76: La Profesora de Inglés

76: La Profesora de Inglés

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

La Profesora de Inglés

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

~Herman Melville

I was “a desperation hire” — a certified teacher brought on just days before the school year began — a warm body filling an empty slot. I, too, was desperate — desperate for a job and for work that would change my routine and be an adventure. I wanted to do something that involved risk and would let me feel passionate about my work. So, during an impetuous moment in mid-August, I resigned from a comfortable college teaching position, moved across the state of Texas, and found myself inside a high-school classroom.

The classroom was barren save for a small metal desk and a decrepit, peeling Formica bookcase. Dog-eared hardcover books were strewn in ramshackle order across one of its shelves, their dust jackets missing. Tattered paperbacks, their corners curled up and their pages crumbling, were thrown haphazardly on top of each other like a game of Jenga. I walked closer to read their covers; they weren’t in English. Odd.

“Are you there?” Someone banged on my door. It was Penny, my department chair. “I have your literature books!” She pushed a cart toward me, parking it adjacent to my desk. “Remember, your freshmen must look at these each day; they must write in their journals twice a week and…” Penny squared her shoulders. “…one more thing. The curriculum guide’s inside your desk. Follow it! No exceptions! It’ll take them where they need to go. Understand?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Penny marched out of my room. I placed a literature book on top of each scarred and weary desk, slid into one of them, and opened the monstrous volume, captivated by its contents — classic short stories, ancient myths, Romeo and Juliet, and excerpts from The Odyssey. The morning bell sounded, jangling my nerves and jarring me from my seat. Within minutes, rambunctious freshmen clamored past me and took their seats. The tardy bell rang, and they settled down. The school year had officially begun.

During that first week, I followed the curriculum guide. Monday, I lectured on the five elements of fiction, and my students robotically copied my notes from the chalkboard into their notebooks. Tuesday, I read aloud from the literature book. When I turned a page, so did my students. When I asked questions, some students raised their hands and answered; most, though, merely nodded and smiled. During Wednesday’s journal-writing activity, some students wrote; most just smiled, pretending to write. Although fidgety, my students were quiet, respectful, and compliant. Their faces, though, were full of eagerness — the kind of eagerness a teacher yearns for.

On Thursday, even after the air-conditioner in my classroom stalled, I continued reading aloud from the literature book. But the August sun that perched over the Chihuahuan Desert poured its hot oranges and reds into the sky like a pot of molten lava, making my classroom beastly hot. My freshmen squirmed in their seats, so I ushered them outside to a nearby bench where they nestled around me like eager baby ducklings. I resumed reading, but then one of my students stood up, pointed to the west, and shouted, “El Diablo, El Diablo!”

I shaded my eyes and peered across the desert. A trio of dust devils materialized in the distance — whirling dervishes of what looked like columns of smoke moving across the despoblado — the deserted land — between the high school and nearby Mexico.

“El Diablo…” Another student tugged on my shirt sleeve. “…trae mala suerte!”

“What?” I shook my head in desperation. “I don’t understand!”

“El Diablo trae mala suerte!”

I politely nodded my head and smiled. At that moment, I realized that I’d mistaken their polite smiles, nods, and silent compliance as comprehension. The now obvious truth was that I was teaching in a border community where most of my students spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. What a quandary! But my students’ eagerness tugged on my heartstrings. I desperately wanted to teach them English, but how?

Later that afternoon while standing in line at the grocery store, I riffled through the magazine rack and stumbled upon a comic book. I thumbed through it, attracted to its colorful pages, action scenes, and easy-to-read dialog. I was about to return it to the rack when I noticed that it contained many fundamental literary elements. Ah-ha! I’d found a solution to my dilemma. But what about the literature book and curriculum? Abandoning them would get me in trouble with Penny and was certainly a risk, but I was excited and didn’t care. So before returning to school, I purchased every comic book I could find.

I returned to my classroom and secretly took concepts from the existing curriculum and created my own using comic books as the context for teaching simple vocabulary, verbs, sentence structure, dialogue, myths, the hero archetype, and the elements of fiction. By semester’s end, my students were confidently reading and constructing sentences.

But despite their progress, my freshmen still couldn’t read from the ninth grade literature book — a fact that displeased Penny. “I told you to use the textbook and curriculum guide. No exceptions. Instead,” she said, “you undermined me with your unconventional tactics. Why? What were you thinking?”

“I remember you telling me that the textbook and curriculum would take my students where they needed to go. I believed you and wanted to do as you requested. But my students spoke and read no English. Without English, I couldn’t take them where they needed to go until I got them where they were supposed to be. But you’re right,” I tried to appease her, “I was wrong in not bringing my plan to you. Please understand, I was desperate to teach them English. I meant no harm.”

“No matter your intentions, I’m not recommending you be rehired.” She stormed out of my room.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I packed away the ninth grade literature books, replacing them with some seventh grade readers I’d unearthed in the bookroom. By year’s end, my students easily read at the seventh grade level. And they were increasingly confident and performed better in their other classes. How far they’d come! Even so, at my end-of-the year review, I expected harsh words from my principal followed by termination.

“I don’t agree with your unorthodox methodology,” he began, “but I admire your willingness to take personal risk on your students’ behalf. I’m pleased with their progress. So, I’m renewing your contract — with one condition. You agree to teach the same students until they graduate.”

I agreed. During the next three years, I took my students from where they were to where they needed to be. After their graduation, I reflected upon the act of desperation that brought me to them. Since arriving, I found what I’d sought: I changed my routine and surroundings; found adventure; did the uncomfortable; risked the uncertain; and found passionate work.

But, most importantly, I discovered what matters most in a classroom is neither the curriculum nor the books. Rather, it’s an impassioned teacher with the real stuff inside — one who’s willing to take risks and help students discover the real stuff inside themselves. And I learned what trae mala suerte means in English: “it brings bad luck.” The only thing that would have brought us bad luck would have been my continued use of the ordinary curriculum with my truly extraordinary students.

~Sara Etgen-Baker

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