My Journey Draft #3

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I’ll never forget the day I decided to become a teacher. I was sitting in my kitchen filling out the Hunter College School of Education application when my mom stopped, and asked me, “Helen, why are you becoming a teacher?”  

I took a second to think about how I wanted to word my response to her. It was embarrassing enough that I was proving her “right” by becoming a teacher. For years all she told me was, “Helen you should go into education. You have so many leader-like qualities. I think it would be a good fit for you.” 

My response was always, “Mom, if I’m such a great leader there are so many other professions I would be good at, and make more money.” 

So you can only imagine my teenage rebellious self, who only a year prior was screaming, “I WANT TO BE DIFFERENT”, cringing inside as I completed the forms.

Once I shook myself out of my own thoughts I realized she was still waiting for my response. I really did not know what to say to her besides,“I don’t know. I mean like reading and writing and I like the idea of having every summer off for the rest of my life. Also I like older kids, so I think I could handle teaching high school.” 

I know what you’re thinking- does this girl even like her job? The answer is, yes I do; but if i made my journey to education sound like some profound, moving, emotional story of how much I love kids, and want to see them succeed in the world I would be lying to both of us. The truth is when I started the whole career search process my first response was never “teacher.” To me the word “teacher” came with so many stereotypes: “Teachers have it easy,” or “Those who can do, those who can’t teach,” and-probably the most prevalent factor- “Teachers don’t make a lot of money.” After hearing all these negative associations with teaching I decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I also let teenage angst get the best of me. Coming from a family full of teachers I decided at the ripe age of 17 that I did not want to even consider education as a career path because I wanted to be different.

So when I started college I decided to look into different majors. The first stop on Helen’s Career Train was when I had the bright idea to become a psychiatrist. My parents were shocked, “Why do you want to be a psychiatrist, Helen?” they asked.

“Well I like listening to everyone’s problems, and my friends tell me I give good advice. Plus I’ve always thought being a doctor was cool, and this type of doctor doesn’t work with blood or anything like that- it’s a perfect fit for me! Oh, and I’ll be making  money since I’ll be a doctor.” 

There are no words to describe the look of pure panic on my parents’ faces when they internalized my reasoning. They just looked at each other, and then my dad said, “Honey, you do know that a psychiatrist has to go through all the medical school like any other doctor, right? You still have to do a residency, work in ALL the departments- including the “bloody” ones- before you can become a psychiatrist.” 

I could not even watch Grey’s Anatomy without closing my eyes at least once an episode, so how in the world would I be able to go through medical school? And with that realization, the first gravestone in Helen’s Cemetery of Careers was created: “Psychiatry: September 2009-October 2009.”

The next stop on Helen’s Career Train brought me to look into the law. Again, my parents asked me, “Why do you want to become a lawyer?” 

“Well, I like to argue and fight for what I believe in. Plus, lawyers make a lot of money.” 

Again, I saw my dad shake his head. My mom also did not look too thrilled with my answer, but instead of shooting down my dream they told me to look into the possibility. So, the next day I went into school to speak to an advisor about a Pre-law major. My advisor said, “Law School is both exciting and exhausting. Most people do not work when they are in law school. Also, it is important to pick a good school because that is a profession that takes name recognition seriously.” 

I was in awe, “Wait, so I have to not make money and also go to a expensive school? How will I survive?” 

My advisor saw the look of panic in my face, but she still gave me an honest answer, “A lot of law students take out loans for their 3 years, and then pay them back once they are lawyers.” 

We continued going back and forth for a little until I was satisfied with the information I received. When I went home that night I looked at all the pamphlets she gave me. Between the 3 full years of extra schooling, the BAR exam, and the dollar signs everywhere I realized that the law was not a field for me either. My parents were completely shocked later that week when I told them, “I’m not becoming a lawyer. I think I was only looking into the profession because I heard they make a lot of money.” 

