2nd Quarter, 2006
Teacher Scholarship Winner
“When I first started teaching, I always got a little nervous before each class. Okay, who am I kidding; I got extremely nervous before each class! Even though I was confident in my knowledge of the material, I would dutifully spend hours each night preparing for class the next morning. Sure, I would read and re-read the texts, but preparation for me entailed more than just simply making photocopies or jotting down a few lecture notes. After I was certain that I had outlined all the facts that I wanted to convey and checked the information for accuracy, I would actually stand in front of the mirror, rehearsing what I would say in class the next day. ”
A Portion of James’ Winning Essay:
When I first started teaching, I always got a little nervous before each class. Okay, who am I kidding; I got extremely nervous before each class! Even though I was confident in my knowledge of the material, I would dutifully spend hours each night preparing for class the next morning. Sure, I would read and re-read the texts, but preparation for me entailed more than just simply making photocopies or jotting down a few lecture notes. After I was certain that I had outlined all the facts that I wanted to convey and checked the information for accuracy, I would actually stand in front of the mirror, rehearsing what I would say in class the next day. But it wasn’t just about the facts, it was about the delivery. For me, entering the classroom was something more like being a performer stepping onto the stage. Like any actor, I prepared myself for what I hoped would be an entertaining and informative performance. I even practiced the oh-so-clever jokes and puns that would inevitably punctuate the lesson, trying to imagine what the response from the students would be like. Some nights, anxiety got the best of me and I would wonder if I was going to give myself an ulcer with this added stress. But once class began, there was no doubt in my mind that I was destined to become a teacher. I loved being in the classroom and working with the students. This had been something I was meant to do. A calling.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a particular passion for education. As a young child, I loved going to school each day and learning new things. Whether it was practicing the order of operations in Math class, constructing a paper-mache volcano in Science class or just unveiling the latest macaroni and paste sculpture from art class, I couldn’t wait to get home and tell everyone what I had learned that day. I can even remember setting up a miniature desk and chalkboard in my room–pretending to be a teacher with my younger brother playing the role of student. That’s why it came to no surprise to anyone when I declared that I was going to be a teacher.
But what was my problem anyway? After all, any normal kid hated going to school. Why did I love school so much? School should have been right up there with trips to the doctor and broccoli for dinner. My enthusiasm for school can be traced back to the impact of several dedicated teachers. In elementary school, I was excited about education because I was fortunate enough to have teachers who made learning both interesting and educational. I attended a specialized middle school that was for gifted and talented students where I was fortunate enough to be in class with other highly motivated students. Learning wasn’t just fun, learning was cool! This was education at its best. This all changed, however, when I entered high school.
Entering John F. Kennedy, an inner-city public high school in Cleveland, Ohio, was a vast departure from my elementary or middle school experiences. In both elementary and middle school, I was in an established “gifted and talented” program and had challenging teachers who had been fun and informative. In high school, however, I was part of John F. Kennedy’s pilot advanced class. In other words, we were the experimental class. Most of the teachers had never taught at an honors level and simply had very low expectations of us. I found that I was never truly challenged by my school work. Moreover, most teachers were now forced to spend a majority of their time focusing on disciplining unruly students. Those of us who were there to learn received less attention and were praised for simply being able to control ourselves. We paid for it, however, with a not-so-rigorous curriculum. To this day, this continues to be a major issue in public education. While many of my classmates were thrilled to get “good grades”, I wasn’t satisfied. I was easily able to receive straight A’s with very little effort and my status as class valedictorian had been secured since sophomore year. Everyone lauded my accomplishments, but it all seemed shallow to me. I knew that the rigor of the work that I received was nowhere near as challenging as the work in independent schools. I longed for something different. My parents, however, neither of whom had attended college, had no real knowledge of how to locate the programs or opportunities that would satisfy my academic needs, so I simply did the best with what I had to work with.
Fortunately, my life has always been punctuated by the guidance and direction of great teachers who often saw potential in me that I had not yet fully realized myself. During my junior year of high school, Mrs. Morgan, the History Department chair, began to take a particular interest in me. She approached me about participating in the Kenyon College SCAP (School College Articulation Program) Summer Seminar. SCAP was a three-week pre-college program for rising inner-city high school seniors. This was Mrs. Morgan’s first year teaching it, and she thought it would be good for me to receive the academic challenge I was seeking. I must admit, I was nervous about going. I had never really been away from home before, but I was equally excited about the opportunity and signed up. Those three weeks would change my life.
