Why I Want to be an English Teacher

January 17, 2009

I often get asked why I want to teach, so here is the personal essay that got me into grad school:

My life has led me to be a teacher. At three, I was diagnosed with learning difficulties; later my parents learned I had ADHD. My childhood was filled with specialists, special schools, medication, and therapies. I had problems with speech, concentration, behavior, organization, and writing. In all of my classes, I struggled. Most of my academic career was in private schools for learning disabled students. It took me almost two decades to overcome these issues. I know how vital it is for students to have good teachers. That is why I want to teach. I want to help students, like myself, so they will not have to struggle as much as I did.

Most of my difficulties and talents lay in direct opposition to each other. I knew how to be organized; I just couldn’t get myself to do it. Self expression was never a problem, thoughts and ideas would come to me all the time, but when I had to write them down, I didn’t know how to. Though I knew how to behave properly in class, I could never master my own impulses. My mind was often hijacked by some idea that needed voicing, or some object that needed to be fiddled with. I was trapped within my own brain.

In spite of these challenges, I am very bright. If not for my learning issues, I would have attended a gifted program. Because the ideas in class were too simple, I was always bored and frustrated. Until the tenth grade, most of what I learned in science classes, I already knew from my own reading, or from having flipped through textbooks while bored in class.

The hard things were easy, the easy things-hard. I became very frustrated. No one else seemed to have my experiences. And I was told there were no other schools that could take me. I was fortunate to have parents who advocated for my needs without hesitation and always provided any special help I required. I did not know how unique my situation was until I was ten, when my mother became a teacher. She taught at transfer high schools in the Bronx and later in Manhattan. She told me how her students were like me, but having never received the help I did. All of her students were poor, most came from bad neighborhoods, and many of them had problems at home that I never had. If I were born to a family in a different neighborhood, I could be just like one of my mother’s students, under prepared for the Regents and college. That is a terrible injustice. That’s when I first wanted to be a teacher.

I spent years mindful of how classes were put together. In elementary school, I began to see the deeper structure of the lessons: why we had to do certain tasks, or why a lesson unfolded as it did. I’d see my classmates having difficulty mastering the material that came easily to me, and I thought, “How would they need to hear it?” I began teasing apart the various layers of comprehension, seeing where my peers got stuck. And when I would help them with assignments, I saw my perceptions were right.

I received an Associates Degree at Landmark College, a two-year college exclusively for learning disabled students. It changed my life. Landmark taught me how to write. Before Landmark, my essays were rushed first drafts. In frustration, I would jot down my ideas and clumsily piece them together. I was always lauded for the sharpness of my insight, but my essays were littered with poor punctuation and non-sequiturs. Landmark taught me how to brainstorm, how to outline, and how to draft to compose a solid paper. I learned the ins and outs of sentence mechanics. I finally had a written voice as mellifluous and nuanced as my thoughts. I learned the organizational techniques I use to this day. How to organize a binder, how to organize my day, or month, Landmark put the chaos into order.

Landmark professors were masters at crafting lessons, and I observed them intently. I saw the classroom from both the teachers’ and the students’ perspective. I learned very clearly the ways students struggle in class. Landmark changed the way I see all schooling. I would not be applying to this program were it not for my time there.

After graduating with an Associates Degree, I went to Brandeis University, where I graduated with a degree in Psychology. Brandeis taught me much about myself. I was surrounded by people who were as smart as I am, and smarter. But I still had difficulty getting the work done. After awhile, I realized the problem was not my difficulties organizing my ideas, my materials, or my time. The problem was my fear. I was terrified to apply myself. I never had to do it before, and I was afraid I would fail.

I know school inside and out. I’ve struggled with things that came easily for my other classmates. I despaired over classes that I felt were too simple. I know how embarrassing it is to have amazing ideas and to have no way to put them into action. Those moments require kindness, compassion, and patience from a teacher; I know how to give that, because I that is what I needed.

The most important thing I want to give my students is confidence in the face of what is hard. Most of my life I was terrified to reach my potential. That caused me more challenges than all of my problems with writing, concentrating, behaving, or organizing. I was intimidated by my opposing talents and challenges. I did not want to push myself, afraid of uncovering more flaws.

I have always valued learning; it has been and will be my favorite thing. To learn a new idea, or to see it in a new light, gives me exquisite joy. I cannot expect to make my students mirrors of my enthusiasm, but I can inspire them with my own. I believe that nothing is impossible, which many of my struggling schoolmates and my younger self would have found hard to believe.

My greatest accomplishment is success in spite of my difficulties. When I was little, I had problems with speaking, writing, concentrating, behaving, and coordinated movement. Now, I rarely find difficulty expressing myself; I enjoy writing; I graduated from a top university; I get along well with others; and I love to dance. I am proof that no one is unable to learn, to heal, and to become something better, whole. Despite my desires to quit, I have always moved ahead. I am most proud that anyone who meets me today would never know how difficult my life was as a child, unless I told them myself.

I am an intelligent, patient, insightful person who has struggled all his life with learning disabilities. I want to help the kids who cannot afford the private schools I attended, the kids who did not have the parents, like mine, who supported me and who fought for the public funding of my private education. I want to help these students see they can overcome their difficulties. I want my students to learn from my lessons, to make them stronger, more confident people. Just because a child has challenges does not mean they should be prevented from reaching their full potential. I am proof.


