Resiliency takes time and effort to develop, and it is rarely accomplished without help from others. It makes us who we are, but it also sets the tone for who we will eventually become. In one of my favorite TED Talks called, “The Power of Personal Narrative,” J. Christian Jensen explains that resiliency happens when we practice three personal techniques: finding our marks and owning them, telling others our personal stories, and connecting to people who inspire us (mentors essentially). With these in mind, I like to think that I became the resilient educator I am today because of several strong role models who had a lasting impact on my life. All of them are women I greatly admired and excellent educators.
First, I wish to mention a small disclaimer about leadership. Throughout my educational experiences, I have noticed that some leaders are just naturally gifted with the ability to inspire, while others may acquire specific people skills and competencies through perseverance and grit. The late Nelson Mandela once remarked, “Do not judge me by my success; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” When I think about myself in this same regard, I can relate to the “falling down and getting back up” probably better than most. If you asked me whether I ever saw myself as any kind of leader, I would say no. I have always considered myself a follower. So, you can imagine my surprise when the first time one of my mentors told me I had the traits of a leader, I didn’t believe her. I am what some would call a reluctant leader. Even though I instinctually want to step up and always help in situations where I believe my participation might make a difference, I often fight the urge to lead and avoid responsibility because thinking about it actually overwhelms me.
The first time I was told I had leadership qualities was in my eighth-grade English Language Arts class. Mrs. Laughlin, an early mentor and educator whom I admired, is who I credit today for my love of reading and for introducing books into my life. Up to that point, I had never been around books or libraries because my home life was mostly about emotional and physical survival. My parents had divorced when I was eight years old. My mother worked two jobs just to keep food on the table for myself and my two older siblings. As a result, I struggled a lot with completing homework, getting passing grades, and making emotional connections with other children. I also had speech problems, which still haunt me today, even if it is not clearly discernable in my day-to-day interactions. That was until Mrs. Laughlin placed Robert O’Brien’s classic animal novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, into my small, anxious hands, which unknowingly changed the whole trajectory of my life. It was like a light bulb turned on, and I knew that I was exactly like Mrs. Frisby and that I was not alone. All I needed was the help of some kind-hearted people (or rats) around me to show me the way and help me believe in myself.
Reading may have opened the door, but getting to the point of becoming an educator was a very long and laborious process for me. When it came time for me to go to college, I was completely on my own physically and financially. I struggled my first year just trying to make ends meet by working and taking classes simultaneously. I knew I wanted to teach, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to focus my studies. Since I had always done fairly well in my English classes in high school, I thought I would try a few literature courses. That is where I met the second woman who would change my life, Dr. Penelope Blake. When I would listen to Dr. Blake lecture, I remember being completely enthralled by her words. She had such incredible insights about authors and knowledge about literary history. I would listen to her and think, “I want to be exactly like her!” She was also a quiet leader in her own way. Her demeanor was stern and stoic, but at the same time, she could be very supportive and empathetic. She had high expectations of her students, but she also had a legitimate interest in our lives! She was the second person to recognize something in me that I had barely recognized in myself. The first time it struck me that I should become an English teacher was from a comment she had written on one of my literature essays. Although I don’t remember the exact comment, per se, it was something along the lines of “You have the eye of an English teacher. I think this would be the perfect career for you.”
It goes without saying that I took Dr. Blake’s advice to heart. I happily went on to complete both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Northern Illinois University, as well as a secondary teaching certificate in English Language Arts and Social Studies. When I completed all of my education credentials, I was excited to return to my local community college and teach part-time as an adjunct instructor under the official guidance of my former mentor, Dr. Blake. In addition, I also returned to my old high school and taught English full-time alongside most of my previous English teachers who were also instrumental in helping me along on my educator’s journey. Incidentally, I even became the high school’s department chair (reluctantly, of course). Leadership was in the cards for me after all.
Every degree, every certificate, and every leadership opportunity that I have chosen for myself has just been a confirmation of a much larger, personal purpose. Educators have always been the definitive influencers and motivators in my life. Because of them, I have learned to know my marks and to own them, I have learned to tell my own personal stories, and I have learned that relying on others and forming true connections with my mentors is an invaluable resource. Malcolm X said in his autobiography that books were his “alma mater.” If I can inspire and motivate my students the same way my mentors inspired and motivated me, then I know I am one step closer to being the leader I never expected to be.