This week I concluded my twelfth and final year of teaching public school.
I am fortunate to have stayed in touch with many of my former students throughout the years, and many of them have made special trips to see me in these last few months of my career. Even more of them have sent me sweet and supportive messages to thank me for the impact I made in their lives and to wish me well as I begin a new chapter in mine. Below are just some of the visits and one wonderful bon voyage dinner.
I became a teacher directly out of graduate school. At twenty-three years old, I was thrown into teaching English language arts (ELA) to English language learners (ELLs) at one of the highest-risk high schools in the county. The thing was: I didn’t have a degree in education (my MA was in literature), so I had no pedagogical toolbelt that equipped me for the demands of this situation. Therefore, I relied solely on the support of veteran teachers who were willing to mentor me, open and honest conversations with my students about their struggles and goals, and my own enthusiasm for learning and creativity to get me through that first couple of years.
Those survival habits never really went away.
Instead, they transformed into what became my strengths as an educator: a hunger for professional learning and collaboration, the use of student-centered strategies like Socratic seminars for content-related conversations as well as input from the students about how or what they would like to learn, and never teaching the same lesson the same way twice so I could maintain authentic excitement. …And I often did get excited! In fact, students frequently told me that it was my passion for what I was teaching that made them look forward to coming to my class. Maintaining this excitement was the biggest challenge over the years, but it kept me motivated to always do and be better for my students.
As I grew in my experience, I taught a variety of levels in the tenth and eleventh grades including ELL, college prep, honors, gifted, special ed, and STEM. However, so much of what was most important about my (and every teacher’s) day-to-day work had very little to do with actual subject-area content. In ELA, especially, we have the unique opportunity to tap into students’ more subjective responses and experiences. I found myself:
- Teaching emotional intelligence (teens always want to better understand themselves and each other)
- Coaching in soft skills like presenting, and resolving conflict in collaborative settings
- Intentionally making time for casual conversations to get to know a little more about students’ personal interests to assist them in making better connections with themes or characters
- Assuring students that I saw them as individuals with unique interests by hearing a song or watching a video clip they may have wanted to share
- Listening. Listening to the drama, the stories, the fears, the hopes, the challenges, the victories, the complaints, the excuses, the successes, the plans, the questions, the heartbreaks, the mistakes, the goals, the laughter, the hate, and the love…. With teenagers, listening is the most important thing. It can be exhausting to be sure, but it means the world to them, and it was oftentimes the best part of my job.
I saw it as my responsibility to model kindness, respect, and sincerity for my students and to be an adult in this world in whom they could trust and on whom they could depend. This was always at the heart of my interactions with them, and I considered it my mission every day. No, I was not always great at it, but most days I did well; and I’m sure my students would be hard-pressed to recall a time when I was just flat-out grumpy. To guide my interactions with my students, three points have helped to develop my teaching philosophy:
- Every day is a new day and a chance for a fresh start.
- “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)
- Every individual is unique, should be supported in their own talents, and should never be compared to anyone else.
I did not enter the classroom with this philosophy. It developed over time, through experiencing all of the ups and downs of this profession. So, as I close out my time in the classroom and look forward to my new adventures in assisting in the education of young people around the world, I reflect on the lessons my students taught me that helped me develop these guiding principles. Every year I learned to be a better teacher, and it was always for them. They are what I will miss the most about teaching.
Most of all, they taught me this: we all really have a lot more in common than we have differences. We want to be heard, we want to be valued, and we want to chase our dreams. This does not change much as we get older. The dreams, though, get a little farther away the longer we put them off.
One of my favorite poems to teach has been Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” which begins “What happens to a dream deferred?” The body of the poem explores various images of possible responses, and then the last line then asks, “…does it explode?”
The word explosion has both positive and negative connotations. If you put off that dream, does it explode and destroy you because your frustrations, disappointment, or grief are too much for you to bear? Or if you finally act on it, does it explode into something wonderful and far-reaching that makes you proud and leaves a legacy?
Just as I always encouraged my students to do, I’m choosing the latter scenario. I came to realize that I was trying to pour my dreams into my students for so long that I forgot to try to reach for them myself. I know that my own potential has not been reached–that I still have those same dreams of humanitarian work that I had when I was in college.
It is time to create some fireworks; so my boxes are packed.