Dixie Darr

In Learning on August 20, 2008 at 1:47 pm

Teachings and Callings

By Dixie Darr

I wasn’t born to be a teacher. It started as something I did part-time for extra money while trying to figure out my mission in life. That was twenty-one years ago. I’ve quit a few times, but the students keep calling me back.

My students are working adults, people who, like me, didn’t go to college (or didn’t finish) the traditional way, right out of high school. Instead of spending four years in the suspended animation of college, they started living their lives. Now in their thirties, forties, or beyond, they’ve been working long enough to bump into the glass ceiling that tells them they cannot rise further in the company, or find a better job, without having a college degree.

I see them the first time they set foot in a classroom after ten or twenty years. “Congratulations,” I tell them. “You’ve just done the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do to earn your degree: you walked through that door for the first time.” Usually, they’re scared. Later, when they have reached the light at the end of the tunnel and are ready to graduate, they admit that driving to campus that first night, they came very close to turning around and going home. “What am I doing going to college at my age?” they ask themselves.

Although filled with doubts and fears, adult students do very well in college because they know why they’re there.

They come, they tell me that first night, because they want to better themselves professionally and create better lives for their families. Later, they confide more complex reasons for putting themselves through the challenge and frustration of going to college as adults.

Many of them find themselves competing for jobs with candidates that only outrank them by having a degree. “I believed that my years of on-the-job training would outweigh my lack of formal education,” said one woman. “I was repeatedly disappointed.”

Our culture puts a high value, maybe too high, on a college diploma and some of my students feel a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about their lack of a degree. “I want to be equal with my peers at work, and not feel inferior just because I do not have a degree,” one student explained.

Another said all of his friends, including his wife, have degrees. Although he makes more money than all of them, he still believes that he is missing out on something. “I have noticed the spark in their eyes and the way that they carry themselves, and it has made me jealous,” he confessed. “The prestige of a college degree is what I desire.”

Another motivation for returning to school is to be good role models for their children. One single mother described how she had to “pick my eight-year-old daughter’s mouth up off of the floor when she realized that I had not gone to college.” She always tried to set a good example for her daughter. “I’m a practice-what-you-preach mother. Therefore, I really couldn’t have expected her to go to college when I hadn’t, could I? As a matter of fact, I could be confirming the opposite.”

Others agree. “How can I tell my kids that they need to go to college, if I don’t go myself?” they ask. Typically their kids love it when the family can do homework together.

Many of my students are especially proud that they will be the first person in the family to earn a college degree.

Sometimes they break my heart. One man told me, “On my wife’s side of the family, there were and still are many doubts that I can support my wife and kids. So going back to school and getting my college degree would really make me feel better about myself, and also show my in-laws that I am a real man.”

The real men and women in my classes are the reason I keep teaching part-time. It is my privilege to help them in their quests. Teaching continues to feed my pocketbook, but more importantly, my students feed my soul.

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