On Becoming Yourself; On Becoming an Educator
Hannah Kinder-Schuyler, Humanities Teacher

The year is 2019, and I am in my final undergraduate course for my Secondary Education studies with Dr. Jane Neuenschwander at Wheeling Jesuit University. She is a true Midwesterner through and through: she beams at anything even remotely positive, sings with jolly abandon as a genuine part of her lessons, and just seems like the kind of woman who would bring you a homemade casserole if you were feeling down. As the only professor in her department, you’d think she would be stressed and exhausted beyond belief. Yet, she comes to class every day with the same sunny disposition, a fresh iteration of the same meticulously crafted Chico’s ensemble, and the same salt and pepper hair styled to perfection. When she is at the front of the room with her hospitable grin, she demands your attention without speaking a single word.

The room is buzzing with excitement: next semester, we are all (finally) going to get to student-teach! Dr. Neuenschwander, of course, ever receptive to our zealous naivete, prepares us for a momentous assignment… it’s time to define our philosophy of education. At the time, I was frozen in fear. How many months had I spent observing and dissecting other teachers’ pedagogical and punitive practices to now be faced with the same mammoth task? It’s like Bildungsroman all over again, and all the same questions arise:

What do I value?

Why do I care?

Who will I become?

I search through the recesses of my memories as a student, pulling the dusty curtain back to revisit pivotal moments in my time throughout school. I think back to middle school, the hardest years, and the teachers who turned the other way when they saw me being mercilessly ridiculed. I think back to my freshman year of high school, where it felt like the only thing in the world that mattered was the friendships I forged within the walls of the classrooms. I think back to senior year, when those same friendships exploded and left pieces of my teenage years scattered about like smoking shrapnel, people jeering at me for my wrongs, and I back at them for theirs, all the gossip swirling about in the aftermath. I think about how, for so many years, I had felt so misunderstood, so lost. That is, until my English teacher stopped me after class one fateful day during the height of the drama and told me,

“It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Don’t listen to what they say. You are wonderful.”

And I remember how my heart bloomed. I remember how, in that moment, I felt like I really became. Even amidst the wreckage, I had a beacon of hope. I had someone who saw what was happening and acknowledged my pain. Someone that saw value in me. Someone that taught me, as was her job, but someone who respected that I was more than just another student in her classroom. I had fears, reservations, and ambitions. She recognized me outside of my responsibility to her as someone who had seen this petty drama unfold hundreds of times before. And right then and there, back into the reality of my college classroom, I knew what I valued, why I cared, and who I wanted to become.

Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I carry this with me like an old keepsake, worn and well-used, but timeless.

One day, I will forget reading Robert Frost in Mrs. Matson’s class. I will likely forget writing an essay on Calvinism and The Crucible. I might even forget her perilous poetry exam. But never, ever will I forget the glow she exuded, the same glow that Dr. Neuenschwander had when she sang The Who’s “Who Are You?” as her walkout song to kick off our class discussion on that very day. It’s the glow of an educator who has gotten up and sang that same song or taught that same poem so many times, but never gets tired of seeing the look on a student’s face when they learn something new and obliterate their own expectations of what they thought they could achieve. It’s a glow that, like the Sacred Heart of Mater, casts the most blindingly beautiful light on the faces of those who deserve its warmth the most.

Dr. Neuenschwander probably was stressed and exhausted. There were many times when she could and probably should have snapped at us for having our headphones in, whispering about our plans for the evening, or groaning over an assignment. Instead of the expected, we’d get a dose of her goodwill:

“Whatcha listenin’ to?”

“Ooh, what are ya up to tonight?”

“It might be tough, but I know ya can do it!”

Being a student is hard. I’m not the only one who endured external stressors throughout my time in school, despite it feeling that way at the time. You never know what a student might be going through, but you can bet on any given day that there is at least one student in your classroom who needs a positive, welcoming, and stable presence. It’s as simple as this: if a student can see that you respect them, they will respect you too. Students, like anyone, just want to be seen. They want to feel heard. They want to know that they too, have power and promise. And even simpler: they do. Students are all potential. It is up to us to give them the soil to plant the roots firmly enough that a heart of gold can blossom even in the darkest of times.