August 25, 2006 | 4:40  p.m. ET

Why I teach (Monica Groves, teacher)

When I got to UVA, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Teaching wasn’t even an option at that point. I couldn’t imagine being the one in the front of the classroom— sometimes loved and sometimes not— demanding the respect of a class. All I knew for sure was that I loved literature, writing, and learning another language, so it followed that I double majored in English and Spanish.

I had always been a solid student, but school was tough during emotional lows. During that time, two professors, Prof. Davis and Prof. Gies, had a profound impact on my life. Their excellent teaching not only inspired and motivated, but also counseled and nurtured me.  I grew the most, both academically and personally, in their classrooms.

While all of this was happening, Teach For America was recruiting on campus and holding info sessions. I was intrigued by the non-profit and its mission hit close to home. I wanted to learn more.

The urgency to become an educator was all around me - I was experiencing the awesome power that a teacher can have on a student in my own life, while at the same time learning how I could potentially have that impact on another’s life through Teach For America.

During my fourth year at UVA, I remember the anxiety every senior in college feels as you prepare for graduation and what seems like the rest of your life. I simply didn’t know where the chips were going to fall, but when I received my acceptance to join Teach For America’s mission, I was ready to pursue it.  

I expected teaching to be difficult, and I expected to struggle a little. I had limited experience in a classroom, so I anticipated a “baptism by fire.” This did little to quench my enthusiasm and optimism. It was hard all right, but for reasons I hadn’t anticipated. I expected, if anything, for normal teacher-student angst to frustrate me. In reality, most of my frustration was about me. I wanted so badly to be like the phenomenal teachers in my life, like my first grade teacher, Mrs. Kamminga. I wanted to be excellent for my students and give them the best. Sometimes I simply fell short. Even so, I expected to learn from my mistakes and be successful because I wasn’t going to accept anything less on my end.

The funny thing is that my checklist of “do this better” never got any shorter; it only seemed to get longer. I found that the process of making mistakes and learning from them was never-ending. Once you identified a problem, and maybe even solved it, you already identified something else that you needed to work on. I was so hard on myself, and still am, but this realization helped to put it in perspective. In order to be what my students deserved, I could never be done getting better.

I certainly didn’t expect what I’m about to say next: I had always learned that hard work pays off, but it’s really not that simple. I had to adjust my thinking to include that hard work doesn’t automatically equal success. Every day I gave my students my all, but that didn't automatically translate into success on my part, or for the students. I found that within education, there are so many factors that contribute to success or failure. The blanket statement, “You’re not trying hard enough,” is not the full story. Effort is the key to finding the answers that will make you successful, but it’s just the starting point. In fact, I had a sign in my classroom that said, “Success starts with effort.”  It takes more than just pure effort to be successful as an educator and a student, for that matter. Finding out what else it takes was part of this experience for me.

As I prepared to teach, I heard from other educators. They told me that I may feel like quitting, but that I should stay strong because it would get better. I was prepared to have this moment where I questioned my decision to teach, but I never did. There were tears and rough days, but it never led me to question my purpose or what I was doing. My students made the highs phenomenal and the lows bearable. I loved the idea of teaching them and I expected to love them… and I did.

Over the course of my first year, I learned that education isn’t just about books, and education doesn’t just flow from teacher to student. I am still extremely motivated to teach content because, above all else, it is my responsibility to ensure my students receive an excellent education. But at the same time, you can’t teach the child if you don’t have a positive relationship with them. So, I learned to give and take, to accept obstacles as part of the territory instead of a major crisis, and to listen to what people told me instead of just looking at what I saw. My students taught me the importance of this, and it’s been useful in and out of the classroom.

Teaching pushes me to constantly “step it up,” and I like that. You see everything you do reflected in your students, and so anything you ask of them, you have to ask of yourself. They are the best mirror one can ask for. I have to grow for my students to grow, so working with students is always stimulating. The kids really make life interesting.

My students had such dynamic personalities, and were extremely clever and funny.  They seemed leaps and bounds ahead of me at that age— and were far more interesting. I’ll never forget when one of my students, Jaquanna, decided to insult another student, Marquis, using the parts of speech (i.e. your lip is a proper adjective etc.) She was reprimanded for doing it, but it was still a hilariously clever approach. Nataki, another ball of energy, responded to the command, “Do not to get out of your chair again,” by scooting her way across the room in her chair to talk to her friends. What could I say?! I told her not to get out of her seat… and she didn’t!

But far more touching was how my students responded when I told them that I had no kids, so they were my kids. Without explanation, some of them would often put my last name after their own when they put their names on their assignments. I was constantly amazed by my students’ creativity and expression. They have so much to say, and such creative ways of saying them. I love it!

I went on to teach another year of 6th grade Language Arts at Young Middle School, and I was blown away to see how much of my first class of sixth graders had grown over the summer. I almost fell over when I heard, “Hey Ms. Groves, look at my mustache!”

They frequently stopped by my classroom to say hello and to tell my new students not to give me any trouble, and it’s hard to believe that those same sixth graders will be going to high school next year.

I cried the day I left Young Middle School, not just because I would miss my students, but because I would miss the relationships I developed with them through coaching cheerleading after school. I would miss the teachers that I had worked with and gone to for advice, the administrators that took me into their school and welcomed me as a part of their staff, and the parents that had trusted me with the care and education of their children. I felt like I found myself in the two years I spent at Young, and the direction of my life will be changed forever.

I didn’t know how to tell my kids that I wasn’t returning next year, but it all seemed to make sense when I told them I was going to school to become a better teacher, and that adults have to continue to learn just like kids.

And so, the students I’ve taught have moved on to seventh and eighth grade, and I’ve moved on to graduate school. I am currently working towards my Masters in Teaching and Curriculum at Harvard University.

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