Some teachers always knew they wanted to become a teacher when they grew up. But, I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t really think much about what “I wanted to be” when I grew up. It was too far away to matter to me then. No, I spent my days at play, mostly outside, around the neighborhood. It was made up of only boys, so you can probably imagine what that meant. We rode our bikes up and down the sidewalk of our block. We set up our armies of little plastic soldiers and played war. We shot baskets at the hoop on their garage. We played with the bazillion toys they had in their garage or what they would bring up from down in their basement. We played tennis across the street at the junior high tennis courts. Dreaming about becoming a teacher wasn’t in the cards right from the beginning for me. I was having way too much fun making up games with the boys or negotiating my place in those games. I was busy, busy, busy from the time the sun came up until dusk and the street lights came on. Then it was time to go home for dinner.
The Elementary School Years
I was a pretty quiet kid in elementary school. I did okay with math, but didn’t really enjoy it. My passion was reading. I remember how much I loved to spend time in the library whenever I had the chance. The library was in the center of the school. To me, it was huge! There were two key spots that were my favorites. One was being able to climb up to the top of a wooden structure that reminded me of a treehouse where we could hang out and read books. The other was sitting in an old-fashioned bathtub with the four feet. It was filled with comfortable pillows and was only big enough for one person, so that was the one I tried for first. I would get lost in the Little House on the Prairie series and sometimes forget to go back to my classroom on time. But I don’t ever remember getting in any serious trouble because of it.
I remember being given some opportunities to work with younger kids, like a tutor. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade because my school was grades 1-6, with kindergarten being at an off-site annex a short drive from the school. I liked teaching the younger kids things although I don’t remember what I was teaching them, but it was very enjoyable. I think that was my first taste of “teaching” when I was young.
At the end of the school year, teachers often gave away leftover worksheets and other piles of papers to anyone who wanted to take them home. I remember there were a group of us girls who would swoop in and gather up all that we could carry and take them home. One year, one girl had a small playhouse that her dad had built in their backyard. She decided to start a club. It wasn’t long before our club evolved into many afternoons of “playing school.” We would pass out papers and go through the motions of what we thought it meant to be students and teachers. Of course, we took turns being the teacher. But I also think it was the experience of being a student in that playhouse that convinced me that I didn’t really want to be a teacher when I grew up.
I loved animals. In the summer, I would go to southern Iowa where my parents grew up and where many of my relatives lived. I would stay with my grandparents and sometimes my aunt and uncle, as well. I got to ride horses, play with cats and dogs. I watched chores being done with cattle and sheep. I was pretty sure that with my love of animals being so strong that one day I would grow up to become a veterinarian. That only lasted until I found out that I would have to go to college for about 8 years and take a lot of science classes. Back to the drawing board.
Junior High School Years
In junior high, sports became a focus of much of my time. I played tennis and volleyball all three years (6th, 7th and 8th grades). I played basketball only one year. It wasn’t for me. Academically, I was given a chance to chose some electives. This was a time for me to be able to explore areas of interest. So I remember taking home economics, typing, accounting and French. I’m sure there were others, but those are the ones that stick with me. I did like the accounting. A lot. But when it got into the higher levels, my mind started to wander. I knew it wasn’t for me. French, on the other hand, was fascinating because I was learning how to speak and write in a language that not everyone knew. A friend of mine and I loved writing letters back and forth to each other. It gave new meaning to “passing notes.” I stuck with French through 7th and 8th grades and liked it enough that I knew that I would continue with it into high school. Besides, we were always told that knowing another language would be “helpful” one day and make it easier for us to get a job.
High School Years
In high school, my interest in playing sports continued. At some point, I ended up choosing volleyball over tennis because both sports happened during the same season. I continued with French and my interest in it grew because we learned not only the language but about the French culture as well. My French teacher had a major influence on me. She was like a second mother. She talked to us about life and about our futures. She was the first teacher who really got me thinking seriously about my life beyond high school. As she taught us, she spoke to us as if we WOULD, not SHOULD, but WOULD be traveling to France and taught us as if preparing for that eventuality. She introduced us to a student exchange program and my family hosted two girls from France to come live with us. Each one came for a month. The exchange program told my family that since we had hosted two students that they would allow me to go on the same program to stay with the families of each of these same two girls, even though I wouldn’t be doing it until a year AFTER I had already graduated from high school. But I had a goal. It was the first of many goals to come.
