Winning at No Cost

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do

This installment’s writer, whom we’ll call Cassandra, prefers to remain anonymous, and I can’t blame her. In that nebulous place between graduation and finding her forever teaching home, Cassandra is stuck. Dubbed “grasshopper” because we always joked that she would replace me in the classroom someday, Cassandra’s post is all at once sad, cathartic, and hopeful.


When I long term subbed in a kindergarten class, I was used to playing games like red light green light and duck duck goose. Sometimes the kids would stumble and fall, but they always kept playing. One lesson I made sure my students knew is that it is perfectly acceptable to fail sometimes, just as long as they keep trying their best.

Fast forward to my current placement—a high school—where instead of tiptoeing to the finish line, I am tiptoeing around administrative politics and instead of running around to crown the next “goose,” I am just running around in circles. Unfortunately, students are just getting pushed through and are not really expected to do or be anything more.

One Friday, I was told by an administrator that I was “not allowed” to fail any seniors because it is bad for retention rates. Unfortunately for me, the few seniors I have, like the majority of my students, just don’t want to do the work. They know they will receive a 50% whether they do it or not. So the solution I was given is to start curving test scores and give out elementary level work. I have to do what I have to do to get them to pass, I was told. It is all about the numbers, both in percentages and dollars, I heard.

This has been a vicious cycle set in motion long before I set up my cheap Target decor along my walls. When students came to me, they expected that I knew the pass and go drill, and, even more so, viewed me as a nervous, little first year teacher not willing to swim against the tide. They know that the more students graduate, the more money the school receives. Moreover, they know that this can be an opportunity to get an upper hand.

When I began to give out reading homework and quizzes weekly, they failed. When I continued to give out reading homework and quizzes (with a few modifications) on a weekly basis, they still failed. Slowly, they began to realize that I would meet them halfway, but not at the cost of my expectations. When I caught a student cheating and gave him a zero, he lashed out because “[his] answers were right and I can’t mark them wrong.” This inflated sense of entitlement is a direct effect of the system and its bastardization of the idea of winning. To them, success is getting as far as they can by doing as little as possible. And it is only hurting the kids that go into the world thinking doing nothing is winning.  

I refuse to just let them slide, to just continue doing what they have been doing since they started school here. I refuse to be a glorified babysitter. I refuse to not give these students a chance to win the right way.

By allowing this “pass at all costs” policy, we are really failing our kids in the long run. While funding is important and a necessary evil, it is costing my kids the education they deserve. Because education extends beyond the classroom. Kids are going to try and they are going to fail; it is a necessary lesson in growing up. There is winning in failure. There is growth in failure.

But this push to “just get them through” is an adult game of duck duck goose: money gets spent, kids “pass,” more money comes in.

There are no winners.


Just Dance

An excerpt from Increase Mather’s 1684 essay, “An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn out of the Quiver of the Scriptures.”

Now this [dancing] we affirm to be utterly unlawful, and that it cannot be tollerated in such a place as New-England, without great Sin…The Design of Dancing is only to teach Children good Behaviour and decent Carriage.


I wonder what ol’ Increase and his band of merry Puritans would think of the “Orange Justice.”

When I first started teaching in 1999, part of the sophomore ELA curriculum was devoted to the Puritans, so I taught the above essay along with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” among other totally teen relevant fan favorites.  I used such seminal works to teach discourse, persuasion, and syntax, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to open up discussion about life in the 17th and 18th century. Later in the year, we’d read The Crucible, so starting with the real Puritans to prepare for the fictional ones was necessary, foundational work.

As you can imagine, kids were aghast at the idea that people were against dancing. Though we discussed the Biblical interpretation, the cultural climate, and the fundamental fear of God, students in the 20th century just could not grasp the Puritan way of life.

I mean, to be honest, I still don’t.

But that brings us to 2019: new century, same disdain for dancing.

My elementary school kids love Fortnite, and the ones that don’t, including my 9-year old daughter, love the dances associated with game. So from the aforementioned “Orange Justice” to “The Wiggle” to “The Floss” kids are dancing out loud and it’s driving the adults insane.

But, why?

What is it about children dancing that turns us all into residents of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692?  

Maybe we see junior versions of ourselves in those little, dancing bodies, and we long for the days when we, too, could just stop what we’re doing and dance. Inhibitions be damned (not our souls).

Maybe we conflate dancing with an overt smack to our orderly, Charlotte Danielson fearing faces.

