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On Point

My Winding Road to the Classroom

By Kristina Karnes

Growing up and seeing the struggles of two parents who were both teachers, it’s a fair wonder I ever went into the profession myself. As a child, I sat at the kitchen table on occasional Sunday nights, calculator in hand, punching buttons for hours as my mother called out grades in order to get a final report-card average. For a numerically-challenged girl with a stressed-out mom, these every-six-weeks times together were not exactly an inspiration to become a teacher. 

As a teenager, I interned in my father’s history classroom, hoping to work on homework, but really all I ended up with was a stack of papers to file or menial tasks that took more time than he or I combined ever seemed to have. Why on earth would anyone ever seek out such a thankless, never-ending, all-consuming profession? These situations were part of why I never wanted to be a teacher—those and the chalk-smeared clothing choices my teachers seemed to make.

This story obviously includes a but. But…then there was my second semester of college. I went to college to be a great writer, you see. It was as simple as that. And no, I would never teach writing: that was for washed-up English majors whose principles had caved in; they had sold out. But…then I needed a job, and even though I hated to admit it, my mother was right: “The middle school is hiring after-school tutors.  You’re such a good writer—maybe you could go tutor English.” Being a sucker for a compliment, I reluctantly visited the middle school—which still had the same distinct odor of glue sticks and locker rooms—and was hired on the spot. Never a good sign. As it turns out, the job was SOL remediation, which back in 2000 was a foreign concept to most of us. Needless to say, the students who were forced to attend were less than enthusiastic. Oh, and the subject I was to tutor?  Math.  My favorite.  But the pay was good—even great writers need gas in their cars—so I gave it a try.

And I loved it. I loved every single minute of it. From the time I had to surge past the hallway masses at the day’s closing bell, to the pouty eighth-graders who were court-ordered to attend, to the dreadful math problems I had to explain endlessly, I loved it. I laughed every day, cried every week about something that was frustrating or a problem that seemed too hard to solve—either instructionally or in my students’ lives—but I felt fulfilled, happy, exhausted and accomplished every single day. Who gets to say that about their job?

The very next semester, I transferred to Radford University and enrolled in a fast-track teacher preparation program. I even made my licensure concentration strictly middle school. After all, the principal who had previously hired me to tutor always told me, “If you love middle school, you might be a little bit crazy—but crazy is what we need around here!” I graduated after two-and-a-half years of incredibly intense study, turned down several job offers in higher-paying or “fancy” school districts, and went back to work at that same middle school I’d attended, then avoided, then tutored in, and ultimately loved. The principal relayed his gratitude that I had embraced my “insanity” and was ready to work. And work I certainly have done, ever since that moment. 

Maybe it was pride or actual divine inspiration, but I honestly felt the students in that school needed me, someone with my specific life experiences and perspectives, someone with my enthusiasm as well as knowledge. But what I’ve discovered over the past decade of teaching is that I was only half right: they might have needed me, but I also needed them. And I still do. If I’m not teaching, I’m not me. This, I have grown to understand, must have been why my parents so dutifully refined lesson plans on frantic Sunday nights, graded papers even during holiday break, averaged all those grades by hand,  and put up with angry parents and after-school meetings. And it’s why I do the same now without even questioning it. Teaching is who I am, even if I fought it at first. Even though one of my long-range goals is to help prepare future teachers in a college setting, I still cannot imagine a time when I will not be teaching in some capacity. This “sell-out” writer has never been so glad she did. 
I am glad my mother guided (some would argue forced) me into teaching; she was right. 

But, then again, teachers usually are.

Karnes, a member of the Bedford County Education Association, teaches English at Staunton River Middle School, where she is the current Teacher of the Year.    

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