Teaching Moment: Sometimes we find teachers in the most unexpected places. Who surprised you as a teacher this year and what did you learn?
I find it more than the slightest bit trite to respond to this question in the following way, but, if it were to come down to truth or censorship kids, you know what I choose, so, at the risk of sounding loathsome, the answer is: ME. Against type, against nature, against all previously held ideas, it was ME.
I grew up under the watchful, and more than slightly militant eye of a high school English teacher. Tiny in stature but large in opinion, voice and grammatical awareness, my mother towered over me, demanding perfection in every word, spoken and written. At home, to her family, her craft was (and is) sacrosanct; she approached her responsibility with gravity and staid resolution. Her students were her clay and she meticulous in their molding….forceful….precise….and ruled by impossible standards.
In her classroom, however, at the chalkboard, her iron fist relaxed into a soothing open palm, and I was always amazed to see her make jokes with the kids sitting rapt before her. She worked for some years in a Catholic high school, and I’d be forced to go, to sit quietly, looking up to the Oh-So-Sophisticated 10th graders when my public school schedule showed a laxity unknown at St. John the Evangelist. There was a tender side of her, a chummy side, even solicitous, when she spoke TO them. It was the same when she spoke OF them at home…specific kids who’d earned a soft spot in her heart or spoken words of praise for their attempts and accomplishments.
From a young age, I had a hard time reconciling the stern woman who so rarely broke out in a smile over any of my actions and the woman who would beam with pride when speaking of strangers. And so, when it came time for me to apply to colleges and enroll in a program, I was neither surprised at her constant prodding that I become a teacher myself, nor quiet in my resolve to do no such thing. I rejected openly her insistence, and turned up my nose when she suggested that I might be good at nurturing growth myself. I couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t. In my eyes, she was acting out of a selfish need to control, that somehow, my becoming a teacher was linked directly to her self-worth.
And so, I became a business major, only indulging my own passion for the written word by declaring an English Literature B of S as an afterthought, with no intention of ever doing anything with it.
My life followed as lives do, with graduation and the accumulation of jobs with ever-increasing responsibility. I learned how to write a budget and forecast revenues, became adept at cost controls and pricing strategies, networked at business luncheons and became a member of any number of organizations for Ladies Who Do Work, Son. My responsibilities grew and so did my resume and paycheck, and I was, by all accounts, successful. Words like Client and Contract and Human Capital were part of my everyday vernacular, and I found myself saying: “Yes” to more interview questions regarding experience than “No”.
But powerful descriptors and mid-to-high five figures do not a happy girl make, and soon after watching the tears fall down the cheeks of a grown man who I’d fired the day previous for a mistake over $2, I realized that a change was needed. The money, the resume bullet point was not worth this type of decision. So when the Old Man moved us to Middleofnowhere, WA to pursue a career opportunity for himself, we agreed that I would take time to see what else was out there.
It turns out, there was very little.
After months of searching, and out of a desperate desire for human interaction, I took a job as a part time tutor for an after school program contracted by the state to help the local schools meet the No Child Left Behind Standards.
I was terrified. Everyone knows that children are predators. They can smell fear and spot an imposter from a mile off and the night before my first day, I had nightmares of elfin faces sneering in glee over my murdered body. I’d never been a teacher, had no idea where to start. How do you TALK to kids? What do you say? What if they don’t listen? Can you hit them? How was I going to NOT swear? What if they needed to learn how to divide fractions? Or worse….make electron dot diagrams???? I almost called in sick. I was going to be The Worst Tutor Ever.
But I showed up, and something amazing happened. That day, I worked on subjects and predicates with a small girl who walked in at the beginning of the hour not knowing the difference between a noun and a verb. Somewhere around the 30 minute mark, after three or so different attempts at explaining, the light went on behind her eyes, and at 45 minutes, she was circling subjects and underlining the shit out of some predicates all by herself. She came back to me the next day, a Language Arts test in hand: 95%. I’d given her something she hadn’t had before we’d met. At the end of a twelve-week session, she tested 35 percentile points higher in reading than she had when we’d started. She was placed back in a regular level class.
And I got to see this change EVERY DAY.
In the springtime, I became a substitute para-educator…a teacher’s aide (because to substitute teach in WA state, you need to be certified or actively pursuing certification in order to be a teacher….degrees in applicable fields do not count) and I spent the remaining school year at a long-term assignment in an 8th grade special ed class. With the hard cases. The kids who don’t want to learn. Or can’t. Or have had the will medicated out of them.
Out of nowhere, I found a talent I didn’t know I’d had. A talent my mother had pointed out, but that I’d refused to acknowledge in my own teenaged drive to rebel. I found that by being myself, my own, No Bullshit, Don’t Feed Me That Line Self, that I could get through. And I DID get through. As long as I spoke to them as if they were adults, I could demand their effort, and they would give it.
Every day now, I get to see those lights go on. Some days, they’re on dimmer switches, but lights they are and worth every measly cent of the $10/hr I command for my services.
In the end, I found a teacher in the most unlikely of places; in myself. Maybe it will go somewhere, maybe it won’t. My mother has already set the “Why Don’t You Get Your Masters In Teaching” pressure cooker to stun, but I don’t know if I’m ready to pop that cork just yet. Right now, I’m happy to watch my little lights twinkle, each a reminder to do good work, and never stop growing myself.