3rd Quarter, 2007
Teacher Scholarship Winner
I am currently a student at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, where I am studying secondary education. I plan to graduate in December of 2009 with teaching certification in English and Spanish. I’m a member of my university’s Honors College, the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. Last December I returned from a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I studied at the University of Buenos Aires, and the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales. During that time, I completed coursework in Argentine history and literature, advanced Spanish language, and Chomskyan linguistics.
I’m also involved in several activities outside of class. I truly enjoy working with middle and high school students, and I love the sport of fastpitch softball. I’ve been fortunate to be able to combine those two interests for the past three years, by serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the varsity team at a nearby high school. I also volunteer my time as a tutor at the local middle school. My other interests include traveling to foreign countries, reading, writing, and watching sporting events, especially Detroit Tiger baseball. In the summer, I enjoy working at a campground near my hometown in west Michigan. I also enjoy relaxing with friends and family, and I spend as much time as possible with my younger siblings.
A Portion of Sierra’s Winning Essay:
Education is not something that should be imposed upon someone. Instead, it is something that should be sought after. In an ideal world, students would come to school every day because they truly want to learn. I realize that that scenario is not the reality most students currently experience. They come to school because the law says they have to, or because their parents say they have to. If they obtain any type of postsecondary education, it’s because they feel they must in order to obtain the job they want, and live the type of life they want to live. Rarely does a student say that he goes to school every day because he can’t wait to learn something new. Maybe that will never change. Maybe it’s idealistic to believe that students can grow to love learning for it’s own sake. Maybe I should accept that most of my future students will be in my classroom because they have to be. Maybe I should accept it, but I won’t.
I had a teacher my freshman and sophomore years of high school that also refused to accept that belief. She was determined to make her students think, even if it was the last thing she did. She wanted us all to take something meaningful from her English class, and she worked relentlessly to motivate us to learn for learning’s sake. I walked into this teacher’s classroom at thirteen-years-old, sure I knew everything I needed to know about why the world worked the way it did. Imagine my surprise when, one day in class, my teacher asked me, “When you watch TV, do you think about what you’re seeing and hearing?”
“Of course I think about it,” I told her. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what was going on.”
“Right, but do you really think about the messages they’re sending you? Maybe you do, but most people don’t. Try to think about that tonight when you’re watching your favorite shows.”
If I had been able to walk out of the classroom and forget that conversation, I might be a very different person right now. Thankfully, I couldn’t. I did start to think about what she’d said while watching my favorite shows that evening. Why was it only women that were shown making lunch for the kids in the peanut butter commercial? Why was it mostly poor people and minorities that were portrayed as criminals and drug addicts on prime time television? I didn’t know, but I thought about it. I thought about it for the first time in my life, and I wasn’t comfortable with the things I began to see. I couldn’t wait to come to class the next day to talk about what I’d discovered.
I realize now that that was my teacher’s goal the entire time. She succeeded in making me curious about the world I lived in, and motivated me to ask questions. The habit of thinking and questioning has followed me ever since. I’m now a nineteen-year-old sophomore in college, and I’m very comfortable admitting that I will never fully understand why the world works the way it does. My teacher helped me to realize that it’s not knowing all the answers that matters—it’s being unafraid to ask the questions. The discussions that began to stem from the things my classmates and I saw and read were wonderful, and they made me excited to come to class every day. I hope that I will become the kind of teacher that encourages her students to think critically and ask questions. I hope that my students, with my help, will begin to see things in the world around them that they didn’t see before, and I hope they will search for reasons, even when they struggle to find them. My goal is that, through the combination of literature, writing, inquiry and discussion, my students and I will learn things that we didn’t know before. I hope to spark their curiosity, and help them discover their own desire to learn, just as my teacher did for me. My English teacher’s name is Maja Wilson. Although she has not officially been my teacher for four years, I continue to learn from every conversation I have with her. I shall never be able to thank her enough.
As I’ve said, I hope I will be able to encourage my students to ask questions and think critically, like my teacher did. I feel that, if I am successful, they will have learned something valuable from me. It is also my sincere hope that my students will feel that I am very interested in learning from them. I will be the teacher, but that does not mean I will have nothing left to learn. Literature, in particular, is something that can be interpreted in countless ways. I will do my best to instill in my students the belief that their own interpretations and ideas are valuable, and I will be open to hearing what they have to say. It is very possible that they will see something in a piece that I did not. I refuse to become the kind of teacher that believes she has all the right answers, and expects her students to adopt her own opinions. Students are also people. They’re capable of generating their own thoughts and ideas. In my classroom, that ability will be valued and respected above all else.
