As I reflect on the beginning of the school year, I think about the various experiences I’ve had that have shaped me as both a student and a teacher. Here they are in no particular order:
1. The Teachers That Believe Let’s face it, we’ve all had teachers out there who maybe didn’t believe in us so much. I had a physics class in high school where I didn’t believe in myself (and, fairly enough, the teacher probably didn’t believe in me too much, either). But, what about the teacher who did? I’ll never forget Mr. Clutter’s English class in 10th and 12th grade—suddenly, I felt smart. He believed I could write! He believed I could read! He still may have no idea he’s one of the reasons I went on to become an English teacher and a writer. I’ll also never forget Ja’ohn Briley, the charming and tenacious young eighth grader I had the pleasure of teaching twice. I got to watch him start the same grade over and I’ll always remember the way he came into my classroom with eyes wide and ready because he knew that just because he hadn’t been quite ready for ninth grade the past year, it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be at the end of this year. He knew that there was a team of seven teachers who deeply believed in him and this was his chance. Now, he’s about to tackle one of his most important years of high school to get him ready for college.
2. Growing Confidence As a teacher, each year you enter the classroom feels slightly less daunting than the last. You know what to expect and what to say (sometimes), and you know what mistakes to try not to repeat. You feel freer to tackle exciting units and not being as rigid with your kids. And, as a student, each year brings an opportunity to explore farther and farther.
3. New Experiences I never thought that I would be learning hip-hop dance from a 14-year-old and I never thought I would be responsible for 40 students wandering the campus of Vanderbilt University, but that was the beauty of teaching each new year. I never had any idea what might happen or what my students would ultimately teach me. One day, a student had a seizure in my arms. The next day, students threw pies in teachers’ faces as a reward for perfect attendance. There’s an unpredictability that comes with being in a school and it’s a wonder to watch it unfold. Have you ever watched a fifth grader pronounce a lengthy word correctly the first time? Or seen an eighth grader whose eyes light up while they read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”? Or see a group of boys learning how to type using a race car game? It’s magical. It’s incredible what our students are capable of and what a privilege it is—no matter your background, skin color, income status, zip code—to have the opportunity to learn and grow every year. Moving away from the silent-hallway days of kindergarten, each year brings increased freedom—the freedom to read every book you know you can read, the freedom to explore electives and clubs and the freedom to choose the college, the future, the career that make sense for you.
Liz Riggs is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo of Englewood Montessori class in Chicago.
Liz is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.