I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but before I was a corporate trainer for travel agents, and before I was a travel agent, I was a high school English teacher. I graduated from university in 2012 and right after I was hired at the school where I did my student teaching. Which became a problem. Because before I was a high school teacher, and before I graduated from university, I was a high school student myself. And I was very, very good.
My high school has regularly ranked among the top in the nation in terms of academics from publications such as The Washington Post and Newsweek. I had to take a test, do an interview, and get letters of recommendation from my middle school teachers in order to attend. I enjoyed the rigor and the intense academic focus. I was always a very gifted student and regularly excelled in my classes. Because of this I don’t really have many memories in high school of having to study much, worrying about grades, or really struggling in class. I don’t say this to brag. I say it as a precursor to my experience as a teacher.
See I was hired at a school that regularly had academic and disciplinary issues. The school’s SAT and ACT scores, college acceptance rate, and graduation rate was one of the lowest in the county. I taught three classes of sophomores and two classes of juniors. Four of these were inclusive classrooms, which meant that with the assistance of a paraprofessional I had to teach, and modify lessons for, students with learning and behavioral problems. As a young teacher, fresh out of school and with a very unassuming demeanor, my students regularly and mistakenly tried to test their boundaries in class. I’ve had students threaten to fight me, some who straight got up and left in the middle of the day, and others who had…more inappropriate….intentions towards me. And during all of that I was still trying to explain to them the values and lessons of Shakespeare, Salinger, Hemingway, and Beckett.
Needless to say, the transition was rocky, if I could even say I ever did make the transition at all.
I left after my first year of teaching. I thought, given my academic background, I would be a suitable candidate for a teacher. I still do love literature and writing. I have not lost my passion for teaching and sharing knowledge with others. I have simply had to find another venue to channel my desire to teach outside of the classroom. I was a pretty sub-par travel agent but in my current role I am very proud to say I have become quite accomplished within the company as I tour the country and train my peers.
What I learned from my experience is that being a good student does not necessarily make you a good teacher. In fact, I would venture to say it may actually be an obstacle for a good educator to overcome.
See I came from a personal background of pressure for academic excellence. It was expected of me by my family and culture so wanting to excel was ingrained into me. It was then paired with a natural inclination towards accelerated learning and a voracious appetite for knowledge. Being placed in a magnet school that attracted only the top students of each local high school in the region also did not give me any sort of realistic expectation and image of the regular high school experience and student body.
I could not relate to the students I had. Perhaps if I was miraculously immediately hired by my own high school I would have fit in perfectly and still been in education. But not all schools are like mine. In fact most aren’t. Most have schools with students who have to balance personal and academic life. Most schools have to contend with issues like lack of funding (my high school had its own electron microscope) and a student body that lacks an internal drive for academic success. Therefore these schools need teachers who know how to reach beyond the subject matter. Relate to students on a personal level. Identify with family problems, social pressure, cultural identity. I was an Asian-American teacher in a primarily African-American and Hispanic school. These schools need teachers who know not just the material but how to get the students interested, excited, and invested in it as well. I never had to worry about that as a student because I personally already loved the material and I never really saw how a teacher could do that effectively because my teachers took advantage of and were very comfortable with the situation and the fact that they were teaching the top students in the area.
I had very little prior experience that could apply to the situation my students were in. Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching. And despite it all there were those brief shining moments where I truly loved what I was doing and felt a genuine connection with my students. But these are the very broad universal truths we all share. When you do a Holocaust literature unit you know you can relate to feelings of loss, isolation, paranoia, fear, hate, anger, etc. When you do Frederick Douglas or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a primarily black school that’s just dialing it in but you know you’ll be able to elicit personal response and interest. Beyond that I could not do what some of my colleagues were doing, and in a school that desperately needed it, these were some of the best teachers I have ever met who possessed that skill. Ultimately I knew that to stay any longer in this school I may end up hating either the profession or the students, and it would be a disservice to both if that would happen. Being a teacher is not like many other professions. You cannot quit in the middle of the year. You cannot allow yourself to be comfortable with mediocrity. A bad chef makes a bad dish. A bad teacher can make a bad person.
I don’t think I’m saying, or would say, I was a bad teacher. I believe I still do have very important messages and lessons to share with others. I believe I have the ability and the skill to portray my teachings in relatable ways. I just don’t think I had that then, nor did I understand why it was so important. Even now I do not think I can relate to what students are going through anymore. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a student in this world. But I can understand what it is like to be alone, so I write about loneliness. I can relate to love and being loved and wanting to love another, so I write about relationships. I feel for the pressures of dealing with the public and the difficulty of managing expectations of clients and the company so I can teach in an accessibly way to travel agents. I can speak to what I know, and though I may not know much what I do know, I know deeply and personally and wholly.
People should never lose their propensity and their desire for learning and education. And though we may not be the best teachers in all aspects, I do also believe we all have some lessons we can share with the world.