Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What Makes a Teacher?

An avid reader knows that reading the last line of a book or any literary piece can cause an array of emotions—satisfaction: knowledge of resolution; trepidation: fearing, but yet excited for the conclusion of the story; jubilation: for sticking it out and not abandoning it when it took a weird turn; or contemplation: reflecting on particular plot points or the piece's meaning. Whatever the emotion evoked, there is something about the last word of a written work. A few years ago, I read the editorial, "What Makes A Great Teacher?" in an EdWeek E-Newsletter. Soon after I began crafting a reply to the article. Until now, the response has been left unfinished for several reasonsmainly because I wasn't ready. I needed more time to digest the piece. I needed more time for my thoughts to percolate. I needed more time to be inspired by individuals whose paths I would cross at a later date. I needed more time to ripen emotionally to read certain books I wasn't ready to read at the time. I needed more time to experience things I had yet to experience. Also, during this time of mental processing, I read Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo detailing her years with Teach for America; in addition to her time with Patrick, a former student she taught while in Arkansas. After five years of churning in my brain, here follows my long-time-coming response.

I believe we are all teachers in some capacity, whether a traditional instructor, mentor, parent, sibling, or friend. We all learn from each other, young and old alike. What we decide to do with the power to teach makes the difference. In March 2003, amidst a stadium filled with a host of families, friends, students, and supporters, I walked across the stage and received my Bachelor's of Science Degree in Law and Legal Assistance. After four and a half years of undergraduate study, I was cast out upon the world preparing for a successful legal career. Three years, two attempts, and ten law school rejections later, I was at a crossroads. I wanted to go back to school, but I refused to compromise. I rejected the notion of wracking up more student loan debt for a graduate degree I didn't want. 

One morning a friend and I were discussing career choices. Our career aspirations upon entering college were penned in the legal profession; however neither of us became the lawyers we thought we would become. She became a librarian and encouraged me to go into teaching because she knew I would make a great teacher. She and I shared conflicting opinions. I felt that I didn't know anything to teach, but she recognized that I did. Little did I know that teaching was already a part of me. I just wasn't conscious of it yet. Many times we take for granted and overlook the things that come natural to us. For me that thing is teaching. 

Eventually, I conceded to split my sought-after joint JD/MPA degree into two separate degrees at two different institutions. Off to school I returned in January 2007. As it turned out, the Public Administration program was not a good fit for me. Shortly before beginning graduate school, I founded a teen literacy non-profit organization. Naturally I gravitated to the School of Education once I recovered from my previous graduate school exploits and began pursing Initial Certification in Secondary English Education a year later. While working on certification, I waited tables overnight. Between classes and work, my schedule left zero flexibility to volunteer with youth, so I took advantage of what was available to me. I sought to enlighten the impressionable minds of the teens who frequented the restaurant, as well as, my fellow young adult coworkers. One Friday night in 2012, the store manager shared with my coworker Eric* and me something she had recently read about fallen angels, which opened the door for me to book talk Heather Burch's young adult novel, Halflings. Piquing Eric's interest, I brought the book with me to work the following night. Once I produced Halflings, the 22-year old, sophomore college student, who aspired to a veterinary science career, admitted that he doesn't read because he has difficulty pronouncing many of the words. In order to cover his struggling reading, he formed a dislike of it. To maintain his interest, I volunteered to read the book aloud. As I read, I noticed his engagement in the story, however there were several words like "valor" and others that were unfamiliar to him that shouldn't have been the case. Although an influx of customers interrupted our reading, I was intent on working with Eric. Not long after the end of our shift, I texted Eric offering to help him with his reading. In response, he thanked me and said that he might just take me up on it.

I surprised and gifted Mandy 
with a copy. (circa Sept. 2014)
I later moved on from waiting tables to work at a church with their Student Ministry. Never one to be without a good read, every week the students saw me with a book whether I was reading it or not. One particular Wednesday night, I was reading The Lean Start-up by Eric Ries. While I read, Mandy* hastily remarked, "Ms. Stephanie, I don't like to read. All those books they make us read in school are boring. Besides the Outsiders, I haven't liked another book. Whenever somebody tells me about a book, I flip to the middle and read a page and then to the end. But I do like the Bluford Series. This might sound racist, but I'm Black, and I want to read about somebody that is Black." I immediately followed, "There is absolutely nothing racist about that. You want to read about somebody that looks like you. There's nothing wrong with that at all." I began book talking Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Lester Steinau, which I thought she might like. At this time, I was unfamiliar with the We Need Diverse Books Movement which had began a few months prior to this encounter. The following Wednesday, she eagerly shared with me that she was reading another Bluford book, Until We Meet Again, while she excitedly waved it in my face. 

Fast forward two years to a conversation with one, of my then, 10-year old nieces, Amia

"Stephanie, you buying a book?"
"No, I'm just looking."
"Stephanie, you like books a lot?"
"Do you like books?"
"I'm starting to like books."

My cousin doing some late 
night reading.(circa June 2016)
A couple of weeks later, I received the following text and picture from my cousin regarding a book I gifted her. "I kno it's late but thanks I love my book its helping me already."

So I ask you, "What makes a great teacher?"

Is it the love of children?
Or could it be the passion to share knowledge?
Must one be a lifetime learner?
Does one have to spring from a line of educators?
Wait, hold up, what say of a newly minted education degree?
Does certification make you a teacher or is it simply the state validating you? 

I've completed all of the state professional tests toward certification in my subject; however I had to suspend my education due to financial constraints. Am I less of a teacher because I have yet to complete a teacher certification program? No. My teaching space is neither a classroom, a soccer field, nor one confined area. I'm not a teacher of the public school system or any school system; rather I'm a teacher of the community. I do plan to finish and attain my certification wrapped up in a pretty Master's degree designation, but for now, my teaching quarters are wherever I may be for I am a teacher no matter my environment. 

While in the MPA program several years ago, I wrote a paper entitled, "Teacher vs. Effective Highly Qualified Teacher." This was in 2007, during the thick of the No Child Left Behind Law. The paper concluded with my definition of an effective highly qualified teacher. 
A student's achievement is not only a measure of quantifiable grades, but it is also a mixture of knowledge, respect for learning, and the readiness of that student to transition into the next phase of life. I believe that an effective teacher is passionate about teaching, able to competently convey the subject matter, never quenches their thirst for knowledge, while simultaneously caring for students and maximizing each student’s potential—exactly the teacher I strive to be. 
Whether a member of my organization or a tutee, I'm extremely fortunate to be able to challenge the mindsets of youth and be one among their many guides along their life's journey of uncovering purpose. I still have a lot to learn, but I openly dedicate my talents and gifts to changing lives for the better. I AM A TEACHER!

A paper snowflake a student made for me
while substitute teaching. (circa Jan. 2015)

I'm proud and honored to call two of the greatest teachers I know, Dad and Sister. Thank you to all who choose to use their teaching gifts to teach regardless if it's in a traditional classroom, juvenile detention center, children's home, prison, or in the community. 

What do you believe makes a teacher? 

*name changed to protect identity

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