Embracing Change: A Teacher’s Journey Across The Desk

About Mike Dunn

As a lifelong educator, Mike has been working in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we have built our educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the College & Career Counselor at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia.

When I began at my school in the fall of 2010, change was already in the pipeline. The school was in its fourth year, growing at breakneck speed, and poised to continue to change for the foreseeable future. I was brought on to teach most of our upper grade history courses. This included classes from 8th-12th grades. During my first couple of years, there were no 11th or 12th grades, but as the school added these classes, my course load grew. In my fourth year, I taught all of the school’s history classes, grades 8-12. It was a busy year.

As change and growth continued, so did my scope of work. At the beginning of my fifth year, the administration asked if I would be interested in transitioning to working with the school’s dual-enrollment program and leading its College guidance efforts. There had never been a College specific guidance counselor at the school, and as a college-prep independent institution, it was time to create such a position. I had some experience in this realm of college from my previous work, but nothing like the change I was about to encounter over these past two years.

Embracing change is a challenge. When I first started teaching, I was simply glad to be practicing in a consistent manner. I was happy when lessons went well, happy when I was able to deliver high-quality instruction, happy when students were learning, and happy when I knew that they were meeting the high standards I had set in my classroom. That has not wavered.

Despite moving out of a full time classroom role, I still thrive on these aspects of my work in education. My classroom practice has shifted to college preparation, dual-enrollment guidance, organization and execution of necessary assignments, and building college ready study skills, but my philosophy has not changed. I continue to hold students to high standards of academic practice, I use strong student relationships as the foundation to allow me to push them to meet these standards, and I am confident that the students I work with will be able to meet the expectations of their post-secondary study.

With this philosophy as my foundation, I want to share few other things that I have learned in transition from the teaching side to the college counseling side of the desk.

Ambiguity And Maintaining A Growth Mindset.
In my past experience as a staff director, I often led my staff in an outdoor ed activity that asked them to kinesthetically express their comfort, stretch, and panic zones. When I first switch sides of the desk, I could have confidently said that I was bordering on stretch and panic zones. There were so many questions that I did not have the answers to, along with panic riddle parents and students that were looking toward me for guidance. I read a lot of books, had many cups of coffee with local colleagues, and asked many questions. I managed the issues I was faced with, and sought positive solutions.

By maintaining this growth mindset, I was able to become a positive actor for program stewardship, change, and student engagement.

There Is Unimaginable Power In Stress.
I refer to this study often. It talks about the intense consequences of the stresses of poverty and how they outweigh the effects of crack cocaine in young people (That’s right. Stress is worse than crack). In the College guidance profession, stress is ridiculous. Powered by media hype, the prospects of future change, and the idea that these young students will be leaving the nest in a matter of months produces all sorts of unintended effects. Some students venture down the path of negativity. Some want to meet and talk every day. Some become incredibly indecisive. In all cases, the catalyst is clear: They are going to have to leave the comforts of their high school existence in a few short months, and they have no idea what to do about this situation. It is, for many, their first existential dilemma.

I have been reminded over these past few years of the subtleties of adolescence and the perception young people have of the world. For them, the transition is their reality. They are having to literally break apart everything they’ve known, become, solidified, and thought was solid. Particularly for the ones who move away, they will be left with only themselves — a scary thought for a teenager. Navigation of this existential dilemma is the most challenging part of my job.

Relationships Are Still Key.
When I first began teaching in Detroit, I was in a Big Picture classroom with a bunch of nervous 11th graders. They were academically downtrodden, and bristled at the idea of a new teacher in their life. Classroom management was a stretch. Learning occurred… sometimes. Mostly, for my first semester, I spent time building relationships with them. I needed to be able to make instruction engaging and worth their while, and I could not do that without quality relationships.

Similar comments can be made about my first few months on the other side of the desk. Students were petrified about their prospect of post secondary transition and I needed to connect them to a framework of thinking, and questions that encouraged them to dig deeper into their values. Relationships have allowed me to do this, and continue to be my most important teaching and learning tool to this very day.

The Power Of Professional Communities.
There is a great cohort of professionals working in the College guidance field. Centered around the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and local ACAC organizations (such as PACAC here in PA), the professionals in the realm of college guidance are terrifically supportive. They know that their field is one of constant flux, intense stress, and multiple layers. Plus they know that the ramping up of college-related stress is slated to only continue into the future. There is tireless work happening to de-silo a profession that can often feel like you are on an island, connect counselors from around the world, and use our collective wisdom to help students.

Similar to this awesome group of writers that exist with The Educator’s Room, the College guidance community is a model for professional engagement that all education related organizations should aspire to.

There certainly are days on which I miss the history classes I taught. I miss routine, and I miss the nuances of the more traditional classroom. But my transition has been a personal exercise in embracing change, embracing the type of impact I am having on student’s lives, and embracing students at a different place in their life. As they face their own existential dilemma, I face mine, and we journey together.

Growth Mindset

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By | 2016-11-01T13:53:00+00:00 March 15th, 2016|Educator Professionalism, Featured, High School|0 Comments

About the Author:

As a lifelong educator, Mike has been working in outdoor and indoor classrooms for over 15 years. His practice is rooted in a deep understanding of History and the foundation on which we have built our educational philosophies and values. He currently serves as the College & Career Counselor at a small independent school outside of Philadelphia.

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