What I Learned In School

Kyra will go to UC San Diego, her dream school. Danny will go into the army. Raquel will go to Berkeley. A boatload of kids are going to community college, another, slightly smaller boatload, to UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and UC Merced. Another boatload to various Cal States. Jonathan will go to Vassar, the second graduate of our school ever to attend a private college out of state. Manuel, who last year sat in my classroom crying because his parents refused to allow him to go to college so he could work to help support the family—Manuel will go to Cal State L.A. I guess he talked his parents into it.

There they are, my juniors from last year, now seniors in cap and gown crossing the stage and getting diplomas. The audience is cheering like crazy. Somewhere in the crowd is Ernesto, who drove us all crazy because he was so out of control and who somehow, miraculously, managed to graduate last year. He is now in community college. On another side of the room is Yesenia, one of my brightest students, who did not attend college because she had a baby, now on her lap bouncing up and down and watching Yesenia’s brother graduate.

A year has passed since I left my job to start this journey. Just as it’s time for my former students to move on into the rest of their lives, it’s time for me to move on, too. After the ceremony, as I hug them and wish them well, after the photo ops and promises to stay in touch, I say good-bye to them at least for now. I also say good-bye—at least for now—to my time as a classroom teacher.

When I began this year of learning about education and teaching, I assumed I’d return to teaching at the end of the year. Over the course of these last months, as I’ve sat in classes watching the life-changing, deeply rewarding, complex and creative work that teachers do all day, I’ve had a chance to think honestly about the work that I feel I’m best at and where I think I might make the biggest contribution. What I’ve loved most about this year of learning, and what I always loved about teaching, is the opportunity to listen to people one on one, to hear people’s stories and have time to get to know them. I love the space that opens up when you can truly be present with another person. I realized, over the course of this year, that my favorite times with my students were always the quieter times after class when we could talk and I could hear about their lives.

During the year, as I did this project, I also volunteered with two different non-profit organizations, in one case teaching poetry at a continuation school for young adults, in another working with highly motivated and proficient 7th graders in an after-school enrichment and mentoring program. I cannot begin to describe the sweetness of working with a small group of students in a more relaxed setting. I know I will be deeply moved by the graduation of the continuation school students later this month. Their strength in overcoming unthinkable hardship and trauma is a source of inspiration. I’ll say good-bye, but I won’t forget them.

On the other hand, I won’t be saying good-bye to the 7th graders, one group from Compton and the other from South L.A. Instead, I’ve accepted a job at that non-profit and will have the chance to work with those same small groups over the course of several years, as the kids go through high school and even through college, giving reading and writing enrichment but also personal mentoring. I’ll be able to get to know their families, something I never used to have enough time to do. Because the job is part-time, I’ll also be able to continue writing. I’ve loved this blog and though I won’t be keeping it up at this level of frequency, I hope to continue writing about education. There are seismic changes happening in the education landscape. I look forward to covering them here, though at a slower pace.

I am also, full disclosure, going to become certified as a life coach. What?! I know, right? But I just really, really want to do it. I love listening. As Ama Nyamekye memorably said to me last year, when something calls to you, after a while, you have to respond. I followed my intuition with this blog and it’s been one of the best adventures I ever had. You know the Yogi Berra saying, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. Here comes another.

Even though I’m extremely excited about what’s ahead, it’s bittersweet for me to say good-bye to classroom teaching. I know that there are many toxic elements to teaching these days—the overtesting, the underfunding—but for me, the good still outweighs the bad. I don’t think I’ll ever have a job as profoundly rewarding, nor have as continual a chance to make a difference to so many young people. I’ll never have a job as continually, 360-degree three-dimensionally creative. I’ll miss being challenged every day to push beyond what I thought were my own limitations. As Jeremy Michaelson said to me last fall, when you’re a teacher, you have to bring your best self to the classroom.   Teaching is an art and a science, but it is also inescapably, palpably spiritual. I don’t know if I’ll ever again be the higher self I struggled to find as a teacher. I’ll miss that.

Most of all, I’ll miss my students.

I started this blog with two questions: what is great teaching? and what is the purpose of education? I don’t have definitive answers, obviously, but I feel a lot closer to a personal understanding of the questions than I was at the beginning of September. Over the next few weeks, as I transition to my new job, I’ll share what I believe I learned in individual, more in-depth posts. Here’s a preview: education is a conversation.

Thank you for being part of this conversation all year. I’m grateful beyond words to the teachers who have shared their stories and their classrooms with me this year and who have taught me what the profession really means. I’m so grateful to the friends who read this blog, whether regularly or occasionally, to the people I’ve been so lucky to meet along the way–some of whom have become new friends–and to the people I don’t personally know who read this blog. Being able to think things through with such kind and thoughtful readers has been rewarding in ways I could never have expected.

I’ll start posting next week about some of my conclusions, but until then, thank you so much for your companionship on this journey. I feel luckier than I could ever possibly express.

Happy summer. Here’s to the adventures ahead.









6 thoughts on “What I Learned In School”

  1. Wonderful thoughts Ellie. I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog and it makes me think so hard about everything. What great things to look forward to for you!

    1. Thanks, Will! You’ve been such an amazing source of wisdom, support, insights and commentary–and an absolute fountain of links to great articles, so many of which have influenced the direction of this blog! I look forward to continuing our conversations!

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