Jim Giardina and other veteran teachers told me to calm down or I wouldn’t make it. Make it to five years, they said, and teaching would all “come together.”
I don’t know about that. But I am pretty sure that nobody teaches high school for 33 years who doesn’t love the kids.
Laheqa and Mohamed
I can’t even count the number of different countries of birth represented by the students I taught. There were religious holidays I’d never heard of and first names I never learned to pronounce properly. Some immigrant students had the English skills of a kindergartener, others were at the top of our class. The only Muslims I’ve ever known personally I met while teaching.
A recent UCSD graduate in international studies, and the first of her family to go to college, Laheqa Suljuki has just applied to optometry school. We bumped into each other by accident when Laheqa fit my glasses at LensCrafters. “Is it really you?” Laheqa asked, as we sat face to face. Looking past the womanly hijab she now wears, I recognized the face of the girl I had taught (and worried about when she fasted for Ramadan) seven years ago.
Now we stay in touch by email, sometimes chatting about the same books. We both loved The Kite Runner, a novel about Laheqa’s native Afghanistan, which she never knew because she was so young when her family fled the Soviet occupation. I was honored to help with the application essays she needed for optometry school.
Somalia-born Mohamed Sufi had a harder time with school. He was truant. When he did show up, he worked hard and often stayed late, demanding he be taught on his time, not mine. But like me, Mohamed’s brashness belied his fear of failing.
The summer after he left our tenth-grade class, Mohamed emailed: “Ms. fin, I want to be a writer, if you dont mind if you could still be my tearcher and teach me how to be a writer.” A month later, he changed his tune and lambasted me for having given him a final “D” for my class: “if a student failes, its the teacher’s fult because the teacher didn’t do their job.”
Five years later, Mohamed is in college: “I have changed my mind of being a writer because I love math and I am good at it.” He maintained a 4.0 at Southwestern College and has since transferred to Miramar with plans to finish at SDSU with a major in mechanical engineering. His motto is Don’t work hard, work smart, picked up from one of his college instructors. Mohamed’s success (and the improved English in his emails) makes my heart sing.
Mr. Newton and Ms. Youmans
Ed Newton retired last year after 35 years of teaching political science. Adored and revered by his students, Newton was presented with a new G&S longboard by his last class at La Jolla High School. He has a box of thank-you notes (thank-you notes!), all echoing the same sentiments: “Your class set off a spark in me” or “If, in my life I could ever affect people the way you do, I would consider myself a success.”
About his students Newton says, “It was a privilege to be around them. They enriched my life in ways beyond knowing. I think they sensed that about my feelings for them.”
My students didn’t have to sense my feelings for them. I made things pretty clear. I once jumped on a table and yelled down at them. Another time I tripped a problem student as he left class, sending him sprawling in front of the incoming class, who of course jeered and laughed. Sarcasm was something none of my students had mastered yet; I used mine like a taser.
The first year was my worst. That’s the year I taught tenth-grade English language learners and The Catcher in the Rye to high school juniors, many of whom read at a fourth-grade level. Our classroom was a pre-WWII, rat-infested, lead-painted, asbestos-coated bungalow under the landing flight path at Lindbergh Field. (I was not above telling students that our classroom represented what the school district thought of us, as opposed to, say, the students and teachers at La Jolla High, from which my son had graduated.)
One afternoon, a fellow teacher I didn’t know came to call. Tom Jackson introduced himself, then handed me a book. A gift, he said, that he thought I could use. I figured he’d heard about the table-jumping and student-tripping through campus gossip.
“I’m okay,” I said. “I’m doing better.” (I’d turned myself in and gotten in pretty big trouble.)
“Read it,” Jackson said. I did.
It wasn’t like any book they’d had us read at teacher school. The Courage to Teach assumes that people who go into teaching want to teach and love their subject matter. Therefore, it offers only one recipe for teaching success: living a full, rich life outside of teaching. Sort of like filling yourself up so you have something real and honest to give. (For example: an English teacher needs to read for her own pleasure — not just the juvenile novels and course materials she has to teach. That totally nailed me.) The book’s simple premise is that good teaching has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with the “identity and integrity” of the individual teacher.
This may sound like a no-brainer.
But to the new teacher bombarded with super-teacher classroom tricks, educational buzzwords, constant observation and justification, weeks of governmental student-testing, and the threat (and insult) of carrot-leading-the-donkey merit pay, as if we were salespeople at a used car lot, it was a revelation.
(This spring I followed with interest, via VoiceofSanDiego.com, what was happening at Keiller Leadership Academy, where teachers were trying to sever a partnership with the education department at University of San Diego, saying the university’s involvement, observations, and research in their classes was “interfering with their teaching.” Umm…)
I wish I could say that The Courage to Teach saved my teaching career, but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as my grandmother used to say. Teaching with identity and integrity took more courage than I will ever have. But I did pass the book along to another teacher in crisis (who is still teaching), with instructions that she pass it along to the next teacher in need.