Finding and holding onto the optimistic

Today’s post is a re-“print” of a reflection I wrote over five years ago after teaching a specific summer course to international military members. For some reason, the spring months are usually where I reflect on my teaching career and especially this year, remember the good, the positive, the optimistic. This is different than “toxic positivity” running rampant right now, especially in education circles. I in no way want to dismiss the difficult and seemingly impossible – just bring forth a memory from the back of my mind to steel myself for the remainder of the school year. Enjoy!


Originally written and published in July 2015.

“You’re our teacher?” a chorus of voices asks as I walk in five minutes late and breathless from losing my way on the first day of the writing pre-course at the Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss. I’m young, and I’m intimidated. I’m not even 30 and I know that these men (and one woman) have served for 15 to 20 years or more in order to achieve the highest enlisted rank in their military. What is more is that out of the 23 students I’ve been entrusted with for the summer session, there are 21 countries represented, and they have been hand-picked by their military or government to represent their countries by attending the Sergeant Major Course.

As we give introductions to the class, myself included, I think about how I’m glad my husband is a soldier so I’m not completely blindsided by the military culture here. I also wonder, How am I going to pull this off? Twenty-three students from 21 countries. Twenty-three accents, 23 levels of English, 23 levels of writing, 23 experiences with education, 23 people who are most likely older than me.

I’ve anticipated this day for the past three months, and I’ve met with the other instructors, past and present, to get the lowdown on this course. What is it like? How do you fill the time? I have lesson plans at the ready, PowerPoints and group discussions as my artillery. I’m no stranger to the classroom: I began my career in a small room at the back of a music store when I was 14, teaching piano lessons to people of all ages and ability levels. I graduated from college and taught high school Spanish for two years, when I was barely older than my students. I studied linguistics and TESOL in graduate school, and after graduation I landed my first full-time faculty position at the university.

The previous year had been a challenge as I tried to navigate the choppy waters anyone encounters in a new academic position. New people, new administration, new students every semester. New languages, new countries, new accents. I had transitioned from teaching Spanish to English-speakers in rural Illinois to teaching intermediate English to Mexican nationals on the US-Mexico border to teaching advanced composition to students from many countries on several continents. I hesitated to take this summer position because of the busy year, but knew I would get cabin fever over the summer. I decided to go for it.

We start out on a first-name basis; I tend to think this is one of the best icebreakers, a way to remove walls and get past our titles christened by our institutions. I repeat their names until I get them right – it’s something my students in the past have always wanted me to do. We spent four hours the first day doing typical first-day things: introducing the course, learning names, collecting a writing sample, filling out a questionnaire. I go home exhausted but less nervous for the next day. Tomorrow I see the same sea of camouflage fabric, and day after day I am better able to match the pattern with the country, and the countries with the flags. I anticipate learning more about their experiences in writing and English.

“We are used to being told what to do,” one soldier says in response to a seemingly unorthodox writing task I’ve asked them to complete: freewriting. They comment on their grammar and spelling and handwriting, that it’s not “accurate” or “good” or “neat”. I tell them that for freewriting, I don’t care about their grammar, spelling, or handwriting, but that their ideas are what are valued. I think a little impatiently, Can we just get something – anything – down on paper first? Can we get away from whatever they’ve been taught “good” writing is? I say it countless times over the six-week period: “Let’s just write.” While it isn’t said out loud, I think we all know that this isn’t just a research writing class.

“Too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” remarks one soldier with a laugh as his classmate serves as the group’s scribe. These soldiers’ experiences as leaders have allowed them to transfer their knowledge of leadership to the classroom. They are not shy to participate in class or to give their opinions. They debate and disagree with one another diplomatically. They complete any task with focus and participate fully and graciously in class activities. Group discussions and activities, grammar games, whole-class presentations by the students: these are components of any language class I’ve developed or taught. At some level, English learners share similar characteristics and experiences in language acquisition. They can benefit from many of the same activities and approaches.