After High School / Before Starting College
During my last year in high school I had gotten a part-time job. I worked at the Dairy Queen. It was a chance to get my feet wet in the world of work and earn a little money. Some of my friends were doing it, why not me? But my grades suffered and I started getting a D in at least one class. So, I quit. I got a lecture from the DQ owners the night I told them I had to quit due to my poor grades. They assured me that if I quit that I would always be a quitter. They said that anytime anything were ever to get too hard that I would just quit and that I would never turn out “to be anything.” As if their lecture wasn’t bad enough, I was even MORE TERRIFIED of what my labor-union-president-father would say. I was SURE that he would be furious with me for being a “quitter.” But, I was wrong. He was actually glad that I was no longer being taken advantage of by being given randomly changeable hours and often working until midnight on a school night. With the blessing of my dad to spur me on, I promised myself right then and there that I would PROVE those Dairy Queen owners WRONG. I would NOT be a quitter and I WOULD be SOMETHING.
By late spring of my senior year, my dad helped me get a job at a YMCA as a janitor for the women’s locker room. During the summer, they promoted me to working behind the front desk: selling memberships, making racquetball court reservations and handing out towels. I was now earning money and working toward that goal of going on the exchange program to France. As luck would have it, a full-time job starting in the fall was opening up. I was asked if I wanted it. My mother was opposed because she wanted me to start college classes at the local community college. But I wanted to go to France. In order to go, I needed more time to earn enough money. I was convinced that I could not only earn enough money to travel on the program to France, but also begin saving money for college. Mom was sure that as soon as I started earning money that I wouldn’t want to stop and wouldn’t GO to college at all. But I wouldn’t back down. Just like when the DQ owners told me what my future would be, I was now determined to prove my mother wrong, too.
So, I worked full-time for the year after high school. I saved my money. When the year was up, I quit the full-time job and went to France on the student exchange program. That experience changed my life forever. My whole world expanded. It was like I had entered a time machine that put me into a different world. To experience a language and a culture from the inside changes you. It just does. I had to learn what was expected of me in different social settings, in different families and in different regions of France. I stayed with one family in an area just outside of Paris for two weeks. I was taken all over the city of Paris for one week and then went on vacation for the second week with my family in the Normandy region near the English Channel. Then I was driven to the airport and flown to the south of France to stay in a town near Marseilles for two more weeks. This family drove with me down the French Rivera. I got to visit Monaco/Monte Carlo and see the Palace of Prince Rainier and learn about Princess Grace, the former American actress, and her untimely death. I got to swim (float buoyantly) in the salty Mediterranean Sea and sunbathe privately on the rocky ledge. I got to shop daily at the outdoor markets for food that the family prepared each day. I got to drink wine and eat cheese and feel very grown up.
Just like I promised my mother I would do, I enrolled at the local community college. I had no idea about what I wanted to study, but I knew that I needed to take certain kinds of basic classes that could transfer to a four-year school. So my first year, that is what I did. I took a full load of classes, worked part-time at the YMCA and continued to live at home….for a while. But eventually, I needed to spread my wings, so when an opportunity to rent a room in a house that belonged to someone I knew, I convinced my parents that not only could I learn to be responsible for myself, but I could also gain financial independence from them so that I could qualify for more financial aid. So I moved out.
While at the community college, I met many international students. We became friends. I helped them with learning English. They often asked me the meaning of words or to look over the papers they had written to give them pointers on their grammar and word choice. At the end of the first year, I had also been searching for a direction for myself. I found out about a two-year program called International Trade. It was a business program that would help me understand the ins and outs of import and export. After completing the program, I could either get a job in the field or I could go on to a four-year college and continue studying business. So I entered this program which took me two more years to complete, thereby spending three years at a two-year school. I enjoyed most of the classes and was excited about the possibility of being able to travel, use my French (although I knew it wasn’t good enough to do much yet) and one day make a comfortable living. But then, I took marketing and economics. It was mostly marketing’s fault that I didn’t pursue business. That class basically taught me that I would have to lie to be successful in the business world. NOT FOR ME!!!
So when I transferred to a small, private, liberal arts college the next fall (because of great financial aid), I was starting over again to figure out my direction. The one thing that kept coming back to me was my experience helping international students learn English. I kept remembering how they complimented me, telling me that I would make a great teacher someday. So I decided that I would figure out how to become an E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) teacher.
Initially, when I told my adviser about wanting to become an E.S.L. teacher, he, being an English professor, apparently didn’t know what that was. He counseled me to sign up for an English literature class that really wasn’t my “cup of soup.” I read the material and did the work, but I didn’t understand how this was going to prepare me to teacher English to those just learning it.
