In my childhood home on Terrace Drive in Carroll, Iowa, I had a playroom in the basement. I had a play kitchen, doll beds, dress-up clothes, and wooden puzzles. One day, my mom brought home a pair of student desks from a local auction. I added two small chairs from my kitchen set and an old blackboard on the wall. I had an instant classroom.
My elementary school teachers often gave away unused worksheets at the end of the school year. I jumped at the chance to bring home a stack of papers so I could play school with my friends. I usually tried to convince my friends to let me be the teacher. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was practicing for my future career.
In high school, I took a test on the computer to see what occupation would suit me best based on my interests and personal habits. After submitting my test, I waited for my results to print on the dot matrix printer. As I tore away the dotted edges from the sides of the paper, I saw my result read, “Housekeeper.” Apparently, my preference for working alone rather than with a team and working in a systematic order meant I would make a great housekeeper.
For one of my classes, we were required to job shadow someone in the community. I thought about my interests and decided to shadow an interior designer at a furniture store. Another student and I tagged along as she brought fabric swatches to a client that lived in a house in the country. Being an interior designer seemed slightly fun and interesting, but I knew it wasn’t for me.
My mom and I began to plan college visits. I wrote for my high school newspaper and yearbook and thought I might like to study Journalism. I came from a family that owned a newspaper. My mother’s father began a daily newspaper beginning in the 1920s. Starting at age nine, I delivered newspapers five afternoons a week. I narrowed it down to visiting Drake University and The University of Iowa. After a tour, I knew U of I was for me. The sprawling campus was appealing to me. It included the scenic Iowa River and the Old Capitol. I liked the idea of a diverse student population and being three hours from home. I sought independence from my hometown. After meeting with an academic advisor, I decided to double major in Journalism and Mass Communication and Studio Art. This would give me a good foundation to pursue something along the lines of Advertising.
I began my studies in the fall of 1993. I split my time between the School of Journalism on the main campus and the School of Art across the river to the west. Journalism kept my brain busy, and art kept my hands busy. I enjoyed both sets of coursework.
In one of my Journalism classes, the professor asked me to stay after class. He wanted me to begin writing for the North Liberty Leader as a student contributor. I was happy to take on this new challenge. However, as time went on, I discovered I didn’t love making cold calls to interview someone for an assignment. Maybe it was my insecurity at that time of my life, but it didn’t come easily for me.
One spring day of my sophomore year, I was walking through the student union, when I spotted a table with a sign for Camp Foster YMCA. I recognized the man sitting behind the table as the director of the camp. I attended Camp Foster as a child every summer from about age 6 to 14. The director said he was looking for camp counselors for the upcoming summer. I didn’t have any plans for the summer, so I decided to apply for the job.
As a child, Camp Foster was my happy place, and returning to Spirit Lake was a flood of memories. Everything was the same including the lack of air conditioning. Each week, I was assigned a new cabin and a new group of campers. Being a camp counselor seemed natural to me. Every day I went over the daily schedule, lead my campers to various activities, helped them keep track of their belongings, and tried to make everyone get along.
During one of my evening breaks towards the end of the summer, I trudged up the hill to the staff lounge behind the office. I used my calling card to call my mom and told her I wanted to change my major. Right away she knew what I was going to say. She said, “You want to be a teacher.” I asked, “How did you know?” She told me she could tell by the way I talked about my campers.
Changing my major at the beginning of my junior year was not necessarily easy, but not impossible. I had taken classes at Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll beginning the summer before my senior year of high school. I began my freshman year of college with twelve hours of gen ed classes under my belt. I dropped my Journalism major (retained my Studio Art major) and jumped in headfirst into the College of Education beginning with Foundations of Education followed by practicums. I was an elementary education major with a specialization in art.
When it was time to begin thinking about student teaching, I had all sorts of possibilities to consider. Many students from my program were taking a leap and student teaching at Aldine School District, outside of Houston. I didn’t have enough self-confidence to move so far away on my own, but I didn’t want to stay in Iowa City. I had matured and had enough of college life. I feared if I stayed in Iowa City, I would be placed in Cedar Rapids or Kalona for student teaching and would have to commute 30 to 45 minutes each way. My family often visited the Des Moines area for shopping and my dad lived there for a few years. I knew a former teacher that had taught in Carroll that was now a principal in a suburb of Des Moines. She offered to have me student teach at her school.