Years later my mom told me that this moment was when she first realized that I was growing up because whether I realized it or not, I admitted that I was career searching for the wrong reasons.

Nonetheless, the second gravestone in Helen’s Cemetery of Careers was created: “Law: November 2009-December 2009.”

After this let down I decided to take a few months off from thinking about careers. This lasted until March of my freshman year. I was taking a Media class and realized how much I enjoyed it. I loved pop culture, the media, and writing about the various topics we discussed. Again, I found myself in my advisor’s office asking about professions in Media Studies. She gave me the Media Department’s pamphlet of majors to look through. Once I saw the word “Journalism” my mind was set. I was going to become a Journalist- it incorporated both my love for the media and for writing. I signed up for my first journalism class for the coming fall, and I was ready to go. Nothing was going to stop me now! I had found the perfect major!

You know that phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,”? Well, that is exactly what I did. Journalism, on the surface, looked like the profession for me; however after being in a journalism class I was quickly proven wrong. My professor told me that we had to find news stories in our neighborhoods to report on. Once we found stories we had to go to the scene to interview people, attend other related functions, and write news articles on these issues.

The knot that sat in my stomach after hearing that was so big that I almost threw up in class. Don’t get me wrong- I am a very outgoing person, but it takes me a little while to feel comfortable in a situation before I become outgoing. That’s why the idea of just throwing myself into any setting was very unsettling for me. This led me to wanting to drop the class, but my parents encouraged me to see it through to make sure.

That semester I went to neighborhood council meeting, I eventually started interviewing people, and I was able to write my articles. Yet, even though I was doing the work I was not enjoying it. I never felt the joy my fellow classmates felt when they talked about their stories and experiences. I was able to finish the class, but at the end I was happy it was over.

And so with this experience the third gravestone in Helen’s Cemetery of Careers was created: “Journalism: September 2010-December 2010.” 

With the end of the first semester of my sophomore year came a new wave of panic. This was the semester the year that I should have been declaring a major, and there I was half way through it with no idea of what I wanted to do. At Christmas, I was bombarded with questions like, “So have you picked a major yet, Helen?” or, “Have any ideas what you want to do with the rest of your life?”

These questions caused so much anxiety within me that I spent the whole month of Winter Break looking into various majors. It was not until the middle of January when my friend Adriana said to me, “Why don’t you just major in English? You keep taking all these English classes, and you keep doing well in them. That could be a good starting point for you.” 

I looked at her in utter disbelief, how could I have missed that? Of course English was a good major for me. I was always reading, I never had an issue writing essays for my classes, and I was trying to fulfill as many requirements with English classes as I could. I was even crazy about English class in high school, and was part of the English Honor Society. Again, I had the feeling that I found the right major. I was so excited to go into school at the end of the month and declare my English Major!

As soon as I could, I set up an appointment with my advisor to talk about declaring my major. She was happy that I seemed really excited about a major again. She said that English seemed like a good fit for me, and she started to give me the forms to declare a major. However, upon giving me those forms she told me I had to specialize in a certain sub-major with english. She told me my options were English Literature, Creative Writing, or English: Secondary Education. She said I should go home and really think about which one before I declare it on paper.

That night I went home and sat down with my parents. We discussed, at length, each option. As much as I loved just reading and writing I knew finding a job with a Creative Writing or English Literature degree would be difficult. I was no longer searching for the six figure salary job, but I still wanted to feel like I would be able to find a job after graduation. That is what led me to seriously look at the English: Secondary Education concentration. My mom saw how reluctant I was so she offered some comfort, “You do like reading and writing, and you work well with the girls you coach. Maybe this field will be good for you.” She did have a point reading and writing were my strengths, and I did enjoy them. Also, I was coaching my high school cheerleading team at the time, and the girls did take a liking to me.

I thought about all of this for a week, and then went in to talk to my advisor again, “I’m going to go with English: Secondary Education,” I told her.

