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Teachers: Remember your why

Note: I spent an amazing weekend at the Elevating and Celebrating Teachers and Teaching conference in Charlotte, NC (ECET2NC). These are my remarks from the Cultivating a Calling speech at the gathering.

I was a high school English teacher for 10 years and I am currently the Lead High School English Language Arts teacher in my school district. I am passionate about education. I am an avid reader and tweeter. I am a planner. And I am dyslexic.

Let’s talk about that for a minute. Challenges. My life has been one challenge after another. I think it’s important to recognize that everyone faces challenges. Some of the challenges we might be going through are easily seen by others, but other challenges may be deeply personal and hidden within.

This is me in one of my first school pictures:

First grade is where my own personal challenge began. I loved school. I loved my friends. I loved my teachers. But I didn’t love my innate struggle with school work. I was too young to understand what was going on. I just knew something wasn’t right, but what that meant I didn’t know. My smile in the picture belied the inner challenge I was facing.

Why couldn’t I excel like my sister did in school? Why did my friends finish their homework so quickly and still have time to play? Why did I spend hours studying for a spelling test, and still fail? Why did I feel like crying when walking into a place that I loved. Because I really did love school.

My parents spent conference after conference with my teachers and the principal, advocating for me. My parents heard time and time again that “She’s just not going to be an A student” and “Not all students excel in school.” But my parents knew my nightly tears and frustrations were not stemming from a student who “just wasn’t smart,” so they had me tested for a learning disability. By the middle of first-grade, I had my diagnosis: Dyslexia. Now, remember, this was in the 80s. Education for students with learning disabilities wasn’t then what it is today.

Dyslexia is often misunderstood. Many think it just means writing letters backward. And while that does happen, the effects of dyslexia run much deeper. It impacts reading comprehension, memorization, and spelling, just to name a few.

Getting diagnosed was just the first challenge of many. It was comforting to know why I was struggling so hard in school; however, it was not comforting to know that my struggles would be a life-long hurdle I would continue to jump, at times when least expected. Thankfully, not only did I have the support of my parents and tutors, I was lucky enough to have a series of wonderful, nurturing teachers who worked hard to cultivate the perfect learning environment which fostered my love for school.

I have vivid memories of sitting in my tutor’s house working on phonics flashcards (after already having been in school all day), and wishing with all my heart that I could go outside and play or go to that week’s Girl Scouts meeting. But I also understood that this time with my tutor was necessary. For example, one of the coping mechanisms students with dyslexia are often taught is to write in cursive. Writing in print causes one to pick their pencil up off the paper while crafting each letter. This slows the writing process down, while one’s train of thought continues to flow quickly, leading to letters and words being left out of a child’s writing. On the other hand, writing in cursive allows the pencil to stay on the paper, making it easier for a child’s writing to keep up with their train of thought, making it less likely for words and letters to be left out. Because of this, my tutor worked tirelessly to help me learn cursive the summer before 2nd grade.

I remember the day my second-grade teacher announced to the class we were going to start learning our cursive letters. I was so excited because for once I knew something that my friends didn’t know how to do. Up until that point, I was used to always being behind my peers. This was a new feeling for me, and I remember vividly squirming in my chair with excitement as I raised my hand to explain to my teacher I knew how to write in cursive. I was beyond thrilled when that wonderful, encouraging teacher let me go around and help my peers as they practiced their letters. You see, for once in the classroom, I felt useful– I felt special–I felt smart. Looking back, I think it was at that moment when I realized I liked teaching others.

I continued to face challenges year after year, but I still loved school. Though I can’t claim everything was rosy all the time and that I had supportive, patient teachers all the time because that wouldn’t be truthful. Just as I had some teachers who work to build me up, I had other teachers who just didn’t understand this so-called label of dyslexia. Thankfully, those teachers were few and far between. But my sixth-grade teacher didn’t believe that dyslexia was really a thing. I’ll never forget the day she called me up in front of the class and asked me to write something on the board. When I struggled to complete the task, she berated me in front of everyone, and I cried. I’m sure you all can imagine what it’s like to cry in front of your peers in 6th grade—simply mortifying.

But what is life without ups and downs? Those lows help us appreciate the highs even more. That one teacher who refused to understand me and people like me made me value my wonderful teachers even more. Looking back, I think that it’s that sixth-grade teacher, and it was that moment of crying and berating, that made me think—I can do this better. I can teach students better. I will build students up and not break their spirits.

What’s ironic is that as much as I struggled with reading and writing, I still loved it. I enjoyed it so much that in high school I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I admired my high school English teachers. I thrived on the passion and creativity they brought to class every.single.day.

So when I graduated from high school, I enrolled in UNC-Wilmington’s education program. I knew I had something I could bring to the table, so to speak. A lot of teachers teach what comes easiest to them. For example, let me circle back around to that sixth grade teacher. Her subject came easy to her and she just couldn’t understand why it didn’t come easily to me. So in college, I knew I would be able to support the students in my class who had learning disabilities because I had been there and done that. I understood their struggles.

This is the writing of 2nd grade me. You can see that while I failed a test with a 65, instead of being upset, I was excited about the opportunity to try again.

This is tomorrow.

I clearly didn’t do better. In fact, I did much worse! But yet again, I did not feel discouraged. I was excited to learn. I was excited to do better, and I knew I could. The encouragement of my teacher made me feel like I could conquer anything if I worked hard enough. Her support helped me many years down the road as I myself was becoming a teacher.  

We as educators have a responsibility to teach everyone. Our job is to help build students up so that they have the confidence to conquer their own life’s challenges. My second grade teacher provided me with the same confidence which my sixth grade teacher later tried to take from me.

We all have challenges we face. But we as educators are in a position to help. To help our colleagues who might be struggling with a difficult class. To help our students who might be struggling with a new concept–or even a concept we have taught over and over again. If we’re going to succeed in this profession, we have to be open and honest with one another. Everyone struggles. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.

As times for teachers get tougher, I challenge you to remember why you wanted to be a teacher in the first place. Like anyone, we can get overwhelmed, we can feel unappreciated, but we need to remember our why. My why was that second-grader who realized how wonderful it felt to teach something to someone. My why was that sixth-grader who felt ridiculed, and thought—I can bring compassion to the classroom.

I challenge you to write your why down. Write it down and keep it safe so that on your hardest days you can pull it out and remember why you became a teacher. No matter what challenges life tosses your way, your why is the key to your success.

Susan Hitt
Susan Hitt is the high school English Language Arts lead teacher for the New Hanover County Public School System.  After graduating from UNC-Wilmington in 2005 and teaching high school English for ten years, Susan moved into the lead teacher position where she strives to create innovative professional development opportunities for the teachers with whom she works.