Student Teacher

I was at book club the other night, enjoying the usual rhythms of our post-book chat, cozy and content inside as the skies prepared to blanket us with snow overnight.

I found myself in conversation with a lovely new friend.  She and I were comparing our geographical histories, parts of which saw us living in neighboring states for a long time.  I mentioned the name of my high school, which she had heard of, and told her how much I had enjoyed my time there.  She then shared with me a saying about teaching that I had never heard, despite having been a teacher for almost ten years:

“You know, they say people should teach at the grade level at which they were happiest as a student.  No wonder you liked teaching high school so much.”

Hmm.  I like that.  And I think it applies to me and several of the teachers I know.

Don’t get me wrong: I was never miserable in elementary school, even in the dire days of seventh and eighth grade.  I went to a very small Catholic school and shared a classroom with many of the same students for nine straight years.  It was a safe place and a place where I felt known.  I appreciated the familiarity of the people and the traditions, the Spaghetti Supper every fall and the week-long basketball tournament every February vacation.  But by eighth grade, when I was one of thirteen in my class, I was ready to move on to a bigger place.

High school was a breath of fresh air for me.  It was the first school I knew where learning and curiosity and trying hard were genuinely celebrated – by the teachers and most of the students.  Sure, there were cliques and “popular” kids, but it was the first place where I felt like I could be myself – all aspects of myself all at once – and people liked me for it.  I made friends there who know me better than any I made before or since.  It was, I think, the place where I started becoming the me I am today.

I loved high school and then loved teaching it.  For Husband, meanwhile, his happiest school years were in college; no wonder, if the saying my friend shared with me holds water, that he feels so fulfilled now in his career as a college professor.  As I think about some of my other teacher friends, I suspect that they would say that they ended up teaching the grade that they liked best as a student.

Coincidence or axiomatic wisdom?  I wonder.

I think that a lot of my readers are or were teachers – and I strongly suspect that all of my readers were kids at some point.  I wonder what you think about my friend’s saying and if it’s applicable to you and the teachers you know.

At what grade level were you happiest as a student?  Why?

Image: Teacher Appreciation Cupcakes by clevercupcakes via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

41 responses to “Student Teacher

  1. Interesting thought. Looking back I would say that I enjoyed high school the most. Perhaps that’s why I was an early childhood education major that took a job in marketing. Now I wonder if I would have enjoy my college classes more if I had been in the correct (for me) major.

    • My first full-time teaching experience was through Teach for America. I taught Pre-K for six weeks during our summertime orientation and then taught 3rd grade for two years. I knew I liked teaching – and I adored working with kids that age – but, like you, I knew in my gut that early childhood wasn’t for me. Then when I moved on to high school, I realized I had found my niche.

      Who knows, Erica, maybe you’ll still get your chance to apply your education background to an older group. That would be an exciting shift, no?

  2. What you say about arriving at a larger world in high school makes me hopeful for my daughter who soon will have that experience. She goes to a very small rural school, and though she’s made the best of it, I think she’s itching for a larger world where other people are curious. I’m eager for her to be all of herself, all the time.

    I love paper, scissors and glue: that makes me think of elementary school, but that certainly was not when I was happiest. I’m not a teacher in the traditional sense, though I love teaching.

  3. Out of everything I loved college best too. I felt like I really came into my own.

  4. I think I was strictly happiest in elementary school (that safe feeling you describe, the sense of belonging), but I was most challenged in college, and felt most ‘alive’ there academically. High school was filled with both highs and lows for me. Now I teach K-4 reading intervention, and love those kids. I think I’d avoid teaching HS!

  5. WOW! Never thought of that. I was definitely meant to teach elementary and looking back middle and highschool were filled with much more anxiety, stress, and social stress. College returned me to happiness and I have been tempted to teach teachers someday…but now I am home with my boys and we’ll see when and how I go back into the world of education. I do miss it but lots changes.

  6. Fascinating insight, Kristen, and one I’ve never contemplated before. I also felt that high school opened me up as a person and enabled me to be the kind of student/participant I hadn’t yet blossomed into when I was younger. I loved college even more (although when I went on to become a college prof. in my first career, I didn’t like it all that much.) I’m going to share this with a friend of mine who’s contemplating a career in teaching-thank you!

