I waited to become a teacher, and it’s better for my students that I did

Published 7/6/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT

Kerry Graham

Sometimes I swear I averted disaster. If I’d started teaching too soon — before I was ready and for the wrong reasons — I could’ve done so much damage to the young people on my roster. Whenever I imagine my would-be students, the ones who never had to endure me as an unworthy educator, I sigh in relief.

This isn’t to say, of course, that my 11 years of teaching have been without missteps. In fact, I’m still learning daily how to be better for my students, who I call my lovelies. But even these shortcomings don’t change what I now know: I belong in Baltimore’s classrooms.

This is actually a job that, for years, I didn’t want. When I was a college freshman, I inexplicably took two education courses during my spring semester. My only explanation for this is that my roommate, who’d long known she wanted to teach, either persuaded or inspired me to register. Within minutes of the first class, I knew I’d made a mistake. My classmates spoke about their future bulletin boards and lesson plans with reverence, whereas I yawned at the contents of our syllabi. Apparently, teaching required a calling I hadn’t heard.

I didn’t consider teaching again until years later, after I’d finished college and graduate school, served with AmeriCorps, and lived abroad for 18 months. It was the fall of 2008, and my expectations for myself — doing humanitarian work overseas with a home base in Baltimore, close to family and friends — had splintered. Complications with my visa had forced me back to the states; meanwhile, the economy had crumbled, so the Baltimore-based jobs to which I begrudgingly applied never even acknowledged me.

Depressed and desperate, I almost applied to an alternate teaching certification program: an opportunity to teach for Baltimore City Public Schools while earning my credentials. I met the qualifications, but the three-year commitment intimidated me, so I didn’t follow through.

Thank God.

At the time, I didn’t understand what it takes to be a teacher, how much even a single class period requires.

The deep breath at the start, a reminder that I can do it: I can meet each one of my lovelies where they are at this moment, calibrating my energy and concentration on an individual basis.

Ongoing attention to every lovely’s body language and tone of voice. Awareness of everyone in the room while concentrating on a single student.

Maintaining several running lists: who isn’t in class, and when they last were. Who is waiting for the hall pass. Who asked for my help first.

Smiles for lovelies who’ve had recent outbursts. A hardened outer shell to protect me from future ones. Prayer.

Flexibility when delivering instruction. Accepting the disappointment of a failed lesson. Spontaneous and simultaneous adjustments: increasing rigor, simplifying concepts, explaining again. Summoning the discretion to know whether to stray from the curriculum when it’s not what my lovelies actually need. Indefatigable focus between the announcements, late students and knocks on the door that interrupt us.

A reserve tank. To switch to another lesson just minutes after this one ends. To care more than some lovelies do. To still, always, have something more to give.

That fall, when I was back in the states against my will, job searching out of necessity alone, I had no business working in education. I didn’t deserve the responsibility of impacting young people’s minds, hearts, futures. I would’ve become a teacher because I needed to earn a paycheck, not because I was committed to what happened in the classroom.

Teachers worthy of their students vary in personality, background and lifestyle. There is no single pedagogy or philosophy that characterizes good teaching. Instead, dedicated teachers are all responding to a demand — investment in children, excitement about learning, hopes to empower — they can only meet in the classroom. They all have their own reason that tugged them there in the first place, and that brings them back even after the hard days.

Mine is Baltimore.

By the time I applied to that alternate certification program a few years later, I’d become what I call “hopefully devoted” to this city. After my resentment about feeling trapped here, I remembered why I delight in calling Baltimore home. At the same time that its art and activism dazzled me, I worked for a nonprofit serving homeless Baltimore youth. This made me a daily witness to delayed, if not wasted, potential. Every teenager and early twenty-something who walked into my office was forced to scavenge for their basic needs: housing, food, clothing, life skills. Every hour they spent trying to survive denied them the opportunity to contribute to this city that raised them, a city that would have benefited from their time and talents.

This chasm between what Baltimore is and what it could be propelled me to the classroom. Once I got there, teaching became an integral, though conditional, part of my identity: Baltimore is the only place where I can be this person; otherwise, teaching isn’t for me.

Kerry Graham teaches high school English for Baltimore City Public Schools and is a Creative in Residence for The Baltimore Banner.

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