Ode to Teaching

Ode to Teaching

At the end of a school year –and this particular teaching gig—it seems right to reflect back on my late choice of career.

I was so pleased to receive a teaching job in Turkey. My credentials included just a measly adjunct semester teaching freshman English at a small St. Paul college. In 2010, at age 56, I signed my first teaching contract. I would be working full time, trying to nudge nineteen-year-olds toward English proficiency.

The job was demanding and the students restless and unmotivated. Eager to start college courses in business or engineering, they had to stop for a year or more to bring their English up to speed, and they weren’t happy about that.

For most of my students, university English “prep” was their first experience away from their home. Like seemingly all Turks, they had good social skills and preferred the company of others to solitary study. So they used class time to establish friendships and make weekend plans. Listen to the teacher? Only occasionally. Stop talking when she started the lesson? Rarely. I learned that I needed to establish a connection with each student individually, so they knew I cared. Only then would they muster a semblance of good behavior. Suffice to say my first year of teaching was a trial by fire.

Returning to the U.S., I faced a different kind of student: the immigrant. In a unique and generous program run by the Ronald Hubbs Center, my class was filled with parents of preschoolers, mostly women. English represented money to them: something better than the silent jobs they had cleaning floors at nursing homes or packing airline kits. Some came to my class straight from the night shift. They always thanked me.

In teaching, I not only found a vocation, I found my tribe. Teachers are helpful and encouraging. They want others to succeed, sometimes beyond realistic odds. They spend their time encouraging others: the job often brings out their best. No matter what was bothering me before I walked into the classroom, presenting a lesson was both a distraction and a tonic: I left the classroom with cheer—and a fresh perspective.

I was surprised to learn that Teachers Appreciation Week was May 8 – 12. I completely missed it, and I wonder how many others in my tribe did so as well.

There is a solitary aspect to being a teacher. Waking up, sometimes in the middle of the night, with a new idea about how to convey a point. Walking into the building alone in the early morning, carrying a tote heavy with lessons. There is also a performance aspect to teaching, and this is enhanced when teaching immigrants: the teacher represents an entire country for her students.

I liked standing in front of students. I liked trying harder and harder to produce a perfect lesson. There was always the chance to try again; I would be a better teacher tomorrow.

Like all autumn love affairs, there isn’t enough time. I won’t have a long career in what I was put on this earth to do. For a latecomer like me, regrets were a permanent part of my job.

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