During my first year of teaching, my classroom looked as if it belonged to a 40-something-year-old white man. Why? Because before I was hired it did belong to a 40-something-year-old white man and when his classroom became my classroom I didn’t bother to change anything.
I could say I didn’t redecorate simply because I didn’t have time, because I was too busy rereading the literature I was charged with teaching, writing lectures and lesson plans and grading papers. But that would be a lie. Yes, I was busy doing all of those things and more but I didn’t change my classroom because I was trying to copy the instructor whose shoes I was being asked to fill. We’ll call him Mr. B.
Mr. B. is a legendary English teacher at my school and one of the smartest people I know. So I figured that to be a good English teacher I basically needed to be him, especially since I was teaching what was once his class in what was once his classroom.
My efforts to become Mr. B. went beyond my classroom decor. I taught from his syllabus, too. And any deviations I did make from his reading list were made only because they were suggested by my department chair, another legendary lit instructor I looked up to who was also my teacher when I was a student at the school.
Then it was time for mid-year class evaluations from students and I quickly learned my efforts to be Mr. B. were failing miserably. Of all the scathing reviews from my students there was one that stung hardest: “She seems bored, like she doesn’t care about what she’s teaching. She’s just reading off a paper.”
This comment hurt the most because I knew it was true. I was bored — not with the subject matter, but with my lame-ass way of teaching it. And if I was bored my students had to have been dying slow deaths in their desks.
It was time to make a change.
The next semester I taught my favorite works by Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley and Kate Chopin. Though my class’ focus is early American literature I brought in contemporary works by June Jordan, Joy Harjo, and Sherman Alexie when there were clear connections to be made. I treated lecture like performance, practicing at home so I could deliver each lesson with confidence, enthusiasm, and authenticity. I came to class dressed like Hester Prynne and taught The Scarlet Letter like the Puritan soap opera that it is. I crawled on the floor while teaching “The Yellow Paper,” danced around the room during vocabulary games, and confessed my unhealthy obsession with Edgar Allan Poe.
I made my passion for writing the cornerstone of my course, teaching students not only how to read and analyze literature, but also how to share their own stories and support arguments on the causes they believe in.
Soon students were writing on evaluations that I was the best English teacher they’d ever had, that they never liked English or writing before taking my class, that they wanted to be an English teacher now and wanted to teach like me.
I stopped trying to be Mr. B. and let myself be Mrs. B. and everything changed for the better — including my classroom decor.
My desk is covered with enough Hello Kitty paraphernalia to fill a Sanrio store and I have Wonder Woman cape on my chair. I took down everything on the bulletin board that was there when I inherited the classroom and filled it with things that scream “JAVACIA!” — pictures of Edgar Allan Poe, Frida Kahlo, Fiona Apple, Frederick Douglass, Sylvia Plath, Zora Neale Hurston. I posted photos from the protests and sit-ins of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a quote by Kate Chopin, and the Ethiopian proverb that is my life mantra — “She who learns teaches.”
And the lesson I have learned from this is one I apply not just in my classroom but also in my life as a writer, blogger, and entrepreneur: You cannot achieve the success you desire by striving to be someone else. You can learn from the people you admire, but you must always be yourself.