The teacher I needed
By Michelle Poolaw, 2021-22 Burlington County Teacher of the Year
We were told, as county teachers of the year, that this year would be unlike any other. So far, I have gotten a chance to meet many outstanding educators and influencers. I’ve already had many opportunities to learn and grow from previous county and state winners, and I have made connections with leaders across the state.
During this experience, I’ve repeatedly been asked why I got into teaching and who inspired me.
Many people, when asked what inspired them to become a teacher, immediately recall a favorite teacher. However, as many times as I have confronted that question, I keep coming back to the same unexpected response. I didn’t have THAT teacher.
I grew up in the Olney section of Philadelphia. I attended three different schools by the time I was a freshman in high school. I was one of 30-45 students in a classroom, usually seated in the back, with hardly any personal interaction with any of my teachers. I couldn’t tell you the name of one teacher I had had from elementary to high school. I never had a teacher who saw me, or showed me that I was important.
My parents were young when they had us. We had very little money, but they were loving and worked hard for everything we had. They taught us to keep trying, even when we wanted to give up. “You’ll get it. Sound it out,” my mom would whisper while I would try to do homework that made no sense to me, the tears filling my eyes making it even more impossible to decode the words on the page.
No one ever reached out to my parents regarding my academic difficulties or the learning disabilities that would not be diagnosed until I was an adult.
I struggled through school, as many of our students do. I had a hard time learning to read, compute simple mathematical problems, and even focus on the one-dimensional learning styles all of my teachers employed. I would never raise my hand because I knew I had no idea what was happening; not that I didn’t want to know or didn’t try to know. I would just be so lost between the gaps in learning, the ADHD, and the anxiety I developed. There were no 1:1 check in. No concern that I was lost. No plan or accountability to catch me up. Just F’s and C’s and D’s.
No dignity or grace for students like me. Just targeted embarrassment so that “I would learn to pay attention.”
To some extent, I don’t blame those teachers. That’s what education was back then. Lessons weren’t personal or differentiated. We didn’t have that, but we needed THAT.
I needed a teacher to see me, to see my struggle, to show me dignity. I needed a teacher to help me see I was good enough and smart enough.
I always wanted to be a teacher
As long as I can remember I wanted to be a teacher. I would play “school” like many of us did. I spent all of my own money from my eighth birthday at RiteAid. I bought everything I needed for the perfect classroom. My stuffed animal students were always engaged in my lessons. But I wasn’t going to be like the teachers I had. I would show every student I had that they were important and valued. I would show them that they belonged.
However, as I got older, I never really thought I was good enough or smart enough to become a teacher. I didn’t think I could get into college, so I didn’t try. I have never even taken my SATs. Instead, I became a secretary. All the while, hushing my nagging gut telling me to take the risk to be THAT teacher.
THAT teacher, the teacher I strive to be, works to reach all learners. THAT teacher advocates for the disadvantaged, connects with those who feel disconnected, and creates a community with opportunities for every student, no matter their differences, difficulties, background or even their home life.
THAT teacher sees every student and shows them that they are good enough, smart enough and deserving enough for anything they can dream of.
In my late 20s, I decided I wanted to go back to school. I wanted so badly to be THAT teacher, so if I wasn’t smart enough and couldn’t spell all the words, I would work really hard until I got it.
And I did it! I graduated summa cum laude in an accelerated program where I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. I finally felt like I was smart enough and good enough to go out there and save every child. That’s why we are all here, right?
Bringing all of my experiences to the classroom
What makes me the educator I am, and the impacts I have made so meaningful, are my experiences. All of them. The good, the not so good, and every moment in between have given me a unique perspective. My teaching is a reflection of THAT child, because I never want any child to ever feel the way I did.
As teachers, we have the ability to define a child’s future with our words and actions. We often hear stories of famous people and their struggles to become who they are. Some, like Michael Jordan, were told they weren’t good enough, but beat all odds and persevered to achieve greatness. I love these stories. But, what about the students that hear they aren’t good enough time and again, going through life never believing they can achieve success?
Celebrating differences, cultivating creativity, and inspiring a sense of curiosity that invites risk taking and trying new things are crucial to teaching each new student in front of us. They help empower reluctant and struggling learners, and bridge cultural and socioeconomic differences that hinder engagement for so many children. Our jobs are to help students and empower them, all students, no matter their differences, difficulties, background or home life.
Teaching has changed my life. I love my job. My unique outlook and approach are what make me THAT teacher that I set out to be. As I watch students go from hating school to evolving into learners full of curiosity and wonder, striving to take risks and growing from mistakes; it’s all the evidence I need to know that the relationships I have built with them through my words and actions made a difference. I know that I have helped them gain confidence to see that they can achieve anything they want by believing it, working hard and persisting.\
Truly seeing our students
Part of what makes our profession so powerful is having the responsibility to ensure that all of our students are connected to the world around them. My childhood experiences are a huge part of why I am the teacher I am today, but so are the experiences I have had as a mother.
My younger son, Zachary, has ADHD. He, too, has struggled to fit the mold. He was expected to sit “criss cross” hands folded without moving for more than 30 minutes at a time in first grade. He would always get frustrated when he didn’t finish his work as quickly as everyone else did, and I would get phone calls and emails about how he just wouldn’t listen or pay attention to his teachers because he would not look them in the eye. His impression of his first-grade teacher was that they were mean and just didn’t like him. I wish that teacher would have seen him and helped him feel like he belonged even though his brain worked a little differently. I wish they would have treated him with dignity and grace.
My oldest son, Xavier, was that kid that went to the bathroom or the nurse 10 times throughout the day. Again, I would get phone calls and emails about how he was lazy and trying to get out of class.
Well, that year, as an eighth grader, Xavier was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. He has ulcerative colitis. The day I took him to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania Emergency Room he admitted to the doctor that it had been going on for over a year.
No wonder he hated school.
I wish his school had seen him and worked with me to uncover the reasons he hated school and didn’t want to be or couldn’t be in class. I wish they had shown him dignity and grace.
As a kindergartener, Xavier, who is multiracial, used to draw himself with skin and hair color not like his own. He loved reading and would draw himself as the characters in his books. What he didn’t have were the books and resources he needed to see himself. He needed to have a sense of belonging and connection. He never got picked for classroom awards, or to be the ambassador or leader for his class. He didn’t look like the kids that typically got picked. I wish his teachers had taken the time to see him, to show him that he was valued even though he might look different.
Representing all cultures is something that should be a natural practice. Advocating and promoting representation for all means that our kids see and learn from not only others that look like them, but also others who do not. Building relationships, learning about other cultures and ways of living is vital to inspiring human kindness for students and teachers. We have a responsibility to embrace this.
Teaching each of my children to be proud of their colors and abilities is one of the most important tasks I have had as a parent. If my sons felt this way, how many other kids feel this way?
I wish my teachers had seen me. I wish they had taken the time to make me feel like I belonged. I wish they had shown me dignity and grace.
I strongly believe that there are so many amazing teachers out there who make a difference every single day. They have empathy, they are creative and diverse, they make mistakes and teach others to bounce back from failure, they see all of their students, no matter their situation, because they know these are some of the most important components for growth and change. My message to those teachers is the same message I want each and every child in the world to hear:
I see you, all of you, and you are enough.
Continue to lead each student in front of you with dignity and grace. Continue to be THAT teacher who will make a difference in so many children’s lives because of your words and actions, because you see each and every child and show them that they belong.
Be THAT teacher.
Michelle Poolaw is the 2021-22 Burlington County Teacher of the Year. She is a basic skills teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Mount Laurel. She can be reached at burlingtonCTOY2122@gmail.com.