Teaching is a Journey, Not a job

I was in first grade when I knew - I knew I wanted to be a teacher. As I looked up lovingly and in awe of Mrs. Robinson, my first grade teacher at Mt. Vernon Elementary school in St. Petersburg, Florida, I seemed to say “I want to grow up and be like you!” She and other teachers along the way instilled in me a love for learning and as a result a love for teaching. I’m grateful for each and every teacher in my life - even those I remember not so fondly. I’ve learned that they inspired me to do better, to be better.

My first year of teaching was at Lockhart 6th Grade Center in Tampa, Florida in a special education resource classroom. Here I learned the importance on one-on-one instruction and how to adapt traditional classroom curriculum to the specific needs of children with learning disabilities. Although these first two years were a struggle as a beginning teacher, I learned much from my students. I learned that not everyone goes home to a home that is safe. I learned that many children come to school hungry. I learned that you have to do the best with what you have - and that you can somehow find a way to make something out of nothing!

I learned early in my teaching career that you need to find a way to serve outside of your own classroom. Although teachers are assigned extra “duties” (e.g., bus duty, hall duty, lunch duty, etc.), working with kids outside of the academic realm is just as rewarding. I was the director for the school play one year while teaching at Safety Harbor Middle School in Safety Harbor, Florida and this experience stretched me almost to breaking! I got to know kids who were not in any of my classes and for whom drama was life! Their perspective on what matters changed my own thinking about what matters most. Finding ways for kids to use their gifts and talents is just as important as learning to read and write.

I also learned over time that not every teacher seeks to meet the needs of every student. I learned this the hard way as our oldest son, Christopher, began to hate school and his love for learning waned. As a highly gifted child, he wasn’t being challenged and his teachers did nothing but shrug their shoulders in indifference. This is when I learned that I could and should teach my own children. I homeschooled our two sons for five years. I learned just as much about myself as I did my children. I discovered that even though my experience had been teaching at the middle and high school levels that teaching a first and third grader was something I had to now learn. You learn what you must in order to teach those in your charge. Homeschooling helped re-instill the love for learning in my children and prepared them for what lay ahead. I’m grateful for every minute of those five years.

I found that even though I was no longer in a classroom, I could still teach. I wrote three books about homeschooling from the heart of my own experiences. I taught at homeschool conferences. I created curriculum for homeschool families. I taught in homeschool cooperatives. Teaching doesn’t stop outside of a school building.

I learned that I could teach through my writing. I wrote to teach teachers and would-be teachers. I taught about educational writing at writers’ conferences. I wrote to teach and taught to write. Making a difference with your words can be life-changing. For me, it wasn’t enough. I needed to get back to my first love. I needed to go back to the classroom.

In 2006 I was welcomed to the 8th grade team at Madeira Beach Middle School in Florida. As a co-teacher and special educator, I worked with three science teachers and more than 200 students. I learned to teach outside of my comfort zone during this time. I taught physical science (new to me) and math (new to me). I worked with the lowest students who had the biggest hearts! I learned once again how important relationship building is to teaching. It makes all the difference - for students and for teachers.

I have learned to be open to go where I am needed. I learned long ago that I wasn’t meant to stay in one school for 30 years. I was made to go where needed for as long as I’m needed - I’ve viewed myself as sort of a missionary teacher in that way. The newly installed Early College Program at St. Petersburg College in Florida needed a learning specialist to help these 11th and 12th grade students acclimate to college sooner than planned. Mentoring these students was a very special as well as challenging experience. I have now had the opportunity to watch them blossom into incredible people who follow their passion and make a difference.

It was time again to answer a call to serve with my teaching. I became the high school youth minister at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Largo, Florida. This included planning and delivering weekly religious preparation as well as taking students on a week-long retreat to Indiana to the Notre Dame Vision retreat. This was the first, but not last time I escorted students far away from home. I learned that teaching to the spiritual needs of kids grew me up spiritually as well. I was reminded yet again that in order to teach I first must learn.

My last classroom teaching assignment was at Dunedin Highland Middle School in 2010 in Florida where I taught 6th grade Earth Science and was the coordinator of the Center for Gifted Studies. Again, I answered a call to serve in this position. I learned once again that I could teach outside my “content” zone successfully and that I had to become a learner first before I could teach. Content knowledge is only knowledge. In order to convert it into action and make a difference in a life, it must be combined with skill and delivered through relationship. Sounds like a chemical reaction to me! My teaching journey didn’t end with this class, but it did transform.

In 2011 I obtained my doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction: Special Education Teacher Education. Finally my dream of teaching would-be teachers had come true. I taught for three years in the School of Education at Regis University in Colorado. I learned that mentoring those who wanted to become teachers, especially in this hostile climate toward teachers and schools, was of crucial importance. I can make a difference one degree of separation from the classroom.

I again answered the call to go where I was needed, and moved back to my home state of New York to teach in a liberal arts college in the stunning Hudson Valley. Now I prepare teachers at Mount Saint Mary College and believe that after 30 years in education, I’ve come home. I’ve learned that I still have so much to learn and that’s a good place to be.

I work with both undergraduate and graduate students in special education. Teaching them how to research their own classrooms is something I enjoy. Mentoring new teachers to question the status quo and become agents of change in order to improve the lives of the children in their charge is not just noble, it’s necessary. I’ve learned that research plus relationship can make a difference.

Having obtained my Ph.D. in 2011, I now teach soon-to-be teachers who will in turn teach the next generation of students. A teacher teaches - always. And I still find I need to take them outside of their classrooms in order to learn what they need to know. I’ve learned that the more I learn, the more I have to teach.