I started teaching at the age of 21, three months after I graduated from college with a degree in English, Secondary Education. Clearly, I was too young to realize how young I was walking into classrooms where some of my students were merely three years (or fewer) younger than I.
That first year, I might have cried on the way home at least three out of five days most weeks. I considered doing almost anything except what I was doing. But I showed up the second year, and the third, and for two more years after that and then my first child was born. I didn’t return to the classroom again for twelve years. For a few years, I tried other professions…a sort of grown-up way of dragging clothes into a fitting room. Some of them fit, but none of them felt as right on me as teaching.
I earned my National Board Certification in 2007, an accomplishment of which I am proud. Especially so because all of the work I did for it was at a school in the city we evacuated to after Hurricane Katrina… as opposed to being able to do the work in the school I left, where I’d been for fifteen years.
I’m in my 25th year of teaching now, still teaching high school English. Three years ago, I voluntarily transferred to a new high school that opened in our parish. The school I left was also in its first year when I started there. Opening a new school is a rare opportunity, for both teachers and students, to determine its course from that point forward. It’s a responsibility none of us take lightly.
For most of my teaching years, I’ve taught 11th grade because the curriculum is rooted American Literature, which I love. I also enjoy teaching juniors. This year I’ve added a semester elective writing class for seniors.
I found the quote below in going through some files to ready myself for my contributions to this incredible and important website. One of these student notes a year is enough to fuel me for the next year. The poem that follows it, written by Taylor Mali, captures the essence of being a teacher, and I am captivated and humbled by it every time I read it.
Student email to me after finishing To Kill a Mockingbird:
“omg omg omg this book is amazing. on the last page of chapter 29 when scout was describing the man i almost cried when i figured out what was going on. thanks for getting us to read this book”
by Taylor Mali (www.taylormali.com)
Sunday nights I lie awake—
as all teachers do—
and wait for sleep to come
like the last student in my class to arrive.
My grading is done, my lesson plans are in order,
and still sleep wanders the hallways like Lower School music.
I’m a teacher. This is what I do.
Like a painter paints, or a sculptor sculpts,
a preacher preaches, and a teacher teaches.
This is what we do.
Experts in the art of explanation:
I know the difference between questions
to answer and questions to ask.
What do you think?
If two boys are fighting, I break it up.
But if two girls are fighting, I wait until it’s over and then drag what’s left to the nurse’s office.
I’m not your mother, or your father,
or your jailer, or your torturer,
or your biggest fan in the whole wide world
even if sometimes I am all of these things.
I know you can do these things I make you do.
That’s why I make you do them.
I’m a teacher. This is what I do.
A homeless man asked me for change
on the street one night when my pockets were empty.
“Come on man, it’s Christmas,” he pleaded,
and I knew I had become a teacher for better or worse
when I spun on my heels
and barked: What did I just say?
Don’t make me repeat myself!
In the quiet hours of the dawn
I write assignment sheets and print them
without spell checking them. Because I’m a teacher,
and teachers don’t make spelling mistakes.
So yes, as a matter of fact, the new dress cod
will apply to all members of the 5th, 6th, and 78th grades;
and if you need an extension on your 55-paragraph essays
examining The Pubic Wars from an hysterical perspective
you may have only until January 331st.
I trust that won’t be a problem for anyone?
I like to lecture on love and speak on responsibility.
I hold forth on humility, compassion, eloquence, and honesty.
And when my students ask,
“Are we going to be responsible for this?”
I say, If not you, then who?
You think my generation will be responsible?
We’re the ones who got you into this mess,
now you are our only hope.
And when they say, “What we meant
was, ‘Will we be tested on this?’”
I say Every single day of your lives!
Once, I put a pencil on the desk of a student
who was digging in her backpack for a pencil.
But she didn’t see me do it, so when I walked
to the other side of the room and she raised her hand
and asked if she could borrow a pencil,
I intoned, In the name of Socrates and Jesus,
and all the gods of teaching,
I declare you already possess everything you will ever need!
“You are the weirdest teacher I have ever—”
Then she saw the pencil on her desk and screamed.
“You’re a miracle worker! How did you do that?”
I just gave you what I knew you needed
before you had to ask for it.
Education is the miracle, I’m just the worker.
But I’m a teacher.
And that’s what we do.