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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

In Other Words: The Unhappy Truth About Why I Became a Teacher


School has started and it’s the topic of lots of conversations. I was recently asked why I became a teacher. Well, I never revealed the true reason - until now.

Because I almost failed kindergarten, I become a teacher.  Now those seem unlikely dots to connect but they do.

We were learning colors. The teacher placed a series of color posters over the top of the chalkboard. The teacher went around the room asking her pupils what the color was. She pointed. I shrugged my shoulders. She pointed to the next one. I shrugged again. She pointed to a third poster. I shrugged again.


The teacher called home and told my mother what happened. And that’s when my life took a turn. I did not know the names of colors because no one taught me. Se we sat at the kitchen table, me almost in tears as mom drilled me on colors. And she was not very kind about it either.  She couldn’t believe that I didn’t know colors.  As her frustration increased, my fear of failure increased, and I cried. I was 5. Yeah, my education career was off to a good start.

I didn’t know it then and it took a long time for me to realize what had happened. Mom had never taught me those colors and she really didn’t actively teach us much of anything. She just expected that kids would know things. She was not a good teacher. I could never rely upon her for help with homework.

Lots of things are like that. We have an expectation that people know certain things. If they don’t know we may express surprise, anger, or frustration. It happens, albeit not often, that we take the time to instruct.

Somehow I passed kindergarten. I still don’t know why or how. I remember the color blindness test that I took sometime later - and, yes, I am a bit color blind, but it wouldn’t be enough to keep me out of, say, the military or get in the way at a paint store. I mean I liked the pretzel rods, milk, and nap time of kindergarten, but I also remember that I was not eager to return to school.



I am also left handed so it was not easy to learn to write. Teachers tried to make me right-handed. It didn’t feel natural. So I had to figure out how to hold the pencil and make the motions - without smearing the page. I was never quite successful in that realm.  I now call it hand-lefting because it is not easy to decipher. But that joke masks a sad truth.

I remember when words started to make sense and that I could finally decode printed words.  I felt powerful like my comic book hero, Superman. I read everything. I finally felt like I was in charge of my learning.

I wanted to know - not just facts but techniques. I didn’t want to know the what but I also wanted to know the why and how. My teachers were often overwhelmed with work and didn’t have time to take a shy kid aside to help. So I had to figure out how to teach myself.

For instance - tying shoes. I had to figure it out. I was not taught. I made two loops, crossed them, ran one under the other and pulled. Except that wasn’t the way other kids did it. I studied how they did it, reversed the image, and practiced and practiced and practiced. Eventually I figured it out, but no one taught me.  My high school teachers returned essays with only a grade on the page. There were no comments. I really had no idea how to write.

Here’s my point. My teachers taught material - not skills. They expected us to show up at school with the skills. So what if a parent is not equipped to teach their child those skills like the times tables or the state capitals or phonics or colors? A child would be left behind. And maybe abandoned. I had to become a teacher in order to learn.

I was determined to never let that happen to another child. So I became a teacher.

One day a student stopped at my desk after class and wanted to know how he could do better on quizzes. I asked how he studied and his story sounded familiar. I showed him a few techniques. He aced the next quiz and every one after that. I always tried to include the study skills along with the content.

Some years later this student knocked on my door. There he stood with his oldest son. I welcomed him in and after catching up, he revealed that he was now a lieutenant in the armed forces and that he used my study techniques for each rank test. Then he presented me his medallion that he was given at the ceremony.

Why, I asked? Because I showed him how to teach himself. After he left, I teared up. I finally felt successful, but I wish I could have shown him those techniques when he was much younger. He is an officer now and is a success. And his children are successful.

Content is important, but skills are more important.  I know what a pancake is but it's more important to know how to make one.

I wish someone would have noticed what I lacked. I wish that someone would have taken time to help. I wish I had the wherewithal to know that I didn’t know. I was not a terribly self-aware child. Instead, I had to figure it out on my own - as I still do most things. I wish I could have said something without fear of some sort of reprisal or ridicule, but that was my world then. Who knows what I could have accomplished.

All it takes is one person to help unlock the potential within another. All it takes is one person to help you learn a skill. All it takes is one person to offer an opportunity to learn. All it takes is one person.

Be that one person.

3 comments:

  1. Oh my heart breaks for that little kid.. and I cried and I understand the love your students have for you. You my friend are amazing.

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  2. Mr. Keller,
    Thank you for sharing. This resonates with me, as I am now a teacher (21st year in progress).
    What I remember from your ninth grade English class was the relationships you built with your students. To be trite...people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
    Thank you for continuing to teach, support, and inspire.

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  3. Such a poignant article. I am so sorry for what you had to endure as a young student, but thankful that you were able to channel that frustration into a career where you had the opportunity to touch so many lives. I appreciate the reminder to teach the how and why and not just the facts. As we are testing our incoming kindergarten students, only 3 out of 73 know all their letters. My students most often have no one at home to help them learn the basics (even after conferences begging them). It is not the fault of these sweet, little children but I am inspired by you to continue to find different ways to teach them. - Terri Miller

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