Never Stop Learning
There I was, walking into the classroom. I was ready to share my knowledge and give the students the opportunity to learn. I might as well go ahead and insert a big smack in the face right there. Okay, did I think it was going to be easy? The answer is no. In reality, I knew it was going to be an uphill climb and a trail I knew nothing about. I’d have to figure out the terrain and find my way.
It’s always easy to think it’s the students that are the ones doing the learning. Makes sense, right? The teacher goes to the board and covers the material and the student absorbs the information. However, what if the teacher is learning just as much as the student. Perhaps you’ve never thought about it like that before. Well, I know I hadn’t, at least until the fall semester of 2018.
This fall I dipped my feet in a new challenge. I joined the University of Sioux Falls as an adjunct professor to teach math and sciences in their Bridges program. The program is focused on helping those who are striving to receive their GED, most often the students are immigrants or refugees. I knew going into it that it would be unlike anything I ever experienced before but I knew I was going to gain something, something I’d learn.
Sometime around last march my good friend Dr. Randy Nelson met up for our annual get-together at Applebees. We even often order the same food. Sometimes we are joined by a friend or two. We catch up on life and always end up talking about Pipestone, Minnesota. Pipestone is the point where both of our journeys began in life, where we both grew up, and where our lives became intertwined. Randy was my 9th and 11th grade English teacher. He is the one who gave me the tools to develop my writing to where it is today.
Randy has always been a great mentor and friend to me as I have progressed through college into my professional career. He is always one to offer wise life insight and challenge me with questions I may have not thought of before. He is as passionate, dedicated, and caring of an individual for his students as there is and more. He is truly one of the best people I have ever met and deserves the recognition. He is so much that I even have had a hard time figuring out how to address him as I have become an adult myself. Do I call him Randy now or Mr. Nelson still? I still haven’t figured it out.
So, there we are sitting in Applebees and he looks at me with the most sincere and encouraging face and tells me he has an opportunity for me that he believes I would excel at. I remember thinking, “Hmm, what could this be? This is unexpected. I thought we were just catching up like we always do.” A couple years after Randy taught high school English in Pipestone he moved on to higher education at the University of Sioux Falls. He is now the Director of International Education at USF. This is where the opportunity he was about to tell me about fits in.
Over the last several years I have taken a big interest in international travel and learning about different cultures and people from around the world. Through our meetings we have discussed what the meaning of understanding others is and how important of an education that is, one that can’t be learned in a textbook. I believe through our conversations he recognized my curiosity for others around the world. It is what sparked him to tell me about this opportunity. He used the word disposition. I didn’t even know what that word meant. To me, the only barrier amongst people, no matter where they are from, is the willingness to learn and appreciate each other regardless of background, race, ability, etc. Randy was in the first year of the Bridges program that teaches mostly refugees and immigrants English. His goal for the next academic year was to offer opportunities in English, social studies, math, and science for individuals focused on completing their GED. Out of nowhere he presented the idea to me about teaching a couple courses on math and science.
Immediately I was a bit blown away. I had not worked closely with academic math or science since I was a freshman in college. They were always the subjects I excelled in most throughout my years of studies, (Not English. Ignore the grammar errors) however, that was more than a decade ago! I told Randy this yet he still expressed faith in my ability to take the endeavor on. The other key point, I had no experience teaching! I was flattered and a little hesitant but his confidence in me told me this was something I could do. From there I knew if I could make it work with my full time career I would give it my best shot.
This challenge no doubt would bring with it great purpose. It left me enthused! Being in the landlocked Midwest I always felt a restlessness that the only way I could reach “the world” was by getting on a plane or moving abroad. I’ve always felt a calling to people but often wondered how I could reach beyond the borders. To find an opportunity to affect others and change lives from different corners of the planet right in my own backyard was a blessing, one that eased my own perceptions of how to make an impact. However, little did I know the impact it would have on me.
Up until this point I had spoken in front of a class or group a few times but that was never hard for me. It was simply about sharing my experiences. This however, was a different animal. I had to know what I was trying to implant into the minds of these students. In so many ways I had to re-learn material I hadn’t seen cross my eyes in like a decade and a half. That’s a long time! This was my first battle in learning how to do this teaching thing. From there it was, “How do I begin?” That was the hardest question and the most difficult one to learn and answer to. Then came, “What should my structure be like for class? What content do I cover? How do I direct each class? How much can we cover?” So many questions filled my mind. I had no training to lead a class!
The first night came and it was exciting but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I received encouragement before I headed for that classroom however once you step into a new arena that boost goes fleeting. This was not my comfort. It was new. It was different.
“Good evening sir!”
Those were the first words I heard as one of the students walked in. It completely threw me off. It was like I was given respect that I didn’t think I deserved. I was just an individual there to help him reach his goals. It was in that moment I felt some of my anxiousness go away. In my head I think I made it seem as though I was going to be standing in front of a bunch of critics. I was so wrong!
