In 2005 I stepped into my first classroom as an official high school English teacher. Having survived the usual trials and tribulations of student teaching, non-invasive background checks, and a lengthy Los Angeles commute (is there any other kind?), I was thrilled to teach students in my classroom. I was going to be the next Jaime Escalante or that lady from Freedom Writers. Of course that’s not really how things went down.
My first day was, to say the least, challenging. I was 22 and had 21 year-old students. My first period class had 43 students and I had a few tarnished tables and chairs to seat maybe a dozen kids. There was a hole in my floor that went to who-knows-where. And—oh yeah— I couldn’t move half of my face.
A day before I started teaching I found out I had Bell’s Palsy. Basically, the right side of my face was paralyzed. I couldn’t blink (I was a really good winker), raise my eyebrows, or move that side of my mouth. My speech was bordering on lispy/drunken belligerent, as a result. When I smiled it looked Frankenstein-like grotesque (look in the mirror and try to smile with only half of your face).
Fortunately, Bell’s Palsy wore off after about a month and a half. But that first day was one where superficial moves like smiles and normal eye contact were thrown out the window. And yeah, the school I taught at had some dilapidated challenges too: the conditions my students were expected to learn in (like the mousetraps behind the bookshelves?) were not only less than ideal but downright unjust.
I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot that first year. I learned that the tremendous love, resilience, and hunger for an equal education can make any space ignite with the possibilities of learning. Engaging with my students and being honest about my weird looking face meant my classroom began with a culture of openness and honesty.
It is a strange feeling to look back on that first day in the classroom. Time and distance have removed me from the derelict bungalow where I first cut my teeth as an educator. Now, as a university professor, I spend much of my time preparing students for the wearying work of making their classrooms spaces safe, open, and responsive. And whether discussing trends in young adult literature or looking at how technology and games are transforming the possibilities of in-school learning, I continue to be reminded of the lessons I learned in those trying, unblinking weeks at the beginning of my career: be yourself. While it can feel terrifyingly vulnerable, I’ve learned to allow students to see me as I am.
Despite myriad obligations of today’s teachers—new standards, high stake tests, pacing guides, etc.—I tell the future teachers I work with that the foundation of their practice must be built on trust and relationships. Though I hope they don’t enter classrooms with frozen faces, I teach them that understanding who their students are as individuals—as young people hungry and deserving of transformative education—is more important than perhaps any other factor.
This is a revised version of a letter originally distributed to the Listserve in October.