For years, the arrival of a new school year brought on a mix of emotions — anticipation, excitement, anxiety, curiosity. Walking into a clean, empty classroom, awaiting a new batch of students and peers, these moments filled me with exhilaration. I have felt that thrill as both a student and a teacher. It is during this time of year that I miss teaching most.
The classroom is my favorite place to be. It is a setting alive with possibility and potential. It is based entirely on the optimistic belief that we and others can improve. That we can learn and grow, that progress is possible.
When we leave school, somehow the world changes us. We begin to feel cynical, pessimistic. We lose faith in ourselves and in others. We think that to be smart we must expect and express the worst possible outcome, that expecting more of ourselves or those around us will yield only disappointment. I believe that this approach sets us up for failure. I believe that we limit ourselves and others when we refuse to see the potential for change and growth. Perhaps it is easier to close ourselves off to what challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. It is safer to avoid the risk involved in having hope. But it is not better to do so. It is better to remain open.
My time teaching at community college has emphasized these lessons. My students come from all walks of life. Some are fresh high school graduates, but most are returning to the classroom after years away from school. In the same classroom I have taught a 16 year old and a 65 year old. They began their schooling in various parts of the world. I’ve taught students who hail from Ethiopia, Syria, Jamaica, Mexico, and Costa Rica, as well as those from across the United States. Some are working on their second or third degrees or are switching professions. Others have come to realize that a lack of a college degree is keeping them from achieving their current goals. For many, the classroom represents a second chance. They’ve told me about youthful mistakes that distracted them from who they wanted to be. But they haven’t given up and given in, despite the hardships they have faced. They have come back to school because they know there is opportunity for change there.
Most of my community college students are inventing or reinventing themselves, trying to determine who they will be in the next phase of their lives. One of my students went to school before learning disabilities and differences were properly understood. Even if students were diagnosed with dislexia or ADD, there was a taboo so associated with these issues that he did not feel comfortable speaking up or advocating for himself. He felt school wasn’t for him, that he wasn’t book smart, and nothing was going to change that. But new research and resources have helped him to realize his true academic potential. He has come back to the classroom with a new attitude toward academics and a different understanding of himself and of his potential.
The classroom is a world of possibility. It is based entirely in a belief that things can get better if we are willing to learn, grow, reflect, and share. Believing in the effectiveness of the classroom means believing that our efforts are not in vain, that hard work, dedication, and an open mind can bring positive change.
The classroom is a place of faith, in ourselves, in others, in the world around us.