Life as a Beauvoir Associate Teacher

by Jon Kwan

My name is Mr. Kwan. I used to be called JKwan all throughout high school and college. I studied philosophy at Swarthmore. Now, I’m a 3rd grade Associate Teacher at Beauvoir, the National Cathedral Elementary School. Read: Associate, not Assistant. Supposedly that difference matters. My Directing Teacher and I are responsible for the future salary size (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/opinion/kristof-the-value-of-teachers.html) of 21 adorable and demanding 8 and 9 year olds.

For my first blog post here, I’d like to talk a little bit about the Associate Teacher program at my school and my experience there. As a philosophy major, I was truly unsure of what I was going to do after college. That’s what happens when you study something that is widely relevant to everything yet not immediately applicable to anything. I decided to apply to certain teaching jobs partially because I coached high school debate throughout most of college and so had some informal educational experience on hand. However, I never took an education class at Swarthmore (to my chagrin as I now realize the fundamental nature of teaching as a praxis – a continuous circle of reflection and action, theory and practice). Thankfully, I was still offered a job at Beauvoir in Washington D.C. – an independent Protestant Episcopal pre-K through 3rd elementary school.

I tend to think of being a Beauvoir Associate Teacher (AT) as being thrown into an arranged marriage. First of all, you have a teaching partner – your Directing Teacher (DT) – with whom you will spend more waking hours in the upcoming year than with anyone else in the world. The only reason why it is not like an arranged marriage is because it takes time (at least nine months according to the latest medical data) to make kids in an arranged marriage. In an AT-DT relationship, you start off immediately with twenty some children that you have to raise together. With such a heavy burden of responsibility, you absolutely have to make the partnership work regardless of how much you like each other. And perhaps like (or unlike) many arranged marriages, you do indeed find a way to make it work.

For someone like me with little formal pedagogical training and almost zero experience with elementary school students, having a teaching partner is nonetheless nothing short of Godsend. Essentially, I have someone who knows the curriculum, the in’s and out’s of the institution we work at, and most importantly, has a ton of teaching experience to help guide me into the role I’ll have to play. And as any good relationship, the AD-DT partnership evolves and grows as time progresses. While initially taking a backseat in the classroom to learn the ropes of the business, the AT does truly become a full-fledged partner responsible for most of the same tasks that the DT is in charge of. This involves lesson planning, classroom management, pedagogical decisions about the each particular student, parent-teacher conferences, etc. I, for one, know that particularly after spending so much time with my DT, our chemistry as a team has really developed. Sometimes a look or a word will prompt one of us to complete a task or solve a problem that the other knows needs to get done and right away. In the fast-paced world of The Classroom, such chemistry is invaluable and, in some sense, inevitable.

Another incredible boon to being an AT is the amount of professional development that my school offers its teachers. Associate Teachers meet periodically throughout the year for seminars where we read and discuss books on educational theory and practice. It’s a great way for us rookies to choose topics relevant to our needs and to reflect critically upon the craft of teaching. There are also faculty meetings where the entire school comes together for reflection and discussion about how to better achieve our communal goal of educating our students. Having the entire faculty present also provides the opportunity for an incredible berth of insight across grade levels. In addition, Beauvoir offers grants for teachers to attend conferences and workshops with the addendum that they bring back and share whatever knowledge and practical insight they garner.

It is indeed such a luxury to have the space to step back away from the daily routine of lesson planning and teaching in order to stop and just think. Thoughtful action demands that thinking and doing inflect back upon each other. It is, as I noted earlier, what makes education so fundamentally a praxis. And excitingly, education is always a two way street necessitating learning and teaching. That’s why Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed speaks of the teacher-student and student-teacher. There is no limit to what you can learn in teaching and teach in learning. Repetition and boredom has no place – indeed no possibility. Teaching truly is an occupation that takes a lifetime to master.

It does not of course escape me that such luxury is born out of social and economic privilege. Beauvoir is definitely a well-off school, considered to be an elite elementary school within the D.C. area. Taking just a look at the parents of my students represents a microcosm of the sort of demographic that sends their children here. I teach kids of ambassadors, professors, college basketball coaches, and parents who work at the IMF and World Bank. It is no surprise that the elite in our nation’s capital account for some of the most privileged and powerful people out there.

This smattering of clout and influence impossible to ignore is definitely the most surreal part of my job. To illustrate by example, on the first day of work, the ambassador whose kid is my student comes up to me and before even introducing herself says, “Mr. Kwan, you spelled Gandhi’s name wrong on the wall”. Because like any good third grade classroom, we have the “be the change you wish to see in the world” aphorism up on the wall. And yes, unfortunately, Gandhi’s name was spelled incorrectly… An intimidating way to start off a new job to say the least. After getting to know her though, the Ambassador, while an imposing woman, is nevertheless a thoughtful and caring parent like any other mom in the world.

So that’s a snapshot of life as a Beauvoir Associate Teacher: demanding, engaging, humbling, stimulating, and challenging – all rolled up into a little ball of fun!

Signing off,

Mr. Kwan

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2 Comments to “Life as a Beauvoir Associate Teacher”

  1. Thank you for the insight into the program. I am very interested in it and have already applied for the next school year. Any advice would be great!

  2. Thank you for your comments, however it is worth rethinking “clout and influence” when one mentions an ambassador,
    coach, professor and IMF employee. All nice no doubt but not one that directly creates a job or wealth. Where are the values let alone the work ethic? Sounds like the teachers in DC need to counter balance the self importance of the parents.
    Shall we all pinch ourselves at our luck?

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