While it’s important to be willing to learn from the students, it’s also important to be willing to learn for the students. My father has coached fastpitch softball for much longer than I’ve been alive. He’s coached many different types of teams, including elementary recreational teams, high school, ASA and NSA travel teams, and adult men’s ASA teams, and won several different regional and state titles. Coaching is simply part of life in my family, and we talk about it often. One thing my dad has told me many times is this: “Sierra, you’ve been raised with softball, and because of that you probably understand the game better than most people your age. That said, it’s important that you always remember that, as a coach, you can never stop learning.” He has always emphasized the fact that as athletes get better, equipment improves, and the game gets more competitive, conventional coaching wisdom will change. “You can be an expert,” he has told me, “but if you aren’t willing to learn and try new things, you won’t be as good a coach as you could be.” I didn’t know how right my father was until I began assistant coaching the Spring Lake High School varsity softball team in the spring of 2006. It was then that I had an experience that will affect me not only as a coach, but also as a teacher, for the rest of my career.
Around the middle of the season, our starting catcher and best hitter began to struggle at the plate. In the running for a spot on the all-conference, all-district, and all-area teams, Emily was a very promising athlete and still only a sophomore. Her hitting slump had her extremely frustrated, and since I had been put in charge of the hitters, I was determined to figure out what had gone wrong with her swing. After putting her through a series of drills, and observing her swing from every possible angle, I came up with the answer. Emily had developed the habit of trying to hit all pitches well out in front of her body, which we refer to as “pulling the ball.” Proper hitting fundamentals dictate that the batter make contact with the ball in front of the plate on an inside pitch. Outside pitches, however, cannot be contacted so far in front of the plate, because to do so requires that they be hit off the end of the bat, which is not designed to produce solid hits. Batters are taught to let outside pitches get even with their body before they make contact with the ball. For the next month, Emily and I spent an incredible amount of time with the pitching machine, working diligently to correct the mechanics of her swing. She asked for drills that would help her, and I taught her every one I knew. Unfortunately, the drills that had helped every hitter I’d coached before seemed to be ineffective for Emily. Determined to help her succeed, I spent hours looking up more drills. When those failed, I knew I had to get creative. One day, I got out a bat, a tee, a pitching machine and the countless other hitting gadgets I own, and custom-designed new drills especially for Emily. The moment of truth came later in the season, during our district championship game. A tie had persisted to bottom of the third extra inning, and we had a runner in scoring position. The game was on the line, and Emily was on deck.
We had faced the opposing pitcher several times during the season, and she knew our line-up well. I called Emily over to the fence before her at-bat. “Ok, Emily,” I said, “I want you to think about this pitcher. She’s pitched against you a lot, so she knows where your weakness is. Where do you think she’s going to pitch to you?”
“Outside,” Emily responded.
“So what do you have to do to hit that pitch?”
“Keep my weight back and wait for the ball to come in over the plate, like we’ve been working on. I can’t try to pull it.” Emily knew exactly what was required of her, but she’d been having incredible difficulty doing it.
“Alright,” I said, “you know what you need to do. Until you have two strikes on you, you’re looking for that outside pitch. When it comes, wait on it and hit it.” “Ok,” she replied from underneath the helmet.
The whole team was on edge as Emily stepped into the batter’s box. I could see as soon as the pitch was released that it was headed for the outside corner. I held my breath, willing Emily to keep her bat back and wait. I watched in slow motion as she began her swing. When she smacked the ball solidly and drove in the district-championship winning run, the whole team charged onto the field, screaming and laughing.
When I think back on that experience, I remember my father’s words. It was the conviction he had put in my head– that to be a good coach I had to keep learning– that motivated me to continue looking for new ways to teach Emily when the old ways were ineffective. I know that when I’m teaching, there will be times when one or more of my students will struggle to grasp concepts in the traditional manner. The instructional methods that have been able to reach students in the past won’t work for them. For that reason, I will always actively search for new ways to teach an old lesson, just like I did with Emily. I will never forget the happiness on her face as we spoke after the game. “I did it! I did it!” she half laughed, half yelled as she jumped up and down clutching her medal. “And it was an outside pitch too! I can’t believe it!” It is my goal that all my struggling students will experience a moment like Emily did when she hit that ball. I will do everything in my power to help them “get it,” even if it means I have to challenge myself to come up with new ways to teach them. I will always remember what my father told me, and I will never allow myself to stop learning.
I know that I will not be a perfect teacher. The truth is that there is no such thing. I can’t promise that I will never be tired or frustrated, because as far as I can tell, all teachers experience those emotions at one time or another. I know teaching is not an easy job. However, I also know that underneath the twisted pile of standardized tests, school report cards, per-pupil funding and educational jargon that has taken over our education system, is a population of students who deserve the very best we have to give. I will strive to give my students the best each and every day that they are in my classroom. After all, I’m not becoming a teacher because I enjoy the prospect of having my summers off. The students are the reason I want to teach. I will challenge them to think, and to ask questions about the world around them. It is my goal that they will leave my class with the realization that there is a lot left to learn, and the desire to continue learning it, even when they don’t have to. Some have told me that my goal is unrealistic, but I won’t give up on it. To do so would be to give up on my students. As a teacher, that is something I will never allow myself do.
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