Guiding students is one of the most important facets of a teacher's job. Supporting them as they work through important decisions can ensure that they choose the path in life that's right for them. Because I teach in a low-income, multicultural urban school, my students often face a variety of hurdles: poverty, parental neglect, violence, housing issues, language difficulties, and immigration. As a result, kids don't always go right from high school to college. They often need guidance to help them see there's always hope for their future.
I always try to impress upon my students that there's more than one road to success by sharing my own story. I wanted to be a teacher, but my father wanted me to work in the legal field. So, instead of studying education, I went to a two-year college to learn to be a paralegal. I toiled in that field for many unsatisfying years before I went back to school at the age of 25 and began the journey to becoming a certified teacher. I was 36 years old when I became a teacher, but I definitely wouldn't be the one I am today without the work I did in the private sector. The winding path I took to success really resonated with a certain student of mine.
Getting to Know Chanda
I met Chanda my first year of teaching when she was a freshman in my English class. She was a talented writer and a gifted artist. I once asked her to draw a scene from Great Expectations on my blackboard, and it was so beautiful that I nearly cried when it had to be erased at the end of the year. She was the daughter of Cambodian immigrants, like many of my students that year. These students faced unique challenges. They often had to learn how to speak English, and once they did, they frequently worked as translators for their parents and helped them navigate legal and medical issues. They even provided childcare for their younger siblings while their parents worked. Chanda taught me a great deal about Cambodian culture and I got to know her well.
At the end of her freshmen year, Chanda's former boyfriend, who had also been a student of mine, was killed in a gang-related shooting. We were both heartbroken. I attended the Buddhist funeral with Chanda, and we helped each other cope with the sadness. After that, Chanda had very little interest in school. She couldn't handle the social energy of the cafeteria, and she felt like her teachers didn't understand what she was going through. Then she started dating a gang member who often asked her to skip school with him. I tried to guide Chanda, but she was no longer in my classes, so I didn't see her as much during the school day. Unfortunately, she ended up dropping out of high school.
"I Want to Be a Teacher"
Chanda didn't live far from my home, so I often stopped by to visit her. I made lunch and dinner plans with her, and I was determined to make sure she finished pursuing her education. Chanda earned her general equivalency diploma and eventually wanted to get an associate's degree in business management. She often asked me to proofread the papers she wrote in college, and when she needed to complete an internship, I found her a position in our school's business office. Chanda's work was so exceptional that her boss offered her a full-time job. But she had other plans.
One evening, she asked me to meet her for dinner. When we met, she revealed the reason: "I've decided what I wanted to do with my life. I want to be a teacher. I think I can make a difference in kids' lives—especially immigrant and minority children." I just started to cry. There was no doubt in my mind she'd make an amazing teacher, and that's exactly what I told her.
When she graduated college, she immediately began working on her master's degree. And when it came time for her to find a teaching job, I went to my superintendent and recommended her for a position at our elementary school. Chanda was hired instantly, and today she is an exceptional teacher. She works in special education, and her students have seen remarkable success. Both her students and their parents love her. I will always be enormously proud of her, and after all these years, I now consider her one of my closest friends. She grew from a student I mentored to a colleague I'm lucky to know, and she is the perfect example of how guiding students can make a huge difference in their lives.