“Ok, are you sure? You still have time to think about it. The application for the School of Education isn’t due until March 7th, and it’s only February 10th.” 

“I’m sure,” I said, “I’ll give it a try and see if I like it. I can always switch again if I really want to.” 

And with that I started applying to the School of Education at Hunter College. I was accepted to the program, and enrolled in my first classes for the Fall of 2011. Yes, I did enter the program under my own selfish reasoning. In fact, in one of my first assignments in the program where I had to talk about why I wanted to be a teacher my reasonings included my love for reading and writing, and how I wanted to make others love it too. Look back on this I’m surprised my teacher gave me an A on that assignment because quickly after handing that in I learned that education was not about my selfish desires, but it was more about helping others.

I quickly learned that education was about finding solutions, working with colleagues, and being creative enough to engage your students at any age. This realization excited me. All the inhibitions I had about teaching were gone, and I realized that through this career I can make a difference in the lives of children. I entered all my classes with this new mindset. Learning about all the positives and negatives in our school system only encouraged me to try to be part of the positives, and to try to make a difference. As I continued in the program I took Teaching Methods courses to find new ways to teach English in the Urban Adolescent Classroom. I learned about incorporating Young Adult Literature in my classroom, and making older texts relevant to my students. Further I learned how to differentiate for the different learners I would encounter. My professors told me I really had a knack for creating good scaffolds, and making lessons easily accessible. My education advisor told me that student teaching will be exciting for me because I will finally get to execute all my great ideas.

So when Spring 2013 rolled around I was ready for my student teaching placement. When the email finally arrived a week before student teaching started I was shaking with excitement until I opened the email, “Dear Helen, You will be student teaching at P.S 171 in an 7th grade ELA classroom.” I could not even tell you what was written after that because I was too upset at the fact that I would be completing my student teaching in a middle school. Suddenly, all the excitement I had went away. I had never worked with middle school students before. My saving grace was that I soon found out that I was able to change my placement half way through the semester to get experience in a high school as well. This calmed me down, and I went into my beginning of my student teaching experience counting down the days until I could switch placements.

Once again I learned to, “Never judge a book by its cover,” because I quickly came to life my middle school placement. My cooperating teacher, Ms. Stein, was so welcoming and open. She let me teach the class 3-4 days of the week with my own unit. She told me, “The only way you are going to learn is by doing, so you might as well just do it.” She offered support whenever I needed it, and she gave me a lot of good feedback. The beginning of my student teaching was flying by, and before I knew it March was upon us. I was scheduled to switch placements on March 25th, but I suddenly found myself not wanting to leave. Ms. Stein had told me that I was doing a great job, and that she was grateful for me because she was only in the position for the semester. The real ELA teacher had left mid-year for a new position upstate, and she was the Literacy Coach so they put her in the position until June. She told me that I could be a potential candidate for the position since I was already working with her. Upon hearing this, I begged my student teaching coordinator to leave me in PS 171. He agreed because he wanted what was best for me, and knew I could possibly obtain a job by staying there.

This left me a whole 3 months to still gain more experience. I decided to implement a unit I created around Suzanne Collins’ book  The Hunger Games. Ms. Stein thought it was very creative and different. The students were all excited that they were going to read a book that was being turned into a movie. My students loved my lessons, and many of them told me they looked forward to ELA every day. There was one lesson I taught about how The Hunger Games was making commentary on what is wrong in our society today. We discusses reality TV shows of the time like Survivor and Teen Mom. We compared The Hunger Games to these series by discussing their inhumanity, and why people enjoyed watching these shows. The students were really invested in the lesson, and at the end they all reflected on what we did. Many of them said that this was the most insightful thing they learned all year. They said that they would be thinking twice now before tuning into MTV shows because of our lesson today. This left me feeling confident in my choice to become a teacher because I was able to impact the lives of my students with a text that they enjoyed. After this lesson I thought about having this opportunity of a daily basis, and it did not intimidate me- it excited me.