Ironically, at the very same time, I was a work-study student in the Education Department of this college. I was complaining to the secretary in the department one day about my English class, telling her how crazy it seemed for what it was I really wanted to do. She asked me some questions, like what age students did I want to teach. To teach college level students, I would need a master’s degree, she said. So then, thinking back to my previous experiences of working with kids, I said that I thought I’d like teaching elementary aged children. She told me I should become an elementary education major and that the professor I was working for in the Education Department should be my adviser! Sure enough, I spoke with him and made the switch.
From that point on, I was taking classes that made sense. I took Schooling in American Society. I took Philosophy of Education. I took methods classes and many others that I saw as directly related to preparing me for the kind of work I expected to do in the classroom. I also went on a program called “Urban Education.” This program was held in the city of Chicago. It provided me with the coursework I needed in order to learn what I needed to know to teach English learners. Upon completion of the coursework, I earned the endorsement needed for teaching.
In the fall of my senior year, I was ready to do my student teaching. As luck would have it, I returned to Chicago to do it. I was placed in a public school in Evanston. I was able to do a split student teaching experience during the time I was there. So I spent part of the day in a fourth grade classroom and part of the day in an E.S.L pull-out classroom. I had two fabulous cooperating teachers. The E.S.L. teacher in particular was invaluable in helping me develop the kind of confidence I needed for this work. I watched how she worked with her students. I watched how she created materials for them to learn. I learned from her work with the school’s drama teacher how to involve the students in using English in a non-threatening way. The work I did in the regular classroom setting was much harder for me. The personalities of those students were much more challenging. They tested me in ways that the E.S.L. students didn’t. I did my best and learned to reflect on the successes and the failures of my lessons and on my interactions with students.
I returned to my campus for the spring term to finish my senior year. While everyone else was creating resumes, going to job fairs and filling out employment applications, I was doing homework. I was not given good advice and had no idea that I should have been engaged in all of those activities as well. I was hardly aware that those things were even being done. But, I did keep in touch with the E.S.L. teacher with whom I had done my student teaching. She asked me if I would be interested in teaching summer school in her district. She also said that if that worked out that she and another teacher would provide me with a place to stay. I would house sit for the traveling teacher and I would exchange housekeeping duties for my room and board with her. So I taught summer school with her and another teacher in Evanston. I learned even more about collaborative planning and we had a wonderful time working with those children.
The Job Finds Me
Then, as luck would have it, this same E.S.L. teacher told me that she had flipped a coin and decided to switch schools for the following year. That meant that her position was now open in the same school, in the same classroom where I had done my student teaching! So I immediately applied for the job. But the answer didn’t come for quite some time. By law, they had to advertise the job. In the meantime, the E.S.L. teacher also told me that she had heard about another job opening and she gave me the number of a man who used to work in the Evanston district, but who was, at that time, a principal in Elmwood Park. Just based on the recommendation of my E.S.L. teacher, he told me that he would recommend me for the job in Elmwood Park, if I wanted it. He also told me that he understood that the job in Evanston was my first choice. So I told him that if Evanston turned me down, I would definitely go to work in his district. Luckily, with this other district ready and willing to sign me up and enough time having gone by, I was able to convince Evanston to make a hiring decision and they agreed to give me the job.
And that is how I came to be a lifelong teacher of English learners, in the same school, in the SAME classroom where I did my student teaching. I think it is apparent based on the many twists and turns in my history of becoming a teacher that it truly was my destiny. I used to giggle when the E.S.L. cooperating teacher used to tell me that I was “born with chalk in my fists.” But, I never forgot what she said. I have been told by many teaching colleagues, principals, parents and students that I am a wonderful teacher. Many even say that I have “a gift.”
Standardized Tests Proved Nothing About Teacher Quality For Me
But what I do know is this. I didn’t become a teacher by receiving high test scores. In fact, I was one of those students who typically didn’t do well on standardized tests. In fact, one year in high school, I purposely didn’t even try. I just filled in the bubbles. I was tired of taking those kinds of tests by that time. I just didn’t care. I HATED those tests. I HATED the way the test questions were worded and how the answer choices made my head spin. I never saw the results (what I missed) from them, so they mattered not one bit to me. I also had to take the ACT test. I did. I tried my best on that one, but when I got my score back, I knew it wouldn’t get me into college. Yet, I knew that I was a good student who got good grades in school based on classroom work, papers written and teacher-created assessments. So, I got into college with my grades by attending a community college, proving myself and getting excellent grades all through college. Was I ready for college? Why, yes. Yes, I was. And I have been a very effective teacher for 25 years based on seeing the results of my daily work with children as well as the successful, happy people so many of them have become as adults.
For the sake of our children, and for the future of our society, I hope many more wonderful teachers find their way into this necessary, marvelous profession. I plan to work hard to preserve it and to improve it from the INSIDE OUT!