I wrote this “Personal Statement” in January for an award nomination dossier. I would have connected the dots for this class in a new statement but I feel this one does it best, for me. Tools I’ve learned, and read about, in this class will enhance my skills at being the best teacher I can be. Above all else, I promise to never stop learning how to be a better teacher.
I hated my high school math teachers. One asked why I wanted to be an engineer instead of an actress (I loved Advanced Drama class). The other said, “You’ll never be an engineer”. Despite their violation of everything teachers should stand for I was certain I would become an engineer. Thankfully Virginia Tech thought so, too, and granted me early acceptance into the engineering program.
While taking a full load of 18 credit hours per semester I spent my weekends as a ski instructor at a resort a couple of hours away. Snow skiing was my sport and I was following a long line of instructors in my family. We taught lessons while it snowed, while it rained, underneath snow blowers, when it was below zero. The conditions didn’t matter because there was such joy in seeing someone who had never skied before or who lacked coordination “get it” and smile with pride at what they had accomplished with my help.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and was thrilled to address the first two graduation announcements to those math teachers who did not believe in me. While working my first job after graduation I wanted to find something fun to do in my free time. I became a math tutor at Sylvan Learning Center. Two evenings a week, I would sit with students who struggled with math, who did not want to be hanging out with me talking about math. The challenge did not matter because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and smile with pride because they finally understood fractions.
My career progressed and I found myself working for a 3D CAD modeling software company. Part of my job was giving demonstrations about how the software worked. Sometimes I would be a consultant for a customer and go on-site to help them use the program to design their own products. The drafters and engineers were not always happy about being told they had to use this new software. It was not what they were used to and most adults do not like forced change. It was a struggle to get through to them, sometimes, but it was worth it because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and realize that their jobs would be easier because they had learned this new tool with my help.
I worked for nine years at an engineering and manufacturing company in roles of increasing responsibility. It was an amazing learning opportunity because I got to work in different departments including design, quality, manufacturing, purchasing and eventually the continuous improvement group. I travelled internationally and really learned how to be an engineer during my time there. I was fortunate to spend about a year there as a facilitator in the continuous improvement group. That role is part engineer, part motivator, part organizer and part teacher. We would explain a lean manufacturing principle to co-workers then help them implement it into their department or work area during a Kaizen event. Most of the time no one was interested in the task, usually because they did not understand that it would eventually benefit them. I enjoyed the challenge of changing their minds, even if it took weeks of effort because there is such joy in seeing them eventually “get it” and embrace the process improvements we had implemented together.
There was a pattern emerging that everyone in my life, but me, was noticing. I was a competent engineer, being promoted regularly. I was pleased with my career but not fulfilled by it. Friends and colleagues whom I had mentored (or tutored in calculus during lunch) started mentioning that I should be a teacher. “But I’m an engineer,” I thought. While I understood that I could change careers and be a high school math teacher, I would have to leave the world of engineering, the topic I loved and had studied, behind, which did not interest me. So, I ignored their advice for a few more years.
A bizarre and wonderful chain of events led to a lunch with a friend and faculty member in my home department at VT. During that lunch, I admitted that I felt I had reached a plateau in my engineering career; that strange place where you realize you do not want another promotion because of the added stress and drama it would create, but you also do not want to stay in the same job for twenty more years. My faculty friend admitted he needed help teaching his class, that he was overwhelmed. I, half-jokingly, said, “Hire me to help.” It had never occurred to me that I could teach engineering. He was very interested in pursuing the possibility that this could work. Three months later, about fifteen minutes before I learned my company was going to close our facility and lay off all of its employees (including me), I received an email with a job posting at VT for a professor of practice in my home department of mechanical engineering. I applied for and was hired to start two months later.
Although the pay was significantly less than my former job, I hoped the flexibility and satisfaction I would find in teaching would be worth it. The first year we had 363 students. There is no formal training for teaching at the college level so you learn quickly or give up. Not accustomed to giving up, I jumped in the deep end asking questions, seeking advice, reading books on teaching, and listening to pod casts. Eventually I learned many things about teaching, thanks to co-workers, and former teachers (not my high school math teachers). By the second fall semester, I had the mechanics of delivering lectures and assessing students via homework, quizzes, and reports down pat. Yet I was not feeling the joy my earlier exposures to teaching gave me. I had become competent at and comfortable with delivering content, which some people call teaching. This is what my former math teachers did and I wanted to be better than them.
A series of unfortunate events during spring semester of my second year teaching changed everything. Within about a week I had one student come to me with severe depression, another had just lost his brother to suicide, a third had a parent terminally ill with cancer. I was overwhelmed with what these students were dealing with in their personal lives and how it was affecting their academics. That week I said aloud, “What I really need in this job is a PhD in counseling!” In conversations with the academic counselors in my department, amazing women and colleagues, it dawned on me our students needed more than people who could deliver technical content and grade them on their abilities to prove their comprehension. They needed adults who cared about them both inside and outside of the academic arena. Sometimes they needed advice; other times just someone to listen. It was then I turned to the VT Center for Excellence and Teaching (formerly CIDER) to learn more about how to work with better with students. I eventually found and enrolled in the VT Graduate Certificate Program in Engineering Education where I have learned volumes about truly teaching and not just communicating content. I will complete my certification in December of this year.
Instead of finding joy in watching others “get it”, I joyously experienced my own ah-ha moment realizing that being a teacher is much harder than I thought. Now I understood that done well, teaching is a holistic effort of delivering content, compassion, and encouragement. What I loved about my earlier exposure to teaching was not just explaining skiing or fractions, it was the personal connection formed with students, when I was helping them learn new information by showing them their own potential for success. This is what it means to be a teacher and an advisor and it is what I strive to do in my job every day. Moreover, it is exactly what my high school math teachers did not understand.