The following is a sample five-paragraph essay I wrote for a topic I assigned my students. They have to write about three life lessons they have learned during sixth grade. (I gave them a brief summary of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" for inspiration.) Since I've been out of sixth grade for more than twenty years, I wrote about three life lessons I've learned during my career as a teacher.
What’s the Difference?
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” These words are the end of my favorite Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I like to think they describe so many points in my life when I have decided to go against what everyone else was doing and do what I knew was right for me. I have had these words, on a small poster I made my first year in teaching, near me during every teaching position I have held since I began my career in 1992. Where I have had my own classroom, the poster was stapled to the wall. Where I was a “traveling teacher,” the poster was taped to my cart or my crate of supplies. When I moved from New Jersey to California, my poster moved with me. And I can see that poster right now, out of the corner of my eye, as I type this on my computer at work. During all these years, at all these different jobs, I have learned some important life lessons. Among these are to be respectful, to avoid over committing myself, and to never stop learning. These three concepts have served me well in my life as a teacher and in my time outside the walls of school as well.
I start every school year telling my students that if I had only one rule, it would be one simple word: RESPECT. Respect God. Respect others. Respect yourself. Deserve and earn respect, and others will give it to you freely. Command respect, as I try to do every day, and people can’t help but respect you. The key, however, is that you only get respect when you give it to others, and if you don’t respect yourself, no one else will either. During my first two years as a teacher, I worked in an inner-city junior high school in New Jersey. Race is a huge issue there. All of my students were from different racial groups than I am. And a majority of the students were all one racial group. Those kids who were different from the rest had to almost prove themselves to get respect, which is not the way it is supposed to be. Some of the other teachers even taught their students to only show true respect to the teachers who were their same race. This is blatantly wrong too. But the students could see through all that. They respected the teachers and other kids who gave them respect first. As my basic life rule is respect, I made a big deal out of making sure everyone in my classroom showed and was given respect. The reward was that, despite what some of their other teachers may have told them to do, my students and I had a bond. Did they always do their homework? Were they perfect angels every day? No, of course not. But they knew that I cared about them, and they and I were sad to part ways when I moved on.
I did eventually have to move on, because the school where I worked was fifty miles from my home, and two hours or more in the car every day was beginning to wear on me, as was the stress of urban teaching. I had to begin to see myself as a person who was a teacher, not a teacher who happened to also have family, friends, and interests of my own. No matter what a person’s career, she has to make time for the things outside of work that are truly important. Even though I now work in a Christian school and get to pray and read the Bible at work, I still need to make time for God, prayer, and church in my regular life. I am now a wife, mother, and step-mother. Each of those relationships demands time from me. If all I ever do is work, I won’t be good at all my other roles. That means that if I am asked to do more than I can handle, I have to politely decline. That is not always easy to do, especially at work, but sometimes “no” is the only correct thing to say. There are classes I want to take, books I want to read, and hobbies I would love to take up. But what could be more important than just having the time on a Saturday to take my son to the park to play on the swings? In my time as a teacher, a very important lesson I have had to learn is to avoid over committing myself, especially to things that detract from my family life.
Even though I may not have enough time to take classes, that does not mean I have to stop learning. Some people may even think that by working in a school I have more opportunities to learn than most people do. That’s not really true either. But working with students means I have to keep on top of a lot of information. My students know more about pretty much everything than I ever had to when I was their age. And there is so much more information available now. I challenge myself to learn as much as I can, about all the things that interest me, so that I can be a better teacher. It also makes me a better parent and a better person all-around. When a student asks me a question I can’t answer, at least I can tell him or her, “I don’t know, but I know where we can look to find out.” Hopefully, I am modeling my love of learning to my students. There are subjects that have nothing to do with school that I enjoy pursuing also. I have been researching my family history since before I was a teacher, so British history is a topic of particular interest to me. I love computers, and I use them for keeping in touch with friends and family back East, editing the family pictures I take with my digital camera, and keeping track of my genealogy data. I’ve had to learn a lot to use my computer as much as I do, but I love it. I find learning to be immense fun, and I intend to stop only when I leave this world.
Whenever I look at that poster with the final lines of my favorite poem, I am forced to ask myself: have I followed the best path for my life? Have I made a difference? Did each of my decisions lead me to where God wants me to be? I don’t really know for sure, but I do know this: I have learned a lot along the journey. The lessons I have learned as a teacher are not just lessons for the classroom. They apply to every area of my life. The next time I am at a fork in the road, which road will I choose? I will draw on all these experiences and lessons learned, even the things I have learned from my mistakes. And then, that will have “made all the difference.”
Word Count: 1201
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Another sample essay I wrote
This is originally from March 1, 2006. At the time, my teaching assignment was 6th grade language arts and math, and I had about 75 students in 6th grade that year.