Today I taught a group of enthusiastic adults who want to write true stories about themselves and their families. Nothing brings me more joy than hearing their stories and seeing the faces of those who, after reading, brighten to the response of the other students. I can’t help thinking how different this experience is from teaching children. Could it be that I was meant to teach adults all along? Just as my birthplace seems to have been a mistake, so was my choice of vocation.
Teaching adults to write is fun, rewarding and fulfilling and the responsibility level is low. If no one in my class today ever writes a book that sells more than 100 copies, I will feel no remorse. I encourage my students to continue to take classes, to keep writing, and to believe in themselves.
What I teach students in my class is not going to make a difference in the kind of life each one lives. Nothing is on the line but my reputation as a teacher. If I am a failure at this place and time, I can handle it. I won’t stay awake at night and wonder if I have done my best and if so, why can’t I teach a child to read? Why must I hold back a student? What can I do to make a difference?
Teaching was not my chosen profession, but I majored in education because it was one of the few professions open to women when I was making a choice for my future. Also, my older sister and my family seemed to think I was supposed to be a teacher because I loved children and was “good” with kids.
At the age of 18 I had no idea what I would like to do as a profession for the rest of my life. I wonder how many teenagers do know what they want to do. As my nephew recently said, most people change their major two or three times before they graduate.
I did not. Just as my life’s blue print instructed, I received my degree and worked hard to help children learn what was considered important by “the powers that be.”
I moaned and carried on to my husband, crying about how helpless I was to really teach my students in a way I felt they would and could learn to read, understand problem solving, and increase their knowledge while in fourth grade. Like many teachers, my hands were tied by administrative decisions. When I asked my principal for first grade text books for some students who could not read on a fourth grade level, my request was refused. “They have to read fourth grade text books.”
As a young teacher struggling to educate children who had been passed on although they could not read even at a second grade level, the frustration of my principal’s statement stymied my enthusiasm for my job. One of my saddest moments occurred when I had to tell Martin, a sweet but hopeless student, that he had to repeat fourth grade. He could not read his social studies lessons, nor read his math problems, his spelling words, and because of this I did not know how to help him learn. His little face haunts me to this day. I don’t think Martin failed fourth grade, but I and the school system failed Martin.
I carried that responsibility as a personal burden because my job was to teach the Martins in my class but I didn’t know how to overcome that huge block in my path – my ignorance -- because I had not been prepared for teaching fourth grade students who could not read.