Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You'll Be Surprised...

It  was Spring, 1986, my final semester of high school-dom, and the prelude to my first semester as a Marquette Warrior (yes, the pre-Golden Eagle years). Aside from a campus tour, it was my first real time on campus as a student. After spending 90 minutes in a large lecture hall full of other prospective Warriors, writing a scholarship essay for the School of Journalism, I made my first of what would be many trips to the basement of Johnston Hall and had my first wide wif of newsprint in the offices of The Marquette Tribune. 

At that time, you see, I envisioned my future self as a newspaper journalist and I hoped this place would soon enough be my home away from home. It’s where it would all begin.

Later that day, when my oldest sister asked me how it went, I didn’t even remember the scholarship essay I had sweat through earlier. What I told her was how there were 50+ freshmen traversing to Johnston Hall, as anxious as I was to write for the Marquette Tribune, as eager to work their way up to (dared I utter it aloud?) columnist, managing editor, or editor-in-chief.

I had always been an achiever. It was that day that I realized for the first time, I was about to go to college with about 8,000 other students who were similarly success-oriented. The competition (as I viewed it) was fierce. I lamented to my sister over my dismal chances of getting anywhere on the newspaper staff.  

“You’ll be surprised,” she said. “In a year, they’ll be half as many, maybe. The year after that, just a few. If you keep working hard, you’ll be one of them. That’s how it works.”

Perhaps it was the fact that she was my favorite sister (still is), or that as a successful, self-supporting artist, she was living proof of the advice she gave. For whatever reason, I believed her, and sure enough, it turned out to be true: by the end of the year, I’d won an award for investigative journalism; the following year, I was copy editor; the next year, had my own column.

Years later, well into my career as a high school English teacher, her advice proved true once again. When I was pursuing National Board Certification, the final portfolio asked me to reflect on my accomplishments and describe “what’s next.” I remember rolling my eyes at the question,  viewing it as another hoop to jump through for my certification.  Hmmm...what’s next?  I mentioned getting published in a professional journal, presenting at a state conference, writing a book. All three seemed wishful thinking at the time, but within five years, I had accomplished all three. She was right, looking back, I am surprised, but I’m getting less and less so.

Last year, I attended the Midwest Google Summit and was in awe of the presenters - educators who took it upon themselves to achieve a level of mastery with Google Apps for Education which translated into powerful learning experiences for their students. I couldn’t conceive of how they achieved such tech savviness while juggling the demands of a classroom teacher, yet one year later, I’m Google Certified and I just finished presenting at the same conference that left me awe-struck last year.  

Those of you who have made it this far in the post, may be wondering if the point of this post is for me to wax poetic about my accomplishments. It’s actually the opposite. I am still no different than that one among 8,000 back in 1986. I am a foregone conclusion of my sister’s advice.

I still often wonder, “Where do I even begin?” 

Depending on the day, I look at the pile on my desk---insurmountable, unfriendly, and growing---and wonder “Where do I begin?” I look at a classroom full of students: diverse, dynamic, and growing---and think, “Where do I begin?” I look at our country: its divisiveness, its acrimony, its challenges, and wonder “Where do we begin?” It is then that Maryl Streep's line from Adaptation comes to mind: “Just whittle it down.” Focus on one thing and do it. And my sister pops in with an inspiring addendum: "You'll be surprised."
My intent here is to offer some evidence in support of my sister’s 26 year-old advice to her little sister, and perhaps pass it to Marquette Education majors who could use a bit of optimism in what has been a somber couple of years for Wisconsin Educators.
And so here it is (attribution: Alice Klein, favorite sister and unsuspecting life coach as it turns out):  Whittle it down. Persevere. Set your sights high and work doggedly to achieve them; You’ll be surprised. Some say that with growing class sizes, shrinking budgets, and increasing pressures, the field of education should be avoided at all costs. Friends of mine in education have commented on their inability to recommend the field of teaching to those who ask. Some days I agree with them.

But when I take the long view (some might argue the Disney or Rainbow and Unicorn view) I’d still recommend this field to the next generation, my son included. If he tells me someday that he wants to be a teacher, I won’t whitewash the challenges that he will face, but I will tell him that with dogged determination, he will find an interesting niche within a field he will love, he will affect students lives in genuine, lasting ways; and he can do something for a living that constitutes making a positive contribution every day. 

“You’ll be surprised,’ she said,” and I concur.

This blogpost was originally published in The Marquette Educator on Dec. 3, 2012