At the end of my student teaching experience the principal told me that he was strongly considering me for the position at the school, and that he was already reviewing my DOE Application. He said he had come to observe me as part of the application process, and that he would be getting back to me in a few weeks. On my last day of student teaching one of my students, Kenneth, gave me an envelope with my name on it. Inside that envelope there was a letter from the whole 7th grade. One part of it read, “Thank you for making ELA so much fun! We hope you get a job here so we can see you next year. On the back of the paper we all signed our names in a petition to get you a job here. Please show this to Mr. P.” Sure enough on the back of the paper there were over 70 signatures of my students all wanting me to work at their school. I had never been so moved in my whole life. I left that school knowing that I had made a difference, and I was confident that I could continue doing so for the rest of my life.

Two weeks after student teaching finished, I graduated Cum Laude from Hunter College and began to look at schools to apply to. About two days into my search I received a call from Mr. P at 171 telling me that he wanted to see me the next day. I went down to PS 171 the next day, and met with Mr. P, and it was on that day that he offered me the 7th grade ELA job for the following school year. I took the job immediately, spent the next week celebrating my luck and my full employment, and enjoying life. I thought everything would be smooth sailing from here on out. I was ready to tackle my first year of teaching head on!

Anyone who tells you that your first year of teaching is a complete blur is an understatement. My first year of teaching was a combination of the level of hell in Dante’s Inferno where everyone is spinning around and around with no way of stopping and the level where everyone is speaking different languages and not understanding each other. There were so many moments where I think back and wonder why I did certain things like not take the time to set up classroom procedures or why I collected every sheet of paper to grade. Yes there were several, “aha!” moments, but overall my first year of teacher was exhausting. My principal and colleagues told me I did a great job considering it was my first year. In all of my conferences about my first year everyone always commended me on my ability to teach writing effectively. My principal told me, “The amount of writing you and your students do really made an impact. You could see the way your scaffold helped them.”

My assistant principal told me, “Helen give yourself some credit. In the beginning of the year these kids entered your room not knowing how to quote something from a text, and most of them are leaving your room knowing how to do that. Some of them are even leaving your room knowing how to properly explain the evidence they are citing. That’s a skill that will be with them forever.” 

Even some of my students helped raise my spirits. In their end of the year reflection someone wrote, “Ms. Canaras, you really helped me learn to like reading. I never read a book before, but I actually read three books in your class this year.” 

Moments like this helped me gain confidence in my teaching abilities, and also led me to Lehman’s Literacy Studies Department. This program was appealing because it highlighted the areas of my classroom that are most important to me-reading and writing- and it was also closer to home. Once I applied and was accepted to the program I met with Professor Penhasi, and registered for my first semester. I was excited to be back in school, and working on furthering my education.

However, my excitement was tested several times that summer leading up to starting the program. When colleagues or family members asked me what I was getting my masters in many of them looked at me funny when I told them Literacy. I often heard responses like, “Literacy? All the jobs are in Special Education these days. You should be going back for that,” or, “You’re going to have a hard time getting a job in that once you graduate.” 

I will not lie, this did cause me to rethink my choice; but I was willing to give literacy a chance. Looking back now I am happy I did because I love this field. I have gained some many new perspectives and practices through this major. Starting this program in my second year of teaching completely revolutionized the way I teach. I started being more reflective of myself as a teacher, and of my students. I have brought the importance of reflection into my classroom, and I have my students reflect on all the work they do. I have learned how to bring multiple perspectives into my classroom, and to incorporate activities that allow my students to include movement, visual, song, etc… Where I was uncomfortable doing these things before this program has expanded my mind to the realization that this can happen.

My first year in this program has brought so many ideas to my classroom, and as I begin this next year I am again nervous but more confident. I am a better teacher now than when I started and I only look forward to other new things I will gain from here on out.