It’s not in the state standards, but it’s one of those life skills all teachers must teach. And so, in the first week of school this year, my students and I found ourselves abandoning reading class for 15 minutes to walk around the classroom with our shoulders thrown back and heads proud in the air to practice looking “cool.”
“Cool” is to be proud and comfortable with who you are, I explained after two girls snuck into the resource room 15 minutes late because they were too embarrassed to be seen entering the special education classroom. “Cool” is to not pretend to be like someone else. Otherwise you’re just a poser. (And no one, not even the most desperate of 13-year-olds, wants to be labeled a poser.) If you stay unaffected by the taunts, you’re really just proving to folks that you’re too cool to care. You’ll know you’ve really reached the height of cool when folks like you for being you.
Now, I’m not entirely certain, but I think over the past year, I have sort of, kind of become cool at school.
And it’s not just because those eighth grade girls say good-morning to me now and kids tell me my gold sequined shoes are “neat.” It’s because last year’s parents are still coming around, but now to give me a hug. It’s because I know what I’ll be teaching in math tomorrow and the next day and the day after. It’s because I finally figured out how to best run those Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and it’s because my 60-year-old Navajo colleagues are still asking me when I’m going to finally get married.
As I start my second-year at a K-8 school on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, I think I’m finally finding my own niche. As a 23-year-old Asian-American teacher from the East Coast, I’ll never quite blend in with the staff that is about 90 percent Native American and past 40-years-old. Even the click-clack of my high-heeled sandals seems out of place on this mesa. Yet, this profession and land are feeling more familiar. Teaching is still the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, but at least I’m more confident with myself as an educator and as an outsider in this rural community.
When I first joined the school last August, I was new to the region, new to the job and new to the field of education. I studied journalism and worked in the media throughout college. Then, just months before my graduation, I decided to apply to Teach For America, a service program that trains and supports college grads to become teachers in underresourced communities around the country. That autumn, I found myself on a mesa on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, teaching 7th and 8th grade Special Ed. There were two gas stations in town. I drove an hour to buy groceries. It was a far-cry from the urban-suburban confines of the Washington, D.C.-region where I had grown up.
Then again, teaching wasn’t what I had planned for either. Who would have guessed that I would spend my evenings writing lesson plans, cutting out manipulatives and making phone calls to parents? But the more I do it, the more it all makes sense.
It’s the second month of school, and I’m brimming with hope and confidence. I haven’t even shed a tear yet. Now, all I have to worry about is keeping this cool until May.
The opinions expressed in On the Reservation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.