“Whether I am teaching students, student teachers or my own children, I teach. That is who I am.”
Leading the way out of a paper bag
For a long time I thought I would never be a leader. It is much easier for me to sit back and wait for things to happen that to step up and make them happen. My mantra about difficulty has usually been, “Ignore it and it will go away.” When I was asked to step up and lead I have led people astray – leaving confusion and incompletion in my wake.
I have always wanted to be the leader. As the second child, I was required to follow my older sister’s leading, and often got into trouble when I deviated onto my own path. My mother would admonish Sue to “Take care of Valorie,” whenever we went outside to play. This was a lot of burden to put onto a 3-year-old, but there it was. Sue led, and resented every minute of it, and I followed, sort of, wandering off on my own path as often as I could escape.
My family tells me I was mostly absentminded, lost in a storybook world, as a child, and that is the way I remember things as well. Books and stories are much easier to manage than people. (It is hard to embarrass, disappoint or hurt character in a book, but I think I might have found a way if I had set my mind to it.) I struggled to connect with people – always afraid I would disappoint them – that they would yell at me, or worse.
Most of my friends and acquaintances in the teen years wouldn’t have followed me out of a paper bag. Susan openly disparaged me to our circle of friends, and she and I had loud and public fist fights as I attempted to assert myself, and she tried to protect herself from my encroaching. I joined a variety of clubs and activities, followed rules faithfully and became a dutiful follower. I had this weird kind of quest going on to gather all the knowledge I could about anything that interested me or anyone else I knew so that I knew the answers, figuring that knowing all the answers would make me a leader and others would follow me. I wanted to lead, although I cannot figure out why in retrospect.
Vanguards is a good example. Picture this: Twelve 18-year-old female college freshmen-to-be stumble down the roads of UP Michigan. It is dawn, and we have been walking since dawn the previous morning, going we know not where. We are tired, but there is further to go. “Let’s take a break,” our counselor tells us. 12 packs hit the side of the road, 12 bodies slump against them as some stretch out, eyes closed, or pull shoes of to inspect the newest crop of blisters. We are stinky, having not bathed for 10 days, are using leaves and bark for TP, and deodorants and perfumes have long since been discarded as extra weight and dangerous in the animal infested woods. The counselors pull me aside. I figure I am going to get into trouble again for the salty food debacle from the night before, when most of our supply of salt had fallen from a hole in the bag into the stew, rendering it even more inedible than it was naturally, leaving us all hungry on top of everything else. But no – they inform me that today is my turn to lead the group. I have been looking forward to this day – really I have. I figure that I can lead better than the other girls (why I don’t remember, but I was certain).
The counselors show me on the map that I have suspected they carry but haven’t seen before, the point where we need to camp that night, and give me a choice of three different routes get there. I choose to go up a mountain path, over a hill, to the highway and along it. It looks to be only about 10 miles, and we have walked 16 miles in a day before. I think it is the shortest path, but I don’t consider how steep the terrain is at the beginning. We start up the mountain, following the partially cleared path along the telephone lines. I am not a strong hiker, and clumsy to boot. I walk in front, and Beth and Dawn follow. I put my walking stick down hard in a ground-wasps’ nest and continue on ahead, oblivious to the swarm of angry bees that are mobbing the girls who are left behind. Dawn, a statuesque, calm African-America, stands totally still, and the bees swarm her but do not bite. Beth is highly allergic to bee stings, but follows Dawn’s example and only gets one or two bites before the bees swarm away. The counselors give Beth an epi-pen shot and one hikes out as fast as she can to a phone box to get an ambulance to take her to the hospital. I have returned to the scene, having eventually realized that no one was following me, where the remaining counselor tells me I am a failure as a leader and replaces me with another camper. I finish the three-week Vanguard’s experience a failure, an abysmal leader, not worthy of another opportunity – someone everyone should not only not follow but should actively avoid being around.
