Learning the Curriculum by Becoming a Student Again

When I first decided to become a teacher, one of the things I worried most about was learning all the content I would have to teach students. I knew I wanted to teach elementary school students, so I was determined to become an expert in each of the disciplines I’d have to teach. I assumed that the methods graduate classes that were part of my educator program—math, science, reading, and social studies—would teach me all I needed to know about each subject.

Strategies for education, not content knowledge

What I didn’t realize is that my master’s education courses would focus on strategies for teaching certain subjects, not the subjects themselves. In science, I learned about how to teach through inquiry and hands-on experiments. In social studies, my professor stressed the selection of authentic social studies literature. Math revolved around understanding student strategies for solving a problem, and reading was all about phonics and fluency.

The classes were fantastic, and the strategies I learned were invaluable, but I finished each wondering how I could teach students concepts that I didn’t know myself. I had picked up a few things in each course through assignments and teacher demonstrations, but I still didn’t know as much content as I had expected to.

A constantly changing curriculum

In hindsight, there’s no way I could have learned every aspect of every subject I’ll be teaching throughout my career. I’m currently student-teaching in fifth grade, but who knows where I’ll end up in the spring, next year, and five years down the road. It’s not uncommon for teachers to switch grades because of enrollment or new opportunities, so you could be teaching the parts of a plant one year and photosynthesis in the next.

Even if you do manage to teach the same grade for a long period, the curriculum your district uses could change. As a result, you might need to change your approach to a certain topic or concept to match the new curriculum and the standards it’s based on.

Do your homework

In my old career in publishing, I worked on history and English products, so I feel a lot more comfortable with content related to social studies and English language arts. Math and science, on the other hand, were subjects I hadn’t studied in a long time. So to prepare to teach four math lessons this week, I had to do a lot of research.

Once I knew which Common Core math standards my lessons would be focused on, I researched the concepts encompassed by those standards online. A simple Google or Pinterest search can lead to a wealth of resources, including lesson plans posted by teachers who have taught the same content. Not only did I get ideas about how to teach the content, the lesson plans also helped me to learn and understand the content myself.

Do your students’ homework

Another thing I did to prepare was complete the work my students were expected to do. The math curriculum being used in the district where I’m student teaching comes with student workbooks. I sat down and spent an hour doing the problems associated with the concepts I would be teaching, noting when I didn’t understand something.

Doing my students’ work helped me to better understand what was expected from them, based on the curriculum, and what I needed to teach them to reach that goal. Working through each of the problems also helped me to understand the math myself. Essentially, I was teaching myself the concept in the same way that I would be teaching the students.

Take advantage of curriculum materials

Along with student workbooks, the curriculum I based my lessons on came with a teacher’s manual and online resources. The manual includes step-by-step lesson plans to teach each concept in the curriculum, examples of student responses that show understanding, and an answer key.

Though I don’t plan on following the manual word-by-word, it was incredibly helpful to see what students are expected to produce. This enabled me to design plans that would help them achieve that understanding, and seeing examples of good responses helped me better understand the problems I found confusing.

Lisandra I. Flynn spent 2012 to 2014 working toward a master’s degree in elementary education while working full time as an editor. After seven years in publishing, she recently transitioned from corporate life to student teach fifth grade in an elementary school. Flynn shares her journey from the office to the classroom and offers insight and advice to those seeking their own career change.