As a teacher of English as a second language, I consistently meet students from all over the world. The question “Where are you from?” is very common in my classroom. I myself am frequently asked this question after people learn that I speak Spanish. In both of these cases, a one word answer of a country or a city never seems to fully capture the essence and complexity of a person’s identity. For this reason, I was so excited about a project that my students worked on that quickly became a source of some of my favorite moments from this school year.
The project consisted of reading a poem entitled “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon, and using it as an inspiration for a personal poem. Instead of answering “Where are you from?” with an answer about a physical location, it involves sharing memories about different aspects of your childhood, heritage, and upbringing to represent where you are from on a deeper level.
Although my students were hesitant about writing poetry, and some were even resistant to sharing about their personal lives, I could not have been more moved by their final poems. Some of them brought tears to my eyes, as I learned so much about each student and all the things that make them unique. I also personally enjoyed writing my own poem, and reflecting on the different aspects of my heritage and family that have impacted and shaped me…
I am from picnic tablecloths on the living room floor, from homemade play dough and wooden toys. I am from the kitchen table (solid, smooth, covered with eraser shavings and crayon marks). I am from the honeysuckles blooming along the backyard fence, The pecan trees dropping the pecans, like treasures waiting to be found, just like my future dreams and desires.
I am from astigmatism and big noses, from Carley and Reiner. I am from the bookworms and the storytellers. From you can do it, and don’t give up. I’m from “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” and prayers before bedtime.
I am from Driespitz and Valencia, from arroz con leche and cream cheese dip. From the books my mother read to me as a child, the hours my father spent helping me with my homework.
On the walls, in the photo albums filed away on the shelf beneath the stairs, sit all these memories of past smiles and joys, a picture of things to come for future generations.
I lace up my spikes with unsteady hands and make my way to the starting line. Girls with uniforms of all different styles and hues repeat their rituals—jogging in place, jumping up and down, stretching their calves—as calls ring out from the announcer and echo across the stadium.
At last, the time comes: “Girls, find your starting places.”
I shuffle over to my lane, carefully position my feet, look ahead, and take a deep breath. As I wait for the next words of instruction, I face a barrage of questions: Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? Will I be successful, or will I fail?
As a cross country and track runner in high school, I experienced this scenario more times than I can count. At the start of each race, I remember doubting myself and my abilities, fearing the exhaustion that would soon overtake my body, and questioning why I was passionate about running.
Although I am no longer a competitive runner, I can completely relate to my high school self as I approach the starting line of my second year of teaching. With the first day of school only a week away, I find myself asking all the same questions I used to ask myself before a race. Why am I doing this? Is it really worth the effort? Will I be successful, or will I fail?
Before beginning my first year of teaching last year, I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect. This year, I find myself nervous because I do know what to expect – the unmotivated students who choose to fail time after time, the mornings spent worrying about what to teach and how to teach it, the nights spent praying for hurting students, the paperwork that is always waiting to be completed, the nervousness before giving a test, the tired feet, the weary heart, the feelings of failure and incompetence.
But, just as I stood at the starting line back in high school and remembered the glory of the finish line, I can’t help but remember the beauty of my job – the mornings with students already waiting outside the door to ask for help, the inspiration I find in my students’ passions and dreams, the celebrations of students passing a test or doing well on a paper, the times when students realize that literature is more than reading old stories written by dead people and that writing is more than simply words on a page, the laughter filling my classroom and the hallways, the appreciation, the encouragement, the fulfillment.
As I wait for the next words of instruction, I face a barrage of questions: Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? Will I be successful, or will I fail?
Before I have time to answer, I hear “On your marks….Get set….Go!”
And all the fears racing through my mind seem to vanish with the smoke of the starting gun as I determine to do my best in this race and consider that a success.
They say the first year of teaching is the hardest. On the bright side, I think that implies that it is a year full of growth and learning. Here are just a few of the lessons that I learned this year that extend far beyond just the classroom…
1. Smile. A lot.
As small and insignificant as it seems, I have become aware of the impact of smiling. Earlier in the year a student commented to me, “You always have a smile on your face every day. I like that.” Even one of my administrators thanked me for always smiling. Even though circumstances don’t always encourage or allow us to smile, I’ve realized that smiling is a physical way of showing people, whether students or colleagues, that you are happy to be at work and that you care about them. And that is a powerful thing.
2. Listen before you speak.
I’ve always loved to talk. When I was little, I would talk so much that my parents would have to interrupt me and ask me to give my brother a chance to talk. However, I’ve come to realize this year that listening oftentimes sends a much more powerful message than speaking does. Ever since I began student teaching, I got into the habit of always asking my students how their day was going before beginning class. I take just a minute or two to hear the ups and downs, and listen to what they have going on. Again, this seemingly simple act apparently impacted my kids more than I realized. One student once told me, “That’s why you’re my favorite teacher. You always ask us how we’re doing.” Taking time to listen to people not only communicates how much you care for them, but it also makes the times when you speak even more powerful.
3. Forgive quickly and move on.
Working with kids of any age is difficult, but each age group comes with its specific challenges. In my opinion, one challenge of working with teenagers is that their immaturity often results in hurting those around them. Many of my students have made comments that hurt my feelings or have treated me in ways that made me feel insignificant and incompetent. In any situation or relationship that involves offense, forgiveness can be a challenge. I have been so blessed in my marriage relationship that my husband is very quick to apologize and resolve any problems. However, teenagers are typically not so considerate. If I were to have waited for an apology to forgive a student each time one hurt me, I would still hold many grudges. I quickly realized that in order to maintain a positive relationship with my students and to ultimately succeed at my job, I needed to forgive quickly and move on. Rather than treat offensive students or difficult classes based on how they treated me, I continuously made the decision to treat all classes and every student with respect, regardless of their disrespect towards me. In the end, I think the grace I showed them, even my imperfect grace, positively influenced not only our relationship, but their success in my class.
