Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Discovering the Great Teacher Within

I've always believed that regret was a useless emotion. Not the type of regret that comes from remorse for doing something wrong, but the type of regret that people feel as they get older and look back on their life and wonder if they made the right decision. In my opinion, the best way to live life is to be confident that the choices you made were the right ones at the time and to dwell in the realm of what might of been is not only foolish but dangerous. Although I tried to live my life by this creed, there was always one area where I did wonder if my life would be better had I made different choices.

When I was a senior in high school I was accepted to Trenton State College (which is now the The College of New Jersey) to purse an undergraduate degree in education. Trenton State was a good school and I was excited to get accepted. My acceptance did come with some conditions. I was admitted in to an Equal Opportunity program for first generation minority college students. In addition to tuition assistance I was required to attend an 8 week summer program prior to the start of my freshmen year. At the last minute I decided that I would rather hang out with my friends then go to the summer program so I turned down my full ride to Trenton State. As a result of this decision I ended up taking 7 years to get my undergraduate degree. I spent time at two community colleges and worked in numerous restaurants before finally getting my BS in early childhood education. I was 25 by the time I graduated and started my first year of teaching.

One year later I was in graduate school full time. I applied during my senior year of undergrad and deferred for one year so I could get some teaching experience. Turns out I didn't like teaching kindergarten as much as I thought I would so going to graduate school was a relief. As I spent time in graduate school I began to worry that my lack of teaching experience wasn't a good thing for someone in the field of education. Especially when most people in the field quantify their experience by stating proudly how many years they have been or were a teacher. I did my best to not let it bother me because there was no point in regretting my decisions but as I get older it has become more and more difficult.

Recently I connected with some high school friends and when discussing what they've been up to, one was quick to point out how many years he worked as a public school teacher. This time I couldn't shake the feeling of regret lingering in me. I began to doubt all that I've accomplished in my life. I haven't finished my dissertation so I'm still technically in graduate school and after getting my undergraduate degree I only have one year of teaching experience... what's there to be proud of? I knew why I did not have years of teaching experience to brag about to old friends. My decision to blow off Trenton State resulted in me taking 7 years to get my undergraduate degree instead of 4. Had I went to Trenton State and done well, I would have graduated in 1999 and would have likely taught in a public school for 4 years before going to graduate school (assuming that I would have still went in 2004). But I didn't. And during those 7 years of working and going to school off and on I gained life experience but not career experience (except for waitressing).

The more I thought about it the more I realized the reason I don't have more then one year of public school teaching experience is because I didn't like being a public school teacher. Had I loved my job I would of looked for a teaching job in Indiana and went to graduate school part-time. But I made the choice to go full time because it only took one year for me to realize that teaching in pubic school was not for me. I used to tell people that the loneliness of being a teacher is what killed the dream for me but now I realize it was more then just feeling like no one understood what I did every day. What I hated about being a teacher was the expectations of what a teacher was supposed to do. As a teacher I was expected to control the behavior of 23, 5-6 years old all day long. They needed to be quiet in the hallway, calm in the lunch room, and attentive in the classroom. This is what I was evaluated on and needless to say I failed miserably. My kids were the loudest in the hallway and exploded in the lunch room (after drinking all that sugar and eating all that processed food). In the classroom I did a little better but not much. They could be attentive at times but usually they got so excited they couldn't sit still or wait for me to call on them or keep their hands to themselves. I did my best to keep them engaged but I was not good at controlling their behavior or getting them to behave the way everyone else expected. I tried implementing reward systems (which I didn't believe in), I tried yelling, I tired begging, I tried everything but nothing worked. By the end of the year I was fed up and thrilled to be returning to college and escaping the world of behavior management. So I decided to pursue graduate school full time and focus on the things I did liked about education like research and advocacy.

And then I discovered that I am a good teacher. I am a great teacher when my students are older and know how to manage their own behavior. You see in the college classroom I only had to control my students behaviors for 3 hours a week instead of 7 hours a day. With college students I was free to teach and not worry about their noise level in the hallway or their behavior in the lunch room. And when I was free to teach, I did it well. I know this because my students tell me all the time. Not just the ones who like to suck up to their teacher but all types of students. Those who struggle, those who excel, and those in between. I have a gift and a passion for teaching that comes through when I am expected to teach.

So do I regret my decision to blow off Trenton State for I don't. I made the right decision for me at the time. Do I regret my decision to not continue teaching full time while I was in graduate I don't. I don't know what would of happened if I continued teaching in public schools, but I do know that my passion for teaching comes from discovering that I was good at it, and that didn't happen in the public school.

So the next time someone tells me that they've been a teacher for X number of years, I won't feel any regret. I taught kindergarten for one year but I've been a successful college teacher for the past 6 and that's something to be proud of.