The Oldest Student-Teacher in the World

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I am truly the oldest student-teacher in the world, or at least it feels that way. As I complete my library/media internship to add an endorsement to my teaching certificate, I marvel at how things have changed.

First of all, I get to—have to!—do this program at night, in the only school library in our system that is open in the evenings. Second, the internship lasts all year, three and a half hours each week, and those hours are tacked onto long days of work as a school-based technology specialist.

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Third, I am learning so much!

I am assigned to the library in one of our system’s alternative high schools. Students come to the school for many different reasons: they need a flexible or extended schedule; they were unsuccessful in their previous school; they are pregnant or teen parents; or they are older and have returned to school to earn a high school diploma. Many are new immigrants and second-language learners determined to advance their literacy skills. It is an adult place with adult expectations. Kids come here because they want to—not because they have to. And it is very cool.

I've spent much of my professional career in preschool special education, and those who know me may find my pursuit of this new credential a bit strange. I imagine them wondering, "Don’t her strengths lie more in the toy corner of life?”

Well, yes, but my strengths (and interests) also lie in the book corner, and in a weak moment a year and a half ago, I decided to go back and become part of a cohort to get my library/media certification. Now we are nearing the end—just 20 hours in the summer elementary school placement to finish—and I can consider becoming a librarian. (I'm not likely to make that change soon, however, since it's a 10-month position, and I currently have an 11-month position and a child in college.)

Whatever decision I ultimately make at this late stage of my career, the student-teaching experience has been wonderful. It has opened new instructional horizons for me, and I am energized and amazed by the students I get to worth with at this school.

Last week, for example, one of the teachers requested that we make a library scavenger hunt for her evening students to work on when they had completed a test. The students would be coming down to the library one or two at a time to do this task independently. So I whipped together a hunt, with the goal of getting each student to explore the shelves a little.

Over the months I have been there, I noticed that the evening students at the school seemed to spend most of their time in the biographies section, and I thought they should see more of the library. I came up with 10 questions, each with an answer in one of the 10 sections of the Dewey Decimal System. How hard could it be?

Very hard, it turned out. The first question: Find a book on tape or CD that you can listen to was a new concept that had never been shown or explained to these English language learners. And what a revelation—I could see the wheels turning. “I could listen to this in my car.” “I could hear the book.” But they couldn’t find the books independently because they didn’t know what they were.

The second question also proved interesting: Find a volume of the encyclopedia with your initial on it. Encyclopedias were easy to find, but initials were a new concept. And then I began to realize that the signs in the library were difficult to understand and not intuitive at all, making the whole place seem like one big mystery to these students.

After the first two students worked through the hunt, I realized just how much help would be needed. I stationed myself in the middle of the room to assist the hopelessly lost. But then something really nice started to happen. I would explain the reasoning behind a question, or point out the numbers over the shelves, and the students would begin to pass their new understanding on to their friends.

When each person finished the hunt, I apologized for the difficulty of the assignment and reminded them that I was new and just learning. These lovely students just smiled and said, “Thank you for making this.” I admire these kids so much. They all have full-time jobs during the day and are supporting or helping to support families. They come to this school for all the right reasons—to learn, to get better jobs, to become legal. And they are unfailingly polite and respectful of the materials and the books and the people in the library.

Now I am frustrated by the signs and labels in this library and vow to change that as soon I have some power. The special education teacher in me comes out, saying, “If you don’t know English or can’t read, what do you need? Pictures!” And I can make signs with pictures that are not babyish but can empower these students to use the entire library more independently. I also can get the computer passwords to make sense so that adult students do not have to ask for help to log on. My preschool roots notwithstanding, I am becoming a firm believer in independence.

I have never enjoyed any graduate school experience as much as I have enjoyed this library/media program. I have learned more in these classes that I use every day than in any other courses I have ever taken. So, even though I am the oldest student-teacher in the world, definitely worn and weary, I am loving this. You are never too old to learn. Or to contemplate a new teaching career.

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