Maybe we, by nature, aren’t dancers, especially in public, so the prospect of children dancing willy-nilly in our halls and in our rooms evokes a primal envy we didn’t know existed (note: if this describes you, please stop reading and seek help).

Maybe we weren’t allowed to watch Footloose or Grease as a kid, so seeing them play out in real life serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe we work for a 21st century version of Increase Mather and fear being smote on the spot, Dunkin’ coffee in hand, for not putting a stop to the wickedness.

But maybe, just maybe, we should let the kids dance if they want to.

Hell, maybe we should join them.

#JurorWoes

#ColleagueCorner is an occasional series which reminds us that our greatest resource is each other. Through human connection and shared experience, these amazing educators provide us a glimpse into their world, a world we all share as educators. 

Tina Olsen was the first person to convince me that everything would be okay. After news broke that I would be switching roles with her former (outstanding) principal, Tina wasted no time in texting me as the spokeswoman for our school. Her message was concise, clear, and wise beyond her years: This is a hard job. Please let me help you

And help me she has. Every day. That’s why I wasted no time in asking her to be the first #ColleagueCorner contributor and why her story, while so common, serves as a cautionary tale for leaders who may forget how good they have it when they work with people like Tina. 

__________________________________________________________

I saw them.

Those dreaded eight black letters staring back at me: JURY DUTY. Naturally, my first reaction was how could three years have passed so quickly. My next thought was convincing myself that it’s part of my official civic duty to serve. So, I put in for the substitute, and off I went to the Hall of Justice with a bag full of books that were never read.

What in the world does this have to do with education? Well, I’m getting there.

What I anticipated to be a one-day-I’ll-just-read-for-seven-hours sort of juror experience turned into quite the opposite. I was instantly called up and put in a pool to serve on a three-month long case. Immediately, the lyrics, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” popped into my head. How on earth could I leave my students for three months? I panic leaving them for a 30-minute special period let alone 90 consecutive days! The thought of not seeing my kids (yes they become your kids when you spend almost more time with them than their own parents) gave me a panic attack in my seat.

I was never forced to think about teaching coming to an absolute halt, especially one that was completely out of my control, and it was scary. Thoughts flooded my head: Who will replace me? How will my kids react to a new teacher? Will he or she undo all of the progress I made with my kids? How am I going to survive without seeing my colleagues-turned-closest-friends?

Even on the hardest days of teaching there is always something bright that shines through. If chosen, I would not see my kids learning, laughing, smiling, joking, and blossoming into the amazing people they are destined to be. There was NO WAY I could be picked for the trial; I had more impactful things to do in my own classroom.

Luckily, after what seemed like the longest two days of my life, I was officially dismissed from the case. The whole experience really forced me to put my career as an educator into perspective. I did miss my crazy classroom for those two days. I do love teaching, and sometimes I take for granted just how lucky I am to educate, nurture, and learn from my students every day. I breathed a sigh of relief when I walked back into MY classroom, my sanctuary of chaos. Let the learning begin again!

Until the next summons…

Tina Olsen is a first grade teacher in Collingswood, NJ. She is also a K-12 graduate of the Collingswood School District. Following high school, Tina went to Stonehill College in Massachusetts, only to return to the beloved town where her academic journey started! She has her Masters in Special Education and one day hopes to obtain an academic supervisor or principal certification. She is currently studying to obtain her certification as a Group Fitness Instructor. Tina loves to bake, work out, and travel with her husband Ray.

When The Pen Isn’t Mightier

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do

Kyle Phillippi is a far better writer than I’ll ever be. He’s also the stepbrother of my best friend, who was the best man in my wedding, and a former student to whom I aspired while his writing career was taking off. Still, like so many #formerstudentFriday posts, his path was all at once direct and winding, with a destination that is still unclear.


You know that cliche movie scene where the main character boards a train or a bus, grabs a window seat on an otherwise empty cabin and enters a deep, contemplating stare out into the distance? Oh, and it begins to rain while an overused song by The Fray plays over the background, don’t forget that part

That moment – sans ‘How to Save a Life’- was reality for me as I boarded a NJ Transit train in New York City at 1:30 a.m.

I had just finished my shift at the Major League Baseball media offices in Chelsea Market when I realized how close to the needle I was cutting it… I had approximately 15 minutes to travel about 15 blocks and catch the final train of the night to The Garden State.

Naturally, I flung my backpack over my shoulder, hustled down four flights of stairs and – seeing no taxi at initial glance – put my head down and entered a sprint.

