News/research from teacher-journalist Robert J. Ballantyne

My unexpected trial by fire in teacher education

Why my mid-career return to university helped me develop a necessary identity as both a teacher and a life-long learner

An Instagram moment in Quebec City. Photo by Derek Seguin

Teaching requires a tremendous amount of self-reflection. If you don’t know your own story, and particularly how you learn, it’s difficult to be an effective educator.

However, as a journalist, my own story is the one I’ve been least interested in exploring. For most of my life, I was happy to cast aside my own opinions in the name of “journalistic balance,” to hide my face behind the camera as a director, or let others voice my scripts and writing on air.

Finding my own voice proved to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life — and I would’ve never found it without being part of the University of Ottawa Bachelor of Education program.

In my first week of classes, I was thrown into a real public school classroom. It was sink or swim: tweens and teenagers are the most brutally honest audiences you can have. They connect to authenticity and do not suffer fools.

When I stood in front of those grade school classes, both my heart and mind were racing. In those first awkward teaching practicum experiences, I was constantly asking myself these four questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What do I have to offer?
  • How do I make this engaging?
  • Am I teaching something meaningful?

Through self-reflection, I eventually developed the skills to answer all of these questions before I arrived in class — and my confidence grew in turn.

My students also sped up this process. They quickly let me know, via increased engagement, when I was at my most authentic in the classroom. So, for the most learning to occur, I had to come to terms with who I really was: a storyteller with a big heart and a lot of questions about everything.

Student feedback

As I was forming an honest identity as a classroom teacher in practicum, I struggled to translate that identity as a student back in the university environment. The way I learned back when I was fresh out of high school was definitely not how I learned anymore. I was now a mature student fresh off a successful career, and what I wanted to accomplish in university was much different this time around.

Self-reflection was an essential tool in re-defining who I was as a learner. Once again, I asked myself the same set of questions that I did in my teaching practice, but this time, within the context of being a student:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What do I have to offer?
  • How do I make this engaging?
  • Am I learning something meaningful?

Unlike teaching, however, I wasn’t always able to create the circumstances that enabled me to answer all of these questions for every class. Many courses did not align with my interests. In-class discussions did not always welcome my perspectives. Some instructors were not engaging. And numerous assignments were tokenistic and didn’t offer meaningful connections to community or contribute to a body of knowledge.

Through these two seemingly disparate training experiences — as both student and teacher — I was forging a singular learning identity. This forging process has often been painful, like an adolescence. However, with every experience, I grew stronger connections to my developing identity as a life-long learner, and to answer a clear question: how do I share my story, how do I learn, and how can I be an effective educator?

As I head towards graduation in the Bachelor of Education program, and certification as part of the Ontario College of Teachers, I’m looking beyond that horizon to graduate studies.

So while I am deeply invested in teaching, I still have more questions about the profession.

Thankfully, all of my difficult self-reflection has paid off, as I finally feel like I’ve found my voice:

  • I know why I’m doing this now.
  • I know what I have to offer.
  • I know how to make this experience engaging.
  • I’m going to do something meaningful.

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