When I began teaching adolescents, I remember standing in the front of the room, ready to impart copious amounts of knowledge to my students. Improving critical literacy and writing skills is important, so I saw it as my vocation to teach these skills to my students. As teachers, we are used to being the rulers of our domain. The four walls of our classroom are sacred space, where great knowledge is exchanged, and usually, this exchange of knowledge is one way: from teacher to student. I imparted the finer points of literary analysis and composition, and the students did their best to learn them. However, while improving literacy skills is important, some of my most valuable lessons weren’t taught by me. Rather, they were taught by my students. I believe that the best teachers are willing to be students whenever a lesson presents itself.
As a university student, I learned how to plan lessons, manage classroom behaviors, and assess students’ academic abilities. In educational psychology, I studied the adolescent psyche and behaviors, trying to understand how and why adolescents behave the way they do. However, my high school students taught me lessons that couldn’t be found in textbooks. One year, Cindy, a sophomore, died in a car accident. In that sophomore class, there were quite a few cliques, and these factions often clashed with one another. However, at Cindy’s wake and funeral, those animosities dissipated. Enemies understood that despite their disagreements, the need for compassion and camaraderie outweighed their disdain for one another. My students taught me the beauty of caring for one’s peers.
Most of my students worked to earn money for luxuries such as fancy cosmetics or eating at restaurants with their friends. However, Linda was different. She worked to help support her family. Her single mother was disabled and couldn’t work. Public aid and food stamps didn’t cover the family’s living expenses, and Linda was the eldest of her siblings. Taking care of her family required two steps. The first step was immediate: earn money to support the family. With her mother’s disability check, public aid, and Linda’s wages, the family never went hungry. Second was to do well in school. Even though she worked 35 hours per week, Linda maintained a B+ average. Her devotion to her family was extraordinary. She gave up dances and parties in order to care for her mother. “Family first” she would always tell me, and her loyalty clearly taught me that lesson.
Too many teachers believe that they are the sole keepers of knowledge in their classroom. However, the best teachers understand that lessons can be found anywhere. These invaluable lessons have made me more aware of my students and their learning processes. Over the years, I’ve had great success as a teacher. I attribute that success to my willingness to learn from my students. Thus, the best teachers are willing to be the best students.
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