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On Teaching: A Personal Narrative from Campus School Curriculum Director Graeham Dodd, ’08, MAT ’10

Graeham Dodd is the Director of Curriculum Design & Innovation at Campus School. She graduated from Smith College in 2008 and from the Smith Master of Arts in Teaching program in 2010. She taught second and third grade and served as an administrator in the Alexandria City Public Schools outside of Washington, DC from 2010-2018. Here she shares a personal narrative reflection on her path through education, and to Campus School:

I started teaching when I was 16. I was working on the weekends as a lifeguard at the YMCA and the aquatics director told me she thought I could teach swimming lessons. I wasn’t certified to teach, but she said I would figure it out. The notion that I would simply “figure out” teaching would have been daunting if it hadn’t been an intriguing challenge. Perhaps this could even be understood as a formative idea in my teaching identity: to teach is to engage with intriguing challenges. I remember standing on the side of the pool at my post, puzzling over how to design my lessons. I watched other instructors and analyzed their techniques. I read everything I could find about swim instruction. I got to know my students and their families at free swim and built relationships with them that bolstered my teaching. And I practiced: I taught and taught, dozens of lessons a month, to children of all ages and at all different levels. When I turned 17, I did get certified to teach water safety. Shortly after that, I became an instructor for the American Red Cross and taught community courses in CPR, first aid, and babysitter training when I was home from college on winter and summer breaks.

My dad has long been fond of telling me, “Teaching is in your blood, Graeham.” In part he is referring to our numerous relatives who are educators, but I think mostly he is referring to what can only be described as the magnetism of teaching for me. The way teaching has drawn me to it for most of my life. The way it has always struck me as an intriguing challenge. My schooling experience further reinforced the allure of education. From kindergarten through grade 12, I was a student in a very small cooperative public school district that collaborated closely with the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire. All of my childhood years were spent learning in classrooms alongside student teachers who were learning to teach, as well as pre-practicum teachers who were exploring the possibility of teaching. I watched my teachers guide and mentor them. I watched them become teachers; I went on their journeys with them. Some of them became my teachers. Many became teacher mentors themselves.

My immersive experience in school cultures that were centered on teaching and learning, coupled with early exploratory opportunities to teach, is the root of why I started thinking about education with what I’ve come to call the “lab school mentality.” It is the understanding that excellent teachers immerse themselves in teaching as intellectual work. It is about the classroom as a laboratory for, as we say at Campus School, “improvable ideas.” My teachers spoke often and openly about their ongoing, intentional pursuit of learning around the practice of teaching. They reflected on the inspiration they found in their students – children and pre-service teachers alike. They sought professional learning in earnest and came back to school emanating a tangible vitality that was immediately infused into lessons and units of study. They regularly and visibly collaborated with their peers in order to refine their collective practices as well as their own goals as individuals. Growing up with teachers who approached teaching in this way was a deeply influential experience that serves as the foundation of my own lab school mentality today. Furthermore, it is at the heart of why I believe so strongly in the dynamism of lab schools like ours, and why Campus School was such a powerful place to learn how to teach.

Despite my roots and all of the above, I didn’t plan to become an educator. My brother told me for years at the dinner table that it didn’t matter what I did, and that no matter what I said, I would ultimately be a teacher. When I arrived at Smith as an undergraduate I intended to study English, but the world of liberal arts ultimately led me to dabble widely. I spent my college career looking to “strike out on my own” and explore. I changed majors twice. I ultimately chose to focus on anthropology, which suited my interest in studying a little of everything.

Still, teaching permeated my world. For the first three years that I was at Smith, I worked one day a week as a classroom assistant to a veteran first grade teacher in a neighboring town who refused to hear it when I told her that I did not intend to become a teacher. “We’ll change that,” she said. “You will.” I taught my first lessons in Betty’s classroom at age 18 under her watchful eye. She reminded me of my K-12 teachers in the profoundly familiar way that she devoted herself to the learning of a new teacher. The difference was that now, the new teacher was me. I taught every week. Sometimes on the fly. Sometimes I came in ready to teach. It was all outside of my job description but Betty’s sheer love for the classroom enveloped me and I couldn’t resist the opportunities. Some of my favorite memories from those days are of standing on the playground beside her during recess while she delivered wise, anecdotal mini lectures on various education topics. Several times per year, Betty would lean in with a sparkle in her eye and ask if I had changed my mind about teaching yet. When I finally enrolled in an education course in the spring semester of my junior year, Betty celebrated. “I told you that you’re going to teach,” she said.

Educators all have their stories about the identities they develop around being a teacher. Our stories are often, if not always, filled with the people who influenced us most profoundly along the way. People who saw something in us, people who taught us, people who changed us. People who pressed us to think differently, and who pushed us to not only “try on” teaching for ourselves but also gave us the chance. Smith is filled with opportunities to interact with influential people, and to this, I am deeply indebted. The story I’m telling only goes on. It extends into my senior year of college, when I completed a whirlwind minor in education – the highlight of my time at Smith – and a teaching assistantship in the fourth grade classroom of a Smith alumna in Springfield. The combination of these two experiences sparked my interest in continuing to study education. I first heard about the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program through the alumna with whom I was working. She was in her first year of teaching, which is notoriously complex, having just finished her practicum at Campus School. Nonetheless, and without hesitation, she opened her classroom to me with grace and warmth that humble me to this day. “We’ll learn together,” she said. And so that is what we did. Once again: the classroom was a place where both students and teachers could thrive through exploration, deliberate practice, and the mindset that ideas are improvable (and moreover, that the pursuit of ideas is a thrill in itself).

I tell you all of this because it is the substance of my beliefs about what it takes to raise a teacher, and because it illustrates what I believe Campus School holds as its truest values. To raise great teachers is to increase the educational opportunities and value of learning for children. Learning to teach takes copious opportunities to see excellent teaching in action, copious opportunities to teach, and unconditional opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them alongside a devoted coach. It requires mentorship that is grounded in confidence, patience, and persistence regarding the new teacher’s potential. And, perhaps above all, teachers need mentors (and colleague peers!) who can model and participate in the ongoing development of a practice around thinking about and acting upon one’s work. At its best and richest and most rewarding, teaching is innovation work. It is transformative.

What I have always admired and loved most about Campus School is its drive for intentional influence. This is a place that is dedicated to the flourishing of the mind, to the encouragement and cultivation of curiosity, and to the relationships that give all learners the courage to take on the intriguing challenges that call to us. It is also a place where new teachers can learn to teach in the spirit of all of these things. My student teaching experience at Campus School was framed in terms of learning to think and reflect on what is possible in teaching and learning, and to grow boundlessly resourceful with regard to making the possible come to fruition. I was surrounded by practitioners who understood their work as both evolutionary and revolutionary. As avid learners themselves they continually changed and grew, catalyzing new and better learning for their students. This became the definition of excellence in teaching that I took into my own classrooms, and it is the definition that still rings true for me. I also developed a strong belief that excellent teachers are the true change agents and leaders in schools, and that they are fueled by the intellectual nature of their work.

It is a joy to be back at the Campus School: collaborating with our dedicated, passionate teachers, exploring vibrant connections and partnerships with Smith, and engaging with our curriculum in new and exciting ways. Here, we have the privilege of living the lab school mentality each and every day, and opening our doors to curiosity. This is a place where opportunity and possibility around the exploration of teaching abound, and because of this, it is a place where both teaching and learning thrive.

 

Written by Graeham Dodd, edited by Brittany Collins

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