|Teaching is more than a vocation; it is an identity and, also, a gift. When I graduated from high school, my English teacher, Shelley Swift, told me I would one day become a teacher myself, whether or not I entered into it professionally. She knew this because she had benefited from having great mentors in her life, and just as she had done, it would become my duty to return the gift by mentoring someone else. I believed her words, despite having dreams that were far from the field of teaching, because in the face of such honesty and tremendous responsibility, I couldn’t help but embrace it. I wrote my college admissions essay about Mrs. Swift and her cool, punkish persona that grabbed my attention. She had a love of classical and contemporary literature that kept me interested in learning and when she needed to give a lecture, she stood proudly in front of the classroom and commanded such presence. She was a trailblazer, and I wanted to be like her.
I did become a trailblazer in my time at Kalamazoo College, more out of survival than desire, but the result was the same. I use the term, “resistance education,” to describe my experiences with educational trauma and institutionalized racism in my undergraduate education, but I am also grateful that those experiences shaped me into a person who questioned her professors and the established curriculum. I ended up taking my education into my own hands by creating several independent studies that explored racial politics and identity through a multi-disciplinary lens. In truth, I was more of a Socratic gadfly than a trailblazer back then, but those methods led me to the second most profound mentorship of my life: my poetry professor, Diane Seuss, who gave me the space I needed to create a new voice and identity for myself. It was a privilege to witness the indelible influence Di had on every single one of her students because of her ability to teach a universal curriculum and still develop an individualized relationship with all of us, challenging and expanding our ideas of what’s possible in the world while nurturing our souls.
Understanding my teaching philosophy has puzzled me for a while, but it’s actually quite simple. I learned from my teachers throughout my education and from their models, I constructed a teaching identity based on holism and trial and error. I’m not as commanding as Mrs. Swift, nor as nurturing as Di, but I am relentlessly curious about the world and who I am within it. I ask a lot of questions of myself and others. I see patterns between disparate ideas and connect them in visionary ways. That is what I can offer: the ability to hold an experimental space for the sharing and clashing of ideas and voices in a way that becomes inspirational and creative. I provide an encouraging foundation and am open to infinite possibilities which allows people to feel safe enough to push themselves into greater inquiries and self-awareness. In the classroom, I emphasize all my favorite things: developing each person’s individual writing and speaking voice, critical thinking and reasoning skills, and the ability to use absolutely everything as material for learning. The world is a text, after all, and I believe it is easier to go out into it and change it for the better if we begin by asking questions about what we see in our own lives. I inspired a business major to care about his writing on how American baseball influences socioeconomics, racial politics and cultural values so much that he worked on revising the essay over Christmas break to send out to publications in the spring. It’s that kind of personal, integrative touch that turns into lifelong learning, and I want to see many more students take their education into their own hands.
One of my favorite teaching evaluations was by a student who said, “I didn’t learn anything new in this class, but I am a better writer.” That’s what education is about. It is not just about finding new passions but becoming better at what one already knows. It is about feeling free to express one’s whole self through the curriculum. My education was more difficult than necessary to provide me with tools of resilience, compassion, complex reasoning, and personal transformation. I take it as my responsibility to ensure that learning these lessons comes about in a more open and collaborative environment for the next generations because that is a true gift.