Asides

Teaching Saved Me

Though two years in the teaching world pass quickly, I had also gone through a life-time of personal trials. In these two years, I experienced love and heartbreak; I worked additional part-time jobs to try to keep ends met and struggled to keep all the needs of my students met; I suffered through financial woes and found myself in the shadows of unexplainable tragedy. Through thick and thin, I somehow made it, and to this day, I can pridefully say being a teacher is what pulled me through. One day to the next, brought on unfathomable headaches and living nightmares. Having to go into school every day anyway, having to set up plans, review assessments, remain a confidant to many kids, and having to function in so many normal ways despite the outside world, saved me. Life in the classroom goes on, as all of the lives also in the room move forward.

On more recent reflection of those past years, I ask myself – how on Earth was I able to just carry on? But I know I am not the only one to have encountered the extreme complexities of life, so how do teachers live their personal and professional lives so distinctly separate? I have some theories. The desperate need for normalcy was a factor in my experience, but the automaticity of a classroom function is what made it possible. The days, the kids, will simply move on – with or without you. If you want a part in it, you have to be there – mind and body, if not spirit.

Enlightenment

From the very first course at UMass-Lowell, Reading and Reading Disabilities with Professor Bill Harp, I knew this was my destined path. I went to class after class filled from head to toe with tingles, the feeling of finally getting to know myself. The course had me self-reflecting more over the three months than I had done over the tract of my whole life. So much began to make sense, and I became driven by a new force, this overwhelming need to be an educator and to know everything there was to know about the field and what made the mind work.

The necessity of moving back into a full-time job became a reality as I applied for more student loans. I took on a job as an Operations Coordinator with an insurance company, which was a regular Monday-Friday office job. I quickly sank into providing training for the department and was fast-tracked into the Corporate Training world, developing and designing training manuals and helping to organize massive national training events. Over the next 4 years I spent with RiverStone Claims Management, I worked 45-70 hour weeks, traveled regularly to San Diego to provide employee training and auditing, and completed my degree.

Through all the sweet and tears, nothing prepared me for the actual classroom. Through another dean appeal, I literally completed my degree for initial certification in Elementary Education without student teaching and without becoming certified. Even though I earned my degree in a Massachusetts university, I knew I would not teach in Massachusetts. Having such fragile feelings toward my personal experiences, coupled with learning of the state testing implementations, I knew I needed to start somewhere fresh. I was granted my degree without certification, following my decision to move and teach out of state.

Having family in and out of the Virginia Beach area for a decade, I knew this to be a very transient city and identified it to be the best way to get my feet wet. I moved in the summer of 2006 to Virginia Beach, subbed for about 2 months until I was able to secure a couple long-term back-to-back placements. I was incredibly thankful for the placements. If you have every subbed for the city of Virginia Beach, I know you feel my pain. Over 2,500 active subs in the system, fighting online every hour of every day to be the first to click on the next posting that popped up. It was a true lottery, and you never knew what you were gonna get! After only one year of uncertainty, I was fortunate enough to be hired by Creeds Elementary School in 2007, where I would spend 2 years a fifth grade teacher.

My time in Virginia Beach proved its value over and over again. Even besides the incredible faculty I had the privilege to work with, the VBCPS system offered incredible professional development opportunities constantly. I took dozens of courses through my two years and absorbed everything I could. I was awed by amazing speakers, and was inspired my other professionals. I completed PD in Kagan cooperative learning structures, and learned of the NBPTS. My VB experience was only matched by that of my Creeds experience. This was the first time I was welcomed into such a community and treated as a true professional of worth and contribution to the young minds I was graced with.

