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The power of sharing my struggles with my students

My path to becoming a classroom teacher was not the typical one. I did not really know how to study. I did not have parents that knew how to help me with my calculus homework or tell me what keywords to write in my college application essays.

I was the student that waited for the bus, in the dark, with knots in my stomach because I was worried about ALL of the things. Literally all of the things. What if I missed the bus? Was I wearing the right clothes? Would my history teacher find out that I was way out of my league in AP U.S. History? I was nervous that I did not know what I was doing. I had terrible test anxiety. I still do.  

But I liked school. I really liked it even though I was scared of it. I internalized school’s importance because I had convinced myself that it offered me something, a path, that was not immediately accessible to my parents when they were younger. I enjoyed learning new things and I was convinced that I could learn new things in school from my teachers.

I thought that I could use the knowledge and skills to do something more and learn more and that maybe, eventually, I could be really knowledgeable about something, hopefully something science-related. Science was not the easiest subject for me, but I had a genuine love for it so that became my primary focus.

I fueled my own motivation. By the time I reached my senior year of high school I was confident that I could make it through challenging upper level science classes, yet at the same time I opted for less-rigorous options in subjects such as English. I held onto my obscure love for insects and focused on entomology, even though some people laughed and even scoffed at my interests. I went to college and, although I had made it past my first educational milestone, I sustained my insecurity-filled lifestyle until I had my degree in hand.  

Over time, I started to have a lot of knowledge stored up about science, particularly about insects, agriculture, and ecology. My friends seemed impressed when I could identify insects we came across and sought my growing expertise when they needed it. I felt like an expert. I worked in a lab at my university and eventually landed a job with the federal government as a scientist. After some time I left that job to pursue an education degree. I had a crazy idea that I could be a science teacher and that somehow my experiences and knowledge could be used in a different setting, for a different audience.

My first few semesters as a teacher I stood in the front of my classroom wanting to be the expert. I was intimidated by the plethora of questions. I was defensive when I did not know the answer or when I hole-punched the wrong side of the papers. I did not want my credibility to wither. I did not want my students to know that I was not the best student at my high school or that there were concepts in the curriculum that I reviewed every semester.

Deep down, did I know that I was qualified and properly prepared to be a decent educator? Yes. Did I want to be the best I could possibly be and be able to create the community of learners that I wrote about in graduate school? Certainly. My feelings as a teacher paralleled my feelings as a student. And I was putting up a facade because I thought that was the best strategy to show my science expertise and manage my classroom.

As educators, we often have to put our own feelings and personal baggage aside and focus on the task at hand — teaching our students.  I used to think that I had to hide my apprehensive and fearful education experiences because I would expose myself as somehow unqualified. And I did not want them to think that I was telling them a cliched “you can do it because I did it” story to motivate them.  

Thinking about my students and reflecting on my feelings, I realized that it was important to share my story with them. Even if it didn’t resonate with all of my students, I thought they could use my story and experiences as a tool in their educational journey. I needed to share my story. I saw students in my class with test anxiety. I could tell that students were afraid to ask for help when they needed it.

When I asked my students, most of them thought I had sailed through school without a struggle or effort. I needed to share my stories and experiences because I wanted my students’ experiences to be different from my own.

Learning, and, in particular, science, isn’t something that is done in isolation or without struggle or collaboration or setbacks. I was not supporting them by pretending that my path was different than it was. I needed to show them that even though I have amassed a large amount of scientific information, and random facts about insects, my education and learning is still a work in progress and that scientific concepts are challenging to understand.

The way I share my story is not as direct as I first envisioned and ends up being told throughout the semester. It isn’t scheduled into any particular lesson. The sharing happens throughout our time together, as needed, and for some classes it becomes an integral part of our classroom culture.

There are different parts of my story that I share with the freshmen in introductory Biology and other stories that are more applicable to the seniors in AP Biology. Many stories I share for everyone to hear and other stories are shared with individual students — for example, my test anxiety coping strategies.

One of the most important outcomes of sharing my academic experiences with my students is that I have become more of their guide than their director. This has changed the way I address my classes: moving away from “me” and “you” to “scientists” and “team.” And I let them know that I am on the team with them. I challenge them to rethink what it means for our class to be successful — we are all learning together and we all need to get to the same place and master the material. It’s not a competition. There are parts that they will find interesting and fun and parts that they will struggle with and possibly not be interested in — and that is ok.

We celebrate our milestones along the way in various ways including eating green “chloroplast” pancakes and Friday make-up work sessions fueled by coffee and cocoa. We celebrate our successes and grieve lower-than-expected vocabulary quiz results. I anticipate and announce the most challenging parts of the course and we work through them together.

I continually challenge the notion that they can’t be successful students if they struggle. We mutually agree that we can all improve ourselves one way or another. We make sure to discuss why some students grasp different concepts quicker than others and ask for their expertise.

Creating a space for reflection and the acknowledgement that we all struggle has been a positive outcome for my team of scientists. We share a common ground, even if my students were not expecting it, and we are more comfortable around each other, myself included.  

By the end of the semester, my students have completed a class beside a teacher that is not unlike them in many ways. My students have welcomed the notion that their teacher might not have all the answers but has the strategies and desire to find the answers. They have completed a class where their individual experiences and struggles have been acknowledged and appreciated and they did not have to pretend to be a different type of student. And their teacher didn’t have to pretend to be someone she is not, either.

Mika Hunter Twietmeyer

Mika Twietmeyer teaches science at Riverside High in Durham. She is Durham Public Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year and a NC Hope Street Group Fellow for 2017-19.