    Delia Lloyd

  7. I absolutely love love love teaching 2nd and 3rd grade (probably 2nd a bit more). I think your friend hit the nail on the head- you wouldn’t catch me anywhere near a middle school. Then again, who likes middle school? This might be one of my favorite “quotes”.

    • So I guess I liked high school more than you did. 🙂

      I certainly didn’t like middle school, but I actually enjoyed teaching 7th graders when I had the chance to during my last two years working before Big Boy was born. I think that knowing that it’s such a difficult time for so many kids made me grateful to have the chance to teach them in a safe, accepting environment. (Of course, I had the advantage of teaching at a small private school for gifted kids – not exactly the typical demographic.)

  8. What you say here makes sense to me. I taught college freshmen for a little and enjoyed it, and looking back, I did have a blast in my college years. That’s when I really came to my own and seeing the future in the faces of the freshmen in my class made me really excited for them. I shared with them the literary works that really affected me at their age and it gave me great pleasure to see them getting into them too. At that point, it wasn’t just a transfer of knowledge but more a sharing of ideas, which I thought was key to learning and teaching.

  9. What an interesting perspective. I hadn’t heard this point of reference.

    Thinking back, I adored most of elementary school – 2nd and 3rd grade especially. And I remember loving 5th and 6th grades as well (not yet junior high / middle school). I didn’t mind high school, but frankly, it was college that I loved most of all. That is where the community of learning and curiosity (as you say) took off for me. The faculty were incredible. The students were incredible. The challenges and discussions – inspiring.

    Were I a teacher, I suppose I’d have to be dealing with little kids or older teens. Go figure…

    Fascinating post.

  10. Hmmm… I’m not sure when I was happiest. I was never UN-happy, although some years were certainly better than others. If I ever taught, I see myself in either 9th grade or 3rd/4th grade… Can’t say for sure why, I just think I like those ages of kids. My Sunday School kids are pre-K, same age as my son, and I like them, but I can’t imagine spending every day with them! 😉

    As for teachers I’ve known, I can’t claim to understand what makes some good and some not. Overwhelmingly, though, there’s an obvious correlation between and happy, joyful teacher and a good teacher. My son has a cranky teacher right now and it’s hard…

    • I think that all Pre-K teachers should be put on the fast track for sainthood. As much as I love my own three-year-old, the idea of spending several hours several days a week with a pack of them fills me with terror!

  11. That’s interesting. Both of my parents are teachers, both to different ages. (They used to joke about teaching Plato and Playdough.). And I can see how each focused on grades they most enjoyed. For me, here is a certain love affair with the feeling of being on a college campus. There is an intellectual energy that I find so exciting. That’s where I’d like to end up. Someday. Although I also adore the simplicity (not ease) of early childhood classrooms.

    But today it’s just my own kids.

  12. Sorry about the typos… that’s what I get for combining toddler play time with blog reading time!

  13. I enjoyed college the most. I loved the freedom of choosing my own pursuits. I loved meeting people from diverse backgrounds. I loved the conversations, the intellect, the drive I witnessed in myself and in others. I work in academia now. Hmmm… For me, there was some truth to your friend’s maxim.

  14. What an interesting question to think about. I’m eager to ask Don, because though we’ve come to work in the same field, we’ve never talked about the way that our earliest educational experiences may have informed our decisions. I may have had the most fun in elementary school, but the truth is I had fun all the way to senior year – I was in a small, cozy and familiar school, but academically it was pretty absurd. I really liked college and loved, LOVED grad school. Now on one hand I’m partial to passionate students, fascinating discourse and consistent (and high) expectations, which can make my undergrad classes often frustrating. But the groups I most love to teach are eager high school students in need of extra resources, help and attention, and that’s who I spend most of my days with. That’s perhaps not a reflection so much of the part of school I most enjoyed, but the one in which that in hindsight I see the biggest gaps and gullies.

  15. For me, this is eerily accurate! You always make me think.

  16. My degree is in secondary education but after I did my student teaching stint, I felt that there was no way I could ever teach. Maybe it’s because I absolutely hated high school and that’s where I did my student teaching. Hmm, will have to think about this one.

  17. Hello Kristin,

    First time commenting here for me. Hope dads are welcome. Big Little Wolf introduced me to your blog and it feels kindred, the writing and reflective tone so open and accessible.

    I’m not a teacher, but what a sensible idea and wonderful question. I’d teach at summer camp. That is to say, I’d be a counselor forever.

    (I used to look back on high school as the best time, but went to my 20th reunion (a while ago) and had a strange, anxious feeling the whole evening. Then it came back to me–that was how I felt in high school all the time. The mind plays tricks, it does.)

    • Hi, Wolf, and welcome to Motherese. Thank you so much for visiting and for taking the time to leave a comment. (And thanks to BLW for making the introduction.)

      I missed my 15th high school reunion, but enjoyed both my 5th and my 10th. (My 20th is in a few years; I hope to attend and report back.) But your comment raised an interesting question in my mind: my husband and I share a college alma mater, but we haven’t attended any of our reunions. I liked college; he loved it. So why haven’t we made a point of revisiting it? Could there be some not-so-deeply hidden anxiety lurking there that’s keeping us away?

  18. I’m not sure that I was ever happiest in any grade. I moved around too much during grade school, spending only two years in each space. Middle school was a nightmare. High school was better, though I was busy working to help pay for my private school tuition.

    I became a teacher anyways. An elementary teacher. In part, I think because I wanted to make school better for the kids. I wanted them to have a better experience than I did.

    Now, with a little more life and time and travel under my belt, I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to teaching. But that’s another story for another day.

    • “Now, with a little more life and time and travel under my belt, I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to teaching. But that’s another story for another day.”

      I’d love to hear that story, as I am in the process of writing (aka living) a similar one.

  19. I absolutely loved fourth grade, when I was 8. I think it was because it was the first year I really discovered the love of reading and writing, even though I’d been reading for years–that was the year I dug in and started inhaling and consuming books. I was still young enough to play but old enough to reason and KNOW things. I had an elaborate fantasy that year that I was a teacher and had a trap door under my desk with a slide leading down to a pool, and on days the kids were good, I’d open the trap door and they’d all get to ride the slide down and have a day of fun.

    In those days, I couldn’t imagine being anything else besides a teacher. But by the time I got to seventh grade, that desire had passed and I haven’t experienced it since.

  20. Kristen, although I teach third grade now, I taught Kindergarten for 10 years and first grade for 4 years. Those two grades, along with their respective teachers were the happiest of my life. I was so enthralled with school and learning. I thought my Kindergarten teacher was beautiful, she was always so put together and sweet. My first grade teacher was a hoot and ALWAYS made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.
    I enjoyed all my other years and teachers in elementary school. I enjoyed junior high and high school. But those two years were magic. And I try, each day, to make that magic happen in my classroom, for my students.
    Thank you for sharing with us such an interesting conversation. I may jump on this topic and blog about it…How those childhood memories stay with you and shape you, so many years later….

  21. I suppose if I were to teach I’d have to join ranks with your husband, as college was much happier than all the years that preceded it—yet as a psychologist I have often worked with kids struggling at the places I once struggled, and I think that this point of connection was also helpful in making real connection.

    Still, my hat is off to teachers all around—those teaching their favorite years and those going back to make it better than it was for them in the first instance.

  22. Interesting thought. I spent more than a decade working with children in various capacities- substitute teacher, youth director, camp counselor etc. Most of that time was spent working with high school students but I can’t say that was my happiest time as a student.

    Elementary school was great, junior high was ok and high school was definitely good. However with the exception of my junior year my college experience was quite good.

  23. I went to a Catholic elementary school too, and grew up surrounded by the same classmates year after year. Elementary school holds a lot of wonderful, and also painful memories. As does high school. High school though, as you say, is really where I cam into my own. I had challenges with peers, but I didn’t let that hold me back. I was very involved, loved to learn and took on new opportunities with zeal. Sometimes I miss that person.

  24. I never really thought about this before. When I went to college, I decided I wanted to teach high school because I had a pretty good high school experience (there was some angst, for sure), and it was different from my time at a small Catholic school grade school.

    Then when I graduated from college, after a few months of subbing junior and senior high, I was happy to get a business college instructor position because I liked college so much (of course four-year college is a different experience from an 18-month program).

    Now that I am 39 and have a seven year old, I find that I don’t really “get” teenagers. I am currently subbing at my kid’s K through 8 Catholic school, and I guess in a way it is like a do-over for me. I strongly disliked my first few years of elementary school, and I am trying to help these kids enjoy their experiences more than I did mine.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, facie.

      It sounds – from your story and others – like we might want to add a corollary to my friend’s quote: “Teachers should teach the grade where they were happiest or where they feel they can do the most to help kids fare better than they did at that age.”

  25. weirdly true.

    I never noticed the connection. 10th grade was one of my favorite school years, and ended up being the grade I most loved teaching.

    The openness… the excitement… the vulnerability of that age are unique. Still a little bit of childlike curiosity left in them then, before the cynicism and fake-blase’ attitude of the later teen years.

    A teacher made a huge impact on me in 10th grade. Hopefully, I paid it forward during my brief teaching career.

  26. Wow, what an interesting observation and it may be accurate. I’ve taught French to both high school and college students and I’ve enjoyed it, even though the experience was quite different. I’ve never entertained the idea of teaching at the elementary school level, and my recollection of those years is pretty much null. Now you’ve given me food for thought!

  27. hmmm…I think first grade and college. Everything in between was less than thrilling. Too much angst. I found my best friends and husband in college and I think I grew into myself at the same time. I liked first grade too, because I had such an awesome sweet teacher.

  28. My favorite grades were the ones where I had inspiring teachers, and I was fortunate to have quite a few. But I have tried teaching (elementary school, middle school, college), and I really hated it. It shocked me because I always imagined I’d love it.

    I couldn’t handle giving so much more than I was getting back. Not that I expected it to be exactly reciprocal, but I did expect some feeling of reward or purpose. But most days felt like beating my head against a wall. How did you manage it??

  29. I’m not a teacher but I can really see how this would be true. If I had to pick a time when I felt the most fulfilled in school it would probably be college. The variety of classes and having some amount of control over what I studied made me happy. As did finding a career path that I loved before I became a mother.

  30. I enjoyed learning so much, but so much of was destroyed by the racial strife in my Chicago schools that it was hard to concentrate on school and not the tension. Then I moved to Arizona and found that the schools were miserable, I was never going to learn, and, without any racial tension there whatsoever (against for anti-semitism- duh), there were very crazy people around me. No wonder I feel like I don’t fit in at my reunions!

  31. I am not a teacher, but I imagine the theory is true… As for school, I was always a happy camper. I am just a school lover. I think college was probably my favorite. Perhaps this is why my blog has its name? I cannot quite get over the collegiate aspect of my identity? Interesting to think about… Another wonderful and thoughtful piece.

  32. I always loved school. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint. I loved teaching my high school students and can’t imagine teaching any other grade level. But my personal high school years? Not my favorite. Maybe I’m an anomaly.

  33. I loved learning in school. I was never a teacher, but remember playing school where I would pretend to have students and a lesson book. My favorite time was probably high school and college. I made some long lasting friends in high school and solidified my relationship with my husband in college. For me, I enjoyed reading and writing as well as connecting with other people.

    Interesting question. I always love thinking about the topics you raise in this space.

  34. I just ran across this fabulous blog – interesting topics and polished writing to boot! I can’t resist making a comment on this post since I had the blessed opportunity of teaching 8th grade Jr. High Students. I absolutely adore 8th graders and believe that 8th and 9th grade were some of my happiest years in school as well, because I had teachers that not only were inspirational, but helped me believe in myself during that awkward stage of life.

    Practically every day during my short teaching career (once I began having children, I decided to become a stay-at-home mom) I had the opportunity to make some sort of difference in at least one student’s day. It was a blessing to offer a compliment, some words of encouragement, or even just a smile to these kids who are feeling insecure and often doubt their potential and self worth. I found that confidence was a rare entity in many of my students and felt compelled to let them know how amazing they truly were. I was fortunate enough to teach English, and through literature and carefully chosen novels, my classes engaged in meaningful discussions that I still remember.

    Now with my own daughter attending Jr. High, I know how much it means to her to feel validated and how much those teachers can truly make a difference in the lives of their students.

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