After thirteen years of professional teaching, I’m leaving my career as a full-time ESL teacher in higher education to be an Instructional Media Designer for the eLearning Division at Sinclair Community College. I will be working mostly with faculty who are developing instructional media for their face-to-face classes, from concept to production.
Fifteen years ago, I walked into the first class that I ever taught.
I was 22 years old. A teaching assistant for the English department at Wright State University. No teaching experience. Just my Bachelor’s degree, as a testament to the fact that I, at least, knew how to write an essay. And presumably, could figure out how to teach someone who was four years younger than me how to write an essay.
I loved it.
Okay, not all of the time.
Not when I was providing feedback on the thirteenth paper in a stack of twenty-five. But overall, it was awesome.
When I taught my first ESL class in the LEAP Intensive English Program at Wright State, it was even better. I was able to use my love for linguistics to inform my teaching practice. My work was not only rewarding, it was challenging. I found that I was constantly making connections between my Bachelor’s degree in linguistics with my teaching practice. My students genuinely appreciated me. They thanked me after classes and wanted to take pictures together. They actually visited me during office hours. They told me their concerns and their problems.
And I reached out to them. When my parents first moved to Texas (and later, Minnesota), I invited my students to Thanksgiving dinner in our small apartment, several years in a row. My husband and I cooked for them, and they also cooked for us. We talked about families and marriage, children and religion, stories and recipes. And we laughed a lot.
People who aren’t teachers hear over and over again how much a teacher changes the lives of their students.
But teachers know that this relationship is reciprocal.
Students change their teachers.
In 2006, when I first started teaching Saudi women, I quietly wondered if my female Saudi students might feel free enough to take off their hijabs if I were welcoming enough.
Through my monocultural worldview, this was how I saw hijabs: they were impediments, barriers, obstacles to overcome.
At that time, I saw difference as an obstacle. And the best way to deal with it was to pretend it didn’t exist and that everyone was the same. As long as I treated all my students in the exact same way, my teaching would be effective. After all, it’s really all about having the best informed instructional approach, right?
Thirteen years later, I can see now that acknowledging difference is the first step towards working to create an equitable classroom for all students.
I am able to see a hijab as a religious expression for my Muslim women, something that many of them wear out of a love for their faith and a symbol of their devotion to God. It’s neither an obstacle nor an ornament. For many of my Muslim women, it’s grafted into their religious expression.
It wasn’t one person who changed my perspective. It was an ongoing parade of different students, male and female, in and out of my classroom, term after term, year after year. Each of them, an individual thread, weaving together with hundreds of other threads, to create a great tapestry of what has become years of experience with intercultural communication.
When I stand back and look at the last thirteen years of my life…
I see that I am the one who has changed.
I understand now that we are all looking at the world through our own cultural lenses. They revealed to me the invisible threads of American culture, values, and worldview that hold together, and sometimes, entangle me.
And so I say, with so much more humility than I had when I first started teaching, THANK YOU.
Thank you, to my thousands of students.
From Saudi Arabia, China, Kuwait, Libya, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Oman, UAE, India, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Chad, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Gabon, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Panama.
Thank you for changing me.
I know I was a serious teacher (who hated late homework), but it is my sincere hope that I left you with the feeling that you were valuable and important to me.
I hope you know that I think you are courageous.
What is courage, after all?
It is the ability to accept that life is full of moments of darkness: from failure, rejection, fear, grief, and uncertainty. And yet, to be courageous is to walk into the dark moments and say, “Even if I fail, even if I’m rejected or afraid or lose people that I love, and don’t know what comes next… I will try.”
Your journeys across oceans and time zones, carrying with you the wishes and dreams of the families that sent you inspired me every day.
You showed me courage, day after day.
I saw many of you in your most vulnerable moments, just days after your planes had landed and your feet first touched U.S. soil.
You were tired and disoriented–and we greeted you with English placement tests and two full days of “orientation.” (Sorry about that. It wasn’t my call.)
I hope I was kind to you.
I hope that when you were hurting, I was there for you.
I hope that if you weren’t passing my class, I was able to have a conversation with you to assure you that I knew you were working hard and that grades should never tell you whether or not you are worthy of love.
I hope I made you think critically about something that you had never considered before.
I hope we laughed together.
I hope that when you go home and tell your family about “Americans,” you remember me.
And my favorite saying, “It’s bananas.”
It was not an easy decision to leave teaching, but considering the goals that I still want to accomplish in my professional life, it is time.
I’m also thankful for the support that the University of Dayton and UD Publishing have given me for my professional development over the years, all of which was inspired by the work that I do with my students. With their support, I was able to complete a graduate certificate in Technology-Enhanced Learning, which better prepared me for this future line of work. In addition, during my years at UD, I’ve presented on interdepartmental collaborations, intercultural communication, second language listening, learner-centered teaching, and digital technologies for language learning. I’m proud of the work that I’ve accomplished with the help of talented TESOL professionals, both those with whom I’ve collaborated, those who have mentored me, and those whom I have mentored. Although it was not required for my job and I often spent vacations and weekends researching and planning these presentations, I enjoyed these opportunities to grow and learn and keep my eyes open for what’s out on the horizon.
I won’t say that “I hope I’ll come back to teaching.”
The truth is, I know I will. At some point.
I might come back to teach face-to-face classes, if it works with my plans. I might decide to teach fully on-line (which could be super cool, I think).
But for right now, it’s time for this next step.