Ed Interview: Mike Popelka

1) Can you briefly describe your background in education and what your current position is?

I graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA in Elementary Education.  I taught upper elementary in the Chicago Public Schools system, then worked for a couple of years as a kindergarten teacher at a social service center/childcare provider that fed students into the public school system.  I moved to Seattle and apprehensively took a job teaching middle school at a private school; I found that I loved interacting with the older students as much as I did the kindergarteners back in Chicago.  I was responsible for teaching 6-8th grade science, 6-8th grade writing, and 6th grade homeroom.  I learned a lot during these years, and I found that I had a rekindled love for science– especially biology and physics.

I spent some time teaching PE at a K-8 school in Seattle, then briefly lived in Des Moines, Iowa working as a K-5 intervention teacher in the Public schools.  When my family and I moved back to Seattle, I was hired as an interventionist at Roxhill Elementary and soon found my way back into the kindergarten classroom.  I’ve taught a lot of different subjects in several different schools in three different states.  It’s been an interesting career so far!

2) What inspires you about the work you do at Roxhill?

This is my fifth year teaching at Roxhill, and every day I feel fortunate to be at school.  Any teacher will, with 100% honesty, answer that they are inspired by the personal connections with students and their families.  I feel the same way.  Many of the students I work with come from less than ideal circumstances; 40% of our students are English Language Learners, 80% of students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program, and understanding the cultural differences that occur in the classroom can be challenging.  As a kindergarten teacher, I often have students enter my classroom with no academic skills and often very little ability to communicate.  I probably complain about the amount of effort it takes to build up the foundational skills required to succeed in school.  I find inspiration in that struggle, though—I love the fact that I work hard, my students work hard, and that after all the work we do students finish the year ready for the challenges to come.

One other thing that inspires me is the professionalism and dedication of the entire staff of the school.  I have never worked in a school where each member of the staff is so interested in improving their own skills and gaining new knowledge before coming to Roxhill.  We solve problems as a team and genuinely keep the best interests of the students and the community in mind.  Even the most veteran teachers on staff routinely implement new methods.  It’s rare that one finds a place where their co-workers are helpful and friendly; rarer still is a place where one enjoys going to after work functions with their coworkers.     

3) Can you share a story from your first year of teaching that illustrates an important lesson or skill you think all first year teachers should know or have?

I learned a lot of important lessons during my first year of teaching.  I was miserable, and after not having my contract renewed I almost left the profession.  I worked in Chicago at the time, and I felt unsupported, underprepared, and foolish.  I showed up to substitute teach in a three story, 1,000 student school one day mid-year and was (surprise!) immediately assigned to take over a fifth grade class with 33 students for the rest of the year.  I felt it would be a good way to prove myself and work my way into a job with the district.  Unfortunately, there were no curricular materials, my students brought knives to school on multiple occasions and threatened each other in the closets, a student who had previously tried to light his sleeping grandmother on fire threatened to kill me, police arrested a student with a backpack of full of loose marijuana, etc.  I knew I wasn’t cut out for teaching.

No other jobs in other fields were feasible (many teachers like myself have a pretty limited skill set for office work), so I reluctantly accepted another teaching gig and found that despite my own struggles in the classroom the previous year, the problems were not all my own fault.  I learned that my first year failure was not simply because of my ability to teach, it was the situation that exacerbated my inexperience.  The students at my new school were just as challenging, but with a very trying year under my belt, support from other teachers and administrators, and a professional environment where openness and honesty were valued   I was able to complete two very successful years of teaching.  I realized that I was definitely going to be okay—I had not thrown away piles of money on my elementary education degree.

4) How do you continue to develop as a professional? Where do you see your professional growth taking you?

I recently completed a graduate program that focused on environmental education, community, and inquiry based teaching methods.  The work I did in that program have continued to help me see new possibilities with teaching—especially in trying to incorporate as much student voice into my lessons as possible.

I also truly enjoy many of the professional development opportunities I’m lucky to have in my district and my school.  I usually try to sit in the front and find at least one thing—a “take away”, if you will—that will benefit my instruction.  I have served on many committees, including the building leadership team and on a team that helped bring many aspects of full-service community school ideals to Roxhill.  Finally, I continue to work as a cooperating teacher with the University of Washington.  I have had three student teachers during the past four years, and I enjoy learning from the students and their instructors at the college.

I am working toward being a versatile educator who runs a safe, nurturing, interesting classroom.  I feel that my professional development experiences contribute bit by bit to me becoming the teacher I want to be.  Hopefully I get there before I hit retirement age!  

5) What kind of learning culture do you try to establish within your classroom and among your colleagues?

The learning culture I value most is one of discovery, confidence, and humor.  In my classroom I enjoy finding unique activities for my students to undertake.  My classes have sung Louis Armstrong songs at school assemblies, monitored bird populations in the woods near school, and analyzed old Harold Lloyd films.  I enjoy leading lessons of discovery that I feel I am uniquely suited to teach.

As a colleague, I try to balance humor and professionalism.  I want teaching to be seen as a profession for professional people, and I pride myself in (usually) being able to back up what I’m doing with solid research and from a place of authority.  I enjoy goofing around, but I am confident that everyone knows that I do my job, I do it as well as I can, and I truly care about the outcomes of my students and school.

6) What are you currently reading for personal enjoyment? And what book would you recommend for a first year teacher?

I’m always reading about four books; this is a tricky question to answer.  Right now a “hard” book I’m reading is War and Peace by Tolstoy.  I think that Tolstoy is really amazing at painting visceral pictures of emotions, and I’m really enjoying discovering this book for the first time.  A professional book I’m reading is The Nature Principle by Richard Louv, a long book about the value of connecting students and communities to the nature around them.  As for some light reading, I’m going back through my collection of Iron Man comic books.  He’s been my favorite since I was about 11 years old; I still love rereading the stories.

I feel that a first year teacher should definitely read Steven Wolk’s book A Democratic Classroom.  I was assigned this book as an undergraduate elementary education student, and I reread it every couple of years.  The website of Heinemann, the book’s publisher, advertises it perfectly:  “In his call to reinvent teaching, Wolk argues for teacher who ask questions, challenge assumptions, respect children, and understand the enormous role they play in shaping minds and society”.

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