Practice Teaching

By Burgan, Mary | Academe, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

Practice Teaching


Burgan, Mary, Academe


BECAME A COLLEGE PROFESsor because I missed practice teaching in my senior year. I had already taken the required courses in educational methods and measurements, plus the bewildering foray into "U.S. and Pennsylvania History" required for all teachers in the state of Pennsylvania. But without practice teaching, I couldn't be certified. And so I went to graduate school to get a master's degree, which in those days would make up my deficiency. In the Catholic women's college I attended, most of my classmates intended to teach school. I believe that was true of most college women of my generation. Women candidates for law school, medical school, the MBA, or the Ph.D. were rare and hardy creatures-prepared to encounter isolation, insult, and disdain. Precollege teaching seemed a more attainable profession, poorly enough paid to indicate that it was designed for women.

Though I lingered in graduate school to complete a doctorate and thus eventually to become a professor, I always felt some regret that I had not done the thing I started out to do. My regret derived from my experiences during a stint of teaching in a parochial grade school in Pittsburgh. I taught for half a year as a "cadet" (read "adjunct") in an overcrowded and understaffed city school. That episode challenged every bit of energy and intelligence I possessed. But as it tested me, it also gave me profound respect for those who spend their days teaching, eight to four-not counting after-school time for conferences, plays, the yearbook, the volleyball team, and grading papers. Despite the bone-- wearying work, I had come to love the liveliness of classrooms, the interest of developing personalities, the challenge to keep ahead of the bright students, the struggle to preserve faith in the liberation of learning.

That's why I saw my teaching assistantship as continuous with my teaching of the fourth grade, for I expected college teaching to extend a continuum rather than to break it. Indeed, in those days, a number of college professors had begun their careers in high school-- moving on to higher education in a natural extension of their desire to combine teaching with intellectual inquiry. In 1964, I actually found that my fourth-grade initiation helped me to gain a position in a research university, against all the prevailing odds for women of my time. My first chair fastened upon that experience to get me involved with a summer institute for teachers funded by the National Defense Education Act. I published my first articles in a curriculum series for public schools, because universities like mine encouraged faculty to be involved in work with local school systems as well as with educational reform nationwide. …

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