“Teachers touch the future,” they tell us. “Teachers shape students’ lives,” they say.
But when you’re in the trenches, knee deep in bureaucracy, unrealistic expectations and hostility from parents and students alike, well, that can seem like a total pie-in-the-sky statement, can’t it?
But bear with me for a second. Think of the teacher who influenced you the most. I’d bet you don’t have a hard time thinking of one, do you? Maybe even more than one? Did you have a teacher who influenced you to pursue teaching somehow?
When I was in school, I got good grades. Throughout middle school, I was a good student who did my homework and tried hard, and didn’t have to struggle too much in most of my classes, really. I breezed my way through Spanish 1 in the 8th grade, without breaking a sweat. And then… (cue the scary music)… came Spanish 2.
Ms. Tobias was like Viola Swamp in Miss Nelson is Missing. If I had gone to Hogwarts, she totally would have been Snape. She was as strict as the day is long, and didn’t put up with any guff from anyone. I think even some of the other teachers were scared of her. I can still hear her yelling, so loudly I’m sure the whole hallway heard it, “THERE IS NO ‘VINIÓ’!!!!!” when some poor misguided soul said, “Mi amigo vinió a la fiesta” on accident.
And the worst thing for my teenage self was that she was TOUGH when it came to Spanish. No partial credit, no multiple-choice ANYTHING. Essays, research, conversations, presentations in front of the class. If an accent mark was off, the whole word was wrong, sometimes the whole sentence. Grades for papers were just a “C+” scrawled in red at the top of a paper that looked like it had been through a brawl, it was so red and battered.
Needless to say, Ms. Tobias’s class gave me fits. I was terrified of her, I was getting Cs on my quizzes, and I was studying more for this one class than all my other classes combined. Quite the feel-good story of the year, huh?
But you know what happened? (Yeah, you probably saw this coming.) I learned So. Much. From. Her. She pushed my sassy little teenage self harder than any other teacher ever dared to. During the summer after Spanish 3, my swim team hosted a swim team from Peru, and do you know who became the official translator?! Me! I could carry on complete conversations in Spanish! It was hard going for the THREE years I was in her class, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but I don’t think any teacher ever taught me so much in so little time. Over the years, I started to see glimpses of her Dumbledore side, too: she noticed me taking the tabs off of pop cans for a charity I support; a few weeks later, and every few weeks after that, she surprised me with a little ziploc bag full of pop tabs from herself and her father. She would come to swim meets of mine, and my friend’s orchestra performances, and we invited her more and more regularly.
Ms. Tobias got sick my senior year, and two months after I graduated, she passed away. I never did get to tell her or show her how much she helped me love the Spanish language, and ALL language learning. I went on to major in Spanish and in Linguistics, due in no small part to her and her classes.
I was thinking about her as I passed her subdivision one day during college, and getting weepy for not letting her know how much she had influenced my life. “I wish there was a way I could thank her,” I thought to myself. And just like that, crystal clear, as though she had yelled it directly in my ear, I knew that I had to be a teacher.
And if that weren’t enough, in case my story is “just one person’s experience,” do you know how many of her students went on to become teachers and/or Spanish teachers? I know of at least three in my graduating class alone. I can’t chalk that up to anything but the effect of a dedicated, if intense, teacher who passed her passion for Spanish along to a whole new generation of Spanish teachers.
So how about you? What teacher had the biggest impact on your life? And when did you know that you wanted to be a teacher? Do those two questions always go hand-in-hand? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.