During my three weeks at Kenyon, I was exposed to a level of academic rigor that I had never before encountered in high school. We lived in an environment where everyone cared about learning and where teachers spent time sharing their passion for education instead of disciplining students. I also got to know Mrs. Morgan better not only as a teacher but as a person. This, I thought, was what education was all about. The opportunity to know her helped me have a more personal connection. Moreover, I fell in love with the Kenyon College campus. So much so that during my senior year I applied to Kenyon and was accepted.
My first year at Kenyon was difficult for me at times. The amount of work that I received was definitely greater than I had been receiving in high school. Even more intimidating than the work was the other students. I felt like everyone else had a “how to” guide that I hadn’t been told about. There were things in class that others knew that I had never even heard of. Moreover, for the first time, I was now in a racial minority. My previous schooling had been in predominately black environments. I was now one of about 15 black students in a class of 500. Still, I committed myself to trying my hardest. This was the opportunity that I had been hoping for since high school, and I was determined to make the most of it.
Although my first year was one of great transition, I voraciously took advantage of everything the school had to offer. In addition to my academics, I became heavily involved with Student Activities, Residential Life, Multicultural Affairs and also with the Admissions Office, serving as a student host and tour guide. My college advisor, who also happened to be the Director of the SCAP summer program was so impressed with how well I had done that he approached me about serving as a teaching assistant in the SCAP program that summer. As an alumnus of the program, I had the benefit of intimately knowing how the program functioned, but more importantly, I could empathize with the students. I knew where they came from and served as a tangible example of what they could aspire to. Grateful for both the opportunity and everything that he had done for me, I readily accepted this position and joined the staff that summer.
It was initially intimidating to be in an authority position over students who were not much younger than I was. Moreover, I was now working as a colleague with Mrs. Morgan and some of the great teachers that I had recently had as a student. I learned so much about working with teenagers, not only in the classroom, but in the dorm as well. Often, the most important lessons were not things from the text-book, but things that we taught about living together and being good people. I also saw first-hand what students (largely students of color) could accomplish when placed in an encouraging environment; a very important lesson towards my own self-image and self-confidence. I would go on to serve as a teaching assistant for the program every summer of my college career.
My love of working with the students during the summers affirmed for me that working in education was what I wanted to do with my life. In my senior year of college, a Career Development advisor told me about the potential of working in independent schools. She explained that my Bachelors Degree would be enough to teach at an independent school, even though my major had been American Studies; not Education. She led me through the process of applying with teaching placement agencies like Carney Sandoe and ERG (Educational Resources group). This is how I first became aware of independent schools and ultimately became an independent school teacher. Within weeks of submitting my information, I began to receive inquiries from schools with position openings, received invitations to interview on-campus and ultimately accepted a position teaching history at The Williston Northampton School, a boarding school in western Massachusetts.
In the fall of 2002, I began educating students at Williston. I was twenty-one years old, the youngest faculty member, and one of two African-American faculty on staff. Many of the same challenges I faced at Kenyon would resurface at Williston. During my years teaching, I would draw heavily on my Kenyon experiences. As a result of my experiences, I knew how difficult it was to enter what seems to be a completely foreign environment. I realized that the biggest difficulty I had both in college and now in work was in overcoming my own insecurities about my inability to do the work. Through confidence and focusing on specific goals, I was able to excel in college, ultimately graduating Cum Laude. Now, in my forth year of teaching, I find myself not only excelling, but also serving as a mentor for my own students.
Now my fulfillment comes from working with students and helping them in adjusting to independent schools, overcoming their insecurities, and realizing that they have the ability to thrive therein. This can only be accomplished when a student has a true sense of self. We as educators must help students develop an inner confidence in themselves and a belief that they can learn. Some say that being a teacher is more of a calling than a profession. One certainly does not become a teacher because they hope to get rich. You do it because you love working with young people. Because you know that each day, you have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life. Mrs. Morgan and others like her had that impact on me. They are the dedicated teachers who can help motivate students even in the worst of academic environments and help them realize opportunities beyond their imagining. And that’s what I want to do. I want to be that person for someone else and give back all of the kindness that was shown to me.
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