I distinctly remember the moment I decided to make education my career path. I suppose I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, a fact I would have protested before coming to college. I never saw myself as a teacher. I wanted something different than what my childhood had given me. Education saturated every aspect of my young life. My father taught for nearly thirty years before he retired, and every night he would come home from long days working with elementary students, let his briefcase fall to the floor, loosen his tie, and tell those of us gathered around the dining room table for dinner all about the happenings of his classroom. Some of the stories still make me laugh today, while others bring tears to my eyes. When my siblings and I had a day off from school now and again, we begged him to take us to school with him. I will admit I loved the look of shock, awe, and respect that my father’s students would give us when they figured out that their teacher not only had a life outside of school, but also kids like them. We volunteered with field day activities, ran copies, sorted ungraded papers, and helped with crafts. I remember watching my dad bend over backwards at times to meet the needs of his students, ensuring that they would get the best education possible. He would stay up late into the night working for those students, his shoulders bent over papers and curriculum and his hands running through his hair every so often. I remember thinking I could never do anything like that and enjoy it. It seemed like so much work.
Her name was Aurora. She was fifth grade student handed off to me when her teacher decided that she could not deal with this squirmy disobedient preteen anymore. I had a free period during the spring of my senior year of high school. I had two options to fill it-work-study or tutoring struggling students in the local elementary school. I did not have job, nor did I want one, but I had more than my fair share of experience in a classroom. Tutoring it was. I walked into that fifth grade classroom with little to no expectations and entirely unsure of why on earth I was there in the first place. Aurora was a math student who quite simply refused to study math. She would act up in class, fidget constantly in her desk, and speak out when the teacher was lecturing. I watched her attempt problems and worksheets, only to shove them aside with a disheartened groan. When her teacher asked me to work with her, I was curious to see what would happen.
Initially, it was a complete disaster. Aurora was smart as a whip. She was curious and intelligent and creative. I was shocked that she was doing as poorly as she was, but we did not get along. She was challenging to say the least. She mouthed off and would flat out refuse to work. Everyday seemed like a struggle. I, in a desperate attempt to find anything that would work with this child, finally asked her why she was struggling.
“Mrs. Smith doesn’t make it make sense,” she said sadly.
Then it hit me-her learning style just did not match how she was being taught. Mrs. Smith was a pretty decent teacher. She had her flaws, but don’t we all? Yet this made perfect sense. Mrs. Smith maintained a straightforward, detail by detail process that only revealed the big picture or overlapping concept at the very end of the unit like a surprise. Aurora looked at the big picture and used that to focus and refine the details.
So I decided to try something. Every session I had with Aurora I tailored to her big picture approach. If I told her the main concept before we even began, no matter how confusing it might be, she would have the rest of it lined up in no time.We talked about options for classwork with her teacher, allowing Aurora to work in the way that worked best for her, and we watched as her grades gradually began to rise. Aurora came to my graduation that fall and gave me a hug and her most recent math test-with a perfect 100% marked at the top.
I knew I wanted to major in English, but that was the moment I decided I wanted to teacher. Seeing her little face light up when she finally got it, watching her learn and grow as a learner, and finally succeed as she went off to the wide world of middle school made me realize that is was worth it. All of my father’s sleepless nights and worries were for students like Aurora. All his focus and stress had been for struggling students who just wanted to succeed. All his hard work was what made the difference in a child’s life.
That’s why I chose the path I did, and why I smile every time I look back on it.