The First Day of School

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see,” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something.” The fifteen years I spent as a teacher were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

It’s that time of year again. Fall, football, cooler days, and all kids’ favorite time of the year, it’s back to school! For me, it’s also the tenth year since I left the teaching profession to enter the private sector. For the past decade I have worked in the government contracting industry as a developer of training and educational products for the Department of Defense. Still a form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

My students are now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them, thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness the moments in which they truly blossom. For a year or two, I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go; go on to the next chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for all the lessons they taught me.

For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a life-long endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education? Knowing that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a life-long desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge. A lesson that has stayed with me since the time it was first learned.

I’d describe my classroom, on most days, as controlled chaos. There were no neat rows of desks, no hierarchy, with myself perched at a podium and my students seated below me, eagerly soaking up my words. Not that at times, that very formula wasn’t the most effective, but for the most part, I discovered that immersive, hands-on activities were more effective, especially, when asking students to delve into the dusty pages of history. When we were embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I thought, what better way for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still held relevance today, that were at the heart of the lesson. From the activity, many questions arose, many debates ensued, and many new perspectives were gained. I think one of the most important lessons my students learned, something I myself had learned when I was their age, was that history should not be judged by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?

When studying the U. S. Civil War, my classroom became a replica of the country during that period of our history. My students were divided into the Union and the Confederacy. They were tasked with researching each battle, each conflict, each principle, from the perspective of the side they were on. It was difficult at times. There were many issues that were difficult for them to wrap their minds around, many questions that they needed to address. But in the end, by the time we reached the surrender at Appomattax, they shone with a sense of pride, and a deeper understanding of one of the most poignant and agonizing periods of American History. Above all, I hoped that they walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research and seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions. Their successes became my reward. Their pride in themselves for a job well-done, my gift.

“History should not be judged by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing generations.”

Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of our future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless. I can only hope and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career, aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.

You may be wondering at this point, if I feel so strongly about this profession, why I left? It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I took lightly. An opportunity that enabled me to provide more financial support for my family presented itself. It was as hard and as simple as that. Though my new position has many perks, it hasn’t, nor will it ever, replace the things I gave up when I left teaching. I will always be an educator at heart. And though I’ve been out of the profession for a decade, I continue to support my fellow educators and the individuals and programs that give them the support and the tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively and with passion.

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see,” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something.” That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the real world, finally. So, as this new school year begins, I offer my sincere gratitude and prayers to the many teachers returning to their classrooms, to the students embarking on another leg of their educational journeys, and to the many parents at once thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed, as school resumes. May God bless and keep you all and may the year unfold with wonder, curiosity and infinite success.

~ Jennifer Nelson Fenwick (©2018)