“When I flew into El Paso, I thought, ‘Am I back in Iraq?’” An example of our informal conversation is followed with raucous laughter from comrades who can relate to the American sponsors’ deployments to the Middle East. Although these soldiers hail from 21 different countries, the common threads of military service and separation from family unite them. One of the purposes of the pre-course is not just to teach the soldiers standards of American academic writing, but also to encourage long-lasting multinational friendships as they move into the Sergeant Major Course, in which international students will comprise only 9% of the total class. Some of the students have their American sergeant major sponsors present in my pre-course, all of whom offer clarification of directions given in class, advice for where to eat, rides to the Academy, and opportunities to interact with another native English speaker.

“You’re literally affecting nations,” my husband tells me as I recount the events of the day over dinner. We’re in the third week, almost halfway through, and our classes have become tight-knit groups despite knowing each other for a short amount of time. At this point, the class exemplifies the dynamics of a familiar, comfortable, and symbiotic environment: I’m the teacher, they’re the students, and we all learn from each other every day. If I try to wrap my mind around the implications of my husband’s observation, I become speechless.

“Wow, it’s time for another break already?” On the top of each of the four hours we have a ten-minute break, and as the last three weeks go by, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to accomplish all that my static lesson plans dictate. I’m used to this feeling and change lesson plans accordingly. Their topics for the final writing assignment, an argumentative paper, cover issues such as United Nations policies, preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and training the next generation in the military.  As I read their final papers, I watch these countries pass through my fingers and realize how important professional written and oral communication are in the global context.

In the course of four hours a day, six days a week, I never assigned grades to any paper.  I think the mere twenty-some of us can agree that this exceptional environment that education textbooks only wish they see in action taught us more than any number grade or comment in red ink could. We brought the world into four walls, and now we will take what we learned back out into the world.

I’m cut out for this

I realize that I don’t write much about my “other” life: the hours of my life I spend as a public school teacher. I do my best to have healthy boundaries between work and play, and in the past year this need has become more pronounced. I use my commute and other teachers who are also family members or close friends to process quotidian joys and frustrations before walking in the door and stripping off the school ID and title of “Ms. W.”

This year is the year I’ve been teaching for twenty years, thirteen as a certified teacher. Did I think I’d still be here all this time later? I’m not sure. I have known that since I was young, I had the “thing” that you need to be a teacher. Maybe an attitude, maybe the “teacher look,” maybe a natural talent, maybe a bit of arrogance – and just maybe a mix of all of the above. Teaching is a career of compassion and understanding, but also it necessitates an attitude of confidence and competence, which for me can sometimes border on self-importance.

The pandemic has challenged me in ways I never anticipated. Throughout this season, though (and it is a season: nothing can last forever, not even a pandemic), I have been grateful that I have years of my career behind me; there are so many reasons to be grateful for those times spent overextended, upset, stressed, and inexperienced. I have a lot of tools in my arsenal these days, and memories of “normal school” have pulled me through. I feel for new teachers who have experienced the glut of frustrations, both technological and relational, that have plagued our profession throughout a global health crisis.

Over the past academic year, I’ve found a new stride after years of working different jobs in different fields and with different ages of students. You could say I’ve rediscovered my happy place: high school. I’m sure there are many personal reasons from my past that have impacted my decision to work here, walking the halls among angsty and hormonal teenagers. Junior high, or middle school as most places now call it, was a tough time for me. But in high school, I found my place… mostly. I found my “people,” and I used academic achievement as an escape. I confided in and trusted my teachers and counselors.

The tasks I’ve had on my plate for the past several months have sat well with me: conversing with students, making small talk with new-to-me students, planning lessons for classes, interfacing with staff from teachers to administrators to counselors, advocating for students’ specific linguistic needs and ensuring their education is equitable. Of course, I can’t always check these to-do’s off my list every day, and they’re not always done to perfection. I’m sure as well that I’ve committed my own fair share of social faux pas as I’ve met no fewer than 100 new staff this year.

But all it takes is one really good day and weeks sprinkled with dozens of positive student-to-teacher interactions to remind me that I’m in this for the long haul. And to be honest, I didn’t expect the pandemic to reveal this truth to me: I’m cut out for this.