How did you know that you wanted to be a teacher? A seemingly simple question but one, at least for me, requiring more than a few minutes to explain. This was one of the first questions on my Teacher of the Year application packet. I was asked to write a number of essays covering a variety of topics in education, including a personal biography that outlined my journey to become the math teacher I am today. Like many of you, my journey into the exciting world of education wasn't a direct one. I didn't know I wanted to be a teacher from an early age. I tried other things, some successfully and some, not so much. When I began writing this essay, which I have turned into this post, I would have said that nothing out of the ordinary led me here. I just sort of fell into being a teacher. Looking back, I now realize that there were a number of decisions I made, and experience I had, that put me on my current path.
I have had the pleasure of teaching students of all ability levels, beginning my first year with two Math 7 Collaboration classes of 45 students each and, most recently, teaching FLAGS (Foreign Language and Global Studies) Accelerated Integrated Math 8 and Integrated Math 2. During these years, the Compact for Success has been in place in my district. The underlying assumption of the Compact being college is in the future of every student. I am in awe of a program designed to facilitate a growth mindset in all students, not only those traditionally considered to be college bound. This was not my middle and high school experience. In school, despite having a high GPA and taking advanced classes, I never considered what I might do after high school. No one ever had a conversation about college with me. During the summer of my senior year, instead of finishing up college applications, I became pregnant. Despite previous academic success, my parents, teachers, and counselors viewed my chances of graduating on time as slim to none. This was a huge blow to my self-esteem. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't graduate.
Shortly after the school year began, I was transferred to Garfield Secondary School's Pregnant Minor Program. I felt like a failure. Embarrassed at being hidden away so no one would see my shame. Fortunately, this was far from the attitude of the staff and teachers at Garfield. When I arrived, I had a one-on-one interview with my teacher/case manager, Harriet Thompson. She told me there was no reason why college would not be in my future. She made it her goal to help me continue my education by attending our local junior college in the fall. It became clear to me that she was truly interested in me as a person, not just for the few hours a day I was in her class. She could see my potential and helped me see it as well. With her help and support, I completed my senior year of high school in three and a half months, earning a small scholarship, which I used to complete my first two years of college. Without Mrs. Thompson, I don't know if I would have gone to college. She changed the way I felt about myself and the way I view the relationship between students and teachers forever. Mrs. Thompson embodied the importance of making connections with students. She is my role model and the person I think of when I struggle bonding with a student.
Attending college as a single, teen parent had its own set of challenges. The stress of balancing my responsibility to my son, Travis, while pursuing an education was overwhelming at times. Top that off with my own immaturity, lack of parenting experience and a variety of family issues and those first few years could only be described as less than ideal. Looking back, I think it was a combination of good friends, luck and stubbornness that got Travis and I through those years. I graduated from UCSD with a BA in Psychology.
Despite having my degree, I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. While at UCSD I co-facilitated a women's discussion group and was a TA for one of my favorite professors. I really enjoyed both. Helping people. Listening to their problems. Offering advice. It was pretty awesome. I started thinking I wanted to go into social work so I applied to the School of Social Work at SDSU. I was denied acceptance. This was a blow to my ego, but I had no time to wallow in self pity. I started looking for work. I noticed a number of positions available for life skills/job training coaches for juvenile offenders and gang affiliated youth. I was hesitant, having absolutely no experience in this field, but I needed a job badly, so I applied. Over the course of the next 8 years I went from one program to another. I helped my clients find jobs, housing, daycare, transportation, family planning resources, drug treatment, anger management, legal aid, counseling, healthcare, etc. It was very rewarding, but also very draining. Seeing someone you work tirelessly to help end up homeless, incarcerated, or dead was too much at times. I was reaching my limit.
A friend, and coworker, of mine was studying for the entrance exam for the teaching credential program. She was really struggling with the math portion. She failed it 3 times. Her frustration was mounting. I offered to tutor her in an attempt to help her pass. I'm not going to say that it was easy, but after many long hours and a couple more attempts, she finally passed. She remarked, several times, that I should consider teaching. I shrugged it off as a statement of gratitude from a friend I helped. Inside I was thinking, "Me?! A teacher?! Yeah, right!!" I could barely get my 10 year old son to listen to me much less a room full of teenagers.
A few months passed, during which time I continued working with my clients, facilitating resume and interview skills workshops. This was the hardest part of the job for me. I hated standing in front of a group and having all those eyes on me. I was so nervous every time I had to do it, I didn't sleep the night before. I had, and to some extent still have, a fear of public speaking. I can now admit this was the reason I discounted the idea of teaching.
I don't exactly remember how I decided to enroll in the credential program. I just remember how exhausted I felt every day, trying to pretend I was making a difference. Couple that with the physical and emotional drain of attending night classes and nurturing my home life. Something had to give. One evening, my wife, Janet, and our son, Travis, sat me down told me, in no uncertain terms, it was either school or the job. I couldn't do both. My initial reaction was panic. I was sure they were asking me to quit school. It was at that moment that I realized how much I wanted to be a teacher. You can probably imagine how how surprised and happy I was when they told me they had discussed it and decided I should quit my job and focus on school.
for my fear and public speaking) and studied some more. Over the last 10 years, they have continued to be my fan-base. Grading projects, rescheduling activities around my tutoring an listening, without complaint (most of the time), to my endless chatter about the amazing things my students do or some cool lesson I wanted to try. They are such wonderful people. I owe everything I am to them. I probably don't tell them that enough.