How often in school did you spend time actually learning about the big picture of who you want to be and how to get there? I'm not talking a loose career goal, a major, or a GPA but the actual qualities and characteristics that you want and need to be successful as both a person and a professional. When you walked out of college with your very expensive degree, did you have all the skills that you needed to be truly successful? If you are anything like me, life after college has been a constant experiment in learning about yourself, the world, and how to be truly successful and happy. For the past ten years, this self-development process has been the driving force for all of my decisions. School never gave me the tools to do this; I had to figure it out for myself.
At 21, I rolled out of my dual bachelor's and master's program and right into a classroom of 9-year-olds in one of Connecticut's wealthiest towns. This was my "dream job," but after only a few years, I became restless. I would have much rather spent time with my students developing real life skills like navigating conflict, communicating across differences, and building connections, than teaching them about the westward expansion.
I have come to realize the magnitude of this void that our education system has created.
It took a lot of soul-searching (and therapy) to realize that the unhappiness I was feeling was not just me being a "millennial," but that the work I was doing did not align with the person I wanted to be. As much as I loved teaching and learning, the actual content of what I was teaching these little people was not going to be useful for the world and workforce that they would eventually enter. I realized that K-12 education is so heavily focused on content (much of which is important but some of which is not), that we often didn't have time to focus on other life skills that are so important to students' overall development.
So, I pivoted. I let go of all my fears, my cushy classroom, my two degrees, and the entire life I had built as a successful and well-loved teacher to head to a place I was sure I could have an educational impact: higher education. In my first year out of the classroom, I began deep-diving into the personal and professional development that my two fancy degrees did not provide. Through this work, I was able to begin being more intentional about taking steps to become the version of myself that I had always imagined and, eventually, help students do the same things for themselves.
By day, I run a large undergraduate residence hall, managing a team of 30 student staff members, teaching them how to support and coach college students only slightly younger than themselves. While my title doesn't make you think "educator," I feel like more of a teacher in this role than I ever did as a traditional teacher. I know that my student staff members are learning far more about life and themselves from our work together than they would in a classroom.
As much as I loved teaching and learning, the actual content of what I was teaching these little people was not going to be useful for the world and workforce that they would eventually enter.
My most impactful days are those in which one of my students walks into my office, eyes full of tears, and releases all their stress and tension. We talk about what's on their mind, and we build a plan together to help them navigate whatever is happening that day. More importantly, we work on strategies to set them up for success next time a similar problem arises. Nothing is better than when they walk back into my office a few days later to share what part of the plan worked for them and what didn't.
Each day my student staff members are navigating conflict, solving problems, communicating across differences, building connections, making mistakes, and learning so much about themselves and others. They are often put in situations that they may not be fully ready for, but, with my support, they are able to manage these situations successfully and learn so much in doing so. When I started to think about this deeply, I realized how much sense this all made. Learning is the ability to make sense of things, and this happens best through experiential learning. Even more importantly, to learn fully we must have context to connect the new information to. My students are able to make these connections through the context of their job. However, in the classroom, this is so much harder because our students are simply not provided with the experiences to make these necessary connections.
This is the problem with education today. We are unable to provide significant learning opportunities to students because of the system we have inadvertently created. We are providing no time or space in the classroom for experiential learning, where students can develop tools to support their continued growth after college. This leaves us to fill in so many gaps on our own as adults, now without the resources or time to spend intentionally enriching ourselves and often with significant student loans weighing us down each month.
Learning is the ability to make sense of things, and this happens best through experiential learning. Even more importantly, to learn fully we must have context to connect the new information to.
When I was walking out of that cushy Connecticut classroom, I didn't completely know what I was looking for, I just knew that wasn't it. Most people in my life thought I was making a huge mistake, but making that decision was exactly what I needed to begin the journey of discovering what "it" was for me. Working with my student staff members on their personal development made me realize that this was really the type of teaching that I dreamed of. It's more than just facts and figures, it's life. I actually have a chance to profoundly impact these students by helping them build skills that will help them be the person that they want to be.
Through this experience, I was driven to make an impact on the academic side of higher education, and in my spare time, I work as an adjunct faculty member at two institutions in their education departments. As a teacher myself, there is nothing more humbling and incredible than educating future educators. In this role, I get to practice what I preach and provide my students with both context and content, and, most importantly, I provide time for my students to reflect and develop as people and teachers.
It's more than just facts and figures, it's life.
As I am sure you might have predicted, I recently began to feel restless again. This time, not because I was unhappy with the work I am doing, but because I have come to realize the magnitude of this void that our education system has created. As someone who has been involved in the teaching system from elementary school through college, I've had an inside view of what we are not teaching our students, especially women. Through this restlessness, I have realigned my vision of the person that I want to be: someone who is invested in helping women build skills that our education system was (and still is) unable to teach them.
WRITTEN BYAmy Smith