Airing it out: Teacher training at 35,000 feet

“I like your jacket,” chirped the young woman sitting in 23B as I squeezed into the window seat beside her. She patted the leather sleeve. “You look like you should ride a motorcycle. What do you do?”

I remembered Jon Lovitz as a surly baseball scout boarding a train in A League of Their Own. “Every time, I gotta sit next to one of these people!” he griped about a chatty passenger. Thankfully the flight from Raleigh to my connection in Charlotte was scheduled for only 40 minutes.

“I teach sixth-grade English,” I said with a tired smile. Over the previous two days I had enjoyed successful meetings with a group of National Board Certified Teachers at the Center for Teaching Quality.  Our task: sharing resources for implementing Common Core State Standards in the classroom.

“Cool!” She touched my arm again as if we were lifelong friends.  “You probably get this a lot, but I loved my sixth-grade English teacher.  I’ll never forget him.  We acted out The Odyssey. I just love Shakespeare.”

I gritted my teeth at her mistake but held the smile. “That’s great to hear. I hope my students feel the same way someday. Are you a college student?”

She pointed to her red sweatpants that read, NC State Wolfpack. “Just graduated.  I’m a TFA recruit.”

Teach for America.  My ears perked.  Suddenly I had questions.  Why had she applied? What were her teaching goals?  What had she studied in college? Why, I could offer her real classroom perspective!

“I’ll probably just teach in Charlotte,” she said.  “It’ll be fun until I get a real job.  My boyfriend is an engineer.  He’ll make enough money while I figure out what to do. I led student safari tours in college. Australia, Africa, you know, that kind of stuff.  I have lots of experience. Plus it’s good for my resume.”

Ouch. A real job? Safaris? A resume padder? I had 40 minutes and no idea where to start with this reality check.  But my conscience nagged me.  Why should I crush her idealism? Less than a decade ago, I had been there myself as a D.C. Teaching Fellow. I didn’t need a naysayer to tell me then how hard teaching was.  I needed support and advice from someone more experienced than a second-year fellow.

“Kids love me,” she said.  And I have a lot to share with them.”

If only it were that easy.

While we chatted, I considered her potential. “Laura,” I learned, was energetic and bright, her literature reference notwithstanding.  Rather than heap condescension and cynicism at her in defense of teaching, I tried to impart the reflections of one who once felt like a fraud in the classroom.

Yes, Laura will certainly face challenges.  A summer of preparation does not make a teacher. But her enthusiasm was infectious, her fondness toward children seemingly genuine. Teaching is a real job, I told her, one that would test her creativity and fortitude.  I suddenly had high hopes for a young lady who said she had navigated the Australian Outback with a group of high schoolers.

“Best of luck to you,” I said as we disembarked in Charlotte. “And keep me posted.  I’m glad to help.” I hope she does. We need more people like Laura to make it.

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