That is good enough for me

The great Nelson Mandela once said, Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” Nine years ago, I wanted change. After leading the quintessential yuppie life for six years, I realized that I wanted more than just a job that paid the bills and kept a roof over my head; I wanted a career that would make waking up each day more meaningful, to do something not because I was being compensated for what I was doing, but simply because I wanted to. At the time, it felt like the world and living has boiled down to getting through the day because that was what one had to do in order to survive. I wanted my personal world to change, and I wanted to live a life where I could contribute more to changing the world. To my surprise, I found myself going home to the alma mater that prepared me for the corporate life that I thought I wanted. I became a teacher.

Truth be told, I stumbled into teaching quite accidentally; nonetheless, I feel that I was meant to be an educator all along. I grew up with teachers and scholars, as my paternal grandparents were both basic education teachers, while my father taught part-time at the graduate level. I have always found fulfillment in being able to share what I know, in whatever means possible, and being able to learn from that experience as well.

I have been teaching for seven years before coming to Virginia Tech and taught here during my first semester, and my teaching style is drawn largely from instinct and personal experience as opposed to formal training in education. I mainly looked back at my own experience as a student, adopted practices used by my own professors that I thought effectively aided my learning process, and stayed away from those that I felt were not helpful. Indeed, there is a lot for me to learn about how to effectively impart knowledge to my students; what has been constant since the first day I stepped into a classroom as a teacher, though, is the fact that I have never stopped learning from my students.

I have always viewed learning as a transformative experience, for student and teacher alike. As such, I favor activities that would expose students to situations where they would be able to derive learning. For Special Project, the senior capstone project course, I encouraged students to look for ways through which their knowledge of electrical engineering may find practical application and make a project out of that. I created situations that would expose them to entities or communities that may need their assistance and connected them to the appropriate people; from there, however, they are encouraged to innovate and use their creativity as they set out to find solutions to the problems that they identify.

I also subscribe to the notion that while there is a lot of information that can be gained within the four walls of the University classroom, there is no teacher quite like the School of Hard Knocks. And as I prepare my students to go out from the University classroom into the harsh realities of the world out there, I find myself going back to my own experience as part of the work force, and sharing these personal and professional experiences with my students. In teaching Computer Systems, a course taken in the fourth year, I consistently tie the seemingly abstract concepts that are being discussed in class to actual applications in the workplace, in the form of anecdotes – stories about my little successes and frustrations as a one-time programmer and project manager. These stories have served as a springboard of lively discussion, as students are able to visualize the lessons and make it real. Being honest about my own struggles in the workplace also allow them to think through their own struggles and find ways to face their own fears and challenges.

I value respect, and as a teacher, I feel that it is not something that I am entitled to just because I am the person of authority standing in front, with the power to make or break a GPA. It is something that I earn as I show students that they are people who I respect as well. This atmosphere of mutual respect is something that I try to maintain in the classroom, regardless of the course that I am teaching. And in my experience, it has allowed me to remain the person of authority in class – without forcing that fact to the students.

I respect the individual, and the fact that every person has strengths and weaknesses, attributes that, when recognized, acknowledged, and understood, allows people to build meaningful relationships and make positive contributions to society. In teaching an elective course on Project Management for graduating students, I used case studies and subsequent class discussions to illustrate this, and to stress the reality that engineers function in multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural teams that attempt to resolve ill-structured problems.

With the graduating class of 2013, Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, Ateneo de Davao University. Davao City, Philippines.

I believe that as an educator, I do more than just teach. My responsibilities go beyond instruction, as I play an important role in the formation of these young people as they prepare to take their place in tomorrow’s society. And every single day, I wake up trying to do better than how I did yesterday – not because I have to, but because I want to.

So how has education helped me change the world? I take pride in the fact that while I myself have not formulated a new theory or developed the next big thing in electrical engineering, I have been a part of the lives of young people who may eventually change the world. That is good enough for me.

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4 Responses to That is good enough for me

  1. Alex Noble says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! I like the idea of being a part of the lives of young people who may eventually (hopefully) change the world! The excitement that Jane McGonigal exhibited when she was talking about games changing the world in the Ted Talk we watched last week is the same kind of excitement I get whenever I talk about transportation safety (more boring than video games, but you get the point). If my exuberance about this topic can cause my students to be interested then I will be happy.

    Your experience and instinct is what makes this material real for students, I feel that many of the young people in STEM learn best when they can apply what they’re doing in the classroom to a real-world environment, which is why I am such a huge fan of senior capstone projects, although I wish we could have done more research design as undergraduates. The skill of managing a multi-stage project is so useful regardless of if you go into industry or to graduate school post bachelor’s and it definitely sets you up for leadership positions in the workplace.

  2. Qualla says:

    I love this Michelle! I think partly because our thoughts & approaches are very similar. I especially liked how you ended because that’s good enough for me too. 🙂 I also really liked this line – “And every single day, I wake up trying to do better than how I did yesterday – not because I have to, but because I want to.” I think that’s so important. It takes me back to my 4-H days with “To Make the Best Better”. There is always room for improvement and we can always get better at something if we try. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Catherine Einstein says:

    Sometimes students lose the connection between what you are teaching them and how it will help them in the real world in real situation. I often have to blatantly tell my students how the lectures and activities I give actually apply to The School of Hard Knocks.

  4. Rachel Kinzer Corell says:

    YES YES YES to your post, and to these two things in particular: “…and my teaching style is drawn largely from instinct and personal experience as opposed to formal training in education. I mainly looked back at my own experience as a student, adopted practices used by my own professors that I thought effectively aided my learning process, and stayed away from those that I felt were not helpful”

    &

    “I value respect, and as a teacher, I feel that it is not something that I am entitled to just because I am the person of authority standing in front, with the power to make or break a GPA. It is something that I earn as I show students that they are people who I respect as well.”

    I will never understand how some people teach without reflecting back on their own experiences as students. I’ll also never understand why some teachers demand authority without making the rhetorical moves to earn it.

    It sounds like you and I have some similarities with teaching. I’m glad I’m not the only one tries to be true to who they are while also remembering how the past plays a part in all this!

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