Some of My First Teaching Experiences

I took PETE 212 last semester. We got to teach PE for 4 weeks in an elementary school during the semester. After each class, I recorded my experience. I learned a lot. Enjoy!


DAY 1 Today it was me and 25 third graders in PE class. I was nervous out of my mind! I am in a Classroom Management class and learning all of the tricks and today was the day to put them to the test! I watched videos of experienced PE teachers. I rehearsed what I would say. I kept a notecard in my pocket in case I forgot what was next. The music app that we were hoping to use didn’t work, but I improvised. I am learning first hand that one of the most important characteristics for a teacher to have is flexibility (and I go to yoga twice a week, but that’s not what I mean!). The third graders were so well behaved! They enjoyed the activity and were sad when they couldn’t play the game longer because their teacher arrived to take them to recess. Overall, it was a great experience. I think I will enjoy it more next time because I know what to expect. I’m excited! I want to learn their names.

BLOG PIC 2.pngDAY 2 Today went really well! We were told to have an introductory activity, do a few fitness routines, teach the kids 3 dances, as well as play a game. That’s a lot! We didn’t get to the second half of the last dance or the game, but that’s okay! I tried to learn a few of their names. One third grader was having a rough day. He probably should have been sent to time-out, but stopping the whole class during dance instruction would have punished the whole class, instead of this specific child. The students caught on quickly as we taught them dances. I taught them a Hungarian dance, as well as the popcorn line dance. It was fun to do the dances to music! I had high expectations for them with the “move  and freeze” technique. If they didn’t comply, we did it again. If they can’t follow directions, then they will miss out on fun activities. That is the discipline plan that we are taught to follow. Students are familiar with it too, so they know when we are not following it. Overall, it was a successful day! Next time I teach, I will be on my own (no partner!)!

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DAY 3 I didn’t teach today, but my partner did. I came to help and it was a good thing I did! We arrived at the school with all the equipment, the camera, microphone, and music system. The piece that attaches the camera to the camera stand was missing. That meant that someone was going to have to hold the camera and film for an hour and a half. We went with it and I started filming the first class. My other group members ventured into the PE equipment closet and found a volleyball referee stand. We set the camera on it. It worked! The second class that was assigned to BYU PE for the day told us they were only able to come for 15 minutes, so another class joined us. Now there were 45 kids in PE class! My partner did great! The final class was a 6th grade class. They went outside and played soccer. In the middle of the lesson, the microphone stopped working. We had to run around and find some working batteries to get it working again. Wow! Talk about learning to improvise and be flexible! It was a whirlwind of a day, but we survived!

BLOG PIC 4.JPGDAY 4 It was a bittersweet day. At the beginning of class, I reminded my third graders that today was our last day and that I expected their very best behavior. I know that parachute day was certainly my favorite day in gym class as a child, so we brought out the parachute! Before taking the parachute out of the bag, we talked about rules. We recently learned in my Classroom Management class that when students take part in the making of the rules, they are more likely to follow them. Several students raised their hands with great ideas about the way we should handle the parachute and how we should control our bodies. They came up with ideas that I wouldn’t have even thought of! It was great! I wasn’t expecting a few students to lose their shoes during the activity, but we paused and regrouped a few times and it turned out fine! One little girl had a hard time today when split into teams. She wanted to be with a certain boy. I can never guess what will happen because two weeks ago my third graders struggled with cooties! The third graders did a really good job with the jump ropes, which we moved onto after the parachute. Taking turns was sometimes difficult for them, but everyone eventually got a turn to twirl the jump rope and to jump. At the end, we played a quick round of Squirrels in the Tree before class was over.

I was so much more confident this time. I was flexible and made things up as I went. That is major progress, considering that the first two times I didn’t do anything unless it was written on my note card! I am going to miss doing this every week! Sometimes it was painful to see my weaknesses and watch moments I wasn’t totally proud of on my films over and over again, but it was worth it. It was quite the learning experience, considering that I was the teacher! What have you learned from some of your first teaching experiences? I would love to hear!



why question in metal type

Lately I’ve been thinking about WHY I teach music.  I suppose all educators have pondered why they teach what they teach, but it seems to me that teachers of the arts have to defend their subjects more frequently to tougher crowds, so perhaps we dwell on this more than others.  

images-2A friend of mine shared her philosophy on music education with me and the big takeaway from her position is this: music helps people be more successful in every aspect of life because it teaches them teamwork, attention to detail, and accountability.  Learning makes us better people. Learning music makes us better people in some specific ways; learning math makes us better people in other ways; learning history makes us better people in other ways, etc.

