Head bent low against the biting wind and rain, I turn onto Normal Avenue making my daily trek from the Sox and 35th Red Line stop to Urban Christian Academy- the after-school program I have worked at for the last two years. The smell of wood burning stoves and Chinese food radiates a feeling of comfort and warmth to my tired and chilled body. It is oddly quiet aside from the sound of tires moving through the rain soaked streets; a sharp contrast to what people usually associate with Chicago and city living. Approaching the familiar worn brick building that houses both New Life Community Church, I smile- the familiarity of the building sending a wave of peace through my preoccupied college student mind. Past the main entrances I shuffle to the narrow alley that separates the two parts of the building.
Collapsing my umbrella and shielding my eyes from the wind, I open the side door of the building and breathlessly hurry down the stairs to my classroom. Tossing a rain-soaked backpack to the chair, I flick on the lights, power up the space heater, and survey the empty basement classroom. Notebooks and pencils rest neatly at different spots on the desks. Chairs are pushed in for once. This space is quiet, relaxing in weary anticipation for the chaos that is just around the corner. The wall clock notifies me it is 2:15 in the afternoon, so I quickly go through the daily prep tasks, erasing the previous day’s journal prompt and pulling one from the list in my bag. “What type of chip is better- Takis or Flaming Hot Cheetos? Why?” A silly thing to write about, but in an urban fourth and fifth-grade class this prompt is gold. It comes from a heated debate that took place during one of our homework breaks the previous week. I know that they will have plenty to say on the subject. I check my bell work folder, trying to determine how we will transition from the school day to homework time and see the “math minute” worksheets my principal has assigned for the class. I groan inwardly as I set a sheet facedown at each student’s place. I despise these meaningless worksheets, but I do what I am told. Tasks done, I move towards the door to head to the central part of the building for a brief staff meeting before picking up the kids from Healy Elementary School. Grabbing my travel mug of now lukewarm coffee, I do a quick once-over of the room making checks on my mental list. My classroom is ready. More than that, I am ready. As a Senior in an Elementary Education program, I have only three months before I leave temporarily for twelve weeks of student teaching away from this place. The place that helped shape me into a teacher since I first started working here two years ago. Only a few more months more than that separate me from graduation and a teaching degree. Sharp sadness pierces my heart as I think about leaving “my” students. Lord give me the strength, patience, and wisdom to love them as you would today. Maybe it’s nostalgia from thinking about how close I am to finishing or it could be from the meeting I had with a professor last week, but memories bounce around my scattered mind. What a journey it has been…
I sit rigidly on the edge of the chair in my professor’s office, my body shaking like a leaf, staring pointedly at the rug on the floor. I have only been a Sophomore in college for two months, but feel the strain of what has already been a battle of a school year radiating through every inch of my body. Depression, anxiety, and doubt have lead me to this office, but these monsters in my mind send their feelers into every crevice of my mind as I sit. Why did I bother coming to talk to my professor? What if he tells the program head what a waste I am for this program?
“I-I don’t know if I should be in the Elementary Education program. I-I don’t know if this is where God wants me.” The words come out quickly and abruptly before I have a chance to think about what I am saying. Regret washes over my anxious and terrified body.
I glance up, and we make brief eye contact before my gaze goes back to the floor. “Okay… why do you think that is?” he asks with a comforting, yet questioning tone.
“I-I don’t, I’m not a public speaker. I don’t think that I can stand up and give lessons.”
He pauses, and I can see that he is trying to make sense of what I am saying. “If you were not an Elementary Education major, what program would you be in?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Children’s Ministry? I know I want to work with kids at the very least…”
“You know, with Children’s Ministry, you still have to get up and speak.” he says this with a chuckle, a smile playing in the corners of his eyes.
Heart pounding in my chest, I know he is right. I knew he would say that. There is no escaping this public speaking monster, and I see it. Sharp pain aches in my chest, piercing me to my core. The voice I despise echoes thoughts like bullets in my mind. You will never be a teacher. You are not good enough for the Moody Bible Institute. You do not belong here.
“But what if I’m not good enough to be a teacher? I’m not good at speaking, or memorizing, or math. What if I’m not good enough to be a part of this program?”
“Why do you think you’re not ‘good’ enough? Do you have to be good enough? Why do you feel God has called you to teach?”
He pulls out a bright red Bible and flips to a Romans, reading words of Scripture over me and giving me something to think about.
“From what I have seen, you have what it takes to be a teacher if that is what you think God has called you to.”
The thoughts bounce around in my brain as I leave his office. Maybe he is right, but what if he’s not? What if I’m not good enough to be a part of this major? So many of the others are already so much better than I am. How could God use me? God, where do you want me?
