Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Decision to Become a Teacher

I have been asking myself this a lot lately, why did I become a teacher, and more importantly, why do I stay? My story starts in the third grade. I went to three different schools that year. My family was in turmoil, but school, any school, was a constant. I was always the quiet kid who liked to play "school" teaching my stuffed animals my spelling words, or giving my cousin "homework", but the decision to BE a teacher was made in the third grade. This did not sit well with my father, who to this day thinks I should have been an architect. I thought being in school was great. I loved learning new things and sharing it with others.

It was the kind of off the cuff decision kids make like "I want to be a police man." You actually don't hear too many kids walking around saying, "I want to be a banker." They may say "millionaire"or "rock star", but in the classrooms where I've worked teachers, police officers and firefighters are always the favored professions among kids. I had wonderful teachers throughout my school career; Ms. Winkleman who taught me to read, Ms. Heartman who expected more of me, Ms. Farrel who treated me like a person and asked about my family, Ms. Schliefer who treated me like a friend and mentored me, and they were all from different schools, different districts and vastly different communities. For me the idea of being a teacher became an actual career goal in the 8th grade.  We have a saying in the teaching profession that "all it takes is one person who cares to save a child." Kathy saved me. My career is an homage to Ms. Kathleen Donovan, 7th-8th grade Language Arts, Private Nicholas Minue Elementary School Carteret, NJ. All of us have our cute stickers and bumper stickers that say 2 teach is to 2 touch lives 4 ever, and she touched mine.

I was a very awkward child. I was too tall, I had really bad acne topped off with a REALLY bad haircut, hand-me down clothes and a decent amount of social awkwardness. I may have as well walked around with a target on my chest for bullies far and near. I was abused mercilessly by older kids at my school, so much so where my mother had to contact administration and have an entire group of children suspended. It was a happy day when my class, who were more inclined to ignore me than abuse me, became the tough 7th and 8th graders.

It was also around this time that the ugly duckling began to become the swan. The acne cleared up, I started seeing my own beautician and buying my own clothes thanks to babysitting money, but I couldn't see it in the mirror. Kathy reached out. She made me stop and see how wonderful I am and how beautiful I had become as well as the beauty of the written word.  She also saw me as intelligent and thought my writing was quite good. I found strength in my pen and in her encouragement. She found organizations who published student work and had me write a collection of short stories. When I won awards for high achievement in writing from the state, she made it a point to recognize the accomplishment in a way that earned me the respect of my classmates for the first time. All of a sudden everybody wanted to be my partner and have me edit their work. For the first time in my life I felt pride in myself, my abilities and my accomplishments. I was a straight A student from the third grade on, but there was never any pride in it, it was just how things were. School was easy for me, the learning part anyway. She inspired me to want to write as a profession, something I had never even considered, but even more she inspired me teach others how to write. As I helped edit my classmates' work I realized, "Hey, I'm pretty good at teaching people this stuff." I asked her 100 questions about where she went to school, why did she become a teacher, what do I need study, what should I do to become a teacher like you? I made the decision that if I can impact just one student the way she impacted me, my career will have been worth it.

We'll talk about the reality of that decision later. For now I just want to take a minute to thank Ms. Donovan, and all of the other teachers who helped me become the person I am along the way.

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