Our society today seems obsessed with fame, fortune and celebrity status. This is evidenced by the many reality television shows that seem to catapult the average “girl or guy next door” into an overnight star. Recently, my questions have been “Who are the real ‘stars’ in our culture? Who are our heroes? And who should we want our children to grow up and emulate?”
I ask these questions because I was fortunate enough to experience transitioning from “average girl” to being an overnight celebrity when I won Miss Georgia and went on to compete in Miss America.
As the eventual winner, I traveled the state speaking on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters and my experience mentoring with the organization. Pageant supporters, particularly young girls, welcomed my appearances with smiles and hugs, and they seemed beguiled by my crown and sash. They clamored for my autograph. I was receiving “star” treatment! As I traveled and spoke, I noticed one recurring question that I was always asked—“What’s next for you?” Without hesitation, I would proudly answer, “I’m going to be an elementary school teacher”. The silence was deafening, and it quickly became apparent that they were not impressed with my career choice. Some of my more vocal naysayers would quip, “That is so sweet, but you really could do so much more.” This mindset perplexed me! Why is teaching viewed in such a manner?
I must confess after hearing this time after time, I gave credence to the naysayers. Once my reign as Miss America was over, I went searching for that “so much more” instead of pursuing my passion to teach.
I dabbled in the entertainment industry, traveled to East Africa with a non-profit organization and worked with the Georgia Association of Educators. I even took some business classes! If this was “so much more,” why did I feel empty and unfulfilled? After a few years, I found myself at Barnes & Noble, having a mid-twenties crisis, surrounded by books with various interest inventories and aptitude tests. Every inventory confirmed what I already knew—I was passionate about teaching and learning! My journey had come full circle. To my surprise and my dismay, I found that the naysayers were still questioning what would make me want to give up the glamour and notoriety in exchange for teaching a class of twenty-five students.
For those who know my story, the answer is obvious. Simply put, teaching completes me and provides me the feeling that “I’m home.” As the only child of a single parent serving active duty in the Air Force, the classroom is where I found my identity. Due to my mother's many deployments, I began to develop more self-sufficiency. I was an inquisitive child who some teachers found too independent and strong-willed, and their intent was to “fix me.” However, I also was fortunate to have those teachers who went beyond the job description and recognized that my questioning was not out of defiance, but out of a sincere desire to improve myself. These were the teachers that motivated and inspired me to never stop learning. These were the teachers that provided continuity for me when I would wake up on a family friend's sofa knowing my mother was called for a temporary deployment. Teachers became my extended family when I was separated from my mother while she did a remote tour in Korea for a year, and they helped me through the transition of gaining a stepfather—a change in the family dynamic to which I was accustomed. They were also one of the reasons that I am the first college graduate in my family. They were my “stars.”
I must admit that a majority of my teaching days are a stark contrast to my days as the reigning Miss Georgia—parents and students are not clamoring for my autograph! However, teaching challenges me to create learner-centered environments that inspire students to ask questions, make mistakes and explore the wonders of learning. Teaching energizes me when I reflect on the type of student I was and the type of teacher who was my “star” while growing up. Because of my “star” teachers, I know firsthand the power of developing genuine relationships and creating engaging lessons that help a child truly succeed.
Sometimes this is much easier said than done. It was particularly challenging the year I was the Early Intervention Program (EIP) host teacher and responsible for working with fifth grade students who had failed the state reading or math standardized test. Since many of these students had failed the test several times before, my challenge was first getting these students to see themselves as achievers, not failures. I cannot share the thrill of accomplishment when it was announced that my class posted a 100 percent pass rate in math and reading on the state assessment that year. Many of them significantly improved their performance and exceeded state standards. This same group of students also improved their writing scores by 20 percent.
Earlier I asked the questions pertaining to the real “stars” in our culture and who should we want our children to grow up and emulate. My story has teachers in this category. I am proud to say that my life journey allowed me to find “my so much more” and I am proud to stand with people who make a difference.