Educational Autobiography

My educational biography, like any good biography, begins at the beginning. They say you’ve got a good haircut when no one can tell you just cut it. My introduction to the importance of education is kind of like that. My parents weren’t the kind to always be reminding me of how important my education was; rather, growing up with them, I was kind of assimilated into valuing knowledge, skill, and wisdom as a quite natural thing.

I think that a lot of people, be they parents, teachers, or public service announcements, try to sell kids on the importance of education by appealing to its ability to open up economic opportunities. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. One immediately thinks of immigrant parents coming to America, leaving behind what they know in order to give their kids a chance at a good education and, therefore, a better life. This is quite honorable. One also thinks, however, of rich parents making sweeping statements to their kids like “your education is the most important thing.” I was never subject to that, partly, I think, because it’s not true, and also because education wasn’t the path to material riches for my family. When I say it’s not true, all I mean is that life requires balance, and education is but one of several very important things. When I say it wasn’t the path to riches, I recognize I’m speaking relatively. Of course, compared to world standards, my family was wildly well off. But growing up in our lower-middle class Northern Virginia townhouse, sometimes struggling to pay the bills, it didn’t seem like my parent’s education had brought us financial success.

And yet, I think this somehow raised my esteem for learning, even in its formal form: an education. You see, my parents had both gone to college, and my father even had an advanced degree, an M.F.A. in Acting. I wouldn’t describe either as avid readers, but they both read, and more importantly, they thought critically. My dad, for instance, would sometimes contribute magazine articles and would often write on online message boards, all in one of his niche areas, weight lifting and body building. He also knew his history and his current events. He would speak knowledgably and clearly about what had happened in the world, and what should happen. My mom, though less inclined towards political discussions or writing, would always surprise me with her deft take on any given situation. Hers was a less academic, but no less sound, voice on many issues. It was in this home environment that I learned the importance of knowing lots and lots of things, not to be a know-it-all, but because the world was full of so much. Though I wouldn’t realize until much later, I was raised to pursue knowledge and think critically. In me was cultivated a thirst to know and to think.

And then school came. My early years were a mixed bag of success and failure. Though I naturally gravitated toward history, I feared math and couldn’t spell. These early years also witnessed the first moment where I caught an inkling of the constructed nature of education. My second grade teacher taught and encouraged “inventive spelling” (that’s the thing’s real name), which I guess was implemented to allow us to practice writing even if we were poor spellers. I will never forget my mom’s angry reaction. It was something about young airhead teachers and the dangerous influence of relativism in public schools. Either way, it was a distinct moment in my educational career where, as a young boy, I got a clue that the teacher had a great deal of influence on what I’d learn, and that ‘valuable knowledge’ wasn’t handed down from heaven.

The elementary, middle school, and early high school years were a little rough. I got C’s in Spanish and math, and was more or less ok with that. I was also realizing more and more that I was both interested and good in the social studies. This time period, the majority of my pre-college years, I would call my growing pains, as I both discovered some of my educational passions, yet still struggled to be successful across the board. And then in tenth grade I took a risk. I signed up for honors World Civilization. I don’t know if it was because my body and mind were maturing or if it was just because I saw that I could succeed in tough classes, but I had amazing success in that fairly intensive course.

And so began my educational renaissance. Starting the next year, in 11th Grade, I took on AP English along with my advanced history course. I discovered that I could read and write and analyze, and do it fairly well. The days of C’s were behind me (and have stayed there since 9th Grade Algebra II), and the days of understanding myself to be intellectually competent began. Finally, the academic results reflected the vibrant intellectual life that was encouraged at home.

I soon found myself at Tech, studying political science and history. What I found most stimulating about my studies in the liberal arts was the focus on writing and dealing with the questions of ‘why’. It was, and still is, the ‘whys’ of life which make my studies, both personally and academically, interesting. The part of me that was raised to ask why was finally being met by my growing academic abilities to pose the questions and give reasons. My learning and my education were meeting, and it was exhilarating.

Looking back, I sometimes laugh at how I’ve always thought in these ‘why’ terms, though I lacked the resources earlier in my life to answer some of the questions I asked as a youth. For example, I vividly remember launching into a diatribe as an 11th grader on the uselessness of trigonometry. All I needed to know, I told all who would listen, was how to do the four simple functions and then maybe percents and fractions. When in life would I use all this sine and cosine stuff? And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: the same argument could be made against my beloved history. I remember struggling mightily with that. I couldn’t buy the trite notion that those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it. It seemed too apocalyptic to be widely applicable. Could it be that history was really useless for daily life? I couldn’t give a firm answer, and this gave me some cognitive dissonance. I put that issue on the back burner. And then, four years later while in college, I wanted to apply for a history scholarship. The only problem was that the essay was on why I studied history. My old questions about history’s relevance arose. I was surprised when some answers came to me relatively quickly. I had been doing a research project on student rebellions of the 1960s, and I was able to harness from that project a reason. Living in a world I didn’t make, knowing how we got here from there was one thing that kept me from cultural and existential confusion.

I use that example to illustrate both my bourgeoning skills as my education progressed as well as a moment of significance on my road to becoming a teacher. My junior year of college was not the first time I thought of teaching, but it was a watershed moment. I had turned the corner from simply enjoying students and the subject to seeing a mission in the imparting of important historical knowledge. As my confidence grew in some of the reasons I viewed history as important, so did my evangelical zeal for encouraging people to examine questions of history and culture in their own lives.

I guess that brings us near the present. The arch of my education has shifted significantly since I began this program. As a pre-service teacher, I can no longer be content simply examining the whys of life and history, but have been forced to take a closer look at both the “whys” and “hows” of the teaching profession. To some degree, this has been an almost lifelong endeavor. What school boy doesn’t think of all the ways he could have made his class “more fun?” What kid bent over a desk doesn’t decry his worksheet as pointless busy work? And yet, with the realty that I’ll be the teacher looming, my formal study of education has begun in earnest.

Though I could talk about any number of teaching issues, there are two which I keep coming back to as most important. What to teach, and why to teach it? By “what to teach,” I’m referring to the process by which the teacher, a hybrid executive-minion (this term represents a teacher’s status as ruler of the class while simultaneously constrained to do certain things) decides what knowledge to teach and how to teach it. By “why to teach it,” I’m referring to the student-centric focus I believe we should have. This is particularly helpful to remember when students are difficult or unresponsive. Is my goal to reach them with importance information, or am I just stroking my own ego? There’s more to this teaching thing than those two questions, but right now they represent the fundamental issues at the core of my educational philosophy.

My educational experiences have profoundly effected my development, both personally and professionally. This space is too short to launch into a detailed treatment of my beliefs about nature and nurture, but suffice it to say that experiences, especially foundational ones like home life, reverberate in one’s life for a long time. This autobiography has attempted to show how my education and my life at large (family, culture, experiences) have interacted and left impressions on each other. They are so intertwined, in fact, I think I’d find it hard to leave out a lot of the things I’ve written here if I were writing a more general autobiography. One of the thrusts of my life has become the pursuit of answers and the sharing of what I’ve found. As a teacher I will continue in this.

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