I had always known that I wanted to be a teacher. As an introverted child, I found refuge between the four walls of the classroom. It’s where I made friends, discovered my love of learning, and learned to navigate the English language. Over the years, I strived to do my best in school and learn as much as I could. I saw every experience as preparation for my future career. What I didn’t know then that I know now is that those experiences were preparing me for something far different than I could have ever imagined. So, it is with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my middle school students.
Leaving the U.S. Classroom
Leaving my classroom was a difficult decision. It took quite a bit of soul searching to understand why I was leaving and more importantly, where I was headed. Last summer, I attended the USC Rossier School of Education’s conference and had the honor of listening to an inspiring opening panel which included the Dean of the Rossier School of Education - Dr. Karen Symms Gallagher, LAUSD Superintendent - Dr. Michelle King, and the Center for Early Education’s former head of school - Reveta Bowers. During that opening panel, all three women had an immense amount of insight and wisdom that they openly shared with the attendees. One of my favorite (of many) quotes came from Reveta Bowers. When asked about how she felt transitioning out of the classroom and into an administrative role, she replied with saying that she never saw it as leaving teaching. She’s still a teacher; it’s just the students that have changed.
Fulfillment Through Fulbright
It was two years ago that I reflected on teaching, specifically after having finished my Fulbright English teaching assistantship in Spain. At the beginning of the year, I had this nagging thought in my mind: “I don’t want to teach anymore”. I assumed it was a variety of things making me feel this way. Teaching in a different country is HARD. Coming in for a year and trying to assert yourself in the classroom filled with 30+ teenagers is CHALLENGING. After all, I had spent a year teaching elementary school-aged children in La Rioja, Spain, where the kids loved me the moment they met me. I spent a year teaching Latino adults in Downtown LA, where again, I was instantly loved. IT’S MY FACE! They see the face and essence of a kid in a 30-year-old’s body. These teenagers were the first ones to make me work hard for their patience, respect, and trust.
Through that experience though came a deep investigation of myself. I found that when I tried to assert myself as an authority figure, they pushed me away. My dear friend and colleague, Antonio, gave me advice that I’ve carried with me since: "Don’t be anything other than yourself in the classroom. The kids can see right through it to the core of who you really are". The rest of the year became much more manageable. By the end of my Fulbright grant, I had found my strength in teaching. It would serve me well moving forward.
Learning from Teaching
At my most recent school, it became my most valuable tool. The students were eager to learn and connect. Teaching at there made me feel like I had won the lottery. The community was energetic and lively, the students were inquisitive, kind, and open. Despite it being the most difficult day I’ve had as a teacher, there was no place I would have rather been after the recent Presidential Election, than there in the classroom with my girls. Despite the ease of which I felt within the community, I felt the tension within myself. When I examined it closely, I realized I had had the answer all along.
You see, it wasn’t that I didn’t like teaching. I LOVE TEACHING, but I didn’t like being confined only to the space within the walls of my classroom and the content I had to teach. I believe I am a good teacher, but I am the best teacher when I teach what I know best: life. The feedback was always there; I just refused to look at it. In every survey, in every email, and in person, students would tell me that the greatest thing they would take away was knowing that someone cared about them and their development as a person rather than a student.
In Spain, I had the liberty of choosing many of the topics we talked about in our conversation classes with the high schoolers. Many of the topics we focused on were issues that were of interest to the students, issues that elicit emotions like frustration, anger, and fear. I challenged them to acknowledge those emotions and to talk them out together, so that they may understand that at the root of all the terrible issues in the world, most of the time at the root of it, we’ll find inconsolable suffering. Transitioning into teaching US History made it easy to bridge the gaps between what had happened in the past to our understanding of the present state of humanity.
These fourteen girls I had reignited that curiosity in my ability to bring about change outside of those classroom walls. Our discussions varied depending on the events we were covering in class, but I always made it a point to have them read what was going on in the world. I encouraged them to look beyond the borders of the United States and understand the struggles of people elsewhere, because at the end of the day, we are all humans, and it is in that humanity where hope for the future lies.
A Lesson in Empathy
One of my greatest moments with these fourteen girls came when they were assigned to interview an immigrant on their experience in coming to the United States. Their interview would then be presented to the class in the form of an oral presentation or powerpoint and it was meant to inform them further on the immigrant experience that was presented in several of the sources we read in class, but with a more modern perspective. One of my students, (we’ll call her Mackenzie), began by telling us that she decided to create a video with the audio recording of her interview. She explained that when she asked her nanny if she could interview her, she decided to talk to her in Spanish. She soon realized the difference in her nanny’s posture, body language, and disposition; she felt empowered. Mackenzie decided to conduct her interview in her Spanish, despite, according to her being “really bad”.
What came next was a classroom full of tears. Mackenzie with her beginner level Spanish conducted one of the best interviews I have ever heard. She was the epitome of empathy. She began with a few questions she had prepared. Her nanny answered in a fluent and excited Spanish, eager to share her story. Mackenzie was more than willing to listen. She listened closely, often opting to ask her follow-up questions rather than others she had prepared. What we, the listeners got, was a story of a human being. It had depth, emotion, and most of all, a level of respect coming from Mackenzie that I fail to see in most grown-ups. When it ended and we had finished our ugly crying, Mackenzie told us that the reason she had done the interview in Spanish was very simple. She said that even though she herself struggled to ask very simple questions in Spanish, it was worth it to see the confidence radiating from her nanny’s face. She said she had rarely seen her like that before and it shows you how language doesn’t just provide access to education and vocational opportunities, it can also prohibit you from sharing who you truly are with the world.
Cultivating Community Compassion
This is one of the moments I will truly miss about teaching: when you see a young girl understand the depth of humanity and how the simplest acts can change our understanding of it. It was moments like this and many others that made me realize that it is possible to expand these lessons further out beyond the walls of the classroom, across the bluest oceans and the highest mountains, to big cities and small towns. I believe that everyone, like my young student, Mackenzie, can believe in the good in humanity if they only unlock their own empathy that lies within. Human kindness is making a comeback and I, Miriam Otero, am ready to help lead the charge.