In 2008, my colleagues picked me as teacher of the year for our campus. Upon being selected, my principal handed me a packet to complete. Seems you have to write a short essay about your path to teaching, teachers who inspired you, professional accomplishments and some biography so the board can pick the district teacher of the year. This is a slightly redacted version of what I wrote back in 2008. I found it while cleaning up my work computer and doing some start of the year organizing. Call it a summer rerun.
I became a teacher twice. In the process, I learned that sometimes you have to leave a thing to see how much you love it.
When I was in college too many people told me I would be a good teacher. Told me I should be a teacher. Yeah, right, I thought. That’s nuts. Teaching was in the family, but I was going to work on film sets and maybe even be a director. A funny thing happened on the way to the director’s chair, though.
I learned that film work in Austin is sporadic at best. Hard up for cash between gigs, I took to substitute teaching. It took a little while to admit it, but eventually I realized I liked being in the classroom more than on film sets. Though I was “just subbing,” the work felt meaningful. I was a little jealous of the teachers with whom I worked; what they were doing was important. It wasn’t long before subbing mattered more to me than working on TV shows and movies I wouldn’t even have watched had I not been involved with making them.
While subbing, I thought a lot about the teachers who impacted me most. In second grade, Mrs. G. shared her love for Hawaii with us. That summer we moved to the Philippines and had a three-day layover in Honolulu. I knew the whole island and probably could have gone into business conducting tours. There was Mr. R. of 9th grade Modern European History who shouted and raved, gloriously reliving the great battles and upheavals that molded Europe. On day one of 12th Grade AP English, Mr. C. informed us that he only read and taught books with lots of sex or violence. We read Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Invisible Man. I became a reader. The one thing all these teachers shared was passion. They loved their subjects, and they wanted their students to love them as much as they did. They were having fun too.
After graduate school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could restart my freelance film career, or I could try going all in on the teaching thing. Maybe my college friends weren’t so crazy. I enrolled in an alternative certification program in ‘99. That first year teaching middle school was grueling, but I survived. I taught 7th grade English for a second year and then switched to high school where I taught 10th and 11th grade English while building a winning debate program. Each year, though, I had less fun. It grew more aggravating. The grass looked greener in the business world and in 2005, I decided I had done my part and paid my debt to society. It was time to go corporate and cash in.
That lasted almost one semester. I missed teaching. I missed the kids. I missed talking about books and analyzing poems. I missed the way autumn looks from inside a classroom and feels when you walk out at the end of the day. I missed the way spring brings everyone alive. I missed the rhythm of the school year, and most importantly, I missed doing work that I believe matters and makes the world a better place.
Only slightly annoyed by the self-applied pressure of my social conscience, I applied to be the GED instructor at a juvenile correctional facility in January 2006. I wasn’t sure how it would go there, but I learned that I really like teaching these kids. Someone has to.
The contributions and accomplishments in education of which I am the most proud are the ordinary days here at my school teaching a 100% “at-risk” population. Whether it’s helping seventeen-year-old freshmen earn their GEDs so they can start fresh in their lives or just, as my former principal said, “welcoming kids back to the community of learners,” on a daily basis, I get to help kids find their way back to the thrill of learning, the truth of a well told story, the beauty of a poem, a sense of wonder at the world around them.
That first day back in the classroom, I knew I had come home. I had become a teacher for the second and last time.