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My Compliments to You

This post is written by NCTE member, Nicole Sieben. 

“Anytime someone compliments me on my teaching, I will be thinking that they should really be complimenting you.” —Kristin Cacchioli

Sieben.Faculty.PhotoLast semester, my graduate English Education students made me a beautiful gratitude book, which they presented to me on our last day of class. In it they included quotes, memories, and letters they each wrote to me about our time together. As the program coordinator for our English Education graduate programs, I have had the good fortune of working with these multitalented students in a variety of capacities—as their advisor, conference coordinator, and perhaps most rewarding of all, their professor for three of the courses in their graduate program.

Upon reading through this incredible keepsake of our time together, I paused at several sentiments that my students shared, often stopping to wipe a tear or reflect on a memory their words provoked. I remember one such instance because it captures well how I am feeling during this week dubbed “Teacher Appreciation Week.” A student had written in her letter to me, “Anytime someone compliments me on my teaching, I will be thinking that they should really be complimenting you” (Cacchioli).

This line made me stop for a moment for two reasons: first, because it was such a beautiful sentiment, and second, because it really was such a profound statement with many implications for me. It caused me to think about who in my life my students are actually complimenting when they compliment my teaching. For my teaching, the compliments belong to my parents, my sister, my professor and advisor during my English Education master’s program (Dr. Laraine Wallowitz), my mentors, my former teachers and professors, and my students. My teaching style is a combination and variation on all that these incredible teachers have shown me over the years in my acculturation as a teacher.

Given space restrictions for this piece, I will talk only about three of these areas of influence today, acknowledging wholeheartedly that there have been many incredible teachers for whom I am grateful in my development as an educator for social justice.

First, my parents are without question two of the greatest teachers I have ever had, and I credit them for setting the foundations necessary for me to develop my teaching identity early on in my life. Not only were both of my parents teachers in their career choices, but they were also teachers in their parenting style. In both roles, their teaching styles were always student-centered. When my mom was a literacy specialist, I had the opportunity to visit her school and see her teach her reading students strategies for decoding and comprehension. I saw her make learning fun for her students, and I saw her students engage in meaningful activities that inspired them to read independently with pride and wonder.

By the time I was born, my father had already switched from his role as a history teacher to being a financial advisor and then advanced in his field progressively to a branch manager, regional director, Senior Vice President, and in the final stage of his career, a corporate trainer. In all of these roles, my father was also a teacher who put the needs and goals of the people he worked with at the center of all his training seminars. Over the years, I have had the privilege of seeing my dad teach and coach in multiple capacities, and I enjoyed hearing those who worked for him and with him share that, even as a businessman, my father remained always a teacher, which was expressed with tones of gratitude and admiration. He was a teacher in his field.

As a daughter of parents with generous, caring dispositions, I learned a great deal about the kind of teacher and mentor that I wanted to be in my career. I knew I wanted to be the same type of teacher my parents were to their students and to my sister and me. I wanted to be a teacher who listened, who genuinely cared about her students first, who wanted to pave pathways that students could choose to walk on their own or with support, who could create spaces for student voices to be heard above all the noise of the standards and policies that could overshadow important expressions of being, who taught with the intention to learn from and with her students. My parents always asked my sister and me questions about our processes while we learned, and they engaged in those processes with us—our way—unless we asked for direction or support.

Second, in my master’s program on my way to becoming a secondary school English teacher, I had a professor and advisor who also showed me the type of teacher I wanted to be in this world—Dr. Laraine Wallowitz. She was giving with her time, understanding in her sentiments, critical in her discourse, and inspiring in her expectations for us. She set the bar high to show her belief in our abilities, but she always promised and provided support along the way. I realized in that program, in this professor’s courses, the type of teacher and professor I wanted to be, with social justice and critical literacy at my core.

Finally, from the many amazing teachers in my world, I have learned the importance of lifelong learning, and this is why I also know that some of the greatest teachers in my life are the ones enrolled in my courses and engaging in critical conversations with me in the classroom. Some of my greatest teachers are without a doubt my students (past and present). Each semester, I have the privilege of working with, on average, 50–60 students. Usually about half of those students are undergraduate composition students (mostly non-English majors), and the other half are the graduate students in our English Education master’s programs, for which I teach multiple courses and also coordinate the program. By the end of each semester, I am extremely grateful for how much I have truly learned from my students.

When we are becoming teachers, we learn the discourse of lifelong learning. We know that when we choose this career, we are choosing to enter into a profession where we will continue to build our knowledge base as teachers of English language arts, English education, and/or composition, and we know that we will continue to revise our teaching practices based on the uniquely talented students sitting in front of us. We choose this profession not only because we love being teachers, but also (and perhaps mostly) because we love being students as well.

This May, as we prepare to present diplomas and honors to another group of graduating master’s of teaching students in English Education, I am extremely proud of all our students have accomplished, for all they have taught my colleagues and me, and for all they will teach and learn from their own students in their English language arts classrooms. Teaching is a beautiful process because it is truly a reciprocal interaction of teaching and learning, giving and receiving, mentoring and being mentored across multiple levels.

Throughout the 25 years that I spent in school as a student, in the traditional sense of the word “student,” when I was enrolled in someone else’s class on their roster, I enjoyed so many moments of my schooling education, but the teachers I remember the most, the ones who left an impact on my development as a teacher and as a learner, are the ones who learned alongside me, who asked me questions about my processes and took the time to understand the world from my perspective. Even if they didn’t agree with me, they still explored those ideas with me because they believed that my learning journey was worth it.

Knowing that as a student made all the difference in the way I chose to walk in the world as a student and now as a teacher too. As a lifelong lover of learning, I am grateful to my teachers who made me feel that my learning journey was worth their time, and I am grateful to my students who have shared their learning journeys with me over the past ten years. In the spirit of gratitude for Teacher Appreciation Week and Month, I wish to thank and acknowledge my students for also being among my greatest teachers.

As another class of inspiring students graduates this May, my hope for this 2016 graduating class (and for all of the past graduates and future graduates I have had the opportunity to work with and know) is that they always know they have a learner who walks beside them in this world. They are teachers I continue to learn from; they are teachers who continue to inspire me; and they are people in my life who give me hope for tomorrows. As my student Kristin wrote to me, so too do I extend this sentiment to you, my students, “Anytime someone compliments me on my teaching, I will be thinking that they should really be complimenting you.” Thank you for taking me on these learning journeys with you that you have so passionately dedicated yourselves to.

Nicole Sieben, EdD, is an assistant professor of secondary English education at SUNY College at Old Westbury, where she is currently the program coordinator for the graduate programs in English education and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in education and composition. She chairs NCTE’s Genders and Sexualities Equality Alliance (GSEA), serves on NCTE’s Nominating Committee, and is a past recipient of the Edwin M. Hopkins award for her March 2009 English Journal article “‘Watch What You Teach’: A First-Year Teacher Refuses to Play It Safe.” She is also the author of “‘Why Are You a Teacher?’ and Other Questions My Students Dared to Ask” (English Journal, November 2013) and Collaboration Fosters Hope” (English Leadership Quarterly, April 2015).