It’s been a heckuva long time since I chose my major, but I remember 2 things about that process. My parents were both teachers, and what high school senior wants to be their parents? Not I.
So in the last month of my senior year, I’m standing by my English teacher, Mr. Ford’s, desk, and he asks, “So what do you want to major in next year?” And my answer goes like this:
CINDY: [slams fist on Mr. Ford’s desk] I don’t know what I want to be, but I will NOT be a teacher.”
MR. FORD: [nods knowingly]
Fast forward to college, and three-ish majors later, I decided to major in English Education. Never fear, I called Mr. Ford at midnight on the eve when I decided and the phone call went like this:
CINDY: Guess what? I’ve decided to become an English teacher!
MR. FORD: Tell me something I didn’t already know. Now I’m going back to sleep. [unceremoniously hangs up phone]
The rest is history. I wanted to be an English teacher because I loved books and writing, and I wanted to pass that on to students who I would inspire so they could change the world.
In 1987, I followed through and became a full-fledged English/theatre teacher at Owasso High School in Owasso, OK. My motivations to become a teacher haven’t changed substantially, but man oh man, how the times have. Shortly after I started graduate school in 1996, content standards came down the pike, then NCLB, then came make-or-break standardized tests, followed shortly thereafter by the shuttering of schools and firing of teachers when they didn’t make the grade.
In the midst of it all, I because a literacy researcher and a professor of English Education. I gained language to frame the driving force behind my practice that had always been in my bones: social justice, equity, access, critical literacies. Like Sonia Nieto, whom I quote in the sketchnote at the top of the page, I believe in a “discourse of possibility, that is, a way of thinking critically but hopefully about teaching and learning…” (2015, p. 5).
In the course of my lifetime, I can’t recall a more challenging time to be a teacher than today. I don’t just mean this in the abstract sense that we live in an educational era characterized by standardization, testification, corporatization, and all the other “-ations.” Rather, I speak from a place of personal struggle.
A little over a year ago, my husband lost his job after dedicating almost 3 decades in education. The party line was that he lost it for “political reasons” and the complaints of angry, powerful parents. But the bottom line is that he lost it for educating from his heart, for being true to his unswerving commitment to “do what’s best for kids and teachers,” and for pushing back when power and policy got in the way. In the process, both of us almost lost our hope in education, that is, in our life’s work.
That spring, I had to get up every other morning and go “inspire” my students who were studying to be teachers that making a difference in students’ lives was making a difference in the world. I had to rally the troops around the idea that even though teaching was hard, it was worth it. I had to promise that teaching from a place of social justice was noble and possible and essential no matter what. But inside, I was dying. Inside, I didn’t know if I believed that anymore.
The arc of this narrative is unkind. I’ve just begun writing about it, and the tone is dark, the protagonists forever damaged. Perhaps the most important reality, however, is that we’re re-learning the “discourse of possibility” and remembering how to again embrace a view of education as “an unfulfilled but consequential ideal in the quest for equality and social justice” (Nieto, 2015, p. 5).
Turns out you can’t forget what you deep-down believe. That’s why teaching is still our major. Even now, after everything, we cannot help ourselves.