As I look back on this experience I wonder how I managed to become a teacher. It is perhaps a good thing that I never thought of teachers as leaders, or I might never have become one. For a long time I avoided anything I thought of as being “leadership” experience, although I continued to want to be followed, to be admired, to be important enough that people would listen to my ideas and respect them. At the same time, I had that counselor’s voice ringing in my ear – along with the voice of my sister telling me that my thoughts and plans were ridiculous, dangerous, facile, and stupid, so I knew that I wasn’t a leader and should never try to be one.
In college, I avoided all these women who should have become my closest friends having gone through this harrowing experience. I made friends with the girls who could go with us, and I joined the ROTC group and help to form LASS, the Ladies Aide Secret Society that celebrated successes and played pranks on the other cadets, NCOs and officers in the department. I didn’t really want to join the military, but these people were leaders, and I think at some level I wanted to learn what they knew. As I worked with them, I noticed that when one of us got overwhelmed or confused, they would come alongside the person and either show them how to do the task again or encourage them to try. I learned that trying is the first step to doing anything difficult. Until Vanguards, I had rarely run into anything I didn’t do well, so I had never really had to try hard.
I became a teacher, and one of the biggest joys in the early part of my career was realizing that my students wanted to follow me, admired me, and didn’t think I was stupid or dangerous – I was leading. At this point I was forcibly shown that with leadership comes responsibility. My students wanted to follow me – wanted to learn from me – wanted to be like me, so I had a huge responsibility to be a good example. Fortunately for these kids, I actually was a pretty responsible person, and I truly loved my subject area, wanted to be a good teacher and was willing to learn. Unfortunately for them, I was smoking, still angry at my family and terribly uncertain that I could do the job well. I made a lot of mistakes – yelled at kids and hurt feelings, was a bad example with my smoking – and didn’t try things I probably should have tried because I wasn’t sure my ideas were good enough.
One of my principals was a horrible racist do-gooder who might have ruined me for teaching forever except I had a roommate who had the strength of character to tell him to get lost. He didn’t support me and questioned my teaching repeatedly. The next principal supported my discipline plans, encouraged experimentation in the classroom, listened as I talked my way through difficult plans, and trusted me enough to ask me to change assignments to teach his son’s class when the teacher was overwhelmed by other circumstances. His trust in my good judgment and ability to teach gave me the strength to continue when teaching got hard. I got a lot of a BAD advice from the people I worked with, and learned some lessons along the way. My students taught me to avoid critical remarks that weren’t accompanied by helpful suggestions on how to improve. The school maintenance worker taught me that new experiences, while scary, can develop into life long passions, and that kindness gets you much further than logic ever can. And the people in the villages where I worked taught me that we are all in this together. None of us can succeed without the support of others.
I left teaching for a time when I started having children. I did other jobs and learned a lot about following directions, getting things done and about wildly divergent people.
Perhaps it was because I had learned that it wasn’t about where we were going – but about how we were going to get there – that the journey and our process are as important as the outcomes – that I needed to pay attention, every step of the way, to what was happening to others if I was going to lead them – from my Vanguard’s experience. And eventually I learned that I certainly don’t lead well when I am sleep deprived, tense, stinky and hungry. The examples set by those people who taught me that I can lead in these circumstances as long as I am willing to let go of “being the leader” and walk alongside those I am leading.
Last fall, after a horrendous couple of years filled with surgeries, a heart attack, the deaths of my in-laws and a great deal of stress in my marriage, I was asked to lead a retreat at my church. I have been part of the ACTS movement for 15 years, and I have always wanted to be the leader of one. I almost said, “No,” though because I was so stressed and so tired. I worried that I would get into the middle of this retreat and fall apart – physically mostly, but also maybe mentally. I cannot lead in this shape, I thought, but I had wanted to do this for so long, and I felt the calling, so I said yes. I think I must have frustrated the women on the ACTS team. I brought up set a vision for the retreat, asked for ideas, made suggestions and delegated responsibilities to the other women, and we put together a great retreat. God was glorified and lives were changed. Everyone else worked harder than I did, and that might be the most obvious lesson for me. For me now, being a leader is mostly about having a vision of where I believe we should go, and then to walk alongside, working with the people on my team to get to where we get to using the vision as a hook, but being open to change.