These three lessons are just a few of the many things that I learned throughout the year. I also learned the importance of balancing my work and my personal life, the power of God’s grace to use me even when I had a bad attitude, the impact of taking on extra responsibilities even when that meant more work, and the true joy that comes with fully investing yourself into the lives of students who come to trust you and care for you.
As the school year is (finally) coming to a close, I can’t help but look back and smile. Even in the most difficult days, my students have been such blessings in my life, whether by encouraging me with positive affirmation or by speaking the brutally honest truth. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this semester…
“You know, when I pay attention, I actually learn things.”
“Are you in a bad mood today?”
“Miss, I really appreciate everything you do for me.”
“Yesterday was fun, but today is so boring.”
“Miss, did you practice on the Internet or something? You were like really good today.”
Through the ups and downs, my students have both challenged me and inspired me. I will always treasure these students who have spent this exciting first year of teaching with me, and I will always cherish the blessings they have been to me.
I recently had the opportunity to teach “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot in my English III classes. One of my college professors really loved this poem, so I remember spending a lot of time analyzing it. At the time, I wasn’t overly impressed, but as I read it over and over in each of my classes, the more I was really touched by it. Many of my students were also challenged and moved.
If you have never read it, you can find it here. I don’t particularly want to compare myself to Prufrock, because he is a man who struggles so much to make any decisions in life that he lives his whole life without taking any action or making any decisions. He ends up measuring his life, not by the amount of people he’s influenced or even by his accomplishments, but by the amount of coffee he has drunk.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but ask myself the same question Prufrock poses to himself…
I am that teacher who looks young enough to constantly gets confused for being a student. I am not that teacher who plans entire lessons on the spot. I am that teacher who gets just as excited about snow days as her students. I am not that teacher who always knows how to handle disruptive students.
I am that teacher who is willing to look goofy if it means getting her students to pay attention.
I am not that teacher who doesn’t care if students like her.
I am that teacher who greets her students in the hallway every day.
I am not that teacher who gives up on students even when they give up on themselves.
I am that teacher who loves to talk with students after school, even after a long day.
I am that teacher who asks for perfection, but accepts students’ best.
I am that teacher who thinks about and prays over her students even when she’s not at school. I am that teacher who completely relies on God for the strength, patience, and creativity to show His love and inspire students.
In my some of my classes this week, my students are responding to a prompt that begins with this quote and asks them to write an expository essay explaining why it is sometimes necessary to take risks.
As is often the case, my assignment for my students really challenged me. I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking and its role in my life.
How did you or do you balance taking risks as a young adult, while still making wise decisions and preparing for the future?
As an introduction to Mark Twain last week in class, I posted a handful of his quotes around my classroom. I asked my students to walk around the room, choose a favorite (or least favorite) quote, and write about it. After we discussed them, I asked if anyone knew or could guess the author of the quotes, and then we made predictions about his personality and writing style. However, throughout the reflecting process, one of my students asked me which quote was my favorite. And I think it has to be this one:
Travel is fatal to prejudice.
Mark Twain is the master of taking a complex idea and whittling it down to only a few words. (Ironically, he is also the master of taking a few words and stretching them into an entire short story, but that’s besides the point.)
I love how he captures in this quote the idea that staying isolated in our own world closes our eyes, and consequently, our hearts, to the world beyond. Yes, Jesus talked about loving our neighbor, but especially in this global village created by technology, the entire world is our neighbor. There is no excuse for not engaging with people around the entire globe.
And as we challenge ourselves to learn about them, we begin to learn from them, and we realize how small we really are. And we begin to realize all that God planned for the human race, and how we inhibit that design each time we speak or act based on prejudices.
I’m currently reading Evolving in Monkey Town, and I came across this passage this morning:
…It was within this social context [of always being ready for a fight] that I and an entire generation of young evangelicals constructed our Christian worldviews…We knew what atheists and humanists and Buddhists believed before we actually met any atheists or humanists or Buddhists, and we knew how to effectively discredit their worldviews before ever encountering them on our own…
May we push ourselves to look beyond ourselves, and engage with others through love, empathy, and service rather than preconstructed stereotypes and prejudices.
As I began planning my classroom design over the summer last year, I decided that I really wanted to incorporate a blend of artistry and inspiration. I collected and created several art prints using quotes that are very applicable to high schoolers to hang on my walls.
This print (above) I designed is one of my favorites. The simple design reflects the simple message – be fearful of mediocrity.
Unfortunately, I have seen that actually putting this message into practice is not quite so simple. Many of my students consistently settle for much less than their best. All day long, I constantly remind students of due dates, beg them to come to tutorials, ask them to retest, push them to push themselves. I end many days completely exhausted and totally frustrated by their apathy. One of the most tiring aspects of being a teacher is being a coach, being an encourager.
However, this can also potentially be the most rewarding part of my job.
I love when a student stays after school for help on a paper and then gets her first A. I love when a student comes during lunch to retake a test he scored poorly on. I love when a student tells me he decided to do his homework because of me. I love when a student doesn’t give up even when she feels like a failure. I love when a student comes to talk to me after school to ask for help, not in homework, but in life.
And most of all, I love that I get to be a part of their growth and progress. And I am reminded of why I push myself beyond mediocrity – so that hopefully I can inspire them to do the same.
Click on the links below to download a free 10×15 in. PDF of the print.