When I was in second grade, my dream was to go to Hollywood and become an actress with my best friend, Mary Elizabeth Pierce. We had it all figured out. Her dad, Judge Pierce, would drive us to California, and drop us off, and we would instantly become rich and famous, never mind being elementary school drop-outs.
After months of constantly jabbering on about our plan, my dad finally intervened, and brought me back down to earth. He told me that people in show business have a different lifestyle that I wouldn’t be used to. And without completely shattering my self esteem, he said it would be very difficult for me to make it in “the business.”
Luckily, this crazy idea seemed to evaporate as my third grade year was approaching. I was thoroughly focused on being the mascot for the 9th grade Pep Squad (what does that even mean?) My mother was the sponsor for this group, and I guess that’s how I got my big break. It was a fairly easy gig. I sat beside the Pep Squad Major, and we did little pom-pon routines throughout the game. And for me, this was better than any acting job I might ever get!
In many ways, I guess I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I used to play “school” with friends who came over and spent the night. And both my parents were teachers, my mom at the high school, and my dad at the university. It seemed to make sense.
I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, though, since a teacher’s life was the only life I had known. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break the mold, and strike out on my own, and blaze new trails. Because of this adventuresome spirit, I decided journalism would be my major at Texas A&M University.
Sidenote: (I actually almost applied to the University of Texas, because I wanted to minor in political science, work at the Capitol, and possibly become a lobbyist. That plan changed after I visited the school, and realized I had way too much maroon in my veins to ever truly feel as if I belonged in Austin. Another deciding factor was that I look awful in orange).
I began my education at A&M, and soon found that the Journalism 101 class I was taking was COMPLETELY boring. I had a friend who was an architecture major, and that sounded so fun! So I changed my major to Environmental Design. Hmmmm. I never really considered how much math I would have to endure, because I was caught up in the designing part. After having a professor embarrass me in front of the class (while I was presenting a project) by stating that I had a lot of potential, but needed “a kick in the ass,” I began re-thinking my future.
I was heading into the spring semester of my sophomore year, and time was a-ticking. I decided, at this point in my life, education was something I was familiar with, and maybe I shouldn’t attempt the adventure-seeking life I had once pondered.
I quickly adjusted to this new major, and met some lifelong friends in the process. Of course, I had to endure the never-ending, tiring comment when someone asked my major, “Oh. You’re getting your M.R.S. degree.” That was what education majors had to deal with since the major was overwhelmingly comprised of young co-eds who obviously were just in college to meet their future husbands.
Sometimes the comment was meant to be humorous. At other times when young men heard, “Education,” in response to the age old what’s-your-major-question, the answer struck fear in their hearts, as they turned tail and ran, trying to escape the clutches of a female who was merely on campus with the hopes of snagging a man.
During my final semester, I did my student teaching at Bryan High School. My supervising male teacher was a reject from the sixties, and seemed to dislike females (in that we weren’t as capable as men). There happened to be a male student teacher in the department, and the two of them teamed up, and actually began plotting to “make a trade,” like this was the National Football League. The plan was for me to switch supervising teachers with the aforementioned male student teacher.
BUT I wasn’t having it. I had already learned my students’ names, and was completely insulted with this whole ridiculous plan for my teacher to get his way and the student teacher he wanted, and not the one he was stuck with.
In the end, after several conversations with my college advisor, the other student teacher and my supervising teacher, the trade didn’t happen. But, Mr. W (so-called in order to hide his identity) continued to give me a hard time, and criticized every lesson I taught. The funny thing was, I was following his lead (as he told me to do) where he would teach a lesson, and then I was to mimic it for the remainder of the day. It wasn’t my fault he was completely unimaginative and boring.
After teaching four classes in a row, at the end of that first teaching day, Mr. W told me I “missed the mark.” He actually drew a target on the chalkboard, and showed how far off my arrow had strayed, as if I needed a visual to understand what he was saying.
Of course, my eyes welled up with tears and I began writing the script in my mind of the very mean things I would say to him. But I was taught to respect others, so I toned down my not-so-nice response. When I had finally composed myself enough to reply to his condescending summation of my future as a teacher, I simply said, “Just wait. I’ll be the best student teacher you’ve ever had.”
And in that moment, the shot was heard around the world, and it was on like Donkey-Kong.
The subject was World History. The unit I would be teaching was Ancient Greece.
On my way home after that horrific and humiliating day, I put my plan in motion. I stopped by the local travel agency and asked for every piece of information they had on Greece. They eagerly gave me everything they had, thinking I was planning a major Mediterranean adventure, not knowing that the pictures and information on the brochures would only make it as far as a bulletin board in a 10th grade world history class in Bryan, Texas.
(Since this was before the internet, I also had to do some additional research, the hard way).
I spent the weekend outlining the chapters in the unit, and devising my plan:
The students would actually receive a “ticket” to begin our trip to Greece (and we would pretend to be in an airplane to begin our journey). Out of the box things like that make some students nervous, or feel awkward, but they always remember the experience and what they learned.
Once we landed in Greece, we learned about (compared/contrasted) Athens and Sparta. We studied the architecture (which I had learned a little about during my semester-long-stint as an architecture major). We learned about art, music, plays, and poetry. We studied the philosophers, and the Olympics, and the food. We were immersed in the Greek culture, and used all our senses as we lived this part of history.
