“Mrs. Sluiter, I have NEVER had an English teacher–or any teacher really–who has been as excited as you get when you teach us grammar or when you talk about books. You’re crazy.”
I am winding down my second year as a middle school teacher (thirteenth year overall in my district) and it happens to also be Teacher Appreciation Week. Of course this means I have been thinking a lot about how I got to this place. A student asked me on Monday why I became a teacher in the first place. I think she was expecting me to say something about wanting to change the world. I always laugh at this question because at the time I made the choice, I thought it came out of nowhere, but it didn’t. Not really.
The story as I tell it is that I decided one day in my senior English class. While reading 1984 and discussing it, I blurted out that that was what I wanted to do with my life: read and talk about books. My teacher put both hands on my desk and said, “that is my job” and the rest is history.
Looking back, though, I see that I was meant to be a teacher from a very young age.
When I was in first grade, I sat my four-year-old brother down and forced him to learn to read. Oh, I set it up to look like we were playing school, but I demanded he learn and I threatened bodily harm if he didn’t do what I said. He learned to read, but I can’t say he was unscathed.
It makes me laugh now that I couldn’t see that I was meant to have a career that centered around words.
My parents like to say I haven’t stopped talking since my first words. I have always been loud and assertive. I have a very real love of books and words and how words fit together. I am lucky that I have mostly had teachers who encouraged my personality rather than try to squash it.
My elementary teachers all encouraged my voracious love of reading. I remember specifically Mrs. Larsen, our school librarian (because they weren’t media specialists back then), always helping me find just what would keep me reading from picture books in Kindergarten to Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Marilyn Sachs. I’m definitely the reader I am today because of them.
Middle school is awful for everyone, I think. And now that I am a middle school teacher, I notice it hasn’t really changed much. I remember my 7th grade math teacher, Mrs. Wheeler, who had a biting sense of humor and could make a room full of awkward adolescents feel like super stars in their own right. I never did fall in love with math, but she taught me that even if you’re not good at something, you should still do your best. And then laugh your way through it all.
I had excellent experiences with my high school teachers. I can really only look back and see just a few who I would say weren’t great teachers, the rest loved their subject and love their students and seemed, at least, to love their job. The two that influenced me the most to become a teacher were my British lit teacher senior year, Mr. Torgerson, and my band director, Mr. Walker. Torg helped me realized that I wanted to do his job. Walker helped guide me to the right college to get there. Both recognized my talents and embraced my ridiculous personality and found ways for me to use my loud voice for good rather than trouble.
As an undergrad at Western Michigan University, Dr. Allen Webb was the one who showed me that literature can actually change the world–that teaching isn’t just reading and discussing books, but taking the knowledge and empathy we glean from the characters and doing something about it in our own societies. He helped me see that reading creates empathy.
Since then, there have been many other colleagues and instructors that have shaped the teacher in me. My students have done that too. Even having my own children have changed and shaped who I am as an educator.
Being a teacher is stressful. It’s heartbreaking. But it makes me so very happy. I can’t imagine having any other job.
I currently have a Donor’s Choice Project up that I am collecting donations for: A Spring Book Drive. These books, if funded, will go onto the shelves of my library for next year’s 8th graders. My current 8th graders helped choose the titles they think next year’s students will want to read. Any dollar amount is welcome!