Become a CE teacher – New Jersey Education Association

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The teacher I needed

By Michelle Poolaw, Burlington County 2021-22 Teacher of the Year

We were told, as County Teachers of the Year, that this year would be like no other. So far, I have had the good fortune to meet many outstanding educators and influencers. I have already had many opportunities to learn and grow from past county and state winners, and have connected with leaders across the state.

During this experience, I was repeatedly asked why I got into teaching and who inspired me.

Many people, when asked what made them decide to become a teacher, immediately recall a favorite teacher. However, as many times as I’ve been faced with this question, I always come back to the same unexpected answer. I didn’t have THAT teacher.

I grew up in the Olney neighborhood of Philadelphia. I went to three different schools when I was a freshman in high school. I was one of 30-45 students in a class, usually seated in the back, with virtually no personal interaction with any of my teachers. I couldn’t tell you the name of a teacher I had from elementary to high school. I never had a teacher who saw me or showed me that I was important.

My parents were young when they had us. We had very little money, but they were loving and worked hard for everything we had. They taught us to keep trying, even when we wanted to give up. “You will get it. Probe,” my mother muttered as I tried to do homework that made no sense to me, tears filling my eyes making it even more impossible to decode the words on the page.

No one ever reached out to my parents about my academic difficulties or learning disabilities that would not be diagnosed until adulthood.

I struggled in school, like many of our students. I struggled to learn to read, calculate simple math problems, and even focus on the one-dimensional learning styles that all my teachers employed. I would never raise my hand because I knew I had no idea what was going on; not that I didn’t want to know or that I wasn’t trying to know. I would be so lost between learning gaps, ADHD and the anxiety I developed. There was no 1:1 recording. No worries that I got lost. No plan or responsibility to catch up with me. Just F’s, C’s and D’s.

No dignity or grace for students like me. Just targeted discomfort so that “I learn to be careful”.

To some extent, I don’t blame those teachers. That’s what education was like then. The lessons were neither personal nor differentiated. We didn’t have that, but we needed THAT.

I needed a teacher to see me, to see my struggle, to show me dignity. I needed a teacher to help me see that I was good enough and smart enough.

michelle polaw

I always wanted to be a teacher

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. I would play “school” like many of us did. I’ve spent all my money since my eighth birthday at RiteAid. I bought everything I needed for a perfect classroom. My stuffed animal students were always engaged in my classes. But I wasn’t going to be like the teachers I had. I showed all my students that they were important and appreciated. I would show them that they belonged.

However, as I got older, I never really thought I was good enough or smart enough to be a teacher. I didn’t think I could get into college, so I didn’t try. I never even took my SATs. Instead, I became a secretary. All the while, stifling my nagging instinct to take the risk of being THAT teacher.

THIS teacher, the teacher I strive to be, works to reach all learners. THAT the teacher champions the interests of those who are disadvantaged, connects with those who feel disconnected, and creates a community with opportunities for every student, regardless of their differences, challenges, backgrounds, or even family life.

THIS teacher sees every student and shows them that they are good enough, smart enough, and deserving for anything they can dream of.

In my late twenties, I decided I wanted to go back to school. I wanted so badly to be THAT teacher, so if I wasn’t smart enough and couldn’t spell all the words, I would work really hard until I got it.

And I did! I graduated summa cum laude in an accelerated program where I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. I finally felt like I was smart enough and good enough to go out there and save every child. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

First day of kindergarten

Bring all my experiences to class

What makes me the educator that I am, and the impacts I have had so significant, are my experiences. All. The good, the bad, and every moment in between gave me a unique perspective. My teaching is a reflection of THAT child, because I never want a child to feel what I felt.

As teachers, we have the ability to define a child’s future with our words and our actions. We often hear stories of famous people and their struggles to become who they are. Some, like Michael Jordan, were told they weren’t good enough, but beat the odds and persevered to achieve greatness. I love these stories. But what about the students who hear they’re not good enough time and time again, going through life never believing they can make it?