Fast forward 15 minutes, I was the last passenger to board as the doors closed behind me. I found a quiet spot fittingly by a window, drenched in perspiration, and that’s where the aforementioned ‘a-ha’ ‘moment came about as a light drizzle lathered the sides of the train.

What was that moment?

It was time for me to change careers – to put aside my goal of becoming a national sports reporter – and to take my first step into adulthood.

From a young age, I knew what I wanted and knew what I enjoyed. That was writing for me, and specifically sports writing. I found success fairly early, mostly because I kicked down the door on any and all opportunities that I came across. I found my byline appearing everywhere from The Press of AC to Sports Illustrated from covering events like the Winter Classic to Philadelphia Eagles training camp.

Failure never was an option for me. Yet, a brief conversation with a professor of mine at Rowan University opened my eyes to something when she asked, “What’s your back-up plan?”

I stared blankly… navigating through my thoughts trying to grasp at something, only to come to a realization that I never had a back-up plan.

Like I said previously, I never considered failure. I’m not someone who prepares for the worst, I prefer taking things in strides. I told my professor just that, “I’ll cross that bridge if it ever comes up.”

Well — surprise — it did come up. Despite being featured in major newspapers and media outlets, none of them offered full-time status which meant no salary, no benefits, and no way of truly beginning my adulthood.

That was my bridge and I had two options: continue trudging through the up-and-down nature of a freelance journalist or veer of the road and find a new path.

I chose the latter, entering the business world, and now having been in it for over a year and a half, I can proudly say I made the right decision.

Don’t get me wrong, there still are moments where I wish I was still perched somewhere in a press box overlooking a Flyers-Penguins game or standing behind the net taking in the Phillies batting practice. I’ll always feel like I was born to be a writer, but sometimes — I’ve learned — there can be a second avenue.

I always wonder that had it not been for that conversation with my advisor as a freshman, would I have ever truly considered a back-up plan? It was in that moment in which the wheels spun ever so slightly on what life after journalism would be for me. While that previous career went on for a good five years after that encounter, I owe a lot of where I’m at today to that moment.

No matter where you’re at currently, things can change in a hurry. Whether it’s internally or from forces you can’t control, change is inevitable. How often do you ever hear of someone sticking with their first job out of college for life?


Never.

Writing is my passion — always will be — but I learned that sometimes a passion doesn’t always lead to a career, and that the best path of travel can sometimes be your back-up plan.

Kyle Phillippi has a BA in journalism from Rowan University. Prior to switching careers, he currently works as a Territory Manager at Swisher International, Kyle saw his byline across numerous publications. His sports writing path saw him make stops at Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, Major League Baseball, The Philadelphia Inquirer and various newspapers across New Jersey, including The Star-Ledger and NJ.com

Skipping Along

It’s been a while since there’s been a new discovery.

In those early days, they come in waves: recognizing parents’ faces, playing with the dog’s tail, babbling full of gobbledygook. But, eventually, discoveries begin to spread themselves out, like points on a scatter plot.

So when my five-year old son began to skip as his preferred means of travel while on a weekend trip to Baltimore, I took notice. To that point, he hadn’t skipped once and hadn’t shown any interest in learning, but somewhere between the beginning of kindergarten and the winter holidays, he learned. And to his credit, there was no fanfare, no showing off, no all-too-typical, “Daddy, watch this!”

Dude just discovered he could skip and started skipping.

One of the truly magical parts of being in education is the two-way mirror through which we get to observe discovery. Though more prevalent in elementary school, our kids are perpetually discovering. For little ones, like my son, they discover a new skill, a new way to add, a new way to start a sentence, and a new way to communicate daily. For the older ones, discovery is both academic and personal. They’ll discover a love for music, an interest in the same sex, an eventual college major.

And we get to witness it all. It’s an immense responsibility, indeed. Because we are so often  privy to our students’ discoveries before their parents are, we need to celebrate with our kids. In fact, in too many cases, our kids have no one with whom to celebrate discovery, so it becomes paramount that we do.

Observe mindfully as a little one correctly spells a sight word. Then spell it with her.

Listen intently for the I did it in your classroom. Then celebrate it.

Watch closely for the wry smile during a moment of intense concentration. Then acknowledge it.

Accept graciously the Can I talk to you request. Then protect it.

