I was raised on the Navajo Indian Reservation; in a small community called Rough Rock. I know what it is like to do homework with the light from a kerosene lamp, chop wood, cook for younger siblings, and take care of livestock – each day. I am an older sister, with thank goodness, an older brother and sister. Those care-taker responsibilities prepared me, in many ways, for teaching. I taught my younger siblings many of the chores so I would not do them all by myself. We had to help each other – it saved on time and energy.
And now, a couple of decades later, in a warm house with electricity, I recall a conversation I had with a dear friend and colleague last week. We talked about teaching – the passion for teaching, and dare I say, the call to teach. We spoke about callings and purpose in our chosen profession and how it seems to have left education. She’s not teaching this year and she feels guilt for not returning to school. She misses her students most and most of her colleagues, but it all became overwhelming – the responsibilities of teaching AND testing.
The conversation lead to many areas of our personal lives – it seems teaching isn’t an eight-to-five job for either of us. I thought about my earliest days of teaching my siblings and those lessons dealt with sharing knowledge, finding their personal preference after learning “my” way, and understanding what was learned. Trust me, many mistakes happened along the way. I wish I could say I was a brilliant teacher at fourteen, but that was not the case. It seems teachers cannot make mistakes anymore, especially with the high-stakes testing. Mistakes can get you fired, or under attack by parents, who can then get you fired.
That feeling – fear of making mistakes – is apparent in my students now. In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen a shift in student behavior and attitudes – from the regular teen-age angst and bitterness to fear and silence. I can work with angst and bitterness, but silence and fear of mistakes frustrates me because that’s not the result of learning, but conditioning. Unlearning those behaviors is challenging, and it wears on dedicated teachers, like my friend. She has patience and even she began to see her students differently because they weren’t moving at the pace that was expected of her state exams. She, nor I, started out that way. Later, we moved our conversation to what it is to be true to ourselves because we had changed from where we’d started.
Today, I shared with my students that I am a teacher who is a writer and poet; a sister and daughter; and an aunt and mother. I told them that at the start of the year – I just needed to remind myself.
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