I ended our first full week of school by writing, and reading aloud, a letter to my students. There’s so much more to say, but it’s a start. This weekend, they write back. 🙂
August 31, 2018
Dear 10th graders,
One question that I often get from students is why I decided to become a teacher. I’m not sure, but I think kids ask this question because maybe you’re at a place in your life where you’re starting to wonder what you’ll do with your own, what college you’ll go to and what you might want to study. And maybe even if you have no plans to become a teacher, maybe when students ask, it’s because they’re curious about what goes into making a decision like that. Why do people choose what they choose? How do people end up as teachers, accountants, doctors, business people, sales workers?
My answer to the question is complicated. The truth is, I never thought I’d be a teacher. Growing up, I was intensely quiet and shy. When I was in kindergarten, I remember days that I would refuse to go to school and my mom had to drag me there. Later, and throughout school, I was the type of student who could go an entire year without saying a single word in class. I would have been horrified to have a teacher call on me and I rarely, if ever, volunteered to speak. That said, I was always engaged in class, and I loved listening to what other people had to say — but I could never get my own words out right. So I made up for not speaking in class by doing all my work and making sure that my writing could convey in words what I couldn’t in speech.
Things changed when I got to college, mostly because I forced myself to change. Being away from home for the first time was one of the most terrifying experiences I’d had. Learning to navigate new friendships, including the stranger who became my roommate, figuring out how to manage my own finances and find help when I needed — all these things forced me to be a little more independent, confident. And because I knew how hard it was for me to speak up in class, I made a rule for myself: no matter how difficult, I was going to ask or answer a question within the first week of any class I was in. I realized that the longer I went without speaking, the harder it became to speak. I also sat close to the front so I couldn’t disappear. I had to be deliberate and intentional about making myself change. Sometimes my questions would be something simple, like when an assignment was due. But eventually these easy questions made asking the harder ones a little more manageable.
And now, many years later, I stand in front of a room full of teenagers and talk all day. If you told my high school self that this is where I’d end up, I would have never believed you.
But I think the real reason I became a teacher is because I wanted to do something with my life that mattered.
My first career choice was to be a doctor, and that’s what I had told my family and friends my entire life. I wanted to be a doctor because I thought it was the best thing I could be — the thing that would make my parents most proud. Because my parents emigrated here from the Philippines and made many sacrifices for me and my brother, I thought that being a doctor was a way to show them that their sacrifices were worth it because their daughter had “made” it. But in college I quickly realized that I didn’t actually like science very much.
Soon I took a few classes in psychology and I became fascinated with the way the mind works and why we think the way we do. I got involved in some student groups and loved the energy of working with others. I read about the history of public schooling in the U. S. for a class I was taking and then everything eventually clicked. I realized that one of the most powerful ways we can perhaps change society is through schools — it’s in school that we develop different ways of thinking. It’s through school we’re introduced to different types of people, places, historical time periods, philosophies. When it’s working at its best, school doesn’t just prepare kids for the world; it prepares kids to change it. That’s work that I wanted to do. And because English was my favorite subject — and I have always believed in the power of reading and writing — I became an English teacher.
Now, going into my 18th year of teaching, I’m not sure how much impact I’ve had. One of my biggest pet peeves are those inspirational, cliched movies about teachers who change kids lives. I’m not in this to change your life; if anything, I think I’m here to help you find ways to change your own. And my hope is that by reading stories, that we can build a better understanding about ourselves and others, that we can discuss ideas that make us think more deeply about who we are and what we believe. When someone disagrees with us, when we’re surprised by what someone else says, it helps us better understand what we believe, who we are.
When I’m not teaching, I’m spending time with my family. I have three boys: one going into 8th grade, another into 6th grade, and the youngest, going into 3rd grade. As they grow up, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to spend family time together because, like all of you, they will soon be out of the house and in the world. So while I love teaching, I have been making a more focused effort in recent years to have a better work-life balance so that I can spend time with my kids, my husband, and my parents, who are getting older each day, which reminds me that our time, too, is limited. With this in mind, I invite you, too, to think about your own relationships with your family and how you might make the most of your time with those you love. School and work are important, no doubt, but I really believe that the real meaning of life comes down to the people we choose to spend our time with.
Perhaps one last thing you should know about me is that over the next year, I’m also trying to write a book about teaching. I think I’ve learned a few things over the years that might be able to help other teachers, so if you have advice or insight you’d like to share — or would like to make an appearance in the book — I’d be more than happy to hear what you think.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to our time together this year. Even if English isn’t your favorite subject, I hope that over the next 180 days we can talk about things that matter, that we can approach every class with an open mind and just ask ourselves, what can we learn today? And if you take nothing else from this letter, remember this: I am someone here to help. I see you, I care, and if there’s anything I can do to help, my door is open.