My very long road to becoming a teacher…
So much of my identity as an adult has been wrapped up in my third career as a school teacher. To many, it must have seemed like a desperate attempt to reinvent myself as so many adults do in between jobs. But the truth is that I had secretly suspected I would make a good teacher for a long time, even if I didn’t want to be one.
The first hint that I might have a talent for teaching came upon me in Mr. Di Blanca’s ninth grade “Sequential Course 1” math class at New Paltz High School in upstate New York. I have often been asked who influenced me to become a teacher, and I’d have to say it was him – Mr. Di Blanca, and he did it in so subtle a way that I never saw it coming.
The First Inkling
It was a typical day in math class – my head was down on the desk. Mr. Di Blanca was droning on and on about something (math I think). I wasn’t really paying close attention to what everyone else in class was doing. I vaguely heard the teacher ask a question aloud, but no one raised his hand to answer. Not one. The poor man looked exasperated. He looked from one side of the room to the other and chastised us all for not bothering to pay attention. Well that was it; he was done! Done? What did he mean by done? Apparently, he meant he was not going to teach us any more.
Instead, he handed out slips of paper to each student with math concepts written upon them. We would each need to learn our math concept and then teach it for the class. My assignment was the Pythagorean theorem. I couldn’t even pronounce it! Truth be told, I was already struggling in math. I think my grade may have been a D or possibly even an F. What hope was there that anyone could learn from me? I did not see this coming to a good end. But in the spirit of it being “better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all,” I cracked open my math book and attempted to learn the Pythagorean theorem. No dice. I had no clue what I was doing.
Naïve as I was, I thought my teacher really didn’t want to be bothered teaching any more, so it’s no surprise that I was timid about approaching him in his office to inform him that there would be no lesson on my appointed day to teach. He invited me to sit beside him and he taught me the Pythagorean Theorem in about ten minutes. How was I doing so poorly in math? Obviously, Mr. Di Blanca was an amazing teacher – I understood everything all at once!
A few days later, I went through the lesson step by step for my class. I was awkward, overweight, and unpopular, so my best hope at the time was for no feedback at all (because surely if my classmates had anything to say, it was going to be negative). But the opposite ended up being the truth. In fact, the comments I received from both my classmates and my teacher were glowing. “I was really able to follow your examples and understand what to do. Good job!” congratulated one. “Wow, you looked so comfortable up there explaining the lesson to the class!” chimed another. “I’m so very proud of you. You did an excellent job,” beamed Mr. Di Blanca after class; “Maybe you should consider a career as a teacher.” No, never! Teaching is a thankless job!
A Lesson NOT Learned
Fast forward about eight years. I had recently earned an associate’s degree from the local community college, but it took four years of going to school part-time to do so. Then I enrolled at the closest University to my home in Port Richey, Florida, the University of South Florida. I had already taken some dual enrollment courses at USF the previous semester, prior to my graduation, but I was told that I could not register for any further courses until I spoke with a counselor. The counselor informed me that I had more than enough credits to be a junior, but I still needed to declare a major. I couldn’t pick; I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up yet!
Looking over my grades, the counselor noted my English grades seemed consistently high, which led her to suggest that I major in English. “No way! What am I going to do with a degree in English? Become an English teacher?” was my response. “Teachers don’t earn enough money!” It was only after she explained that a BA in English would be a decent first step toward several career fields – law, journalism, education – that I finally assented (conditionally, as I was going to return and declare a different major, just as soon as I figured out what that was going to be).
Taking the Scenic Route
After I finally earned my BA degree in English (USF 1996), I struggled to find full-time work and had to use every connection I had to land a job with a major insurance company, in the accounting department no less. I did not do a lot of formal teaching there, but there was a really nice lady named Corrine. She was older, her husband had left her for a younger woman, and she needed this job to help support herself. She had no clue about technology and struggled to use her calculator, much less her computer. I helped her every chance I could get, and I think she was very grateful to have met me.
Four more years, another move, marriage. This time, I ended up in Houston, Texas (that’s a great story too – I’ll have to share it in Faith Matters section of my blog soon), and before long, I had landed a job with one of the largest insurance companies in the world, AIG. I grew so much in my talent as a writer during my time with AIG. I wrote training manuals, content for website services, aided in drafts of legal documents. I also had the privilege of training new hires in our department (the people who needed to use the training manuals) at the beginning. I loved that job! As time wore on, all the new people were trained and I settled into a less glamourous production role.
And So It Begins
Life was fairly mundane until I attended a meeting with the Executive Vice President. She was serving as a board member for Junior Achievements, they were sorely in need of volunteers, and she wanted as many of us as possible to consider donating our time. She even sweetened the deal and offered to pay us for the couple of hours we took off to volunteer. I signed up to teach economics to two seventh grade classes that year. My first foray into public school teaching, but not really because their actual teacher was always going to be in the room.
He was supposed to be in the room, but he had a heart attack. It was a school in the Houston Heights, and it didn’t have the best reputation. While the teacher was out on leave, they could not get the same substitute teacher to come back twice, much less find a qualified, long-term sub to teach those social studies classes. There wasn’t much I could do about that. In general, the students explained that they were used to such circumstances. Nobody cares! Well I cared. I was the most consistent visitor to their classroom for months that semester, and the children responded like daises receiving water during a drought.
I witnessed a girl who was so shy that she could not raise her hand and answer a question at the beginning of the year come to be comfortable enough to come to the front of the room, shake my hand, look me in the eye, and introduce herself (we were learning how to approach a job interview). I experienced a “tough guy” who harassed me and sabotaged every lesson the first few weeks I showed up come to hug me on my last day some months later and thank me for not quitting on him. Those experiences made me realize, finally, that I wanted to be a teacher!
Dreams to Reality
This was right around the time when our nation was focusing on teacher quality and value. In Texas, I needed to become certified in order to be considered a highly qualified teacher. There were alternative certification programs (ACP), but they cost money and it would take a year or more, so I did nothing. Then, in 2004, after the birth of my first child, I chose to quit my job at AIG and stay home. I thought it was going to be the best time of my life, but a cranky baby, a shortage of money, and post-partum depression dispelled that myth. After about a year, I was wanting to go back to work. Thank God my husband is such a supportive man. He encouraged me to take the classes I needed to become certified and make the switch to teaching, which is exactly what I did.
I worked out so perfectly! I finished my ACP program in the spring of 2006, my daughter turned two that summer and was “ready” for daycare in my husband’s opinion, and I landed my first job as an English teacher in a really small school district close to where we lived. I had no real idea what I was doing, but I’m glad to say that with the support of many mentors, my students did learn. They were successful! I was validated!
By the way, I never told my students that I was a new teacher, and to my surprise, they could not tell. I still bump into some of those students around town now and again. A couple have even kept in touch with me over the years. Many of them have told me I was the best teacher they ever had, or the one teacher who made a difference in their lives. I’d be lying if I claimed that didn’t make me feel both proud and arrogant when I was younger. Now that I’m more mature, I think, “to God be the glory!” He is the one who directed my steps into the path of education. Surely his plans for my life are better than any plans I would have made on my own.