Isn’t it so easy to dismiss potential joys and fulfillment by caving to fear? It’s scary to look inside. It’s terrifying to imagine that I might not be who I though I was (or having never really thought about who I am in the first place). I have self-identified as so many personas; I believed these surface level labels I chose for myself to be all there is to me.
All of these and more make up the “me” I see in the mirror, but I have ignored most of all that I am a teacher. Until fairly recently (for close to 30 years now – since I started wondering who I am in the first place), not only did I ignore that I am a teacher, but I actively rallied against it internally; all the while helping, guiding, and supporting friends and strangers… you know – teaching!
In high school I was an exchange student. I went to West Germany for a year (back in the olden days, before the wall came down) having only studied German for a year (why Germany and not somewhere else is another story altogether!) and when I returned , I was a fluent German Speaker. In fact, my very first J.O.B. other than restaurant work was teaching German to executives from the auto industry whose families were being relocated for work. I was 18 years old, teaching professional, degreed engineers and managers of divisions and their families to prepare for a new life that I, barely an adult myself, had lived and succeeded in doing already. When I think back on that, I am pretty impressed with myself. At the time I was riding high on accomplishment, and knew I had something to offer the world. Even then, though, that little sh*tty voice in my head would tell me “You don’t know enough of anything to teach other people” or “Why would they listen to you? You’re just a kid.” I went away to College (made a poor choice at that) and promptly ran out of courses that interested me. There was ONE German course I hadn’t tested out of placement, and after that, I would basically have had a 4-year Independent Study if I wanted to continue at that school. I changed to a French Major, studying economics as well. I was there on a music scholarship (did you even know I’m a singer?) and so continued those lessons. When I ran out of French courses to take, I switched to Japanese. Aced it. Boring.
Eventually, somewhere deep inside, I realized I could teach many of the courses I was taking, considering all the tutoring I did to help pay my tuition. When working two jobs ever school break and full-time during the school year still couldn’t cover my expenses – even with student loans and financial aid, I figured it wasn’t worth my effort to finish College and quit school. I moved to California to become a singer in a rock band. (Again, an entire story in itself.) But, because I had quit school, I was now a “quitter” a loser, a slacker….pick your epithet….and those beliefs took over. When I ended up living in my car, and couldn’t survive L.A. emotionally, I came crawling back home under the condition that I was to finish school. After a few false starts at community college, I ended up at a local University – Wayne State in Detroit – and found my academic dream job after just a couple German classes. I was asked to become a research assistant for a Distinguished Professor of German in the German and Slavic Languages Department. Making 5 dollars an hour, I prepared course packs (again – literal cutting and pasting paper to other paper to photocopy) according to syllabi for the Professor’s classes, wrote footnotes for his research papers, led discussion in my language and literature courses, even sat in on Graduate Courses, and as a side job, helped his History Teacher wife grade her high school class papers. I loved every last bit of it.
Naturally, I was encouraged by my colleagues to consider becoming a professor myself. I was thrilled with the research, the academic life, the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and the application of that new knowledge to traditional topics and cross disciplinary studies.
Why didn’t I pursue that course? Why did I leave school – again – to take on an administrative and marketing job for an architectural firm? Tears well up in my eyes every time I think about this, and right now is no exception: FEAR. I was terrified stiff of standing in front of a class. It didn’t matter that I had expertise in any of a number of topics. It didn’t matter that I cared deeply for my chosen course of study, or that I was passionate about sharing it with other people who exhibited even a mild interest; I was petrified of being The Teacher.
I scared myself out of a fulfilling life, because no one ever told me (or perhaps I refused to notice?) that being a teacher isn’t all encompassed in knowing everything, preparing long lectures, or being “tough.” Being a teacher means lighting a spark of interest on fire in someone else. It is part leading by example and part erasing fear from the learning process. Being a teacher means it’s okay to not have all the answers, but to lead students in discovering answers for themselves.
Becoming the Art Teacher for my daughter’s “school” while we functioned as a homeschool co-op (during the time we worked at becoming a charter school) taught me even more about what it means to be a teacher. Especially with something as personal as art, students need the teacher to help them feel good about what they create.
I learned that I have a gift in all of my failures and fear. I can comfortably fall right down (literally or figuratively) in front of my students, whether they are younger or older than I am, and show them that it’s okay to not be perfect; that life itself is a journey of discovery and there are many paths to explore. I teach them that it’s better to not be “perfect” because where’s the fun in that? In my art classes, I always bring extra supplies so starting over isn’t painful. In my sewing classes, I offer “unsewing service.” (Hand me your seam ripper and let’s keep going) I do this because I know that moving forward is more fun than going backward. There’s no “punishment” for making mistakes, only understanding to be gained.
All my life, I have been a teacher without knowing it. It took years of exploration to figure that out.
What have you learned about yourself? There’s so much to discover with a little introspection! Join the Exploration Party this week, read about all the amazing explorers and share the joy!