I was recently awarded “Teacher of the Year” at Robbinsville High School. RHS is the place I have called home for almost ten years.
In those years I have been honored to work with some talented and awesome teachers. Teachers who have helped, inspired and supported me through the years.
I have also taught many great young people. Young people who have gone on to accomplish tremendous things. I am forever grateful for my students who challenged me, made me laugh and afforded me the opportunity “to forget about life for awhile.”
A humble thanks and be well,
I figure now serves a timely opportunity to share a recent essay I wrote about why I became a teacher…
I wish I could begin this narrative describing that lightning strike moment– that mythologized moment when the calling came–that I knew, with unflinching certainty that I was meant to be a teacher.
I’ve heard such stories recounted in orientations and workshops. I’ve read such stories on educational blogs and in pedagogical publications. To be honest, those stories always make me a little uncomfortable. When I hear them or read them I often sink into my seat, feel a swirling in my chest, a rush of blood in my cheeks because they ultimately make me feel like a fraud.
I don’t have a lightning strike moment to tell you about. I don’t have an influential teacher I can credit for my professional development. I just have my story.
In May of 2002 at 22, I graduated from Gwynedd- Mercy University with a Bachelor’s degree in English/Communications. I spent that summer eating cereal, watching baseball and avoiding responsibility. When August entered our lives, dad offered an ultimatum– go back to college or get a job. It wasn’t that I was afraid of work. My parents were both born and breed blue- collar. The work ethic gene is ingrained in my DNA. What I was suffering from that summer wasn’t laziness. It was something more– a moral paralysis. I just didn’t know what to do with my life.
I had long dreamed of being a famous writer. I saw my future-self scribing the great American novel then selling it to Steven Spielberg. Of course, my book would be adapted into a summer blockbuster affording my wife and I the opportunity retire young and buy matching Porsches. So over a bowl of Frosted Flakes, I pondered dad’s ultimatum and elected to go back to school to earn my teaching certificate. Not because I was excited at the prospect of teaching or dreamed about being nominated for awards. But because teaching was safe. Pensions. Summers. Healthcare. And most importantly it got dad off my back. So I endured education classes and student teaching and in September 2003 found myself employed at Conwell-Egan Catholic High School and dictating notes behind the safety of a podium to eighteen 17 year olds in my AP Literature and Composition class. The early years of teaching were about survival. I hadn’t mastered the material or the strategies. I burnt midnight oil studying content and reading about best practices. And for what? A job I sort of fell into but was somehow falling in love with.
Around 2012 I hit my teaching stride. The material was familiar. I was teaching AP and honors courses at Robbinsville High School. Discipline was a non-issue. Dare I say teaching was becoming natural and almost easy? I had been teaching for nine years. In that time I wrote AP curriculum, mentored aspiring teachers, facilitated professional development sessions, memorized Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and mastered Back to School Night.
I thought the next logical thing was to earn a master’s in educational administration. Not because I wanted to or had a lightning strike moment. No it was selfish. I wanted more money. I wanted matching Porsches, remember. So I enrolled in grad school. I muscled through pages of pedagogical reflection and wrote 50 pages of my research thesis and began work on my internship. Then I got sick. Not chicken noodle soup sick– but chronically sick.
In 2014, after eighteen months of testing I was diagnosed with two rare disorders–a degenerative brain condition known as cerebellar degeneration and a potentially debilitating autoimmune disorder known as sarcoidosis. But for eighteen months doctors scratched their heads at my MRI’s and blood work. I was told I could have MS or ALS or Huntington’s disease. I was told to get my affairs in order. I was told I might die.
So I dropped out of grad school. And started writing. Really writing. I got to work on that great American novel. I wrote letters to my three children and poems to my wife. I developed my own website www.writeonfighton.org where I share my stories and struggles as well as my thoughts on literature and writing. During my private apocalypse, I found my writing voice and taught with more passion and verve than I ever taught before. My students and I connected on deeper levels.
They were 17 and I was 34 and we were both petrified of the future.
Daily writing became a personal habit as well as a classroom one. I started sharing my writing with my students– both polished drafts and hard worn first drafts littered with “x’s” and illegible marginal notes.
And somehow it’s now 2016. I have been teaching for thirteen years. After all the lessons, after all the assessments and essays I proudly announce that my greatest contribution to education is my story. One that I openly share with my students in the classroom and with the world on my website. My story is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not about lightning strike moments. It’s about enduring. It’s about how the grind of teaching saved my life. It’s a string of stories that remind me how I evolved from that cereal eating kid to the father, husband and teacher I am today. A man who found his writing voice in his own classroom and strives every day to infuse in his students the courage to write, the courage to find their voice, so that one day they may have the audacity to tell their own story.