Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Challenge 1: Advice

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#3: What is the best advice you ever received? Why? And did you follow it?

During my senior year at university, one of my professors took me aside after class one day and said, “I really don’t think you’ll make a good teacher.” I was an English education major at the time, and she taught one of my education classes, so these words were somewhat hurtful. She didn’t let me off lightly, either. “You will never understand when students struggle with writing,” she said and suggested that I turn to other pursuits. My immediate response was that I would prove her wrong. I created this grand plan in my mind: I would be named teacher-of-the-year sometime soon, and I would send the original certificate to her.
The next year, midway through my student teaching semester, I realized that my professor had been right. I did not understand students, and I did not know the first thing about teaching. “She was right, she was right, she was right,” I kept repeating as the weeks piled up and my lesson plans only got worse. When the semester mercifully ended I declared, “I will never step foot inside a classroom again.” The advice had been spot on and I would follow it.
I landed a job at a newspaper and won some awards there. I did not send those certificates to anyone. I moved to another state and found a job with another newspaper. I would be a journalist for life, I figured. It wasn’t always easy, there was always something to learn, but journalism was exhilarating; my colleagues and I thought we could change the world, one word at a time.

Then, for some reason, I decided to move overseas. I didn’t care where or what I’d do, I just wanted out of the United States for a while; I guess I didn’t want to be one of those Americans who doesn’t know anything about the rest of the world, and I didn’t want to wait until later in life to travel, to really experience other cultures and places. And so I packed my bags and landed in Japan, where my only job possibility was as a teacher of English as a second language.
I didn’t consider this really teaching: I sat in a small cubicle with one to four students of varying ages and spoke with them. Sure, I corrected their errors and sometimes made suggestions for improvement, but there were no lesson plans to write or papers to grade. Eventually, a handful of students told me I was the best teacher they ever had, and they asked for homework. I started planning.

Three years later I returned to Chicago. Jobless, I thought I’d try substitute teaching for a while. I ended up at a school that I quickly learned to love and found myself begging the principal for a job teaching English. She had none to offer but suggested I take over temporarily for an algebra teacher who had quit suddenly. So I taught math for almost an entire semester. And that’s when I learned how to teach. I had to struggle along with my students.

Journalism gave me a few years of experience and maturity. Japan gave me confidence. And algebra gave me insight into my students. I don’t think I’ll ever win teacher-of-the-year, but these days I’m a competent teacher, thanks in part to the kick in the pants from that professor many years ago.

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