Early Personal Woes

When I was a kid, school was always scary. It was tough for me, so I was always walking on eggshells between meeting my parents’ and teachers’ expectations. I was always so nervous to make one false move, knowing that I would get another failing grade, and consequently grounded to-boot. From the earliest memories I can recall, I remember feeling stumped. I couldn’t comprehend a lot of directions, and I was left feeling horrible when put on the spot by a teacher to read orally, or to recall detail from something just read. I remember NEVER being able to give a correct answer and shrinking further and further into myself. I finally learned that if I could read orally well when called on, then I would gain the teacher’s satisfaction. When round-robin class reading from a text (the seemingly only method used), I would always sneak a paragraph ahead to read it to myself and just wait to be called on so I could show I could read it aloud like everyone else. Everyone knows when a kid reads aloud fluently, they sound more intelligent. That is all that mattered to me through 6th grade.

When placement exams came around for junior high, it’s no shock to me now that I scored, and was placed, among the lowest levels in Engelsby Junior High School. With the numeric leveling system adopted at the time, this was the lowest level, just above the MR pull-out special needs children, and it was a one-size, fits all cross-curricular. From the first day of school, I knew I was labeled. I would never even cross paths with all the other neighborhood kids, who were of course in levels 1 and 2. To this day, I have little memory of Junior High. I can identify the turning point, however. Mrs. St. Arnaud was my 7th grade math teacher. She took the time to show me long division, and something clicked. I am not sure if it was her step-by-steps, her mannerism, or her level of compassion, but I felt true success for the first time in my educational career.

It was all I needed. I spent the first two marking periods working with Mrs. St. Arnaud and my other level 3 teachers, earning perfect straight As. I can remember the mixed feelings felt when I heard from my parents that the school was moving me from level 3 to level 2 – scared to be removed from my success, excited they thought I was worth the shot. I decided to prove to everyone that I would still succeed.

Over the next couple years, I had my ups and downs, but was more determined than ever to keep strong. I mostly struggled with reading and English classwork come high school, always feeling like I had a hole miles long that I could not figure out how to bridge. Anything I could memorize or had black and white steps became a strength and outlet. I fed off one success after another, setting goals and being set and determined to do it all. I remember Mr. Dion had a list up on his classroom closet door for any math students who could earn a top year average in his class. I remember the list not to be very long, and written in small, meticulous handwriting, and I remember the day I saw my aunt’s name. My aunt was college educated and an engineer – I set my sights. I earned my name on Mr. Dion’s wall with a 99% average that year.

By junior year, I was signing up for dual enrollment and the first available AP classes. I took my first college course that year and had my first taste of collegedetermination. I attribute 100% of my success to those junior high school teachers who pushed me to the light at the end of my tunnel, and my subsequentdetermination, to the graduation with National Honors Society and college admittance.

Not everything was roses, however. I never quite got passed the fear and disappointment of my reading comprehension and verbal/English skills. After taking the SAT twice, my combined score was only a 1000, and I never had the courage to take a single AP test, even though I had taken, and done well, in several of the classes. I was a HORRIBLE test-taker, I knew no strategies to help me further, and would avoid the testing world like my own personal plague. I believe this is where my fear of teaching stemmed. When I thought of working with kids, I would smile, then turn sick to my stomach over the thought I could possibly turn the cause of even one of their parts of esteem being crushed. I could never fathom myself being a part of their intellectual development, and subsequently part of something that could cause them to feel an ounce of what I remember from early childhood.

Well, call me melodramatic, or what not, but you cannot change who you are, and that was who I was. Or was it? My dad’s question played over and over again in my head. Have you thought of teaching? I searched for my life meaning, hoping it would just come and hit me already. I wondered why I didn’t seem to already know it like so many other people my age. I was 21, living at home with two degrees, no job, and absolutely no idea what path I needed to follow.

I started asking myself what is it that I do naturally, something I love – and all I kept coming back to was teaching. I finally swallowed my pride, looked into masters programs for Education, and applied to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell in the winter of 2001-2002. Because of my previous dual major, I fulfilled all requirements automatically, with exception of the GRE. After NOT passing the GRE to university requirements, I was allowed into the program on probation after appealing to the Dean of Admissions. I took on a part-time job in a matting and frame shop to make ends meet and started plugging away.