Why do we teach what we teach? Why did I choose to teach high school students who are academically at risk, and you chose to teach the subject and students you teach? P. Palmer (2007) might have an answer to this. Palmer says “We were drawn to a body of knowledge because it sheds light on our identity as well as on the world. We did not merely find a subject to teach- the subject also found us” (p.26). We make choices in order to reveal our identity- who we are and what we value. Did I choose to teach students who are academically at risk because teaching these students enables me to reveal my identity, my values and convictions? Well, maybe.
Before I go on let me just say of course teachers don’t always have a choice when it comes to what they teach. One semester early in my teaching career, I found myself “choosing” to teach a cooking class to a group of students. I had no idea how to teach cooking to a group of 16 year olds, but I knew I had to “choose” to teach this cooking class if I wanted a job.
Many high school students who are academically at risk do not feel part of the mainstream in high school. They feel like outsiders. I can relate to that feeling. I’ve often felt like an outsider myself. I’ve even felt like an outsider in my own family growing up. I actually used to wonder if I were adopted. But, then when I’d look at those old black and white photos of my Mom’s side of the family, I could see my face in their faces so I knew I wasn’t adopted. I was just different than my parents and siblings when I was growing up, and I still am different. I think I might take after my maternal grandfather, but since I’ve never met him I can’t be sure.
My family immigrated to Canada from Europe when I was a small child. We had to learn English and the Canadian way of life. I still remember getting laughed at in elementary school because I would make mistakes because I wasn’t up to speed on “Canadianisms”. Even in high school, I felt I wasn’t part of the mainstream but always on the edge of things. I loved learning but hated high school. My family moved a lot so I was the new kid a lot, not part of an established groups.
I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to share my love of learning with students. Early in my teaching career, I had the opportunity to take special education qualifications and having those qualifications led to a teaching position with young offenders in an open custody facility or group home type of setting and in a closed custody or jail type of setting. I could empathize with these troubled kids and wanted to show them they could turn things around. Of course I didn’t condone their criminal behaviour. I tried to separate what they had done from who they could be. I was able to develop positive relationships with them and enjoyed working with them, but I didn’t enjoy the physical working environment. The jail setting eventually got to me. So after 3 years of teaching in these alternative settings, I returned to teaching in a regular school and spent the rest of my career supporting academically at risk students–many with learning disabilities– as a classroom teacher and monitor support.
Teaching students who were academically at risk was a good fit for me. I could relate to students who had difficulties in school because I have family members who have learning disabilities. I know how frustrating school can be for some students. I also know that just because you have problems in school does not mean you are not intelligent. It just means you have to find ways to get around your learning difficulties. I enjoyed helping my students do this.
I think that choosing–when I could choose–to teach students who were academically at risk enabled me to reveal my identity, my values and convictions. I think that’s why I enjoyed teaching so much. My teaching assignment enabled me to be authentic.
Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.