The following anecdotes illustrate things I’ve learned from various teachers over the years that I think have made me a better person and improved the quality of my life.


My elementary school music teacher held auditions for a girls’ choir in fifth grade.  I had a doctor’s appointment during the audition so I missed it.  The next day, she asked me why I hadn’t joined.  I glumly explained.  She chided me for thinking all was lost and had me sing for her right then and welcomed me into the choir.  She taught me that you can make up for certain missed opportunities with a little initiative.  (Super important life skill—can you imagine if I’d let a single doctor’s appointment keep me from choir? I’m glad she intervened early on.)

My first piano teacher was a sweet elderly woman who lived about a 20 minute bike ride from my house.  Biking to and from my lessons taught me commitment and tenacity.  If I was going to ride all that way, I might as well learn.

My first grade teacher said hello to me every time she saw me out and about in town until I graduated high school and moved away.  I don’t remember much of first grade, but I remember Mrs. Graham and how she cared about her students.

My first voice teacher made me a deal—voice lessons for babysitting.  I watched her cute little boys and she taught me how to sing.  She also taught me that even as a penniless 6th grader, I had something to offer.  I learned not to discredit my resources no matter what form they took.

My high school band teacher demanded exactness in everything.  Sometimes we’d spend a whole rehearsal on one line a piece until we couldn’t get it wrong.  He also had us rearrange the risers and re-organize the instrument racks at least once a month.  Apparently, it builds character.  From him I learned the value of precision, the mantra “excellence is a habit,” and how unifying manual labor can be.

My piano teacher in high school gave me tools to teach myself.  She taught me systems of thinking that would help me absorb knowledge and techniques.  I learned to learn by trusting myself.  And because I could feel myself improving, for the first time in my life, I practiced a lot!  All the time!  

My voice teacher in high school took me on scholarship with the condition that I would pay it forward when my circumstances allowed.  She taught me how to see potential in people and encourage them to reach it by seeing something in me and helping me find it.

My first voice teacher in college had just finished her undergrad when she offered to coach me for round two of my auditions into the School of Music. (Round one had ended with one of those letters that starts with, “Unfortunately…” and ends with me in tears.)  We must have had psychic twin powers or something because I grew so much as a singer that summer.  I found my “big voice” as my dad called it.  I learned the secret recipe for success: 1) don’t give up no matter what, and 2) have an excellent teacher who believes in you. I also learned that you don’t have to be a veteran to be an effective teacher; she was right out of the graduation gate and I don’t think I’ve ever clicked with a voice teacher quite as well since.

What life lessons have you learned from past teachers that have remained with you and improved your life?  What lessons do you hope to instill in your students?  How will you do it?


Reaching New Heights

IMG_7135.jpgA few weekends ago, I had the chance to go skiing in Utah for the first time. I wasn’t expecting to ponder as many life lessons as I did. There is something about being out in nature, surrounded by God’s majestic creations, that causes us to think of Him. I thought a lot about trials and the journey of life. Keep in mind that I had previously skied on hills in Ohio, which are nowhere near as challenging to maneuver. Just going up the ski lift was terrifying for me. Standing at the top of the mountain was scary. It looked like I was about to go off of a cliff.

Once I took a leap (not a literal leap!) of faith and started to ski down the mountain, it was better. I realized that I just needed to put the skills that my instructor had taught me to use. I focused on using those skills and the journey down the mountain was beautiful… and fun! I simply had to apply the things I had previously learned. If I had let the things I knew go out the window, then I wouldn’t have had an enjoyable experience and I probably would have gotten hurt.

The same principle applies to the knowledge that we have gained in our teacher education classes. If we get to the classroom and we do not apply the things we have learned, then our experience will be really stressful and not as fun! I am so grateful for the things that I have learned so far and for the few, but nonetheless powerful, opportunities that I have had so far to apply them in the elementary classroom.

I know that many of you have recently started your practicum semesters. What experiences have you had in the classroom, where you have put the skills you have been taught to use and seen great results?


The Workshop Way

As a classroom teacher, I saved everything because “I might need it in my classroom”—everything from baby food jars, toilet paper rolls, scraps of fabric, buttons, paper scraps, yarn, containers of all kinds, and a myriad of children’s and teacher reference books. Today I was unpacking my home office books and collectibles after our recent move to a new home in a new city. Long ago I had gotten rid of the baby food jars and toilet paper rolls when I left the classroom to become a principal. When I retired from the principalship, I still maintained an extensive home library of educational books and resources, but as our family prepared to put most of our possessions into storage for a few months until the new house was ready, I was very selective about what I saved. Today as I unpacked each box, I considered why each item seemed important enough for me to save.

