My dad worked every overtime shift he has able to get when I was little. Looking back, I realize a lot of that must have gone into my tuition at the only private elementary school in Del Rio, Texas. Education was very important to my parents. By the age of ten, I was tackling algebra at the same time as my cousin who attended an inner-city middle school in San Antonio. But even The Little Schoolhouse didn’t teach us to read or encourage our progression as soon as my father would have liked. He taught me to read using Green Eggs and Ham and Fox in Socks before my classmates were Seeing Spot Run.Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?
In 6th grade, my dad’s government job transferred us to the French-speaking province of Quebec. I was able to get into a prestigious, English-language, all-boys, private high school run by Jesuits, but my teachers were very honest. I was not likely to graduate on time because it was unrealistic to think that in 5 years I could pass the government-issued French language exam required of high school graduates who were mostly native speakers. The truth was meant to prepare me for 5 years of intense study, but it only made study seem pointless. What good would it do to study if I was going to fail the language exam and be held back? I dropped from all A’s to barely passing.
But my math teacher Mr. Sanders convinced my parents that I was too bright for basic math, so they tossed me in the deep end, and soon I was getting B’s in Honors pre-calculus. My Speech teacher Mr. Dubee encouraged me into public speaking as a lector at my local church. Mr. Hoefle showed me that I could understand and analyze literature in his Honors English class about Westerns and let me run with my own ideas. These teachers pushed me out of apathy, but Monsieur Brault helped me pass the language exam by never taking it easy on me.
In Quebec, high school ends after 11th grade, and I graduated before we were transferred back to the States. But American colleges wouldn’t accept my diploma since I wasn’t technically an international student, so it was back to school. All my hard work to avoid an extra year was for naught. But this time, my frustration didn’t have an adverse effect on my grades, the local school board did. At first, I wasn’t allowed to register for school because I technically already had a high school diploma. Eventually, however, I was able to finagle my way into school by not having some basic American college requirements: American History and Government, another science I had taken in eighth grade (high school in Quebec but middle school in America—so it didn’t count), and British literature. There were others (American Literature and World History), but I bent the truth about them in my interview with one of the school board members once I realized that not having them would mean also having to repeat the 11th grade.
Equally distressing was that any course from my Canadian high school that either was not offered at my American one or wouldn’t fit on my American transcript was discarded. Officially speaking, I lost two years of science, French, Spanish and English, four and a half years of Speech, five years of assorted religion courses (ethics, World Religions, etc.), half a year of Creative Writing, a year of Philosophy, three years of Physical Education, and my year of Honors English and Pre-Calculus, to the stroke of a pen. On top of that, the courses I was able to keep were not adjusted to reflect the grade breakdown used by my new school; in other words, most of my A’s became B’s, B’s became C’s, and so on. Surprisingly, all of this bothered me less than suddenly finding myself part if the 1% of Latino students who attended the upper-middle class, Bible Belt high school. I was often “complimented” on how well I spoke English (“without a accent or nuthin’”) and was excused from classes to attend lectures with the other 1% on encouraging us that being Latino didn’t have to hold us back from college and a successful career. Despite (or perhaps in spite of) all that, I finished with all A’s on bare minimum work at one of Newsweek’s “Best High Schools in America.” And more than anything, this struck me as odd.
I’d already decided that I wanted to be a teacher. The educators who pushed me out of disenchantment were inspiring. And my brief stint in what was some of the best that the American school system had to offer only strengthened that resolve. Throughout my undergraduate career, I threw myself into whatever teaching capacity I could: instructing swim lessons at the local Y, tutoring French for the university language lab, TA-ing the university horseback riding class, and training lifeguards.
I took lessons from each: it’s okay to toss students into the deep end if you’re there to help them stay afloat; the best advice is useless if you can’t make yourself understood; you can’t expect a student to want to jump straight into the saddle, but you shouldn’t assume they won’t want to gallop; letting a student by with sloppy technique doesn’t help anyone.
And I affirmed my desire to teach in graduate school where my real passion quickly became the composition classes I taught as part of my assistantship. I even requested extra contracts to tutor in the Writing Center. When the university offered me a full-time position, I jumped at the opportunity.
I’m still teaching, but I’m eager to learn more. I want to understand those curriculum differences I encountered in high school. I want to know what makes a strong university course and program. I want to be a much stronger teacher. And I want to work out solutions for those high school curriculums, or design better programs for serving the students who enter higher education, or just be able to pick out and push a kid who’s selling himself short.
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
My Personal History Statement OR How to Make a French-Speaking, Mexican, English Teacher
As I may have mentioned, I'm currently in the throes of doctoral program applications in education. I'm currently working on the first application to ask for a Personal History Statement--"no more than two pages in length, about your personal history, family background, and other influences on your intellectual development" and addresses "educational, cultural, and economic opportunities and disadvantages that you have experienced, and ways those experiences have affected the development of your special interests, career plans, and future goals." It turned into a "Why I Became a Teacher" essay, and I thought I'd open it to floor for thoughts.