Reflections on the Evolution of a Teacher

May 13th, 2014 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Spring 2014
In 1995, Karen Mitchell was a third grade teacher in Juneau, Alaska, and a founding fellow of the Bread Loaf Rural Teacher Network (BLRTN), when she wrote “Reflections on the Evolution of a Teacher,” published in the Fall 1995 BLRTN Magazine. Her article included this passage: “I used to think it was a privilege to devote my summers to the study, reflection, and discussion of teaching, but I’m learning now that such reflection is a necessary ingredient for good teaching.” Karen helped shape BLRTN as a teacher researcher, a superb collaborator, and a Bread Loaf student passionate about literature, ideas, and teaching. Her comments about studying “rich, literary” material in Bread Loaf courses with distinguished scholars and other students echoes what other BLTNs say about Bread Loaf courses in literature, theater arts, creative writing, as well as literacy and the teaching of writing, being at the heart of the network. Karen’s comments below, written almost two decades after her earlier reflections, give a sense of what sustains the network and its members over the years and provides a source of continuity in rapidly changing times. – Dixie Goswami
KM_DRAby Karen Mitchell
English Professor
University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau, AK
M.A., 1996

In 1992, several teachers from the Juneau School District were on their way to Anchorage to learn about DeWitt-Wallace Fellowship opportunities with the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Weather prevented all but one us from successfully making the trip. The one who did brought back information about an exciting program. I applied. Elementary teachers rarely get to take classes not focused mainly on pedagogy. I wondered how we could expand our own horizons taking other kinds of classes to directly impact our elementary school teaching. Although this short essay might take a slightly different route from the focus on pedagogy, I submit that pursuing education to enrich one’s intellectual and personal life directly impacts the quality of teaching.

One of the most important aspects of life at Bread Loaf is getting to know people. People made the difference. Daily encounters with women who became my mentors and role models introduced me to thinking about how to use feminist practices in classroom situations. Dixie Goswami, Jackie Royster, and Andrea Lunsford mentored and encouraged me. I made connections with the multiple experiences Andrea provided by bringing actors into the classroom. I learned volumes about using technology in teaching writing from Dixie, and I began to connect and understand my interest in the essay and its multiple forms from Jackie. One summer Jackie and Andrea allowed me to use one piece of writing and simply rewrite it to fit both classes I was taking from them. That scenario stretched my interest in genre and adaptability. I was able to make important connections in my own progress in writing and pedagogy that could be applied to the classroom. Jackie’s books, Traces of a Stream and Feminist Rhetorical Practices, have given me a beginning theory and a framework for my dissertation about women’s multigenre auto/biography.

Other Bread Loaf professors provided rich, literary experiences reminiscent of my undergrad days of 25 years earlier. The intellectual stimulation challenged my notions of gender and race and the place of women in society. Courses focused on a more global view forced me to broaden my thinking about class. I wanted to educate myself more about these issues as well as bring them back to students.

To be honest, I had never really aspired to get a PhD, but I was looking for a way to be near my family as my mother entered her last years. I thought that grad school might be the perfect way to accomplish that. I would be going to school, which I love, and teaching and getting paid, while living in a ready-made community with people who shared common interests. A recommendation from Andrea resulted in my ending up at Miami of Ohio. The decision to go there was the perfect choice for me, as well as an important next step in my intellectual development.

Perhaps the most lasting effect of Bread Loaf has been on my confidence as a woman, feminist, and scholar. The women at Bread Loaf were, and continue to be, not only great role models but also positive, affirming human beings. I once viewed myself as “less than intellectual” in the Bread Loaf setting but have grown in many ways since I first entered the program and gained the confidence to pursue further studies. For the first time in my life, I was told that I was as intelligent as anyone else. The emphasis on being a lifelong learner at Bread Loaf has profoundly impacted my life, both personally and professionally.


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