I moved to West Des Moines to a one-bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, my student teaching experience was not ideal, and being stuck with the same teacher for eighteen weeks was extremely difficult. After graduation, I applied for teaching jobs in the area. It was 1998 and a teaching position was extremely hard to obtain. It helped immensely to have an inside connection to move your resume to the top of the pile. I watched the classified section of the Des Moines Register like a hawk and applied for every job I found. I hand delivered my cover letters and resumes rather than sending them in the mail. In the meantime, I decided to work at a daycare as a teacher in a school-age classroom. I worked a split shift, before and after school, and then all day in the summer. I took kids on field trips to the park and the pool by myself, counting heads every few minutes. This job wasn’t what I intended to do, but it was good enough for the time being and solidified my decision to work with children.
In the fall, I applied to be a substitute teacher for Des Moines Public Schools. I was quickly hired and set out each day armed with stickers, smelly stamps, extra worksheets, and books. I made sure to write a note for the teacher at the end of each day and to leave the classroom in order. Soon, I was receiving phone calls to substitute at the same school almost every day. It was an old elementary school not far from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. This humble school was full of teachers that cared about their students and took care of their staff.
The students lived in a low-income area of town and often needed extra reassurance, a hug, a smile, or a kind word. I spent 90% of my time subbing at that school. I was asked to cover two maternity leaves that school year. I got to know the students and the staff. One day a little girl got sick as she was coming to tell me her tummy hurt. The teacher next door didn’t hesitate to run to bring me her workout clothes she had in her car. I took off my long rayon dress and changed into a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt and went on with my day.
I went on to teach summer school at King Elementary, but I still didn’t have a teaching position. In the middle of August, I received a call from the principal of the school where I had been a long-term sub. She explained to me she didn’t have a classroom or art position open at the school but had a job teaching English as a Second Language. At the time, I didn’t know anything about teaching ESL. My diversity in education course in college covered students with disabilities, but not students whose native language was not English.
I accepted the job over the phone. There was no formal interview. I didn’t need the fancy dress and heels with matching jewelry from Talbots after all. I agreed to begin coursework toward an endorsement in ESL. My mom convinced me to pursue a master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) to fulfill my endorsement requirement. I joined a small cohort of other teachers and we met at various locations around the metro. We learned in distance learning classrooms specially equipped with cameras and microphones. Our instructors and professors in Cedar Falls on the University of Northern Iowa campus could see and hear us and vice versa. I took classes in the evenings and on an occasional Saturday. I learned about second language acquisition, the Silent Period, and phonemes through UNI’s English Department. The only time I was required to be on campus was to take the comprehensive exam. I sent my 25-page master’s research paper back and forth over and over in the mail in a large envelope, so different from today.
I learned about teaching English Language Learners as the school year progressed. Most of my students spoke Spanish and I did not. Thankfully my students were very gracious and taught me many things along the way. My students were happy to have a little bit of time away from their gen ed classroom and some special attention in my classroom. I taught them English by playing language-rich games and encouraged them to speak by having real conversations. We played with puppets and sang songs to learn the days of the week.
Through the years, my students have taught me so much more than how to be a teacher. They have taught me about themselves, their families, and their cultures. They have taught me to be grateful for what I have. They have taught me to be compassionate and empathetic. It sounds cliché, but my students have taught me to be a better person.
After seeing the world through their eyes, I have learned children are resilient. My students are refugees that have escaped violence and war-torn countries. They are immigrants that have traveled thousands of miles from Latin America. They are second-generation immigrants whose parents made the long journey to the United States.
In the past 24 years, my students have come from many parts of the world. This year my students’ homelands include Tanzania, Somalia, Eritrea, Nepal, Thailand, Burma, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and Ukraine.
The distance they have traveled is great, but the impact they have made on me as a teacher and as a person is even greater.
What a beautiful story - thanks for writing it and sharing.
Thanks for being a teacher AND a writer!