I never meant to be a teacher. In fact, it was the one thing I’d sworn never to do. I watched my mother over the years, and I knew it wasn’t for me.
Going back to school to learn French, our mother had changed the focus of her world when we were pre-teens. No longer were we the center of her world, our world now centered around all that was Francophone: We listened to discussions on Voltaire and Robespierre and we dined on chicken cordon bleu and quiche au fromage.
It was okay to be gourmet and cultured, but it wasn’t so great when mom’s teacher duties kept her from remembering to pick me up from my piano lesson.
I saw how hard our mother worked, the long hours she kept as she graded papers when we went to bed. I knew how worried she could be over her students when they were troubled and how much of their stress she took on herself.
What I didn’t realize was this life she’d chosen offered her deep, inexplicable rewards.
As I grew up, I also fell in love with my mother’s France and a French-speaking Swiss man who asked me to marry him and move to Switzerland. Years later, when I found myself back in my hometown with a small child and a love of my second language, an opportunity arose for me to join my mother’s world of education, and I accepted.
Following in Mom’s Footsteps
I landed in an elementary school on the other side of town, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and it was a culture shock for me. After living in Switzerland for a number of years, I was used to a more diverse environment.
Now here I was teaching at a school where over 90 percent of the students walked to school, the majority from duplexes at a subsidized housing project nearby. Many of the children came from single parent homes, and a large number lived with relatives other than their parents. There was so little diversity.
In the more than 10 years that I taught there, fewer than 1 percent of the students knew languages other than English, and the racial breakdown was similar. Nearly all of the students were African-American, with only a handful of White or mixed-race children.
From the first week, I knew I’d stick with teaching. This was the most challenging experience I’d ever had, and absolutely the best. I was teaching French in an elementary school, and I had never had so much excitement as when I earned smiles from children, or approval from the teachers whose classrooms I invaded.
I worked late into each night creating lessons and activities for the following day, trying to come up with ways to engage my students and connect them to the larger world.
What I learned from my colleagues and my administrators became invaluable: together they had years of experience and understood that while I saw each day as filled with possibility, the problems they’d observed over the years remained the same.
Many of our students had not traveled outside the town where they lived, and for some, a trip to the city museum proved the most adventurous experience in their lives. This translated to overall low student achievement. I was determined to fix these problems.
If we could somehow open the world to these children, and if we could push them a bit, to dream of living in that bigger world, they may work harder and maybe one day venture beyond their neighborhood.
Over the next few years, I went back to school and added teacher certification in grades K-6 so that I could also teach science, math, social studies, reading and writing.
I knew teaching was where I wanted to stay.