Sunday, February 10th, 2013...9:31 pm

Teacher

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My work/life balance is right now balanced away from me having time to sit here and write, as I’m sure you faithful readers have been able to tell. And while I wish I had more time for myself, for this space, sometimes that just isn’t in the cards. The good thing about having been at this for a little while, is that I know the balance will shift again. I just have to wait.

I have been writing, though. I was voted teacher of the year at my school a few weeks back and as part of the honor, you are asked to write a number of essays to go through to the next round. I won’t bore you here with most of them; but I do want to share parts of one – the one that they deem my “professional bio,” where they want to know about what led me into teaching and what I’m proud of accomplishing.

When the balance shifts away from here, this is what I’m doing…

I am a cliché; I was born a teacher. A school photographer first snapped my photo when I was six months old, sitting on the lap of my very proud father, a kindergarten teacher who had taken me along for his school photo. I used to line my dolls up to teach them lessons from workbooks my dad’s class had finished with and when my younger brother was old enough to comply and not quite old enough to protest, I sat him down in my class and tutored him from math and reading workbooks. My mother became an elementary school teacher when I was in middle school, though she had certainly been a teacher long before that. And almost every one of my aunts and uncles was a teacher or a principal. Little did my family know that they would not only mold me into a life-long learner, but into a life-long teacher as well.

See, it’s true; I am that cliché – the teacher who knew all along that the classroom is where she was meant to be. There have been, however, a few times in my life that I’ve tried to resist the lure of the classroom, where I’ve tried to deny that teaching is a part of my blood. I thought about law school, working for a law firm in college for a while. I’ve thought about entertaining my dreams of making a living from setting words on a page – being a writer full time and not as an in-addition part of my life. But nothing else feels quite like the ground under my feet in my classroom. Nothing else fulfills me and challenges me quite like the art of teaching.

On my first day of student teaching, my cooperating teacher asked all of the students to write me notes introducing themselves.  One student wrote, “We are teachers and pupils of ourselves; you are here to guide us.”  Thirteen years later, those words still ring in my head.  That day the words of this very astute seventh grader intimidated me a bit, but it took me no time at all to realize that she was exactly right.  And now, deep into my teaching career, I cannot think of a better way of saying what she so aptly and simply wrote.

Each day in my classroom I strive to guide all students further along their path towards knowledge and self-discovery. My core belief is that a teacher should equip her students with the tools to become problem solvers and true independent thinkers, to help them to realize how to apply what they learn inside the school building to the world they return to each afternoon. I constantly ask myself, how can I make this relevant?  How can I make these skills appeal to the interests of the students? Would I want to learn this? Write this? Read this? And when I succeed in answering these questions, amazing things can happen.  This year my English I students all participated in a gorilla art project as a means of learning author’s purpose, audience and presenting evidence. Each group brainstormed an important message to send to a particular community and then were faced with the challenge of sending that message. Students did many creative things – setting up hypothetical borders to cross, encouraging students to send messages of love to each other, making art to support the troops. And the best part of the project was when students reflected on what they had learned, when they surprised even themselves by what they had accomplished and how the real world task had actually taught them some of the skills in English class that had bored them in the past.  The challenge to make it relevant so that they not only learn about reading and writing, but about life as well is my favorite part of teaching.

As much as teaching is in my blood, so is writing. I like to tell my students that I am a writer, to build my teaching ethos with the truth that I too put words on a page, I too edit and revise and struggle to convey meaning. I believe living what I teach makes me a better teacher. And I am most proud of how I push my students’ writing skills. This year I have been challenged to teach the students who have yet to pass the English I STAAR writing test. And this is exactly the kind of challenge that I enjoy. I have taught them to slow down their moments in writing by watching the Slow Mo guys on YouTube and having them conduct the same experiments with speed that they see on the screen in their own writing on paper. I have gotten them to understand audience by having them tell a story to my five-year-old daughter. I have encouraged them to explode the moments in their writing by first watching a video of an exploding whale. Writing is fun, it is interesting, it is, at its best, just good thinking. Every day in my writing class, we write because writing is, to me, a vital part of living, not just a skill for a four-hour test. I also teach the highest achieving junior level students in both my AP classes and in a dual credit program with UT Austin. In those classes we explore topics deeply, thinking critically, examining multiple viewpoints, entering into cultural debates previously foreign to these 16 year olds. We have studied the DREAM Act, the supreme court case Fisher v. Texas; we’ve explored questions about the role of technology in human relationships, the ways in which photography leads us closer to or further from truth. We examine real questions so that my students will leave my class and be real thinkers, real writers. Writing matters for whatever these students will go on to do and I feel lucky that I get to help them along that path.

One recent day, when we began our unit on truth and photography, we read a few short articles and then began our Socratic seminar. Students prepared thoughtful questions about our own penchants for photographs and whether that gives us our own false sense of reality. Other than opening the conversation, I said nothing. I listened, watched as the class guided themselves deeper and deeper into critical questions and answers. On these occasions I cannot help but recall the words in that note from the seventh grader in my very first classroom. It is days, classes, moments like these, the days where I watch it all happen in front of me, just listening and learning, feeling like the student and not the teacher, that make me believe I have the best job in the world.

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