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From Jenny to Spider-Woman: My Transformation From Ordinary to Superhero

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Dear Fellow Teachers,

I was your average teacher, a good teacher. I arrived on time, prepared and delivered scheduled lessons, had no classroom management issues, and stayed late to assist with academic support. I did this day after day. No one had any complaints. After all, test scores were acceptable.

Then one day I was bitten by a spider. The spider was a 13-year-old Haitian American girl in my fifth-period class. She looked at me with an adult-like intensity and asked if I knew what I was worth. If I knew what my presence in the building meant to so many students—specifically, to the students of color?

Wow! Here I was minding my own business and doing what I was hired to do, and this little spider had the audacity to inject a serum of responsibility and ownership into me. Who did she think she was talking to? Was she not aware of whose classroom she was in? After all, I did my job and did it well. During the last marking period, my students, including her, had outperformed all the other seventh graders in the district. I had never been written up or had complaints filed against me. I was doing my job and was a good teacher. How dare she?

But I found her words forced me to think outside of the curriculum and actually look at the children in front of me. She was demanding that I live up to my calling—not just to be a good teacher, but to be a Superhero educator. She was requiring that I self-evaluate and redefine my position in a classroom. I was being asked to understand my worth, and then add some tax to it. Because of this spider bite, it was imperative that I take a long look at the whys, hows, and whens of my teaching. I had to have an honest conversation with myself and figure out who I was going to become now that I had been bitten (of course, right after I figured out what my superhero uniform would look like).

This self-evaluation process took months. I had to start with why: Why did I choose education? Why did her bite pierce my soul? I did not choose education, education chose me. This was never an option for me. I started teaching while attending law school because I needed the money. So why did I stay? Was it because I needed to go back to the place where I lost myself as a child? Where I felt most invisible and vulnerable? If that was my why, then what was I doing to ensure that no other child ever felt or experienced that loneliness? Had I positioned myself where I was empowering my students, giving them a voice, letting them know that they mattered outside of the curriculum? Was I part of the problem that had swallowed me up as a child or had I become part of the solution? Why did I allow this spider to occupy my thoughts and cause me to reinvent myself? You see, what I did not realize was that when she bit me, it was on a molecular level, and it somehow changed my T-DNA (“Teacher-Driven Need to Assist”). A change was happening within me without my permission: I was beginning to love. Not the subject matter, or even the students in front of me, but rather a love of the human lives that I had been given charge over. No longer were they my students for 180 days, they became my lifelong children. A part of who I was, they defined me. So what is my why? I do, because I care. I do to make sure that they do not repeat my mistakes, that they find their path in confidence, and know that they are seen and that they matter.

After consulting and deliberating with myself, I was at peace with my why. But how do I make this a reality? How do I demonstrate a sincere love for a group of children that I did not birth? Children who looked nothing like me, many with backgrounds and stories that I did not understand? How could I show love to a group of children that came into my class shielded in fear of the pain they might be subjected to by us, their teachers? I had to break down the walls. And that’s when it happened, in the middle of a lesson. Suddenly, there was a glow, this radiance illuminating from me. I felt an intense heat racing through my body, my heart beating at an unprecedented rate, sweat seeping through my pores, dampening my clothes. What was happening and why could I not control it? And that’s when it dawned on me—the damn bite. It was almost like it knew that there were precious lives in front of me, and it demanded, just like that spider, that I do something: that I become that Superhero. Before I knew it, I had transformed into her. I stopped my academic lesson and began to story-tell. Sharing myself and my experiences, letting them see me—not as their math teacher, but as a human being who cared about them both in the classroom and outside of it. That day, I discovered my power: the ability to transform lives through stories, or what I later coined as Commercial Breaks. That was my how.

I now knew why I wanted to educate and it was made clear as to how I would successfully do it, but I had one more thing to figure out: when. When would I save the world?

I now knew why I wanted to educate and it was made clear as to how I would successfully do it, but I had one more thing to figure out: when. When would I save the world? I had to keep up with my deadlines and make sure information was disseminated before various benchmark exams, so when would I find time in my fifty-minute class to become this Superhero? Maybe make my warm-ups a storytime? Or skip the exit ticket? Time was not on my side; my superpower did not include time warping. After thinking about this for weeks, with no reasonable conclusion, it happened again. Before a class of thirty kids, I started to transform into her, into that Superhero that the spider had demanded of me. No rational rhyme or reason, I just started to story-tell. Another Commercial Break.

Here is what I did not know. In the front row on the right side sat a quiet young lady who was always very attentive and did well in class. On the outside everything seemed fine—there was no indication that trouble was brewing. As I morphed into the Superhero, I began to share a story. Once I finished, I reverted back into the good teacher and continued the lesson. This young lady later found her way to my desk and left me a note, which I did not see until the end of the day. The note said that she had plans to hurt herself that evening when she got home, but because of the Commercial Break, she realized that self-harm was not her only option and she chose to live! This is when I concluded that, when I notice an illuminating glow, heat increase, change of heart rate, and uncontrollable perspiration, I’m transforming into Spider-Woman, the Superhero.

So here you have it. After one spider bite and months of self-evaluation, I was able to come up with my why, how, and when. I am that Superhero teacher not because I willed it but because my students continuously bite and demand greatness from me. So I encourage you—do not to resist the bite. Embrace it and allow it to transform you into what your students need and desire from you.

From Ordinary to Superhero,

Jenny

There are eight teacher belief domains that support social and emotional learning and their positive impact. During the past two years, Center for Responsive Schools studied how these domains were impacted through participation in four-day elementary and middle school courses. For more information, see our Teacher Belief Study.

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