I never thought of myself as an educator. Of the past 23 years, I have been an official student for at least 17 of them. I love sitting in class, I love reading, I love documentaries and weird Discover Channel shows and TedxTalks. In college, I adored being a student. I listened to my professors teach me to be a journalist, I listened to my supervisors, I tried to figure things out and focus on being confident in the things I knew.
Along the way, I began to lead people. I became a reporter – I provided facts and information to people and sometimes they learned something. I became an editor at my student paper – I supervised several news correspondents and helped them write better stories and figure out how to track down sources and navigate the system. I answered phone calls from incoming freshmen, frantically trying to find the next step in the long road to starting college.
All this time, I held the belief that authority figures knew everything. Those older and wiser, those who had things to tell me, things to teach me – they were confident and somehow knew more and could do more. Their abilities were greater, their skills more defined, they knew more of the secrets of the world
When I started my AmeriCorps year and learned I would be working with high schoolers – I was terrified. Four days of a more “big picture” than “here’s how to do your job” orientation didn’t help quiet my fears. I had never worked directly with kids, I had never taught them anything. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Suddenly I had 200 high school freshmen to work with daily, a first grader to tutor twice a week and a handful of adult GED students to somehow aid in accomplishing their goal.
If you asked me what happened in the past 8 months, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t think I am any wiser when it comes to educational strategies or the best ways that people learn, but I have watched a six year old grow several inches. I’ve watched him lose his front teeth and begin learning his multiplication tables. I’ve watched his handwriting get smaller and neater, I’ve watched it become easier for him to sit and do his homework for an hour. Now he finishes my directions for me, he writes his name on his worksheets without me asking and he reads in different, confident voices…sometimes silly, but always well.
I’ve watched a high schooler sit in the back of the classroom with a scowl, never reaching for a sheet of paper, with a GPA that wasn’t even a whole number. I’ve watched that same high schooler with that same scowl sometimes break into a grin and throw back a smart remark. Though he still has a long way to go, I’ve watched him total his GPA and then sheepishly ask me to help him calculate it because he isn’t doing it right…because he keeps getting “2.0” as an answer.
I have students who come to me four days a week for after-school tutoring, not because I told them too, but because I’m “helpful;” because they’ve raised their grades. I have one class period where I wish I could cut myself into a dozen pieces because I have multiple groups of students who “need me.”
What I have learned about education isn’t that I need to know everything, but that I can show them how to figure it out. It’s very powerful to say to someone, “I don’t know how to do that…but we can figure it out together. Let’s learn together.” In the process, if I’ve become an educator, it’s only because my students are educators too. Either way, we are learning together.