You look out across a sea of faces, all wide-eyed and focused on you. (Okay, honestly, maybe about 70% of them are focused on you and the other 30% are talking to their friends, staring out the window, or fidgeting… but you won’t let that get you down.) Being a kindergarten teacher takes a lot of things—patience, kindness, the ability to turn a pile of popsicle sticks and some glue into a truly remarkable work of art. But a deep understanding of the human psyche? Surprising as it may sound, majoring in Psychology as an undergrad paved the way for Amanda Macindoe’s career as an educator.
Amanda currently teaches kindergarten in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington, but she’s also worked as an instructional coach, helping other teachers to excel.
We caught up with Amanda to discuss why she’s so passionate about her work, what her daily life as a kindergarten teacher is like, and how a Psychology degree is the perfect way to prepare for a career in education.
What is your current workplace and job title? If you’ve changed titles, what was your job title when you started?
Currently, I teach kindergarten in Vancouver, Washington. I cover the writing and math content areas. Last year, I was an instructional coach. This position was a professional development job. I worked inside an elementary school building supporting teachers for grades K–5 with any inquiries they might have had about how to support kids, curriculum, assessment, etc. I also supported staff-building development, a lot of which revolved around ushering people through the Common Core State Standards.
Before that, I had taught kindergarten and second grades.
Holding the coaching position for two years and now returning to teaching, I’ve realized how many teaching strategies and educational techniques I have learned from the other educational professionals with whom I have worked. Being in other classrooms has really inspired my teaching. Both positions have unique rewards.
What’s a typical day on the job like? What types of tasks are you doing and how much time do you tend to spend on them?
I arrive at work and prep the day’s materials in order to teach writing and math to my students. My school uses what’s called a workshop model. I plan my lessons around giving a shared mini-lesson with all students. I provide them with time for guided practice in small groups, independent work time, and then bring them back together for a common reflection.
On Wednesdays we have staff professional development. I meet with grade-level colleagues and administrators to work on developing/bettering our instruction to support our kids. As we’re teaching, we’re monitoring for student progress and student understanding. During professional development time we meet to figure out how to refine and reflect and better our practice based on what we are noticing from student performance (based on formal and informal observations). One of the most important things we do as teachers is meeting together to brainstorm how to best support students. We are smarter together.
What kinds of things do you cover in professional development meetings?
Right now we’re working on writing as a building goal for grades K–5. Nationally, American students aren’t coming out strong in this field, so we’re trying to beef up our instruction.
We have noticed that our students haven’t learned to organize/structure their written work. They just haven’t had a lot of practice or seen it modeled. My grade-level team members and I are working on how to model and build organization and structure within their writing pieces, while also encouraging elaboration and details. When we meet together, we look at student work to build our instruction and figure out other materials/strategies we can use with students. We identify student strengths and areas for next steps.
Is that for all teachers, or just for kindergarten?
Right now our entire building is working on the content area of writing, but different grade levels will have different goals because of student needs.
And how has your participation changed over time?
Well, circling back to my previous position as an instructional coach, I would help facilitate teachers through meetings, create agendas, encourage them to bring student work, and provide class coverage so that colleagues could observe each other. It was an exciting job to have as an educator and also as a Psychology major to get to go into different classrooms and work with so many people on a more macro level.
Now I have the opportunity to go back in the classroom and use what I saw in all of those other classroom micro-cultures. It’s a privilege to be able to go and see other teachers teach and then go back and try it in my own classroom.
What’s the ratio of prep/review time to actual classroom time?
Teachers spend a lot of time prepping, reflecting, and reviewing tasks. I would say a good couple of hours a day outside of classroom time. Some of it is embedded in the hours that you’re paid, and much of it is just the work that you feel you need to do to support students.
What are your favorite aspects of your job?
I went into the field thinking about individuals and how to raise self-esteem, perceptions of control, and self-confidence. I wanted to learn how to motivate individuals/groups to work toward self-improvement.
In education, we are lucky to work with so many diverse learners. I enjoy working in early childhood, a time when children are just so predisposed and excited about learning. They are hard-wired to learn. As teachers we get to see all those dendrites and axons firing and we can just watch all of their exploration and discovery. There’s not as much stigma when you’re five. These learners have a tabula rasa. This is such an important time and I love getting them excited about reading, writing, and math. These are some of my favorite things—just all of the human potential we see each day.
I have always been fascinated with understanding how to affect confidence and motivation, so when we have reluctant writers who have never written at home, how can we get them excited about producing and using their own experiences to create something?
