Have you seen those “Expectations versus Reality” photographs–the ones that contrast what you think something will look like with how it actually turns out?
My first year of teaching was like one of those photographs.
Expectation picture: My first day would go swimmingly. The weeks of summer planning would pay off. My students would happily learn to write essays, resumes, cover letters, and other real-world writing documents. They’d enthusiastically read and engage in conversations about Hamlet and recite the “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy for fun. Everyone would love me. I’d win an award for my expert teaching!
Reality picture: I was 23-years-old in charge of teaching 12th graders. I looked closer in age to them than I did the rest of the faculty, so much so that on my first day, my students looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Wait, you’re the…teacher?”
My effort to be seen as an authority figure backfired, and I got off to a power struggle with my students from day one. Instead of apples, I received a delicious taste of eye rolls and sarcasm neatly wrapped with contempt.
There I was in my first year of teaching living out the quote, “Even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” How cliché. Aside from the initial power struggle and the realization that none of my lesson plans would work with this group of students, we got hit with a hurricane. A literal one. Hurricane Sandy hit our area hard in late October. We were out of power for weeks. The lines for gas were hours long. Buses weren’t running. Families were displaced. Backpacks, laptops, and school books were left behind. A few of my students lost their homes to flooding.
College application deadlines were pushed back.
Around the same time, my mom’s cancer spread, and I had to face the reality that I was about to lose my best friend. She went into hospice that January, and I juggled teaching with caregiving until she passed away a few months later.
As much as my expectations of the year were completely off, the inability to plan for anything forced me to grow as a teacher and as a person, and I was able to transform my first-year teacher woes.
And, it came in the form of an unexpected solution: college essays.
I decided to make myself available to my students to help them with their college application essays in hopes that they’d conclude, “Hey, she’s not so bad. Look she’s helping us!”
It would also keep me busy during my off periods instead of spending that time consumed with worry about what was going on at home. Was my mom confused again? Was she in pain? Was the hospice nurse taking care of her? This decision not only greatly impacted how my students responded to me for the rest of the year, it rerouted the direction of my life.
College application essays ask students to share stories from their lives that admissions teams can’t get elsewhere on their application.
When I met with my students 1:1, I got the opportunity to get to know them on a much deeper level than I could in my classroom. I learned that there was a lot going on “behind the scenes.
Some of my students had just lost a family member or a friend, some were dealing with crippling anxiety or depression, several were dealing with chaotic home lives, one thought there was nothing interesting about her to write about, and some had low expectations of being able to get into college, which was reflected in their writing.
My high-achieving students were cracking under the pressure. Getting into their dream school felt like life or death, and it prevented them from coming up with original ideas.
I could relate to what my students were going through because I too was going through it. I knew what it felt like to want to be accepted and to hope your hard work would pay off. I knew what it felt like to feel worried, to feel sad, and to be overwhelmed.
So, I listened.
At a borrowed cramped desk tucked in the corner of the school’s office, I gave them a space to share, to vent, and to regroup their energy, so they could be in a better head space to freely write pieces that they felt confident submitting.
I guided them to get past what they thought admissions teams wanted to hear to write something that inspired them. Instead of writing from their heads, I helped them write from their hearts.
When the student who had been the most hostile to me those first few weeks asked for help with his essays, a familiar wave of apprehension rushed over me. Yet, after I listened to him talk about his ambitions and his fears, he began to lighten up and became one of my most cooperative students. It was here that I had a realization that humbled me. We were all people who, deep down, really were doing our best in any given moment.
And, we simply wanted to be heard and accepted. After I began helping my students with their college essays, the energy in my classroom shifted. Instead of trying to paddle against the current, we started flowing together.
Things became easier. The day after my mom passed away, I went into work. It was early March. Showing up there was an autopilot response. But, it was not because I had spent so much time rushing back and forth between work and home and hospitals that my body just took me there. It was more that my soul recognized I needed to be there. I walked upstairs my classroom where another teacher was covering for me. I peered inside the window and saw my students making giant sympathy cards for me on poster board.
When they saw me, a few of them started crying. Many came up to hug me. And, a few sat with quiet acknowledgment and spoke to me in the hallway afterwards. “We’re so sorry. We love you so much. How can we be here for you?” How far I had come from that first day. A place filled with young people who had once caused me anxiety now was where I went for comfort. Oh, irony. And, it didn’t end there. My first year of teaching was a giant lesson in learning to trade expectations for appreciation. That student who was hostile earlier in the year caught up to me in the hallway a few weeks after my mom had passed.
“Can I show you something?” He ran to his locker and returned with a shirt in his arms. He had my mom’s initials embroidered on each of his team’s soccer jerseys–over their hearts.
“I didn’t know what to do after your mom died, so I thought it would be nice to carry her with us when we played. I know I never met your mom, but if she was anything like you, she was a wonderful person.”
Again, my expectations were nothing like reality. I could never have imagined a moment like this that first day, and it was one of many that filled my heart that year. I recognized these moments stemmed from simply caring about my student’s stories.
Year after year, I became a better teacher, adviser, and listener. I didn’t know it back then, but I had found my calling through advising and helping teens move past their self-doubt to find joy during the college admissions process. It brought me on an unexpected journey–one that I’m forever grateful for. My first year teaching was tumultuous, and it brought me immense amounts of growing pains.
But, it also showed me what I’m capable of, and it forced me to learn to let go of my expectations, go with the flow, and control the only thing I ever could–my attitude. It also taught me that teaching from a place of love is never a bad idea.
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Jaclyn Corley is the Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook. She helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.