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The Journey of a 4th Grade Teacher
Q: What is your name and occupation?
A: My name is Gina Wiitanen, and I am a Fourth Grade teacher at Millard Elementary School in Nebraska.
Q: What did you want to be when you grow up? What made you choose this career?
A: I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I loved school, and felt like I was a natural with kids. I also loved the routine of school. Now that I have my job, I realize that it's quite different from putting stickers on kids' papers and reading teachers manuals, as I imagined teaching was when I was younger.
Q: What was your education?
A: I have a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Elementary Education (Midland Lutheran College), and my Masters of Art Studies Degree in Elementary Education (University of Nebraska, Omaha). I am also continuing graduate classes in Science, Behavior Modification, etc. I have 18 hours beyond Masters at this point. However, I am shooting for 36 to top out the pay scale.
Q: How did you search for your job?
A: I had been looking for a job for about 3 months after college. I had to look for teaching jobs around the area, because that was where my fiancé worked, and we were currently living together. I was looking for jobs on the internet when I came across a temporary teaching job at Millard Elementary for a woman on maternity leave. I signed up for an interview time, and got the temporary job! It was so rewarding. As my time there ended, the principal called me in during lunch time, and offered me a full-time job teaching 4th grade at Millard. I graciously accepted and have been here for almost 4 years.
Q: What are your job responsibilities? Do you meet them on a daily basis?
A: There are a zillion! My most important responsibilities are teaching (and re-teaching) students until they have mastered required concepts. I navigate students toward learning new concepts and mastering skills that are necessary for everyday life, while maintaining a caring and safe environment for students. It is also imperative that I not only teach students who have trouble understanding, but I also need to make sure the students who are advanced are given material that challenges and enriches their learning. Beyond the major responsibilities the many other things would include: submitting lunch money, parent teacher conferences, staff meetings, Behavior Intervention Committee, grading papers, updating the grade book, parent communication (phone and e-mail), field trip planning, report cards, etc. The overall expectation is that I try hard to make sure my job responsibilities are met on a daily basis.
Q: Describe a typical work week.
A: I generally have 3-4 meetings either before or after school a week. I teach all day, have 35 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes to work on paperwork or answer e-mails while the kids are at specials. On Wednesday afternoons, it’s our big planning time where for 3 hours we work with our “professional learning community” to discuss students and strategies to work with students, collaborate with other teachers (like SPED, ELL), plan our lessons, put in for copies, etc.
Q: Do you take work home with you? How long to you spend working on it at home? Does it affect your home life?
A: My first permanent year, I worked a ton outside of normal hours. Probably, 3 hours a day extra at first, and some on the weekend. I would say now (after four years of teaching experience) I spend an average of one additional hour a day outside of the regular school day. It’s gotten more difficult to balance “work time” and “play time” when I’m at home, now that I have a newborn son. I want to spend all my extra time available with my family. However, I normally challenge myself to get at least one set of papers done while he’s napping. I hope it will get easier as he gets older and understands more.
Q: What are the most/least rewarding factors of your job? Do you enjoy your job? Why?
A: Of course I love my job. Otherwise I would quit and do something that I enjoy more. The most rewarding parts are “watching the light bulbs go on” for students and providing opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise have them. For example, we do school collection drives that provide items such as food, coats, and school supplies for kids who don’t have them. The least rewarding is sometimes grading worksheets and doing paperwork. In addition, dealing with disgruntled parents who find fault with most everything you do is discouraging.
Q: What is the biggest accomplishment / failure in your position?
A: My biggest accomplishment through district standards would be having close to 100% of students pass state tests this year. Personally, it is providing life skills for students whose parents aren’t able to do it themselves. Essentially, mentoring students who have nearly nothing. It’s hard to talk about failures, but when asked this question, I normally reflect on my second year of teaching. It was overwhelming and I made lots of bad decisions and had a hard time controlling my unruly class! I had 7 kids with specific behavior plans and it was very difficult to manage.
Q: What problems have you encountered at work?
A: I wouldn’t necessarily call them “problems”, there more like obstacles. There are sometimes tricky parents you have to work with. Some of these parents, for example, blame us teachers for others who say things that hurt their child, rather than giving their kids skills on how to deal with it. It’s a balance of my responsibility and the students I believe. Those are the hardest. Sometimes your teammates and you, or principal and you don’t see eye to eye, and you have to work it out.
Q: How many hours do you normally work?
A: Teacher’s official hours are 8:00-4:15. I do an extra duty club, which keeps me there until 4:45-5:00 on Tuesday and Thursdays. Wednesdays we work from 8:00-5:00. I usually stay until around 5 everyday to get full use of the daycare bill.
Q: If you know your boss is 100% wrong about something how would you handle it?
A: In my second year of teaching, I did ignore something our principal asked me to do because I knew it would embarrass one of my students, and she wasn’t pleased with my decision. Next time what I would do is, do what she says and direct the parents to her. I haven’t had this experience in awhile---gladly.
Q: What are your pet peeves (if any) from your job?
A: As teachers, you always have to deal with weird parents. Then, there are the kids who don’t take responsibility for their behavior, which is always a distraction for your class. I hate the meaningless tasks that we are sometimes assigned. I also feel that standardize testing is a waste of our kids’ time and energy.
Q: If your boss were to say one positive thing about you what would it be? Negative?
A: A positive thing my boss would say is that I am compassionate. She knows I truly love my students and would do anything for them; whatever it would take.
A negative comment she might have to offer is to continue learning and working toward be a better teacher of reading. I need to improve on teaching students important decoding skills along with comprehension strategies, completing documentation and coming up with an individualized plan to further their reading abilities. But at my last review she couldn’t come up with anything, which is always a good sign!
Q: What is the funniest thing that has happened to you while on the job?
A: Everyday there are funny things. I love to tell funny stories to my students, and they tell funny stories to me. One time one of my students had this inventive “relationship” with Abe Lincoln, so we had a full-on wedding for Allison (the student) and Abe. We had bridesmaids, a pastor, and even a reception afterward. It was hilarious! Working with kids is generally just plain comical!
Q: If you had the opportunity to change your job, would you? What to? Why?
A: I think my job with Girl Scouts was pretty cool, although not great on family life. Sometimes I wish I could be home more to be with Taylor (my son), so I would possibly consider switching districts down the line, which may help due to different contract/hour requirements.