Discovery happens more frequently and more rapidly than we can keep up with. It comes in small moments and on grand scales. It awakens in isolation, and it manifests over time. It invites an audience, and it prefers solemnity. It charts a path, and it provides a signpost for growth.

When was the last time you discovered?

The Ones Who Get Away

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Jess Turkot is an amazing teacher. So amazing, in fact, that I had the opportunity to present her with the Teacher of the Year Award in 2017. Maternal, kind, and reflective, Jess’s post speaks to a part of teaching about which we rarely talk: the ones who get away. If she had her way, she would save them all.


Sometimes the most powerful moments as a teacher are those when there is nothing we can do. The moments when we are forced, for one reason or another, to walk away. The moments when we straight up ugly cry after all our resources have been exhausted, and we’re simply left with a broken heart, pondering what could have been done differently.  

I have suffered through students dropping out when they were meant for much more, students who have been bullied to the point of self-harm, and others who have tried their best to overdose, but have thankfully been unsuccessful, after suffering bad days. These heartbreaking moments are the ones that have changed and defined me as a person, as a teacher, and that will stick with me forever.

My most recent heartbreak is still so fresh and raw that I cannot help but tear up each time I think of this child because of the painful knot it creates in my stomach.  He has become the one I wish I could bring home, the one I wish I could hug to take away all of his pain, the one who I wish others could empathize with because he is so much more than most people choose to see. However, he is also the one I am being forced to walk away from because state laws override my classroom, even though they can’t change what is held firmly in my heart.

This young boy has lived lifetimes in his twelve short years.  He has been rejected by his family, ridiculed by most of his peers, and has not been provided with useful supports throughout his education at the numerous schools he has attended.  You see, this boy, my heartbreak, has been in and out of seven foster homes, has spent many nights hungry, and has been robbed of the life his adopted siblings have been lucky to receive.

Where does he go from here?  

The answer: self-sabotage.  He makes it so that he cannot be hurt because he thinks ahead to cause his own pain.  He won’t allow anyone to hurt him again, so he decides to hurt himself because, he is convinced, that will solve his problem.  The only decision he can make is to do wrong, so this is exactly what he does.

As a teacher, how can I change this?  How can I make him see that he is worth the battle? How can I make him see what I see and prevent the pain he is bringing upon himself? I want to provide so much for him and to finally witness him receiving the love and happiness he deserves, but I will not because I cannot.  I am being forced to walk away as he is again being sent off to another foster home, a change of schools, and a huge amount of uncertainty.

This is my most recent heartbreak.  I will know there will be many more and that the powerful moments to come with them will remain a part of me forever.   

Jessica Turkot is a middle school Read 180 teacher in Collingswood, NJ.  As a graduate of Audubon High School class of 2001, Jessica enrolled in Rutgers University.  After college, she began her first teaching job in Collingswood as an elementary teacher and then transitioned to middle school where she discovered her true passion.  She is currently working to add to her portfolio a Master’s degree in Education with a Special Education certification from Saint Joseph’s University. At home she enjoys cheering on her three children, Autumn, Ariana, and Dylan, while they perform on the court or on stage and playing pickleball with her husband Paul.

Miss Teaching

Do you have a second, Eddie?

I do, Miss Teaching.

I read your story last night, and I was truly impressed. I just wanted to tell you how proud of you I am. I hope you know that.

I do, Miss Teaching.


Do you promise to keep in touch when you graduate, Abby?

I always will, Miss Teaching.


I can tell that you’re hurting, Coleman. Do you want to talk about it?

I do, Miss Teaching.

And no matter what you tell me, you’ll always know that I care about you, right?

I know you do, Miss Teaching.


I’m very tired today, class. It’s been a year since I lost my husband, and I miss him terribly.

You’re allowed to, Miss Teaching.


Would you mind if I co-taught a lesson with you, Anna? I think it would be fun!

You can, Miss Teaching!


Okay, gang, this is a difficult concept and I want you to understand it.

You always do, Miss Teaching.

Tackling Impostor Syndrome

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

Megan DiGesare beat me to the punch. Since I became aware of Imposter Syndrome, it has helped explain so much of my life. Though I had a post on it ready to go, Megan skillfully and gracefully discusses the malady far better than I could have. She and I have stayed in touch, largely about books we love, and she recently reminded me that there was rarely a day that went by in my class during which we didn’t laugh. I’m thankful she chose to write this. 


I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” – Mike Myers

The Impostor Syndrome struggle is real. Not sure what I am talking about? Remember that time you nailed an amazing job interview, only to then doubt yourself, your qualifications, and your ability? Yep, that! That nagging feeling affects more people than you would imagine.

Why do we think we don’t deserve greatness?

Why do we champion the thought of empowerment, but fear being empowered?

I didn’t know what this feeling was called until recently. I didn’t even think there was a name for it. I just thought I was being too hard on myself.

I was recently offered a job through Linkedin. My current employer found me, sent me a message, and the next thing I knew I was sitting in an office interviewing for a position to which I didn’t even apply. I felt, as I walked out, that I nailed the interview. I was offered the job, accepted, and then this feeling of inadequacy crept up little by little.

It’s not that I think I haven’t accomplished anything, or that there isn’t anything I am proud of, but often times, I just don’t believe I got them on my own merits. My brain tells me that I succeeded because of someone I knew, some dumb luck, or a mistake. I feel like I am always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” The feelings, the thoughts, and the negative words – they directly affect how we feel about ourselves.

When we were younger, in school, we were told if we studied hard we could be anything. We did our homework, our projects, and our assignments and we felt accomplished when we got our grades back because we worked hard for them. We put in the time, the effort, and the literal blood, sweat, & tears.  But somewhere along the way we lost that sense of self-worth and attached a stigma to it.

I recently listened to a podcast about this very subject by former lawyer and current life coach, Kara Loewentheil J.D. called Unf*ck Your Brain. I have felt this way for a while but hearing her put it so plainly is when it actually clicked. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Basically, what I took from her podcast was the fact that we need to develop our mantra that tells us “We deserve to be where we are.”  We need to re-train our brain by starting every morning by realizing what we have done, how far we have come, and tell ourselves that it was our abilities, talents, and perseverance that got us here. By telling our brain that NOBODY else is responsible for where we are today, we can slowly start to believe ourselves.

I know I am not the only person who feels like this. It’s a subject that needs to be more openly discussed. It can happen to anyone, male or female, and research suggests that the more successful you are, the stronger the feeling becomes. So yes, of course we are waiting for someone to discover us, someone to yell “FRAUD” as we walk through the door, all the while knowing, deep down, that we do deserve to be here.

So let me leave you with this:

You are talented. You are worthy. You are supposed to be exactly where you are. Go for that next promotion, raise, or dream job with the mindset that you got there on YOUR OWN merits.

Megan DiGesare is an operations assistant for Hampshire Properties in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating from Audubon High School in 2005, Megan attended Rutgers University. After school she tried out a few different jobs before landing with a company where her “puzzle piece” fit. Aside from her 9-5, she is a social media manager for various clients. At home she enjoys cooking and hopes to one day write a cookbook. When she isn’t cooking (and posting the photos to Instagram) she is exploring the restaurants NYC has to offer.

Formal Wear Friday

Adults: The Kids Have a Lovely Seat For You in The Back

The idea was so simple, so unadulterated, so fun. But then the adults got their hands on it.

Formal Wear Friday was the brainchild of one of my all-time favorite students, Conner. He and his sister Kaitlin are the kind of kids who were ready to be finished with high school long before they got to me during their respective senior years. Witty, worldly, and wise, they each saw the world for all it could be and took steps to make it better on their terms. I’m grateful to have had time with them.

Conner, an accomplished musician and natural leader, thought it would be cool if people dressed up on Fridays, and by dressed up, I mean dressed up. The thing about Conner is there was no pretense, so other than the fact that the idea was a well-kept secret from the staff, he didn’t concoct the plan to cause disruption or to see what he could get away with. Rather, he wanted the school to “look nice” on Fridays. A fun way to end the week and to facilitate kindness through compliments, Formal Wear Friday was an instant hit.

Until it wasn’t.

The first complaint came from a teacher: If he can lead something like this, who knows what he’s capable of.

What he’s capable of.

An absurd and exaggerated response to a notoriously “good kid” trying to leave a positive stamp on the school from which he was about to graduate turned into a veritable witch hunt.

As adults started to pile on, the principal got involved and pulled the plug on FWF. Conner came to me full of frustration and disappointment. I couldn’t explain or rationalize the administration’s decision because I didn’t believe in it, and I wasn’t giving Conner a corporate line. This made no sense, and he had every right to be upset.

By this point, I had a foot out the door of my alma mater, the school I loved so much. As education’s pendulum started swinging in a progressive, student-centered direction, my school remained obstinate, staunchly refusing to accept its inevitable arc.