Celebrating differences, cultivating creativity, and inspiring a sense of curiosity that invites risk-taking and trying new things are key to teaching every new student before us. They help empower reluctant and struggling learners, and bridge the cultural and socio-economic differences that hinder the engagement of so many children. Our job is to support and empower students, all students, regardless of their differences, challenges, backgrounds, or family lives.

Teaching changed my life. I love my work. My unique vision and approach made me the teacher I wanted to be. As I watch students go from hating school to becoming learners full of curiosity and wonder, striving to take risks and grow from mistakes; it’s the only proof I need to know that the relationships I’ve built with them through my words and actions have made a difference. I know I’ve helped them gain the confidence to see that they can achieve anything they want by believing, working hard, and persevering.

Michelle Poolaw’s freshman year in the classroom.

Really see our students

Part of what makes our profession so powerful is having a responsibility to ensure that all of our students are connected to the world around them. My childhood experiences are a big part of why I am the teacher I am today, but so are my experiences as a mother.

My youngest son, Zachary, has ADHD. He too struggled to fit into the mould. He was expected to sit “crosswise” with his hands together without moving for more than 30 minutes at a stretch in first grade. He was always frustrated when he didn’t finish his work as quickly as everyone else, and I got phone calls and emails telling me he just didn’t listen or pay attention to his teachers because he didn’t look them in the eye. His impression of his first-year teacher was that they were mean and just didn’t like him. I wish that teacher had seen him and helped him feel like he belonged, even if his brain worked a little differently. I wish they had treated him with dignity and grace.

My eldest son, Xavier, was that kid who went to the bathroom or the nurse 10 times a day. Again I was getting phone calls and emails about how lazy he was and trying to get out of class.

Well, that year, when he was an eighth grader, Xavier was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease. He has ulcerative colitis. The day I took him to the ER at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, he admitted to the doctor that it had been going on for over a year.

No wonder he hates school.

I wish his school had seen him and worked with me to find out why he hated school and didn’t want or couldn’t be in class. I would have liked them to show him dignity and grace.

In kindergarten, Xavier, who is multiracial, used to draw himself with a color of skin and hair not like his. He loved to read and drew himself like the characters in his books. What he didn’t have were the books and resources he needed to see himself. He needed to have a sense of belonging and connection. He was never chosen for class awards, nor to be the ambassador or leader of his class. He didn’t look like the children we usually choose. I wish his teachers had taken the time to see him, to show him that he was appreciated even though he looked different.

Left to right: April Brown, Camden County EA Board Chair, Sonia Chugh, 2021-22 Camden County Teacher of the Year, Michelle Poolaw, 2021-22 Burlington County Teacher of the Year, and Anthony Rizzo, president of the Burlington County EA.

Representing all cultures is something that should be a natural practice. Advocating and promoting representation for all means our children not only see and learn from others who are like them, but also from others who are not. Building relationships, learning about other cultures and ways of life is key to inspiring human kindness in students and teachers. We have a responsibility to accept this.

Teaching each of my children to be proud of their colors and abilities is one of the most important tasks I have had as a parent. If my sons felt this, how many other children feel this?

I wish my teachers had seen me. I wish they had taken the time to make me feel like I belonged. I wish they had shown me dignity and grace.

I firmly believe that there are so many amazing teachers making a difference every day. They have empathy, they are creative and diverse, they make mistakes and teach others how to bounce back from failure, they see all of their students regardless of their circumstances because they know those are some of the elements most important for growth and change. My message to these teachers is the same message I want every child in the world to hear:

I see you, all of you, and you are enough for me.

Continue to lead each student before you with dignity and grace. Continue to be THAT teacher who will make a difference in the lives of so many children through your words and your actions, because you see each child and show them that they belong.

Be THAT teacher.

Michelle Poolaw is Burlington County’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. She teaches basic skills at Hillside Elementary School in Mount Laurel. She can be reached at [email protected]

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