary Laura Bragg

Mary Laura serves as the Interim Vice President of Advocacy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. A former classroom teacher, Mary Laura directed Governor Jeb Bush’s statewide literacy initiative, Just Read, Florida! As director, she was responsible for crafting and implementing the policies that helped place a command focus on reading instruction in Florida. She has served on advisory groups on adolescent literacy for both the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National Governors Association. She is also a member of Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Advisory Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy. Contact Mary Laura at