On Being a High School English Teacher

Before I had my son, I was a high school English teacher. Five days a week I welcomed 175 different students into my classroom, teaching 5 classes of American Literature to rambunctious 15 and 16-year-olds. I think I learned more from those kids than I could ever dream of teaching them, and I still think back fondly on those six years I was “Mrs. Hampton”.

It’s interesting because I never thought I’d end up being an educator. My Mom is an elementary school teacher, and growing up I spent a lot time in her classroom, but it was still never something I dreamed of becoming. And later, although I loved the social aspect of high school, the last thing I could have ever imagined was that one day I’d be back there dealing with wild teenagers like myself. But after earning my Bachelor’s in English Literature, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life. My original dream of becoming a lawyer had lost its luster and I found myself looking into grad school… and somehow, my focus turned towards Education. A year and a half later I had a Master’s degree in my hand and a job teaching English at a high school in the small town I now call home.

Teaching is a truly noble profession. At times it is thankless; it can be tough to work in a career that isn’t paid well and is often the first area that gets the brunt of budget cuts. But overall, it’s beyond rewarding. People have called me crazy for voluntarily wanting to spend my days with teenagers. “How could you want to do that?” “Aren’t those kids just too much to handle?” But I really think it was the best job I’ve ever had.  I got to talk about books, read with the kids, design lessons based around some of my favorite authors and novels and focus on writing every single day. What could be better? I had my good days, I had my bad days…but through all of it, I found a deep sense of purpose and found myself laughing and smiling through most of it.

Now I spend my days chasing around my 14-month-old son, and although those times spent in a classroom seem so far away, I can still remember my very first day of student teaching. There I was, shaking in my boots (or black Payless flats, if you want to get technical), a 5’3″, 22-year old fresh-faced college graduate. I was facing a room full of seniors who were just a few years younger than me and I was terrified. But I did it. I looked them all in the eyes, I talked to them, I got over my fear and over that semester, I became their teacher.

The next year I had my own classroom and had to go through those first-day jitters all over again. If I think about it, I can still feel the butterflies, the sweaty palms and then that sweet relief once that first day was done and over with. I conquered it, though, and I spent the next five years building relationships with some of the most wonderful children, inspiring them to read and getting quite the education myself.

I learned that you can’t procrastinate when you have a roomful of teenagers relying on you and that if you count on the photocopier to make 35 copies right before class is about to start, it will most likely break right then and there. I figured out right away that the school librarian is an English teacher’s best friend. I quickly realized I wasn’t as hip as I thought I was (Can someone please explain to me what a Wiz Khalifa is?). I figured out that some of my students come from great homes full of love and support…and others come from a very lonely place, where the only encouraging thing they might hear all day was quite possibly from me. I found out that kids still really do love to read, but that in this age of technology it better be exciting.

I realized that my attitude and the climate of my classroom directly affected my students. I learned how to notice cheating with my back turned, how to spot plagiarism at a glance, I gained super-extraordinary hearing and could pick up the subtle click-click-click of a student texting during a lecture. I found out that everyone has a story and things weren’t always as they seemed. I quickly lost my naivety and realized that things today are much different than they used to be. I learned a million new vocabulary words from repeating the same lessons  over and over, five times a day. I experienced kids lying to me, I saw kids being bullied and I witnessed them standing up for one another. I saw tears (lots of tears), but I also saw a lot of happiness, even in boring old English class. I learned that I need to carry my teacher ID on me at all times or run the risk of a substitute teacher mistaking me for a student and sending me to the office for loitering in the halls (true story). I found out quickly that even though I was the teacher, I wasn’t always right, and it was okay to say so. The biggest thing I learned, though, was that at the root of it, every single one of my students wanted to be loved. They wanted attention, they wanted to feel important and they wanted someone to listen.

My time spent teaching truly changed my life. Even though I can distinctly remember some days being so difficult, most days I loved it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else during that period of my life, and I wholeheartedly believe that those six years made me into not just a better person, but a better Mom.  I look forward to the day I can use my super-human hearing to wow (and annoy) my son, and I think I’ll always get a kick out of throwing some of those fifty-cent vocabulary words obnoxiously into conversation. I don’t think that will ever get old.

Did you ever have a job that totally changed you or your perspective? I’d love to hear about it, so feel free to chime in via the comments below!

image via The New York Times

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