What are some challenging aspects of your job?
Teachers want students to feel successful and happy and feel like they have the ability to learn and produce. Sometimes this is challenging in light of the increasing standards, like the Common Core State Standards mentioned earlier.
It’s a global market, where 13 years from now, after I have them, there’s a lot expected of them. It is important to expose these kindergartners to intellectual challenges early. It is important that they are exposed to cognitive rigor from an early age. However, it is hard when there are high stakes tests that measure student learning and use results to make high stakes decisions.
Providing cognitive rigor is important in a classroom, but having all children meeting benchmarks is a challenge for teachers. You obviously want all of your students to succeed, yet they’re all coming in from different places, so some of the challenges are differentiating for students and making sure that they’re all learning in what’s called “the zone of proximal development”… all learning within their realm, their zone. This can be difficult. It is a complex field in a lot of ways.
What was your academic and career progression like?
I was Psychology major at Reed College for undergrad. A few years later, I got my MAT (Masters in Teaching) at Lewis & Clark where I did a student teaching internship for one school year. The next year I started teaching kindergarten. I’ve been teaching/in the education field for ten years.
Along the way, I wanted to support my students in literacy. I felt like something was missing in my reading/writing instruction. I attended night school to obtain my reading endorsement (which means I am certified to teach as a reading specialist.)
Several of my classes overlapped with the endorsement for ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). With many of my students speaking English as a second or third language, it made sense to finish the coursework for this endorsement.
Several years later, I noticed that many of the teachers I admired and emulated were Nationally Board Certified. These teachers were so intentional in their teaching and I saw the positive effects they made in student learning. I decided to become Nationally Board Certified in literacy. These courses/certifications are not required for the field, however, I feel like a stronger teacher after going through the programs and working with colleagues in the classes.
How does your current role relate to studying psychology as an undergrad?
When I was studying psychology, I focused a lot of my work and study on social psychology and topics like self-esteem, self-validation, and studying self-defeating behaviors. I feel like there’s a direct correlation to working with reluctant learners and the psychology I studied.
Additionally, a lot of the work I did was around perceptions of control—how we perceive what we have control over in our lives. When motivating students, there’s clear, direct ties to psychology as we work with all facets of the world in public schools. We have the opportunity to think about what does motivate kids, how can we make them feel successful, how can we give them agency and control over their own lives and their own learning. Much of it has to do with how we speak to students, how we interact with students, and the language we use with them. (For a good read on this, pick up Peter Johnston’s Choice Words.)
What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?
Education is the field where I belong and our field needs passionate, strong educators who really care about working with students. There’s such a need for strong educators and people who have a passion for working with kids and helping develop their understanding of our world.
As far as steps you could take while you’re still a student, I’d say getting into classrooms and volunteering and taking the coursework that interests you, for your content, so for example if you were going to be a high school history teacher, be sure to take lots of history content.
There are many career options in education. Classroom teaching is one of the most fulfilling, but as mentioned earlier, it has challenges too. I’d recommend job shadowing local teachers to really understand if that’s the segment of education that you’d prefer. There are many rewarding jobs in education like school counseling, instructional coaching, administration, policy, etc. I’d suggest job shadowing and volunteering.
What type of education, qualifications, or skills are needed to be successful in your field?
Generally, public school teaching requires an MAT in many states, but I think in order to really be successful, you need to have a love of working with students, patience, flexibility, and the ability to work collaboratively with other adults. The collaboration is critical to impacting student growth. It is one of the most powerful tools to effecting positive change in learners, as we reflect and refine our practice. Working together is what’s really going to lift students.
What impact has your background in psychology had on your life in general and understanding of human nature?
I mentioned studying/researching ideas of perceived control (learning about what people think they do and do not have control over). Learning about this has shaped how I view the world and how much control I actually have over different facets in my life—for me it is a lot more than I had realized. I ask of myself (and others) “What barriers do we face?” “What can we do to overcome them?” The idea of “I can/I can try” is an essential component of my teaching practice and my own self-discovery.
And yes, I do read The Little Engine that Could. And as I am trying to understand my students as learners, I also try to understand and change the structural/societal boundaries that may be holding students back from their full potential. That is my job as a teacher—to help students reach their full potential.
Homework time! Amanda mentions the importance of spending time in a classroom and job shadowing to learn more about careers in education. Look for opportunities to volunteer in different schools or classrooms, and try to find different people in the education field who you could job shadow. Not sure how to go about job shadowing? We explain the basics in this post.