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How I Knew I Was a Teacher

My science lessons changed a life.

By Terrance Green

My first year teaching was rough. There were many times when I felt inadequate, and asked myself, "Why am I doing this?"

There was the honors class full of eager learners that I lost control of. I wanted so much for them to like me that I failed to create the right tone and build the professional teacher-student relationship. Even honors students will run all over you if you let them.

I remember on a few different occasions having almost a verbal showdown with someone in that class. Not over anything big, but I didn't know how to put out little fires. It took me until the end of the year to learn that students get defensive when you say something to them in public. Now I try to talk to them privately.

Then there was the time, in a different class, when a student knocked over a beaker on my counter—glass breaking all over, my handouts soaked and ruined before the lab even got started. I knew it was my fault for leaving that beaker where he could bump into it.

Once, in the middle of winter, I stayed at school until 11:30 at night working on my anatomy and physiology lesson plans for the next day. The principal was going to be watching that day, and I wanted everything to be perfect.

I decided to have each student solve a diagnosis riddle: what disease was afflicting his or her patient? I wrote a different scenario for each student—it was, in fact, a fabulous lesson!

Except the principal forgot to come.

After that, I had an epiphany: I could not turn myself into the 35-year veteran teacher in my school whom everyone admired, especially me. No, all I could do was be the best possible Mr. Green.

That took the pressure off. I started doing lessons I felt comfortable with. I stopped feeling every lesson had to be fantastic, awesome, a 10. I focused more on what the students were learning as opposed to how I could entertain them. I still tried to captivate them and keep their attention, but I started doing simpler lessons and working harder on assessing what they understood. That's still a work-in-progress for me.

I felt better, but I still had days when I couldn't seem to get anything to go right.

Finally, the year was over. I had won some and lost some. On the last day of school, I was in my room, feet up on the desk, reflecting on my career. In walks a girl from one of my classes, crying. As always, she was wearing gothic-style black clothes and chains. She had usually been quiet in class, didn't say much, although she always did seem to be paying attention.

But now, here she is, sobbing in my room. "What's wrong?" I ask.

And she begins to thank me! "Mr. Green, you changed my life. I never thought I could amount to anything. But now I know I can. You're the best teacher I ever had."

She's Caucasian, I'm African-American.

She likes heavy metal rock music, I'm more for laid-back jazz and contemporary gospel.

But with this girl, I was able to transcend those lines, and change where she sees her life going.

And I thought to myself, "I guess I can do this! I really am a teacher."

Terrance Green is about to start his third year teaching biology at Franklin County High School in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is a former NEA Student Program member.

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