We sit in a circle on the rug, me and my seven precious Pre-School and Kindergarten students. The warm June sun shines through the stained-glass windows, sending streams of coloured light down on us, warming the room and radiating through the atmosphere of our “classroom”. This space with its creaking wood floors, tiny tables and chairs, adult sized rocking chair, and small play structure is ours during the week, but the church’s nursery on Sundays.
I am two weeks removed from my Sophomore year of college working at Urban Christian Academy for the first time. Despite the warmth of the sun and the chatter of these tiny people, I am still feeling the shock that comes with the completion of a painstaking and train wreck of a school year. The numb feelings of the depression, anxiety, and doubt still hover at the back of my mind, but I am determined to ignore them.
It is the week before the end of the Chicago Public School year, and they have no homework, so we each grab a favourite book and have story time. I hold We Are in a Book by Mo Willems in front of me and read with animation and voices, acting as Piggie and Gerald. My seven puppy-like preschoolers and kindergarteners sit crisscross style, laughing hysterically with every page. I have only been their after-school teacher for a month, but I adore it. I love the walk from Healy elementary school to Urban Christian Academy every afternoon, little hands fighting to hold mine. Love the chatter of Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish being mixed with English from all fifty some students, in Preschool to Grade 8, along with the fifteen staff members as we make our way to and from the nearby park. Pushing little ones on swings and running breathlessly in games of tag. I love helping them with their homework, helping them read through books and understand math concepts. I love their tiny voices calling out “teacher, teacher” whenever they want my attention. Maybe, just maybe I can do this. Perhaps this is what God is calling me to. All I know, on my short walk back to my temporary summer apartment in the quirky Bridgeport neighbourhood, is that I am in love with this place, with these students, with this culture. I think I could maybe teach Kindergarten. God, is this where you want me? In my heart and mind, He remains seemingly silent, leaving me to wrestle with the doubt.
One short month later, I find myself on the other side of the world, in China of all places. Roaring thunder billows within me, echoing in my ears, and swirling my thoughts. Why oh, why am I here? What if I say something I shouldn’t? What if I get this organization in trouble? I am not a TESOL major. I know very little about China and I’ve been here for three weeks. This is not getting any easier. Why am I here? Longing for home radiates through my chest and images of the comforting clock tower that signifies such in Chicago fills my mind. Blinking I imagine this is just a dream and I will wake up back at home, and not in Gansu Province, China. Why did I think that this was the place to gain more teaching experience?
The chalk on the board squeaks as I write out one word in English on the chalkboard: Christmas. Fifteen pairs of intense Chinese eyes bore into the back of my head, “Can anybody tell me what this word is?” The false cheerfulness in my voice attempts to mask my true thoughts. They look at me blankly. They know absolutely zero English- something my team and I had been assured they at least had some knowledge of. Five days into this Chinese-English camp and I am still at a loss at what to do. 20 years of speaking English, two years of Bible training, and two Elementary Education classes did not prepare me for curriculum design or teaching English.
The neon green chalk dust on my hands quickly turns to paste as it mixes with the nervous sweat in my palms. The storm in my head becomes more intense. God, why am I here? Why am I the one doing this? I call my fifteen-year-old Teaching Assistant, Isaac, over to translate. We are in our daily culture club where I teach them about Western holidays and, in doing so, can slip in little bits of the what I believe surrounding these holidays. “How many of you have heard about a holiday called Christmas before?” I ask, trying not to sound nervous. Isaac translates what I am saying into Mandarin. Hands shoot up around the room. I ask what they know about it. Isaac repeats and translates their words for me. They list things like Santa Claus, snow, weird looking trees, and some European traditions I have never heard of before, but Isaac has. Having some background knowledge to work off of, I flip my PowerPoint presentation to a picture of snow in the city and begin by talking about the Western correlation between snow and Christmas. I am struck by the irony of our discussion. It’s the middle of July, and we are roasting in our classroom. The dry, desert heat is disrupted very occasionally by a cool breeze coming off of the mountains. This, I am told, is typical of the city Jiayuguan and Gansu Province as a whole. Their weather does not really change from this year-round. “They have only seen snow on the mountains, never up close,” Isaac tells me. I talk briefly about the Mid-West and Chicago, rambling some about the cold, ice, and snow activities.
My next slide is a cartoon picture of the Nativity scene. The drum in my chest pounds with such force I suspect it will explode, and I struggle to find words. I ask if they have seen a picture like this before and if they have heard of a man called Jesus. Isaac faithfully translates. I am beyond grateful for his assistance. The room is silent. Isaac looks at me. “They have no idea what we are talking about.” He is excited. He is a strong believer at only fifteen years old and has a suppressed passion for evangelism. Together we talk about the “western idea” of Christmas, the Birth of Christ, and what we believe the beauty of the meaning to be. Isaac takes questions. My internal storm quiets some as we go through the lesson, but the multitude of knots grow in my core. I am not an ESL teacher. This is not me. But I love working with students so maybe teaching? God, where should I be going? What should I do?