In addition to these activities, I introduced the students to a new method of note-taking and lecturing, which engaged them on every level: they would hear it, see it, and write it.
You see, what poor Mr. W didn’t know was I had learned from the very best. And every morsel of inspiration and motivation that was given to me by Jane Halls in the 11th grade, would morph into me, and make me the envy of the other student teachers in my department (or at least that was what I was hoping for)
Once I decided to own the knowledge I would share and my style of presentation, I was unstoppable. The students loved every minute of every class…
And on the day my supervising teacher evaluated me, my lesson was FLAWLESS. Except when the film projector “jammed,” and I struggled with trying to remove the film from the projector without ripping it apart. Being the chivalrous guy he was, Mr. W let me squirm and almost panic for a few moments, then he came to my aid. I’m sure he looked at it as “rescuing me.”
It was during that semester of student teaching that I learned to drink black coffee out of a styrofoam cup, and to be ever cognizant and always aware of the only six year age difference between my students and I. But most importantly, I learned to never, ever let someone else define my worth or break my spirit.
It was on my last day at Bryan High School, in the same week that I would graduate from A&M with a degree that prepared me for a lifelong career, (and not just being a wife), that my supervising teacher asked me to sit down and said “we needed to talk.”
Of course, I began thinking of all the things that were about to go wrong—first and foremost the fear that he wasn’t going to “pass” me for the job I had done. If that was the case, it meant that I would not be walking through graduation, all because archery wasn’t my sport, and hitting insane targets, wasn’t my forte.
But then he said it. The words that I had craved all semester.
“You know, I didn’t think you could do it. I didn’t think you would be a good teacher at all. I need to apologize for that. You were right. You are the best student teacher I’ve ever had. You proved me wrong.”
With that, I said as respectfully as I could, “I told you I would be the best. And I want to thank you—I knew you didn’t believe in me, and that pushed me to work harder than I ever would have.”
And then I picked up my bag, and purse, and in my dress, adorned with a strand of pearls, (and hose, which we had to wear back then), I turned on my heels and headed out into my future. And as miserable as many of my days had been, I knew that proving him wrong motivated me in ways I never knew were possible. Understanding this under-estimation was one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned: No matter what, always believe in yourself and never ever give up.
As I begin my thirty-fifth year in public education, I am excited, humbled, nervous, and ready for the many challenges that this year will present. As unknown and scary as this unprecedented time feels, there are many things I know without a doubt, but first and foremost is this: I was meant to be a teacher.
As I reflect on the many memories, victories, defeats, and relationships that make up my career, I can’t help but smile and think, I’m the luckiest girl in the world.
I’ve laughed and cried, and learned and changed.
I’ve been touched by every student who ever walked through my classroom door, or entered my office.
I’ve been tired and weary, motivated and inspired, and heartbroken for all the things I couldn’t fix.
I’ve pushed, and moved, and challenged my students and myself.
I’ve watched students become doctors, and lawyers, and teachers, work in businesses, and public service jobs, and become parents—and I’ve worked with their children.
I’ve also endured the overwhelming sadness that comes when students are gone too soon. As a counselor, I’ve had to try to help others move forward and heal from such an unfair part of life. And there is NOTHING that can ever help someone make sense of such losses.
I’ve been liked and loved and disliked and hated. I’ve been told I was too hard, or too tough, only to have those students (or the parents of those students) come back and thank me for preparing their child for the things that come after public school.
I’ve been frazzled, and frustrated, organized, and a mess. I’ve even showed up to work with “spit up” on my blouse when my children were young.
I’ve dressed up, dressed casually, and dressed in crazy outfits in an effort to help students say no to drugs, celebrate homecoming, and show pride in their school.
I’ve always tried to use my position to lead students to knowledge, to help them think on their own, and to come up with their own conclusions and values. I’ve tried to never influence students with my viewpoints, or brainwash them in any way, except to be proud of who they are, and who they hope to become.
I have always shown my students my love for my country, and its laws. I’ve taught manners by showing respect and kindness to others.
My goal was to hopefully teach students more about English, and United States History, and Speech, but more importantly I hoped to prepare them to be not merely functioning members of society, but to make a difference in whatever part of the world they inhabit.
But in the end, for all the things I attempted to teach my students, they always taught me more.
It has been my honor and privilege to have been called “teacher.” I have been called many names—Miss Brown, Mrs. Keith, Mrs. Coach Keith, Mrs. Sharon, Sister Keith. But no name is as sweet as teacher—a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.
Next to being a parent, teaching is the most important job in the world.
And the beautiful thing about education is that as a teacher, you give students information and knowledge. And when the students accept and take what is given, and learn and grow, and aspire to do great things, you, as a teacher, have had a small part in changing the world.
As I look back on my life’s work, I see a tapestry of people, and colors, and ideas, and beliefs, and challenges, and obstacles. I see love and acceptance, and kindness, and leadership, and unbreakable spirits. I see people who have loved and changed me, who have made me want to be better. I see the future, and it is filled with hope.
I wanted to share the link below. I use these in my counseling lessons, and think that it is a great resource for parents, as well as teachers. Little snippets of character lessons….
Click here to watch inspirational videos from the Foundation for a Better Life
And I added this song, just because I like it. Here’s to all the educators who have helped to “change the world.”