“You’d Make a Great Teacher…”

January 15, 2009

When I tell people I want to be a teacher, they tell me, “yeah I can see that.” Or, they say “you’re gonna be an excellent teacher.” This is all very flattering, but what I find most curious is that I am told this within moments of saying I want to be a teacher, this includes people I have met for only a handful of minutes.

When someone who I’ve just met tells me I’m going to be a great teacher, I wonder if a) they are full of shit and trying to be polite, or b) they really see something. Often I get a sense that it’s not “a”. This makes me a little unnerved. Am I destined to be a teacher? Is there some great cosmic force that has forged me to become an instructor of young impressionable minds? What is it that people really see in me?

Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, talked about how people’s professions get baked into their personalities and one can figure out a fella’s occupation while hardly knowing them. After talking to an engineer for a brief while, you may figure “hey she’s an engineer.” What I find so curious is that I haven’t started teaching, yet the deep forces of my psyche which lay on the precipice between mind and body seem to have decided I am to teach and that it’s best to imbue my movements, speech and gestures with “Hey world, I’m a teacher.”

In New York State going to graduate school in for education is very backwards. Many people get to try out a profession before getting a  master’s degree related to it. In New York, you need the Masters before you start teaching. So you have to decide to go to grad school before you’ve stepped foot into a classroom. So I’ve never really taught before. I have no idea at all what it will be like. For all I know I’ll quit after a year, nonetheless it seems the urge to teach is now written into muscles, prepping me to defuse a sudden outburst, catch a brilliant idea, or wade through a sea of disinterest.

The Curve

January 13, 2009

The Curve

. The Universe has a lover, the curve
.                           Mysterious, beautiful
.                                Pi flirts with our minds
.         Showing us the infinite within the finite,
.                              The curves of a galactic arm
.                                       The curves of a woman
.                               Our lives are mere spirals…
.             Moving forward in patterns endlessly
.         Space curves and makes giant spheres
.     While we orbit a fiery globe in an oval
.    Spirals     Galaxies     DNA        Proteins
.                            What if we could see God?
.                                What would she look like?
.                                                               Maybe…
.                She is a curve, winding through space
.                                      Flirting with the stars

This is probably my favorite of all the poems I’ve written. I wrote it back in 11th grade during Ms. Talesnik’s math class. The fact I feel I’ve been unable to top it worries me a bit. Apologies for the dots, it was the only way to get WordPress to accept the spacing.

Oh Brave New Blog, What People In It!

January 13, 2009

It's more frustrating than it is intimidating.

Many people say they do not enjoy New York because of the crowds. Most likely, they have learned their distaste from riding the subway. Descending the stairs into to the Times Square uptown IRT platform (that means the 1, 2, & 3 trains, for you young’uns) in the midst of full-on rush hour, one cannot help but intimidated. The platform is a packed shifting sea of bodies with coats, shopping bags, briefcases, and backpacks which, in this town, have an equal chance of being filled with law books, bongs, or artisanal cheese. The backpacks on tall people are the worst, jutting out at right angles, they threaten to cold-cock any small children. Navigating this bedlam requires a mix of determination with a delicate touch, because as much as you want to make your way through the sea of dreadlocks, hipster hats with tiny brims, and 90 dollar haircuts, you don’t want to somehow cause a chain reaction of falling people that leads to someone to be pushed off the platform.

Getting onto the train is another challenge entirely. When the train arrives, one attempts to optimally position themselves by the train doors, creating a corridor that allows people to get out, and lets the lucky straphanger (that’s City Talk for anyone who rides a subway or bus) to be one of the first few people in. Getting from a packed train platform into a moderately full subway car is very much akin to the 1950’s pastime of stuffing people into a telephone booths, except that this is far less fun.

Things become very Darwinian in a flash, does it matter that the pixie with blazing red hair has only 8 minutes to get to her audition for a choreographer who detests lateness? Does one feel compassion toward the impossibly tall realtor who had to fill in for her partner at the last moment, so she’s been on her feet all day (in the wrong shoes, mind you), aching to go home to NPR and a foot bath of Epsom salts? Does anyone mourn for the middle-aged fellow in the grey pinstripe suit, a recovering alcoholic (3 years sober) with a crumbling marriage, and a daughter who he hasn’t spoken to in 15 months; a man so close to having a drink that his ability to successfully get into the arriving train may be all that will save him from falling off the wagon? The answer to all these questions is unequivocally, no.

Most New Yorkers are very compassionate people, but when on a crowded train platform, that goes by the wayside; all that remains is an unspoken code of decorum. As long as there is no outright pushing, vigorous shoving or any violence, a spot in a crowded train, or a lone seat is a free-for-all. The personal assistant moves as fast as she can, the copywriter will wedge his body between the two rotund middle-schoolers, and the crafty pre-law student will intentionally angle herself as to cut in front of the short-order cook next to her once the train doors open. In a place of such condensed impersonal impatience and madness, it’s a really effective way of getting the job done, there is no time for “no, no, no, you get on the train, I’ll wait for the next one, I insist.” That is better used for moments of passive aggression best exemplified by Old-World relatives, and the once common, but now rare, polite-off (as in face-off, dance-off, or muffin-off), where you must try to outdo the kindness of the other fellow and somehow shame them into being done a favor by you.