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Experienced educators share advice, wisdom with Blugolds bound for classroom

| Alison Wagener

Students in Christina Berchini’s "Teaching Writing in the Elementary and Middle School" class have a lot of questions about what life will be like after graduation — questions that Berchini said she simply can’t answer all on her own.

“I’m a bit detached, and I just want to create opportunities for them to be able to interact with people who are doing this thing day in and day out in a way that I no longer do,” Berchini said.

To expose them to more diverse perspectives, each spring Berchini puts together a panel of area teachers to come in and speak with the class.

This spring’s panel boasted a wealth of experience in the field. Together, the teachers represented exactly 107.5 years of experience in education, including one semester completed by UW-Eau Claire student teacher Emily O’Connell. Other teachers on the panel included Tim Devine from the School District of Colfax; Jason Collins from the School District of the Menomonie Area; and Leslie Klay, Barbara Huggins and Ken Szymanski from the Eau Claire Area School District.

Berchini, a professor in the English department, said she holds panels like this every time she teaches an education methods course. This event was only a small glimpse into the communication between future teachers and established educators that happens in the UW-Eau Claire teacher education program.

For students, the panel was an opportunity to explore their concerns about teaching. But, Berchini said, what they gained was a reminder of why they chose the field in the first place.

“The reasons they decided to teach are usually represented in what the teachers have to say when they come in, and it’s a nice reminder,” Berchini said.

One of the many things the teachers all agreed on was that the journey to becoming an educator can be long and winding. For them, it included ignoring a career test, deflecting discouragements from family and friends, and even working at a summer camp while getting a master’s degree in theology. For Emily O’Connell, a current student teacher at DeLong Middle School, it took going on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage for her to realize teaching was her opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Students’ questions ranged from creating a work-life balance to staying sane in a room full of middle schoolers and everything in between. But no matter the question, several common threads ran throughout all the teachers’ answers and advice: Be confident in your abilities, empathize with your students, take life one day at a time and laugh. Laugh a lot.

“I think that in these experiences, the students just gain optimism and hope,” Berchini said. “Because in education courses, we try to do a lot with creativity and encouraging preservice teachers to tap into their reservoirs for creativity… . But we also have to do a lot of stuff with edTPA, Common Core Standards, a lot of the drudgery of the work.”

Berchini added that many preservice teachers get caught up in this drudgery, but connecting with experienced educators can help them focus on the heart of teaching: helping students.

“Common Core is definitely not that thing that brings teachers to the classroom. I don’t think a teacher in the world exists who can say that. The edTPA’s definitely not that thing, you know? Kids, and just wanting to be around kids, and wanting to inspire kids — that’s how they got started in this. And that’s what they bring to us.”

Photo caption: Tim Devine, a teacher from the Colfax School District, talks to students in Christina Berchini's "Teaching Writing in the Elementary and Middle School" class during a panel discussion with local educators.