She Believed She Could So She Did

I wrote this “Personal Statement” in January for an award nomination dossier.  I would have connected the dots for this class in a new statement but I feel this one does it best, for me.  Tools I’ve learned, and read about, in this class will enhance my skills at being the best teacher I can be.  Above all else, I promise to never stop learning how to be a better teacher.

I hated my high school math teachers.  One asked why I wanted to be an engineer instead of an actress (I loved Advanced Drama class).  The other said, “You’ll never be an engineer”.  Despite their violation of everything teachers should stand for I was certain I would become an engineer.  Thankfully Virginia Tech thought so, too, and granted me early acceptance into the engineering program.

While taking a full load of 18 credit hours per semester I spent my weekends as a ski instructor at a resort a couple of hours away.  Snow skiing was my sport and I was following a long line of instructors in my family.  We taught lessons while it snowed, while it rained, underneath snow blowers, when it was below zero.  The conditions didn’t matter because there was such joy in seeing someone who had never skied before or who lacked coordination “get it” and smile with pride at what they had accomplished with my help.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and was thrilled to address the first two graduation announcements to those math teachers who did not believe in me.  While working my first job after graduation I wanted to find something fun to do in my free time.  I became a math tutor at Sylvan Learning Center.  Two evenings a week, I would sit with students who struggled with math, who did not want to be hanging out with me talking about math.  The challenge did not matter because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and smile with pride because they finally understood fractions.

My career progressed and I found myself working for a 3D CAD modeling software company.  Part of my job was giving demonstrations about how the software worked.  Sometimes I would be a consultant for a customer and go on-site to help them use the program to design their own products.  The drafters and engineers were not always happy about being told they had to use this new software.  It was not what they were used to and most adults do not like forced change.  It was a struggle to get through to them, sometimes, but it was worth it because I found such joy in seeing them “get it” and realize that their jobs would be easier because they had learned this new tool with my help.

I worked for nine years at an engineering and manufacturing company in roles of increasing responsibility.  It was an amazing learning opportunity because I got to work in different departments including design, quality, manufacturing, purchasing and eventually the continuous improvement group.  I travelled internationally and really learned how to be an engineer during my time there.  I was fortunate to spend about a year there as a facilitator in the continuous improvement group.  That role is part engineer, part motivator, part organizer and part teacher.  We would explain a lean manufacturing principle to co-workers then help them implement it into their department or work area during a Kaizen event.  Most of the time no one was interested in the task, usually because they did not understand that it would eventually benefit them.  I enjoyed the challenge of changing their minds, even if it took weeks of effort because there is such joy in seeing them eventually “get it” and embrace the process improvements we had implemented together.

There was a pattern emerging that everyone in my life, but me, was noticing.  I was a competent engineer, being promoted regularly.  I was pleased with my career but not fulfilled by it.  Friends and colleagues whom I had mentored (or tutored in calculus during lunch) started mentioning that I should be a teacher.  “But I’m an engineer,” I thought.  While I understood that I could change careers and be a high school math teacher, I would have to leave the world of engineering, the topic I loved and had studied, behind, which did not interest me.  So, I ignored their advice for a few more years.

A bizarre and wonderful chain of events led to a lunch with a friend and faculty member in my home department at VT.  During that lunch, I admitted that I felt I had reached a plateau in my engineering career; that strange place where you realize you do not want another promotion because of the added stress and drama it would create, but you also do not want to stay in the same job for twenty more years.  My faculty friend admitted he needed help teaching his class, that he was overwhelmed.  I, half-jokingly, said, “Hire me to help.”  It had never occurred to me that I could teach engineering.  He was very interested in pursuing the possibility that this could work.  Three months later, about fifteen minutes before I learned my company was going to close our facility and lay off all of its employees (including me), I received an email with a job posting at VT for a professor of practice in my home department of mechanical engineering.  I applied for and was hired to start two months later.

Although the pay was significantly less than my former job, I hoped the flexibility and satisfaction I would find in teaching would be worth it.  The first year we had 363 students.  There is no formal training for teaching at the college level so you learn quickly or give up.  Not accustomed to giving up, I jumped in the deep end asking questions, seeking advice, reading books on teaching, and listening to pod casts.  Eventually I learned many things about teaching, thanks to co-workers, and former teachers (not my high school math teachers).  By the second fall semester, I had the mechanics of delivering lectures and assessing students via homework, quizzes, and reports down pat.  Yet I was not feeling the joy my earlier exposures to teaching gave me.  I had become competent at and comfortable with delivering content, which some people call teaching.  This is what my former math teachers did and I wanted to be better than them.

A series of unfortunate events during spring semester of my second year teaching changed everything.  Within about a week I had one student come to me with severe depression, another had just lost his brother to suicide, a third had a parent terminally ill with cancer.  I was overwhelmed with what these students were dealing with in their personal lives and how it was affecting their academics.  That week I said aloud, “What I really need in this job is a PhD in counseling!” In conversations with the academic counselors in my department, amazing women and colleagues, it dawned on me our students needed more than people who could deliver technical content and grade them on their abilities to prove their comprehension.  They needed adults who cared about them both inside and outside of the academic arena.  Sometimes they needed advice; other times just someone to listen.  It was then I turned to the VT Center for Excellence and Teaching (formerly CIDER) to learn more about how to work with better with students.  I eventually found and enrolled in the VT Graduate Certificate Program in Engineering Education where I have learned volumes about truly teaching and not just communicating content.  I will complete my certification in December of this year.

