My first and most important job is to encourage learning. This only happens when students see me as a learner. This only occurs when I celebrate their uniqueness and join them in the process of learning. Writing with students can be intimidating, but the vulnerability they watch me have, helps them be open to sharing their voice with the class.
Each year, my AP Language and Composition students end 1st semester by writing and sharing an NPR inspired “This I Believe” essay. I always write one and share with my students. This is my 2015 essay, and it explains how we celebrate uniqueness.
A Walk Down The Aisle: Always Watch The Groom, Not The Bride
Dan-dan-da-dan Da-dan-dan…the congregation stands, and most of them turn toward the bride to watch her grand entrance, but for as long as I can remember, I watch the groom and the crowd. Sure, there is a lovely moment of groom seeing bride for the first time, but there is also a second of intimacy connecting the crowd to the couple and this is the moment I adore. The gathered crowd, united in a solitary purpose. Everyone smiling, nodding in empathetic understanding for these two people. I love that moment.
Often times, I am asked what I do for a living. When I say I teach high school English, many people groan or roll their eyes and complain about it being the hardest or most boring class they had. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the joy in watching the congregation of students begin the year as acquaintances and end the year in a beautiful union of friendship and support. Perhaps I need to rename what I do. It isn’t just teaching. It’s mentoring, helping, lecturing, hugging, challenging, and supporting the people who are going to make a difference in this world; the people who are going to challenge the way my great grandchildren think. However, if you’re not a teacher, it’s hard to understand the je ne sais quoi of my profession. I recently asked my teenage students to tell me what they believe. One might think this is easy for a teenager to do, but surprisingly, they struggle. When I think of what I would have answered while in high school, I have no doubt that it would have been about believing in the perfect color of lipstick (Covergirl Cranberry Wine) or believing I was going to marry my boyfriend (I didn’t) or thinking my two best friends were going to be my best friends forever (they aren’t). But my students are wise beyond their years. They have a story to tell and it is my job to lead the congregation and help them discover the voice to tell their unique story.
I stand in front of my students, every day, for 175 days per year. Often, I see my students more than they see their own families. As a teacher, some days are better than others. Most days my ducks are totally in a row and I am feeling it. But sometimes, I have an off day and at least one of my ducks is off course. It takes an assignment like This I Believe Essays to make me realize exactly what my job means. Last week, I listened to the congregation of students narrate their beliefs in beautiful voices. I heard about passions like lifting weights, anime, corgis, sports, the internet, vaccine research, the future of antibiotics, and the power of imagination. I was amazed at the ability of my students to accurately explain how their passions manifest in their lives. They created metaphors comparing death to fishing and the decline of Christmas spirit to teenage angst. A teenage tale of friendship with broken people seeped into my heart and stayed there for a while.
Listening to students find their voice and the confidence to tell their story is awesome. But, these stories, their voice, aren’t the reason that I assign this essay, or the reason that I’m a teacher. Rather than intently watching the speaker, I most often watch the groom, or in my case, the other students. It’s in the moments of watching the speaker’s peers react to the stories of heartache, triumph, redemption, love, and courage, that the congregation of acquaintances becomes united learners. Watching my students listen to the speaker/writer is similar to watching the groom and the people gathered to support him. There is an instant when a student realizes that their peer, who may be a stranger, speaks their language. A moment when students learn empathy from a classmate that they didn’t think they had anything in common with. A split second when teenagers realize the pain and heaviness some of their classmates carry in their hearts. These moments materialize in the wiping of a tear, a nodding of a head, a hug, or even a simple handshake-or fist bump-of solidarity. Language, literature, writing…they bring us together. They encourage us to have compassion, empathy, and love. And love, above all other things, is the reason I am a teacher.