My teaching journey has led me all over the world to my current position as a high school teacher and learning coach in Brazil. Since this week is the launch of the #TeachingIs campaign, I thought I’d share a selection of moments from my teaching and learning timeline that have shown me what Teaching Is.
The Formative Years
Being unable to tie your shoes in the second grade, unsure why this makes your teacher so angry. She always makes Jerry Finch do it for you and never shows you how to do it yourself.
Sitting through a meeting in middle school in which adults debate whether you should be placed in Gifted & Talented or a self-contained classroom. The discussion is inconclusive, so you stay in a mainstream class.
Having a steady D-average throughout middle school and high school, nearly being expelled for repeated fighting, and visiting the teen counselor at the local police department.
Hearing your 11th grade literature teacher name you the “poet laureate of the class” after he cajoles you into reciting Frost.
The Wanderlust Years
Enlisting in the Army because… why not? It’s also kicking and screaming when, after finishing airborne school, you get stationed in Germany— not with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Living in Europe as a 19-year old at the climax of the Cold War. Watching the Berlin Wall fall and swinging a sledgehammer into the concrete, taking your literal piece of history home.
Visiting every country in Western Europe, a few still behind the freshly demolished Wall. Thanking the bureaucrat who didn’t send you to North Carolina. Developing a sense of wanderlust you never expected—and kicking and screaming when they send you back to America.
Teaching Wayne Cooley how to walk. Little Wayne Cooley, at 5’2”, lags further and further behind during a 22-mile march. You march next to him, modeling how to bend his legs and stretch into longer strides that match the taller soldiers around him. At first tells you to mind your own business (in far less kind words) but then he gets his stride as you pace him for nearly an hour. At the finish line, Cooley whoops in front of the entire battalion: “This northern SOB taught me how to walk! You taught me how to walk, Tolley!” (Later on, you realize this is the exact moment when you decided to become a teacher.)
The gentle era of college (once you finally make it): developing an academic love for history, literature and humanity.
Moving to Asia “just for a year” to learn a language before heading to graduate school.
Staying in Asia for nine years, visiting almost every country between Istanbul and Tokyo and teaching high school. Rediscovering your wanderlust—and realizing you love the classroom more than the archives.
Returning to school so you can get your degree and certification to teach social studies. Having a teacher mentor 10 years younger than you (from whom you learn tons).
Learning the difference between managing a classroom of high school girls in Korea and an urban high school in East Harlem. (Slight difference.)
The Exile Years
Experiencing the realities—both inspiring and desperate—of teaching in public schools during one of the most tumultuous eras in education.
Finding a lifeboat so you don’t have to give up on your dream of teaching. Accepting a job in Brazil but keeping it secret for fear of retribution from your administration.
Being named a “NY Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference” the same year your principal tried to run you out of the profession.
Inquiring about teaching jobs when you visit NYC each year—but hearing nightmare stories from your friends about standardized testing, lack of autonomy, loss of afterschool programs, and continued politics. You decide not to move back home for yet another year.
Developing an awareness over the years that teaching is a coalescent timeline of intangible factors unique to each teacher. Recognizing that teaching starts by insisting students tie their own shoes after being carefully shown how. Using encouragement to build students’ confidence and modeling the way they should behave. Acknowledging that the impact of teaching is rarely evident tomorrow, but is unmistakable in adulthood. Cherishing teaching as something both manifold and sublime.
How has your timeline shown you what #TeachingIs?
Bill Tolley, a New York Times Teacher Who Makes a Difference, is currently the learning and innovation coach and the head of history at the International School of Curitiba, Brazil as well as a CTQ Blogger. He is preparing to transition to the International School of Beijing at the end of this school year. His blogging interests include modern learning, international education and cosmopolitan citizenship. He is eager to participate in learning communities worldwide. Connect with him @wjtolley.