Instead of finding joy in watching others “get it”, I joyously experienced my own ah-ha moment realizing that being a teacher is much harder than I thought.  Now I understood that done well, teaching is a holistic effort of delivering content, compassion, and encouragement.  What I loved about my earlier exposure to teaching was not just explaining skiing or fractions, it was the personal connection formed with students, when I was helping them learn new information by showing them their own potential for success.  This is what it means to be a teacher and an advisor and it is what I strive to do in my job every day.  Moreover, it is exactly what my high school math teachers did not understand.

14 Replies to “She Believed She Could So She Did”

  1. I enjoyed reading your story and how you “beat the system” and came back to teaching after working in the industry. Your statement reminds me of a webcomic I saw the other day. I tried to post the link but I got flagged for spam so I’ll do my best to describe it. Basically, a woman was told “you can’t do it” and each frame was her steps to getting a degree but she had a HUGE angry frown in each frame. I’ll try and show you in class if you’re interested.

  2. I love the title and the story! I believe many students will benefit from the change you made to do what you love. Relationship building is definitely the foundational pillar for teaching. I worked with a teacher at a former school who was an engineer by trade and she decided to teach at the elementary level (bless her). She has definitely made an unmistakable impact on the school she is in, especially with STEM and with female perceptions in math. We need more people like the two of you.

  3. I really like your post! Your story is so inspiring! I believe that your experience as an engineer empowers your teaching skills from the side that you can give more real life examples from your own experience. I agree with you that the personal contact and encouragement are so important too! Good job!

  4. Hi! Thank you for sharing your story with us! It is definitely easy to give up but harder to fight. Your story almost reminds me of jackie robinsons’ story. I think what you have achieved in your life time can only be an example to others who follow you!

  5. Hi Robin,

    Thank you for sharing this personal statement with us. It gives a glimpse at who you are as an educator and the journey that brought you to the realization that students need more than help with the technical information–they also need reassurance that they’re going to make it and that someone in their life cares. As educators, we have the privilege of being that person for our students and I so appreciate that it is this realization that drives you to want to be the best educator you can be for your students. Often in the semester, Arash and I have looked at each other and been like “how does she do it? 400 students? *mind blown*” and yet you do; you strive to facilitate learning while also seeing them as people. Thank you for choosing education as your calling. The world needs more teachers with a mindset like yours.

  6. Hi Robin,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It is always helpful to reflect on our everyday experience. It helps us to continuously evolve ourselves. I agree with you that there are several resources in the university to help students. But the question over here is, are we able to deliver and meet students needs and requirement? I see a huge gap between the two.

    I also want to thank you for your contributions to the class discussion. They truly enhanced the learnings in the course.

  7. Robin, I enjoyed your post and I have enjoyed talking with you this semester. I want to wish you the best of luck going forward on your pursuit of teaching excellence.

    I have wrestled for some time now about college education. When I went off to my undergrad and then into the real world, it was “sink or swim.” Either you found help to answer your problem or you were tossed aside for the latest student/new hire coming into the company. It was a shark tank where people would do anything to get ahead. You have the “champion” holding your hand either through school or work or you have the “sink or swim.” I do not know right now where that happy medium is and will continue to ponder that question.

  8. Robin,

    I would like to echo what everyone else has said: thank you for sharing this journey with us.

    It is clear that you here because you love to teach. There are many people who are already established academics or aspiring ones who do not share that love. It seem, from your story at least, that your love of teaching drove you.

    After reading this personal statement I was left wondering if there were any doubts for you along the way? The narrative in this story is very straightforward (as a personal statement should usually be) but I’m curious about what might not be said here – what threatened to stop you from getting to where you are now?

  9. Robin, great post! Thank you for sharing this. You’re efforts and pursuit to become the best educator you can be to your students is inspiring. I really agree, that it connects the dots for what we’ve learned this semester. Teaching is far more than delivering information.

  10. Hey Robin,
    Thank you for sharing this post with us. It is nice to see that you care about your students both inside and outside class. This semester has been really rough for me, not because of academic matters, but because of personal life. Because I have no family in US, sometimes i feel that no one care about me and my personal success here, and honestly this demotivate me to continue my career into the phd program. Fortunately, my advisor is a professor is like you, and he has making a lot of difference in my life. Thank you for caring about students, people like you make a difference in the world.

  11. As someone just coming into the teaching world from the professional world, it really hits home and gives me hope that I’m still on the right path, despite the fact that the struggle is real, the struggle never ends. You probably know by this point I love stories, and this one crushes. Thank you for sharing, Robin. It’s been a real pleasure. See you on campus

  12. Thank you for your post! I really enjoyed reading your story and path as you went from student, to engineer, to teacher, to you ah-ha moment. I think it really shows how messy life is… for us, for students, for people in general. I feel like a lot of people approach teaching under the assumptions that 1) everyone cares as much as they do about the lecture they are about to give, 2) that everyone wants the same things that they want, 3) everyone is at a place where they are ready and eager to learn (among others). I think you experiences show that these three assumptions are often not met, a lot of the time because of situations that are largely outside of the students control. I guarantee that the 3 students you mentioned who were struggling with personal issues wouldn’t rank your class (no offense!!) in their top 5 most important things in those moments. You recognized that, and didn’t think less of them for it… instead you wanted to help them –and makes me happy that you are where you are. Hopefully more people follow in your footsteps than those of your old math teachers.

  13. Hi everyone – thank you for all of the positive feedback and encouragement; it means a lot to me and I’ve really enjoyed hearing from all of you during our class discussions. We ARE the ones that will change academia for the better.

    Aislinn – One of the roadblocks that I still struggle with is the significant pay cut I took for this job (50%). I had a great savings account thanks to a former employer that went public (and my subsequent stock option cash-out), that I was using to supplement my salary but it’s almost gone. I’m not sure what I’ll do then. Everyone keeps telling me that “it will all work out”. I suppose I’m hoping that it will and I’m waiting until it doesn’t to find a plan B.

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