You’ve probably seen this phenomenon: Two or three people teach for a living, but they’re currently off work. In fact, they’re at a party or just relaxing at home — pick any non-work, leisure-time situation. After various topics are gabbed about, what does the conversation often drift to and then take center stage for a while?
A person I know used to complain about this phenomenon, of teachers off the clock “talking shop.” Yes, some of that shop-talk was grousing — the “teachers’ lounge” effect. But what makes teaching as a profession unigue is that a person in that profession has a singular opportunity to directly impact several people’s lives on a significant level.
So, that “I can make a difference” consequence in a teacher’s job is what drives this phenomenon.
Sometimes a teacher’s impact in a student is delayed — after all, who hasn’t experienced that a teacher actually made a difference in his/her life, until a few years later, when one is older and, perhaps, wiser?
But sometimes, a student realizes it sooner. And that’s where this letter from a student of mine who graduated with her Associate’s Degree this past May 8 comes in. I transcribe it in its entirety, minus her full name for privacy’s sake.
Dear Dr. Ramos
Well, the time has come and I have completed a great milestone in my life. But before I leave, I would like to tell you how I appreciated you as a teacher. Thank you for being a wonderful professor. I really enjoyed your classes (English 1301, 1302, and 2333) and you as a teacher. Thank you for being patient with me during my times of heartache and trials of life. You know as well as I do it can be very difficult trying to balance a family, a job, and go to school full time, especially when the support is not there. Even though it seemed like the odds were against me… I MADE IT! You, along with a couple other professors at Eastfield, made my journey worth it. I just wanted to take time to give you your “flowers.” Keep teaching the way that you do. You are a free-spirited person, and you bring that atmosphere to the classroom, and that makes your class very open, interesting, and easy to comprehend. If you haven’t heard from any of your students, I want you to know that you reached me from your classes. I will never forget you and hope that we can keep in touch. May God continue to bless you and your family.
Your Student & Future Attorney,
Tanika was one of three women of color who were my students this past semester *and* also experienced great personal crises. For Tanika, it was her husband of ten years, leaving her and their three daughters. As a pastor’s daughter, her faith was greatly tested. But she knew that she didn’t have the luxury to fall apart, for her children were looking up to her for strength.
In ENGL 1301, where the students write personal essays, I encouraged Tanika to express her thoughts and emotions on the page, believing that the formal process of essay-writing would help her gain some sense of control at a time when she felt she had none. On lab-writing days (when the students worked on their own), I would sometimes talk one-on-one with Tanika, and she was just glad that there was a teacher out there who understood when one’s personal life seemed to take over everything else — including thoughts in a classroom.
In ENGL 1302, where the students analyze arguments and craft their own, Tanika analyzed her own assumptions and beliefs, her society’s, and even her estranged husband’s. Her research paper was on domestic abuse, and that act of researching an crafting that paper also gave her a sense of control and awareness in her own personal power.
By the time she was in my ENGL 2333, Tanika was away much of the class time or came in late. The class was at 8am, but she was a single mom now, dropping off her three children to school or the babysitter’s. Sometimes morning court dates with the divorce proceedings ran long. But she kept in contact with me — talking to me outside the classroom, in my office, by phone, by email. She turned in most of her work late, but I accepted what she turned in. In my office, we talked about the works we were reading, but we also talked about her life. The works we were reading helped — she could relate to some of these characters, for these characters were not just empty mannequins but real people to her, going through their own personal crises, their own personal demons.
The last time I saw Tanika was at the graduation ceremony, smiling brightly and her eyes shining with tears. “I MADE IT.”
Non-traditional students like Tanika are what make the community college experience very different from other institutions of higher education. “Diversity” in a community college doesn’t just mean the standard ones of race/ethnicity/sex/religion. We have diversity in socio-economic background — from working poor to affluent middle-class. In age — from dual-credit 16-year old to retired 60-year old. In family situation — from single to married to married with children to single with children. In work situation — from not working to working three jobs. In academic preparedness — from the Honors student who just want to get the basics out of the way for cheap to the socially-promoted, barely fluent in English student who can’t go anywhere else for a post-high school degree. Take all of that, shake it together, and you will see my typical classroom.
Some teachers get burned out by five years. Some stay until ill-health and old-age forces them to retire.
For the sake of students like Tanika, I hope and pray that I’ll be the latter.