There are teachers who command a room. There are those who make teaching look easy with their seemingly effortless classroom management. Those who eloquently deliver meticulously-planned lessons with precision and patience. There are those teachers who grew up knowing they were destined to become teachers. I, however, was
not one of those teachers. I was hired by my alma mater only days before school started in 2001, through an emergency certification waiver. I had a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, but zero credits in education when I was hired to teach elementary foreign language, a job for which I soon realized I was grossly underqualified. While I was certainly confident in my ability to
speak Spanish, I was not so sure about my ability to
teach it to second-graders. I only realized how clueless I was about what it takes to be a teacher
after signing my contract. On the night before the new-teacher orientation, I met with my aunt, a veteran kindergarten teacher, and my mother, an elementary principal, and I asked questions like, “What do second-graders even
do?” and “Do third-graders still think coloring is cool?” Clearly, I had a
lot to learn. Enter my assigned mentor teacher, who I shall call, “Señora.” Señora taught seventh-grade Spanish at the middle school, and she taught me everything from how to plan a lesson to how to quiet a rowdy classroom. She shared feedback with me, and explained that for the best teachers it’s always going to be more about the students than the content, that if I was diligent enough to learn about my students, then they in turn would learn about the language I loved. It was not an easy road, but I did learn to love the journey to becoming a teacher. I was kept on for year number two, thanks in large part to the work that Señora put in, inviting me to her home and planning lessons with me long after the final bell rang. One cold Friday afternoon in the spring of my second year, the superintendent called me to her office. When she explained that the elementary Spanish program was cut due to a budget crisis, she held my hand and cried. As tears spilled from my eyes, I realized that somewhere during the last two years, I
became a teacher. I enjoyed coming to work, and I had fun sharing stories of my travels and tips to remember vocabulary. I felt fulfilled utilizing the strategies I learned from Señora, and my heart ached to give up my first job, turned career. After saying goodbye, I was able to find a job in a neighboring district, thanks to the strong network of local educators and several letters of reference from my first group of colleagues. With the ink still fresh on my now
official certification, I was hired as a middle-school Spanish teacher, and I came to realize that junior high was my home. I took my newfound career very seriously, and I worked hard, attending multiple professional development seminars each year, working on improving my lessons, and consistently reflecting on my practice. After earning tenure, I regularly participated in our district’s mentor program, working with new teachers in a variety of content areas, designing and leading professional development and becoming active on our district’s shared decision-making team. One day, two summers ago, I was asked to mentor a new social studies teacher, named Katherine. I had heard she stood out in the interview process, and that we shared many of the same philosophies when it came to students and pedagogy. Upon meeting Katherine, a memory flashed in my mind, and a spark of recognition crossed us both. It turned out this was not simply Katherine, the new social studies teacher—it was Katie,
daughter of my beloved Señora. Katie was no longer the bright-faced adolescent I had known years before, but now a teacher! I’ll admit that the surprise of it all led me to get a bit misty-eyed. My name had changed since we met all those years ago, and the unexpected connection surprised us both. We reminisced, and got to work planning and setting things up to begin our year across the hall from each other. On the night before school, her mother wrote me a letter, thanking me for watching over her daughter, explaining that it was a blessing how things had come full circle. I agree, Señora, I agree.
Elissa Good Smith teaches Spanish, communication and coordinates AVID at Lyndonville Central School. She is a doctoral candidate at Niagara University, and a New York Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves.