Becoming a Teacher

2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, shares her story about becoming a teacher.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

While a teacher faces challenges throughout the course of his or her career, perhaps the most demanding period comes at the very beginning. It’s not unusual for new teachers to feel overwhelmed and even question whether they’ve chosen the right path. But if you talk to seasoned educators, you often hear stories of a day, or incident, or even a simple comment from a student that let them know they had chosen correctly, and chosen well. For this high school English teacher in Iowa, that moment came on a cold morning many years ago when a seemingly unextraordinary lesson marked her "aha" moment.

Although my teaching path has been wrought with all kinds of tough days, weeks, even years, I can look back to a cold morning during my student teaching experience when I knew I would always want to be a teacher and pursue the heights of my craft.

At the time I was working with at-risk students in a very urban school district who were especially disillusioned with school. One day, I had to use a scissors to help a student un-duct tape himself from a chair. Another day, I took a student home only to have her ask me for the remaining Rice Krispie bars I had brought to class that day because she had to feed her younger siblings that night. Yet another day, I spent going from one school service to another, desperate to find help for a student who was falling into greater depression each day.

It was against this backdrop that we were involved with writing poetry and I was having a difficult time getting them to find voice or purpose in our work. So, in an effort to help them find inspiration, I went around collecting shoes; all kinds of shoes, from all kinds of people. I collected them into a large box that I finally toted to class one day. Then I opened the box, spread the shoes out across the front of the room, and asked the students to choose a pair of shoes they would like to walk in. And on that morning there was a moment of curiosity from them. It was the kind of curiosity that propels learners to engage, to question, to try out a new idea. They selected, they wrote, they used their voices, they felt empowered. And I knew after that day, I would always be a teacher.

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