When I was eighteen, the first time I went to college, I loved the idea of teaching but I didn’t understand the level of commitment it required. In my mid-twenties I gave it a try for a few years and then attempted to grasp at something that seemed larger, more erudite and revered - a doctorate degree - only to discover (after five years) that it wasn’t as fulfilling as working with students after all. At this point in my life I have taught, I have tutored, I have researched, lectured, presented, written, transcribed and jumped through the hoops of PhD candidacy only to reach the realization that I belong right back where I started over ten years ago: in a high school classroom. I have always loved learning; it has just taken me a long time to realize that I also truly love teaching. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
In 2000, I entered the University of North Florida’s Honor Program with a number of scholarships under my arm, including the Chappy James Most Promising Teacher Award. At that point I already had an intuition that teaching was the profession for me. However, after two semesters as an Elementary Education major, I switched to a more lighthearted major: English, with a Political Science minor for levity. ‘I can always teach high school English, right?’ was my thought.
When I graduated in 2004, I had no idea what to do with an English degree so I took a trip to Europe, bartended and managed a restaurant for a while, took some creative writing workshops and eventually signed up for a TEFL certificate course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2005 – 2006, I spent eight months in Buenos Aires teaching English as a Foreign Language to the upper crust of the white collar community: the CFO of La Clarin, the national newspaper, the children of the Korean ambassador, salesmen and women for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Repsol, Microsoft and many other students. It was both fascinating and rewarding: I’m pretty sure I learned more from my students than they did from me! Every day was entirely new and foreign and surreal. My love for teaching was born. When I returned to the states in the summer of 2006, I felt ready to teach high school English.
My first teaching gig was at Bishop Eton in Tampa, FL, a private K-12 school for children who couldn’t fit into the public school mold: some had learning disabilities, others had behavioral problems while others were on the Spectrum or had physical limitations, a few had been kicked out of every public school in the county. ADHD, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, Asberger’s: each student had a unique case history and set of educational needs. I taught English and Humanities for grades 9-12. There was no set curriculum, which allowed me the freedom to piece together innovative strategies and flexible lesson plans that met Florida State English and Reading goals. For the Humanities credits, I created lessons on food, pop culture, art and music. We studied the differences between sampling and plagiarism by looking at such examples as Shakespeare and Jayzee and we made screen prints for our unit on pop art.
Though being innovative was fun when it was successful, it was also exhausting: most days I wished I had a cannon of lesson plans to consult. I eventually came to see this flexibility as less of a blessing than a curse! Needless to say, I was in over my head and struggling to tread water. There were many moments I wished I had taken more than a handful of education courses and I tried to constantly educate myself and memorize each IEP. During that year, we went through three headmasters and eventually the high school portion of the school closed due to a buyout from a larger educational company. At the year’s conclusion, I was offered a position in the middle school but turned it down to look for a public school job. I will never forget the lessons I learned and the joy I received from those special students, some of whom I still keep in touch with.
That summer I worked in the ESL field again at ELS (English Language Services) Center in St. Petersburg, FL. For three months, I taught international visitors aged 16- 40 from such locales as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Germany and Turkey. This teaching job was exceptionally engaging and enjoyable but without a Master’s degree in ESL I made a fraction of the salary of my peers and when the opportunity to teach at a public high school opened up, I took a freshman English teaching position.
The 2007-2008 school year was the most difficult teaching assignment to date: I had approximately 175 students in seven classes at Alonso High School, student population: 3600. I had three course preps and no prep period. Worst of all, I had no classroom but roved from room to room in an enormously overcrowded institution on a huge campus. With the optimism of youth, I thought that I could manage all of this, as well as the constantly shifting student population, the near-daily fights and occasional drug busts and still manage to make a difference. I have to admit that I was wrong. I may have made small gains and contributed some knowledge but at the year’s end, I was disillusioned, stressed out and looking for other options.
That’s when I discovered Montana. In an effort to clear my mind, I did what so many twenty-somethings do every year and took a job at Glacier National Park. Of course, I loved it here immediately. Western Montana in the summertime is what I imagine heaven is like. I regained confidence and considered my career options. The summer flew by and the park closed but I got a job in Babb working for a Blackfeet family and managed to hang on for a few more weeks until the snow was falling and the tourists were all gone. I returned south, regrouping along the drive and made up my mind to apply to graduate school. During the fall and winter of 2008 and 2009 I researched my options and decided to go a slightly different route: linguistic anthropology. I applied to six schools for a master’s degree and to one for a doctorate. My acceptance options were varied and ultimately I went the PhD route.
From 2009 to 2011 I completed the necessary coursework for a master’s degree in linguistic anthropology at Tulane University, in New Orleans (a master’s inclusive doctoral program) and in 2012, achieved PhD candidacy. This was an exhilarating and challenging period: I’d never been surrounded by so many intelligent and driven people. I was swept away by the enthusiasm and threw myself into researching and writing – after all, I had only one linguistics course under my belt upon admission and knew next to nothing about anthropology– I had a lot of catching up to do. With a modest living stipend and an enjoyable, non-taxing research assistantship, for the first time in my life, I could focus only on school. Perhaps I had to learn to be a learner again before I could be a teacher.