Among my treasured books, I found I had kept only two teacher reference books from my earliest teaching years. One was a favorite on classroom management, and the other was spiral bound, typed on an actual typewriter (not a computer), and mimeographed (that’s the way we used to make copies). I knew why I couldn’t part with The Workshop Way (original copyright 1970) by Grace H. Pilon, a Catholic nun who taught all levels from kindergarten through university. Sister Grace’s book and life had a remarkable impact on my early teaching foundation. Her philosophy and teachings about children stayed with me over 35 years as an educator, and I think that most likely very few of today’s teachers have ever even heard of Sister Grace, although I believe her ideas about children are just as important for today’s children as they were 35 years ago.

I first read about Sister Grace in 1980 and then attended her guest lecture at BYU. I discovered that Kathy Whitbeck, a teacher in Alpine School District, was creating a Workshop Way classroom, so I arranged with my principal a visit to observe Kathy in action. I was awed by what I saw and began to immediately plan how I could create a Workshop Way classroom in my own first grade room.

Up to that point I had been teaching my first graders much like I had been taught when I attended first grade and just like I had seen modeled during my pre-service education at BYU. Students did their work in their seats and always worked quietly without talking to each other. My own first grade year was very traumatic; I was petrified of my teacher and lived in constant fear of being yelled at or humiliated. We only spoke on the playground at recess and never spoke with our peers during class. I was seeking a different approach to teaching from what I had experienced as a child and had observed as a teacher, and Workshop Way resonated with me—with my feelings about how my own children were learning and growing at home. I knew I needed to work with small groups of children to teach them to read because of the varying needs of my students, but I didn’t know what to do with the other children as I worked with a small group. The Workshop provided meaningful tasks for students to complete independently or with another student while I worked with a small group. Of course this was 1980—way before centers and independent literacy activities were the norm. I was first attracted to the Workshop Way schedule which facilitated small group instruction, but I later grew to appreciate even more Sister Grace’s philosophy that enables all students to learn how to learn, learn how to think, and learn how to manage life (Pilon, 1970).

Sister Grace taught teachers and parents that a learning climate where every child can learn and succeed is created as intellectual safety is nourished through the Five Freedoms (Pilon, 1970):

  • freedom from fear
  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of position and location for work
  • freedom of conversation while working
  • freedom of choice frequently

Sister Grace taught me that if students are to learn and grow in an intellectually safe environment, they need assurance on some foundational ideas that many adults assume children understand, but children’s life experiences so far may have taught them otherwise. And so to promote freedom from fear I explicitly taught, continually reinforced, outwardly modeled, frequently spoke, and openly posted in my classroom the following statements from Sister Grace:

  • It’s intelligent to ask for help.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes while learning.
  • It takes courage to take a risk.

As I embraced the Five Freedoms, my classroom structure and culture changed dramatically. My classroom Workshop provided opportunities for students to move around the room, work at their desks, at tables or on the floor, converse and collaborate with peers, and choose from among several Workshop tasks (where some tasks were required daily).

For 18 years the classroom rules I explicitly taught, openly practiced, and clearly posted resulted from my study of Sister Grace’s work:

  1. We respect the rights of others.
  2. Show good manners always.

The goal of Workshop Way is to help each child grow and develop individually and then do his part to make the world a better place. Teachers accomplish this goal by doing the following:

  • Establishing a state of intellectual safety for all students by creating a work-life climate. This is partially accomplished through a Workshop Schedule of independent tasks students can accomplish when they are not being taught by the teacher.
  • Fostering supportive interpersonal relationships among students and between teachers and students.
  • Preserving personal integrity and human dignity in students while they are in the process of learning and growing.

Although Sister Grace was an amazing teacher, thinker, and advocate for children, her writing is often difficult to navigate. I think this somewhat affected the dissemination of her ideas, but there are still educators today who are carrying on her work. Sister Grace died in 1995 at the age of 85 after a lifetime of service to children. Kathy Whitbeck died in 2015. I thank them both for their impact on me and subsequently on all the children who were part of my journey as an educator.

If you are currently working toward a career as a teacher, seek great thinkers like Sister Grace who will help you forge your own philosophy about students and learning. Read great resources, observe stellar mentors, and then reflect on what you learn; formulate your own philosophy and values that will guide your work in the classroom. Teachers teach content, but more importantly they shape lives and help build character in tomorrow’s workers, thinkers, leaders, parents. What an awesome responsibility and great joy it is to be a teacher!


— Susan Huff


Pilon, G. H. (1970). Becoming a person the workshop way. New Orleans: The Workshop Way, Inc.