WHY I TEACH
I Love the Kids – Even When I Hate Them
I became a teacher because my mother insisted I get a degree with some practical monetary value. “How can you support yourself and any children if your husband dies? … Esther had her nursing degree to fall back on when Roland dropped dead on the lawn at 6:30 in the morning, leaving her with 3 children to raise. What if that happened to you?” This mantra forced me to abandon my goal of becoming a youth minister, but I asserted myself by going into teaching rather than into medicine as I think my parents both hoped I would. Mom became a librarian, and she loves teaching.
Student teaching was a miserable experience. It was the first time I ever bumped up against an obstacle I couldn’t BS my way around or through. Mr. Rossiter had taught for seven years, the exact same way every year. His lessons were set in stone. We were all wrong for each other which made for a miserable 6 weeks. Thank God for the three week teacher strike that lessened our torture. I was ill-equipped to teach students how to write, having not ever been taught how to write myself. I could write sentences, understood grammar, and had decent ideas, but no one had ever taught me about parallel structure, essay formats, beginning/middle/end, etc. I just blatted everything I was thinking onto paper and turned it in. Now I was being asked to teach students how to write – and I didn’t know how. Dr. Cliff Schimmels was my college mentor, and, after I talked myself off the railroad tracks on the day Mr. Rossiter sent me home in disgrace, he convinced me to keep teaching – just to spite Mr. Rossiter, and then he worked day by day to teach me what I needed to know for the next day’s lesson. Prepositions, parallel structure, main idea/support – you name it, I learned it in the three weeks I had to endure before student teaching was over. I was so ignorant.
I teach now because I cannot imagine doing anything else that matters as much to the future, other than being a parent – and I am doing that, too. My students need me – even, maybe even especially, when I annoy them or make them angry because I don’t let them get by with giving me garbage. Working in a group of students, helping them to understand a concept or word, encouraging them to try again or put more effort the work, gives me joy. I love seeing a light go on behind my students’ eyes. There are times when I get nose to nose with a kid who is being rude or disrespectful and we look into each others’ eyes – and both of us recognize and acknowledge the other’s need to be respected, and that is worthwhile. When a student comes running in to class to share that one of our vocabulary words, one that we sweated over and struggled to truly know and understand was on the important test they just took, and they knew the answer; when a former student contacts me via facebook to let me know how much she appreciates my giving her an ‘opportunity” to read a book – however reluctantly – like READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN which made her want to read more, or that she is reading the children’s books I use as model texts in my classroom to her own children and are trying to read them, “Just like Val did,” or when a parent tells me, “You saved my child’s life.” These are the times when I know I made the right choice – that being a teacher is the best and only job for me.
I have not taught in large school since my student teaching days – other than a few weeks as a substitute in Anchorage back in ’83. Moving to TMHS or JDHS scares me. People assure me that I can do it – and I know in my head that I can, but I am terrified that I would fail there as much as I did at Wheaton Central High School in Mr. Rossiter’s class. I don’t like change, but change is coming, whether I like it or not. My effectiveness is compromised by change that I cannot accept. However, I have so many books, papers, supplies and support materials, and have invested so much time and energy in Yaakoosge Daakahidi, I am terrified to leave. I know I am not indispensable, but I like to think I am – I don’t want to let go of the teacher I have become there. I don’t want to walk away from these kids I love so much, even when I hate them. I would miss the one on one time – the opportunities to go head to head over an idea – to create a class from whole cloth – to influence the larger picture – the school outside of my classroom. I don’t relish the thought of being an outsider again, either. Lots of issues I have to think through before I decide what is next.
Why am I a teacher? – because that is what I am called to be. Whether I am teaching students, student teachers or my own children, I teach. That is who I am.