During this time I was a research assistant for Dr. Dajko, who studied Cajun French, Dr. Spitzer, host of American Routes, a national NPR program and Dr. Maxwell, my advisor and the most genius human I’ve ever met. I learned much from each of these scholars: partially through transcribing audio interviews, grading undergraduate essays, scanning and uploading pdfs and other routine duties but also through observing their methods, reading their articles and taking their classes. From 2010-2012 Dr. Maxwell gave me the task of putting together and then coordinating a linguist student group to work with the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana on an ongoing language revitalization project. My duties were many and varied – from organizing weekly meetings, to contacting artists, graphic designers and small presses to print our first children’s book, to parsing traditional texts into morphemes, to making hotel reservations, to serving as the liaison to the tribal council. I am indebted to Dr. Maxwell for placing me in the coordinator position for it was an invaluable experience.
During all of these years (2008-2012) I still spent summers in Montana and eventually decided that I would research the traditional Blackfeet language and cultural identity for my dissertation project. My goal was to conduct interviews and focus groups and amass over 100 surveys (five pages each); this way I would have the quantitative data necessary for sociological statistics and the qualitative data that comes with one-on-one oral history collection and ethnography. During this time I supported myself by working as a tutor at Sylvan Learning Center and substitute teaching in the Bitterroot Valley, as well as waiting tables and producing a line of body products for sale at local markets. I made several trips up to the reservation during the year and conducted interviews in Missoula and Great Falls as well. It became clear that I needed to live on the reservation in order to finish the project and really get to know the community so I took a position with the Browning School District for the 2013-2014 school year.
It’s hard to explain what happened to my dissertation project as the year progressed but eventually I began to understand the apathy of the community towards language revitalization. To be frank, life is hard here on the Blackfeet Reservation. Homes are broken; the tribal council is broken; children are at economic and often physical disadvantages. Many are worried about what they are going to eat or how they will keep their families warm. Many are dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. The traditional way of life is gasping for breath while the modern system is malfunctioning. Before the community as a whole can be concerned with a dying language and throw their energy into preservation projects, there are numerous other priorities that take precedence. As an outsider, who am I to persuade these people that this is important? In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a paradigm that many Blackfeet scholars identify with), the physiological needs trump the ideological every time.
Though I still think that traditional languages are important to cultural identity, it is not the object of my existence anymore. It has occurred to me that the Blackfeet community members of Montana need to come to the realization themselves that language preservation is important – and many have. If they want the assistance of an outside linguist, I will be happy to provide it. But I can’t force this realization from my lofty perch of comfort and in the meantime, I feel that my efforts are better spent elsewhere. And perhaps by spending time in the classroom I will incorporate language projects in more effective ways than I would coming in as an outsider, completing 100 surveys and taking my data back to New Orleans to write a dissertation.
In my time in Montana in the last year and a half, I have spent a considerable amount of time tutoring and last year, I was a frequent substitute for students at a small K-8 rural school. One day last year I was teaching a geography lesson to a fifth grade classroom. I was in the center, with the globe and pointer, while twenty children were gathered around, hands in the air and pushing for attention. I was having fun; they were having fun. It was nothing short of magical. Seymore Simon said “I'm more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than in teaching the facts. The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them the rest of their lives.” If I can muster enthusiasm in one kid next year for reading and writing, two of my greatest loves, it’ll be worth it.
Since August, I have worked for the Browning School District as the Coordinator of the 21st Century After School Tutoring Program for all six schools in the district, focusing primarily on the three elementary schools and the high school. My duties include grant writing, attendance updates, staffing, ordering supplies and day-to-day oversight of the tutoring programs such as bus coordination and parent communication. Staffing needs are in constant flux so I find myself filling in at one school or another most days and this is my favorite part of the job. For the older grades, homework help is the primary concern but for the younger grades we fill the time with educational games and learning activities and craft projects. This week, for example, I am excited to bring in one of Glacier National Park’s educational trunks; this one is packed full of skulls from local animals for the children at Napi Elementary, grades 4-6 to identify through a unit study. I’ve also procured a grant and curriculum to begin incorporating a national science program into the after school program, Fishing in the Schools.
When I look back at my teaching experiences, it’s not the subject matter or a glowing lesson that stand out but the individuals that impacted me. Corey, who, at 16, was severely dyslexic and stayed after school to take his tests verbally, never failed to crack me up and demonstrated an uncanny spatial intelligence in all things mechanical. He is now a successful and enterprising mechanic with an enthusiasm for travel, new experiences and a good adrenaline rush. And there’s Kenyal, a high school senior I mentored while in New Orleans, who was a true Renaissance woman and in true New Orleans fashion, acted like all of her gifts and abilities “ain’t no thing”. She is now on a full scholarship in a pre-med program. Mustafa, my Turkish tutoree, sent by his employer to pass the TOEFL, labored harder than any student I’ve had since, so that he could return home to his wife and kids as soon as humanly possible. Here in Browning there is Kira*, a high school student, who has made a huge impact on me, though I am not technically her teacher, but her boss. I have yet to see what her success story will be but it is inspiring to me that she manages to come to school each day, knowing the tragic circumstances that surround her. I’m not sure if I was a critical component to the success of these individuals but I am thrilled to know them and the fact that I may have helped pave the way even a little bit for them to achieve their goals certainly gives me satisfaction.
All of these experiences in the fourteen years since beginning my bachelor’s degree have brought me full circle. I feel that now, at 32, I am better equipped to handle a classroom of teenagers and especially more prepared to teach on the Blackfeet Reservation than I would have been even a year ago. I feel that my background both in and out of the classroom give me unique qualities to bring to students and engage them in reading and writing, which are often NOT the favorite activities of teenagers. Yet I also now realize what I don’t know, which is half the battle. I look forward to learning more about classroom management, learning styles and lesson preparation as well as many other areas of knowledge through the Northern Plains Transition to Teaching program.