By the time I was in first grade I knew exactly who I wanted to be: I was going to leave my small hometown for four years to go to college and then return to be a teacher at our elementary school. I would have my own classroom, set up my own way, and I have would students come in each year ready to learn addition, subtraction, reading, and writing.
Throughout my twelve years of schooling I would watch my teachers, watching for what they did and how they did it. I kept a list in my mind of things that I would do as a teacher and things that I wouldn’t do. Because of course I would be the best teacher. I would be firm, yet caring. I would never yell. I would always have read aloud after lunch. I would never tip a student’s messy desk over for all their classmates to see. I would make learning hands on and fun. I would never assume a student did something wrong without speaking to them first.
By the time I was in twelfth grade, I had been accepted into my first-choice college, I had a mental list a mile long of what good teachers did and what bad teachers did, and I was the only person in my class to raise their hand when our teacher asked us who knew exactly what they wanted to do when they left school. I intended to do exactly as I planned when I was in first grade, leave home, attend college for four years, and come back and be the best grade school teacher there ever was.
But something funny happens when you set out to create the life you intended. Life doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve been a teacher now for eight years, but never once have I had students who sat at front opening desks and I have yelled at my students. I have never had my own classroom and I doubt that I am the best teacher that ever was. I’m not even a grade school teacher.
Two months into college and I questioned every one of my intended goals. When I started college, I had also started a new job working at a preschool where I happened to be placed with children with disabilities. Suddenly I was questioning everything I thought I wanted in a teaching career. I thought that I wanted to guide young minds through a year of school, teach them knowledge, build their skills, create a loving classroom environment that they would want to come back and visit even after they grew too old to be there.
But working with students who had different disabilities, I realized that what really drew me to teaching was my desire to help those who needed it and my desire to make things fair and just for everyone.
Once I realized the real reasons that I wanted to be a teacher, the decision seemed obvious. I switched my focus from early childhood education to special education and never looked back. And the more I learned about why I wanted to be a teacher the further away from my intended plans I got.
I taught for two years back near my home town in a grade school. Sharing teaching space, I taught small groups of students with disabilities reading, writing, and math skills. I went to trainings and managed meetings and did more paperwork than I ever imagined. But something nagged at me – I was trying to help my students, trying to get them the support they needed to be successful and the system always seemed to get in the way.
The public-school system that doesn’t prioritize special education students, that does as little as possible for these students because providing services costs money. The greater systemic oppression that makes a school system like the one I taught in, serving lower income students of color, not have money in the first place. A system that overlooks students of color and doesn’t care about their success, especially those who have disabilities.
So, I am still a teacher. But now I teach parents and teachers and service providers about social justice. I go into schools and adult disability service agencies and teach people with disabilities how to be self-advocates, how to communicate effectively, be safe, and defend themselves. I teach peers without disabilities how to be advocates for others, stop bullying, and show empathy.
I may not be where I intended when I was 6 or 18, but I think sometimes where you originally intended to be isn’t always where you belong.
By: Mandy Doyle
Mandy Doyle is from Florence, Massachusetts with llamas and vineyards, but she currently lives in Boston. She is a sexuality education teacher and self-defense instructor for people with disabilities. She also runs her own private tutoring business. She has lived in Zaragoza, Spain, Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She loves being a nerd girl and fan girl, She loves baking, and she loves earrings.