GUEST POST: Interview with a Teacher and Former Probation Officer
Kristen DiFiore has been teaching Psychology and Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology for 13 years in Morris County, NJ. She is interested in retrieval and information retention techniques and is passionate about helping new educators achieve success and happiness in the classroom. Her blog site is www.teachingsanity.com.
1) About Your Own Teaching
a) What is your favorite aspect of teaching?
I enjoy lecturing because of the way I do it. I teach concepts and give definitions, but I have a story for almost everything I talk about. I used to be a probation officer and I have some great stories to go with the psychological concepts discuss in class. I use a lot of humor and personal stories from my own life and I think that creates a connection between me and the kids. Many times they’ve told me they were able to remember a concept I taught in class because of the story I wrapped it in. They get super excited when I have a story for them! I enjoy the discussions I have with the kids and I am so happy when they show a true interest in the class.
I also love watching them become strong AP students. At the beginning of the year, most of them have poor study habits, are unsure of themselves and are terrible free-response question (FRQ) writers. Every October, I look at their essays and marvel at their awfulness, only to be amazed by the quality of writing come late April. Over the course of eight months, I watch these juniors and seniors become confident, AP FRQ masters who can use common sense and apply the 600+ terms I have taught them. It never ceases to amaze me; I love being a part of it and seeing how excited they are to take the AP test.
b) In an ideal world, how would your students study and engage with the material you present in your class?
Because of the strict deadline for the AP test, I can’t cover psychology exactly the way I would like. I teach to the test, and while the kids learn a lot of information, I would like to be able to have a little more fun and use experiments and demonstrations for them to further study the topic. I have to be done teaching by the end of April and I have 134 kids. These things limit what I can do. I would love for the kids to design and carry out their own experiments, using stats to discover their results and validity. It would also be great for them to put on a psychology fair for the school to show off their experiments and hard work. I can think of no better way for the kids to truly apply and really think about the knowledge they gained in my class, and how much fun it would be for my subject to come to life for them.
c) For you as a teacher, what are the most useful resources about how students learn?
The best resources are me and my classes. I have spent the last 13 years trying things and discarding ideas that were inefficient and replacing them with strategies that just plain work. I’ve learned all my great teaching techniques from experimenting on my kids and asking them their opinion. For my principal’s certificate, I did an action research project on retrieval techniques, using old solid strategies and incorporating new ones to see their effectiveness. My results taught me a lot about how to create a high information retention rate among my students.
2) About Science Communication
a) What is the best way to translate research published in academic journals to a wider audience?
We have to show people how the research applies to real life and their lives. My students are teenagers; they are not very interested in scholarly academic lingo and studies, but when they realize it has to do with them it becomes real. When I teach about research studies in class, I have them go home and find out how this research makes a difference in their lives, now and in the future. When they see that, it’s not just some old professor in a dusty lab. They can see the real world application and how research affects the people around them.
b) How can we challenge common misconceptions in education?
The ones that bother me the most are the crazy ideas people have about a teacher’s life. I get really tired of defending my career to people that don’t have the first clue about teaching. They think because they went to school, they know what it’s all about. Here are some common misconceptions about a teacher’s lifestyle:
1. Teachers are so lucky to have summer vacation. Ok, I haven’t been on vacation in three years because I’m BROKE. I scrimp and save all year so I can muddle through summer with the help of a minimum wage part-time job. I don’t go anywhere over the summer because I only have enough to pay bills. One year I worked at a horse farm and shoveled manure out of stalls in the 100 degree heat for bill money. Yeah, I have the life.
2. Teachers get out at 2:30pm and have the rest of the day off. Many teachers grade after school, at night and on weekends. That’s when they plan. We also NEVER stop thinking about the job. Oh yeah, and I get out at 2:30pm because I got there at 6:30am. I believe you were still sleeping when my first class ended.
3. Teachers get paid a lot of money. Hold on, I can’t type while I’m laughing...my salary is decent, but not compared to what my friends in corporate America get who are WAY less educated than I am. I have 10 years of college. TEN. I am very far away from the six-figure salary my bachelor degreed friends earn. In NJ, my salary just barely gets me through the month and in the last 5-6 years, my take home pay has gone DOWN. That’s the opposite of UP, which is the direction corporate salaries go.
c) What are some good ways to involve teachers in a dialogue about research?
I think people shy away from research because the word dredges up images of stats and figures and hours and hours of poring over data, all of which most people hate. They don’t realize research can be done within the confines of their own classroom and used to discover a new technique that can affect their kids and class. When I found out I had to do a 70-80 page action research project, I was NOT happy. I dreaded starting it and disaggregating the data – pulling data apart, seeing the results and outcomes of research, and applying it to the class. However, once I started, it became MINE and the kids were real people that I knew, making it easier to analyze the numbers because there were faces attached to them. I actually looked forward to adding information to my paper over the course of the 5-6 months it took me to conduct the research and write it. I was excited about my results and it is a work that I am still very proud of accomplishing. If more teachers realized how easy it was to design and carry out action research in their classroom, they’d be more willing to do it. It’s also important that the research be used for something – nobody wants to do all that work for nothing and feel unappreciated. It would be exciting for the school to acknowledge and apply the results.
3) About Your Book
You recently wrote a book about education. What made you write this book, and what would you like readers to get out of it?
I recently published my first book, “Teaching Sanity: Helping High School Teachers Stay Sane in an Increasingly Chaotic Workplace”. The book is full of techniques for classroom management, retrieval, and direct instruction. I have been largely successful in the classroom and I am very passionate about helping new and struggling teachers have the same kind of success I’ve had. I am very interested in educating educators, especially because new teachers don’t receive the kind of support they need, which is causing a high number of people to leave the profession. My tips and techniques are nothing crazy or new age…they are just good, common sense, tried and true techniques that are simple to follow and easy to employ in the classroom. The last chapter is my action research I wrote for my principal’s certificate