There are a lot of stories I can tell about why I became an educator, but the truth is really quite simple: I am here because of my teachers.
I am, after all, a first-generation college graduate. The careers my family members have are not the careers for which one goes to college, especially not a fancy Ivy League college. And so, while my college classmates were becoming doctors and lawyers and consultants and writers and entrepreneurs and academics and all sorts of other careers in their families’ and communities’ lineages, I was bumbling around with the hope that my Harvard degree would indeed land me gainful employment beyond my summer gigs waiting tables. At 21, I didn’t have a career plan. I didn’t have an extended community network to mine for opportunity. I didn’t know how or even have the finances to make the dreams I had about writing and travel and non-profits into any kind of paying job. I didn’t have anyone guiding me through a process of vocational exploration. What I did have, though, was a lineage of beloved teachers. Teachers who had made school my home, who loved me in all my complexity, and who had propelled me forward. My family, of course, also did these things, but I was now on a life trajectory as a college graduate that my family did not have firsthand experience with. My teachers, however, did.
There are a lot of stories I can tell about how I got to my first full-time teaching position, and those stores are true. But what is even more true is this: I followed in the footsteps of my teachers.
A few weeks ago, I received an unsolicited message from a student I had in my first semester at Marquette. What I remember about that particular class was that it was at 8am and I was often running late, thanks to my inability to get my two- and four-year-old out the door on time. I also remember that many of my attempts at early morning active learning were met with scowls (including on the official course eval) and eye rolls. But that, miraculously, is not what the student who wrote me remembers:
"You were an absolutely amazing teacher and professor. Over the past 5 and a half years (seriously it's crazy it has been this long) I have thought about how you lead class with grace and love and the material and way you pushed us. I still remember my view being shook by reading Encounter, and realizing the power that social studies teachers hold. Overall I just want to thank you. Thank you for being a phenomenal teacher. I was not at my best when I was your student all those years ago, and I do regret that. But thank you for your hard work. I felt supported by you every day in your class, and I have never forgotten that."
I’ve been struggling through pandemic teaching—and probably through some midlife doldrums, too. As my ADHD rages in pandemic living/working conditions, as I inch closer with dread to my time-bound year for tenure review, as my university internally combusts, and as I struggle to parent and work and teach and write and grade and also feel like my soul is fulfilled (and not just by all the baked goods I’ve been binge-eating), I’ve been stuck in self-doubt, self-criticism, sometimes even self-loathing. Everything just feels off kilter. But my student’s note—sent out of the blue—reminded me of something important: this work we teachers do, even when we’re tired and not at our best, even when we’re struggling, even when we’re raging, it matters. It matters for students like A., who has gone on to focus her career on critical, justice-oriented teacher education in part because of my class. And it mattered to students like me, who relied on my teachers as a compass for my soul.
At our best, teachers are accompanying our students on one segment of their life’s journey. It’s so trite, and it’s so true. Ignatian pedagogy talks a lot about accompaniment, about being in solidarity with those we teach, about being in a reflective and spiritual partnership with our students as they come to know and love the world. And accompaniment reminds me of the beloved teachers on whose shoulders I stand. I am not so naïve to say that teaching is my calling; it isn’t. At 43, I can say with certainty that there are other careers more temperamentally and intellectually suited to my ping-pong thinking and my ambivert being. But I am not in those careers; I am a teacher. And I am a teacher because of my own teachers who loved me, accompanied me, and shepherded me.
I am a teacher because of Charlene Bessey, my TDP teacher through all of elementary school, who took the “smart” kids and let us be silly and creative and curious; who taught us how to make community in and beyond the school walls; who was my champion throughout childhood; who prodded me to channel whatever stormed inside me in silence into poetry and stories and creation; who introduced me to Sherlock Holmes and dachsunds and Narnia; who was the first person outside my family to love me wholeheartedly and unconditionally.
I am a teacher because of Gloria Harper, who taught me biology in high school and pedagogy as I learned to teach; who showed me how it was possible to always have enough room in my heart for every student before me; who taught me to take pride in my career and to confidently claim the intellectual work of teaching; who believed in me as an educator long before I believed in myself.
I am a teacher because of Danielle Egan, who helped me overcome my imposter syndrome and re-find my intellectual confidence; who shifted my world views; who introduced me to thinkers who have become my ethical guides; who modeled radical thinking and being and showed me what it looked like to fully embrace oneself in and beyond the academy.
I am a teacher because of Tom & Eden Elieff, who taught with humor and curiosity, with fire and certainty; who welcomed beloved students into their home and family; who made me feel like an intellectual peer; who modeled how to be in solidarity with students while still being the grown-ups; who helped me dream about what the world might have in store for me.
I am a teacher because of Tina Epstein, who saw something in me that I didn’t even see—an aptitude for chemistry, yes, but also the tumult of adolescence and emotions and depression; who always stopped to ask me, “Are you okay?” and let me say yes even when she knew otherwise, and still kept asking and caring and offering herself.
I am a teacher especially because of those teachers who kept nudging me forward, sometimes with patience and sometimes with exasperation. Because of my first-year writing teacher who ran into me after I’d skipped class and offered me a hug and a greeting—“There is my lost little lamb”—and because of my sociology professor, who let me take the midterm even after I’d slept through it. I am a teacher because of Bill Dolbee and John Roberts, who parsed no words in teaching me to write—“Go on an adjective diet.” “Less is more.” “Wrong.”—and thus made their praise and encouragement even more meaningful. I am a teacher because of Chris Wind and Paul Zafrani, who blurred the boundaries between the school and the world when they shared photo albums, languages, family, and travels. I am a teacher because of my teachers. And this is my love letter to them.
As I write this, we are closing out Teacher Appreciation Week in the US. It’s a bittersweet week that celebrates teachers with bagels and flowers and wine and Hallmark cards but does nothing to dismantle the structural problems plaguing education—and thus teaching—in the US. It does nothing about suppressed wages and worsened working conditions, about underfunded schools and ideological battles over curriculum, about a culture that disrespects and devalues our work. Teacher Appreciation Week always rings a little hollow to me, and that is especially true this year in the wake of our rapid cycling between the super-heroism of pandemic teaching and the super-villainism of advocacy for COVID-safe schools.
That simultaneous worshipping and demonizing of teachers reminds me of my first years teaching at that very expensive private school. The same parents that coveted this education for their children would also cajole me to admit some other career aspiration for my Harvard degree. “But what are you really going to do for a living?” I was asked on more than one occasion. “You’re not really just going to be a teacher, are you?” I’d wound up in teaching out of a combination of inertia and uncertainty and desire and love, but at 22 and 23, I couldn’t yet articulate any of this. So instead, I mustered a nervous laugh or a timid shrug and mumbled something about teaching being important. But I always felt demeaned by those probes, as icky as I did when those same parents gave me grocery and gas gift certificates as teacher appreciation gifts.
Because our teachers, they mean so much to so many of us. They deserve so much more than a week of appreciation, whether it’s done in earnest or as a hollow gesture. They deserve even more than this love letter and note of gratitude. It’s not enough, but let it be a testament: I am because of you.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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