Now near the end of my Junior year, I stand before a class of twenty wide-eyed second graders in Mansfield, Ohio. I have been dreading this since I was a Freshman. “Junior Practicum,”-two short but intense weeks of teaching in a real classroom, with real students, and a real teaching critiquing my every move. My sweet and encouraging co-operating teacher sits at the back of the room giving me a thumbs up. My first real classroom lesson in the United States. Heart pounding in my ears, I step into the center of their cluster of desks. Twenty pairs of innocent seven-year-old eyes look up at me expectantly. I am their teacher at this moment. They are counting on me. Here goes nothing. I excitedly go through my lesson, reading a picture book on telling time and explaining the concept using an interactive clock on the smartboard. Lights flash on in some eyes; others have their little brows furrowed in concentration. Then my eyes fall on one little girl who has started crying silently at her desk. My cooperating teacher and I spot her at the same time. I quickly launch the class into an activity they need to complete with their table partners. Satisfied with their participation, I crouch next to her. Laying my hand on her shoulder, gazing into her tear-filled eyes I quietly ask,
“What’s wrong, Sonai?”
“I-I-I don’t get it. I’m too stupid for this.” She pushes her head into her hands, her body shaking with silent sobs. My heart breaks in an instant.
Wrapping my arm around her shoulder, I whisper, “Sonai, can you look at me for a minute?” She uncovers her soggy dark brown eyes and looks at me. “Sonai, you are so not stupid. Just because you don’t understand this right away, doesn’t mean you never will. I’m going to help you understand it, I promise. Now, go ahead and take a quick drink break. I’ll be here to help when you get back.”
I hand her a tissue, and she creeps out into the hall. My cooperating teacher grins at me. When Sonai returns I offer a hug, and we pray together before starting into the abstract concept of time. This is not as bad or painful as I thought this would be. I actually enjoy this and teaching to tiny humans is so much easier than I thought it would be. God, I’m beginning to think this is really where you want me to be. If for nothing else but to speak Your truth into these little one’s hearts and lives. I think I’m right where you want me.
One short month separates me from the last semester of classes and my final year of being an undergraduate student. I, a teaching intern for the Summer program at the Dewald Community Center of the Mansfield Salvation Army, have been put in charge of seven grade 2-4 students for our Zoo field trip. 12 weeks of 50 hour work weeks and early mornings have finally begun to catch up on me. God, I am so, so tired. Help me to have the wisdom and patience to get through today. I stand watching as my small group bright eyed students peer into the enormous fish tanks at the Cleveland Zoo. They have never been to a zoo before and are in total awe of what they are seeing.
“Miss Leach, you gotta see this.”
“Miss Leach! This one looks like it’s gonna eat me!”
“Miss Leach! This one looks like Sean’sey!”
I am running on two short hours of sleep mixed with a triple shot of espresso, online summer classes left me with a 12 page theological paper that I naturally left to the last minute, leaving me to pay the price today. I watch their excitement and wonder and chuckle at the spectacle of it all. They read each and every description by every single tank in great detail. I help point out hidden creatures and try and keep them from running off on their own in their excitement. Together we marvel at the wonder and beauty of the creatures. They ask me why they all look so weird or different. They ask me where all of the animals come from and if God made them too. Pulling them away from their curiosity so we can each lunch is impossible. I love that they want to learn and discover. I promise we can return after lunch, but remind them that there is an entire zoo full of exciting animals we can see. They beg for a map and plot out our journey as we walk. My tired mind is at peace and praises God as we go.
My mind returns to the present and my reality as a college Senior. Raindrops patter on my umbrella as I make my twenty-minute trek back to the Red Line and reality. My backpack full of the day’s required textbooks, folders, and notebooks for my own studies, my arms overflowing with picture books and chapter books begging to be returned to the campus library. I think back to a class discussion earlier in the week on Spiritual Formation and the role of the Christian school in the scope of ministry. Only a couple more months of this left. I think about the Elementary Education program as a whole and reflect on where I am. I am weary and spread thin, but have the assurance and peace that this is where I belong. I think about the shaking I did in Peter Worrall’s office in my Sophomore year and the doubt he helped me work through. Think about the first week of working at Urban Christian Academy, my short adventure teaching English in China, of Junior Practicum, and my more recent summer teaching internship. I think about my current precious and stress inducing fourth and fifth graders, who simultaneously fill my heart with joy and make me want to rip my hair out. Think about the stressful situations God led me into and carried me through. I never expected to make it as a teacher. Never expected to fall hard for standing at the front of a classroom. Never expected to make it past the doubt and feel any sort of peace about teaching, but this is where He wants me. As I walk a thought rests at the front of my mind. This is where He wants me. This is where He wants me.