The first night settled everything. I introduced myself to my students and told of my background and some of the things I like to do. They began to do the same, maybe with some apprehension, but soon were sharing their story to the U.S. I was excited! If there is one thing I love to hear about it is the journeys of life people take. The stories of these individuals would be visited and expanded on in the coming weeks. As we all got more comfortable the stories turned into playful jokes and laughs. This gave me confidence that I was in the right spot. I was in a room with individuals of many gifts, goals, and dreams from all over the planet. We were individuals that were gathered from El Salvador, Sudan, Euretria, Mexico, Krygystan, Etheopia, the US, and more. How amazing is that?!
What I would go onto learn about them from their backgrounds and paths to that very classroom was only the beginning. The challenges they all faced to get to that point did not matter and for many those challenges are some none of us can fathom. They were to say the least, remarkable! They touched my heart. They gave me inspiration to give them the best opportunity I could. I was ready to aquire the knowledge and skills I had to make that happen.
While each student had a different dream, they all wanted the same thing. They all wanted to learn. It was a desire unlike any I remember experiencing during my studies. They all had this burning desire to better their life and their thirst for knowledge was ever so evident in their eyes. I remember being curious and interested in a lot of things throughout school but it was different. I had to be there. The Bridges students all had huge aspirations and it didn’t matter where they had to start to get there.
This is where my next hurdles came in. Here I was in a room with not only different backgrounds and language barriers but with a variety of skills and knowledge. Many students grew up learning in different ways than I had. Some of the challenges they would face were as simple as learning how to learn. I had to quickly recognize this and often take steps back. It was not as simple as putting the numbers on the board and teaching a concept for math or reading material for science. There were barriers with words and understanding. There were a lot of interpretation challenges. There was a voice that went off in my head that said, “Ha, you thought this was going to be easy, Chad?”
If I had respect for teachers before this point I definitely gained the most respect for them now. The first month was a crash course in humility. I was faced with learning the different strengths and weaknesses of each student. The questions I sought answers to were endless. How do I keep each student dialed in? How can I deal with different skill levels without losing a student? How do I challenge them but not let them lose patience or gain frustration? How can class be interactive? How do I get the material to stick? I had to figure out the challenges each student faced.
It was through all of those questions they taught me the most important thing. They were grateful. They were so happy that I was taking the time to give them something they did not possess. Some of them came from little or were torn from what they had. By me teaching them something valuable to their growth was such a gift to them. They would appreciate the time I spent with them every class period.
I quickly realized that each one of them were important to me. I took an individual interest in their growth. From the student struggling to understand to the student eager to learn the next thing I worked to give them the best I could. Those questions I faced became easier and easier to answer. Some of them I never quite found the solution to but I tried and the students were very thankful for that. Soon their questions went beyond the whiteboard and to life questions. They were trying to figure out life issues and seeking my advice. One student was asking me about buying a car. Another one was asking about becoming a Lyft driver. This is when I knew this class was no longer about a relationship between teacher and student but one about friends.
One moment that stands out most in the class was with a student that didn’t miss a class the entire year. I learned a great truth from him and his dedication to every class. One of the most important things is simply showing up. For this student it defined him in so many ways. His story is one that would leave anyone in awe and admiration. I won’t share about his journey to get to the classroom but I will share a little about his journey in the classroom.
When the year started the class spent time covering some of the basics of math, long division, fractions, decimals, etc. For this student a lot of it was very challenging. Often the concepts were hard to grasp and even the more basic things like multiplication and division were tough for him. The easy thing for him was he simply needed some practice so I sent him home with some flashcards. Those flashcards would change his world!
“That is soooooo good!” Those were the words this young man said after performing a math problem on the board a few months later in April. He had just solved a two variable algebra problem by himself. How cool is that?! His resilience to keep coming and hanging on when things didn’t click really hit me. If this young man can continue to learn through all of what life has dealt him and the limitations he faced in those early days of the class then I sure cannot stop learning myself.
For me, it has provided a renewed fuel to remember how important it is to not stop learning no matter how far I am in life. It’s a push to never stop growing in my faith, my relationship, my family, my friends, my career, my hobbies, and in general, the knowledge of life. If I stop learning things will get dry and I’ll never get better. Isn’t that the point in life? Why stay the same? Why stop trying to become the best version of myself. I know that is not what God wants for me and the gifts he gave me to bring to this world. Never settle for less.
This class did something I really didn’t realize when I stepped through that door. The students didn’t settle. They kept pushing. I realized that teaching is learning and I was going to be doing a lot of learning in so many ways. They reminded me at a time in my life how important it was to never stop learning.
Thank you to all the students from both of the Bridges Math and Science classes. I’m proud of you and how far you have come!