Ultimately, I have Conner, and his sister, to thank for my leadership style. Creating a culture of “yes, if” rather than of “no, because” really isn’t that hard. Formal Wear Friday could have been so much more if the adults got out of the way and allowed the kids to lead. It could have been a charity drive whereby students who chose to dress up paid a nominal fee, the proceeds of which could have gone to a local animal or homeless shelter. A calendar could have been created to be sold to parents at graduation. A cheesy music video full of tuxedo-and-gown-wearing students could have been posted to the school’s website. But none of these things happened.

Now, I am fortunate to work with a staff that is constantly asking, “Can I?” In a recent post, I paid homage to A Tribe Called Quest and to the countless people in my professional life, like Conner, who are willing to ask, to try, and to risk to move our building forward for our kids.

What Conner doesn’t know is I currently have a fourth grader, whom we’ll call Layne, who routinely wears a tuxedo to school because he feels like it.

Man, I wonder what he’s capable of.

Good Morning, Vietnam!

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series in which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do

Dylan Tracey’s story is not all that uncommon. Boy has goal. Boy pursues goal. Boy alters goal. Boy pursues that goal. Boy learns about himself in a way that may have been the goal all along.  A reflective, intelligent empath, Dylan’s story made me think, “Yup. I can totally see Dylan being great at that.” Thanks for sharing, Dylan!


Living abroad and teaching English in Vietnam was never something I envisioned for my future. I have always had a passion for traveling and becoming a teacher was my goal at the start of college, but for the longest time it never occurred to me that those two things could coexist in one career.

Unfortunately, Rutgers-New Brunswick did not have an actual education major, so I ended up graduating with only my English degree, making finding a decent teaching job in the U.S more difficult.

That’s when a friend told me about how he was moving to Vietnam.

It took some time after I graduated to make it to Vietnam. I was poor from being a college student for so long, there was what seemed like an endless amount of paperwork to be done, and I had to earn my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Others Languages) certification in order to teach overseas.  I decided to earn my TESOL in Asia as opposed to doing it online, because most programs include required teaching practice , which I felt I desperately needed.

The program I was certified though was located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I lived and studied for three weeks while teaching in an orphanage. I won’t lie to you; it was rough. Phnom Penh is far from a “tourist destination” and there were times I was convinced the company I paid for was just one giant scam. Thankfully I left Cambodia with both my TESOL and my sanity, and headed off to Vietnam.

When I had finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a similar feeling to being in Times Square for the first time. I got off the bus, bright-eyed and eager to make the city my own. This was also the first time I was completely independent from my parents and the feeling of “sink or swim” was hanging heavy. “Adulting,” as my generation likes to call it, is hard enough, but add living 8000 miles away from home and a severe language barrier makes it even more of a challenge.

However, things like finding an apartment, landing a job, and learning the “lay of the land” was all that much more of an accomplishment with all the extra hoops I had to jump through. It was exhilarating in a way, making my way through a world that was completely foreign to your own. At first Vietnam felt like another planet, but after a while I really began to settle in and feel like I truly belonged there.

I will never forget how nervous I was walking into my first class as the teacher. It was a room full of teenagers who I felt weren’t much younger than me. I asked one of the students if there would be a TA, and he replied “No teacher, we are a teenager class, we don’t need a TA,” and in my head I thought “…well I do!” Nonetheless, like most teachers, I survived my first class and each became easier as time went on. It felt like I was learning more than I was teaching at times. Each mistake was a lesson, every class was more experience, and it seemed like I never stopped learning something new to improve my teaching.

The best advice I could give to someone is to go out and see the world. Go on an adventure, get motivated, be inspired, figure out who you are before you dedicate yourself to a certain path. Now that I am back home, I am finding myself back where a lot of people are when they first graduate college. I have a lot of options in front of me in terms of what I want to do next with my life and going forward I know I will be grateful for the experience I gained in Vietnam. My time there taught me a lot about myself, about what my strengths and weaknesses are, about what’s important to me, and about how to be independent. I’ve found there’s a certain confidence that comes with being a teacher and leading a classroom and that has definitely translated into other aspects of my life. I am still searching for what will be my next career, but am certain what I’ve learned thanks to teaching ESL and living in Vietnam will help me find it.

Dylan Tracey is a 2015 graduate of Rutgers University and currently teaches English for VIPKids, working online with students in China.  He earned his TESOL certification in Cambodia and spent nearly two years teaching in Vietnam, where he was named Teacher of the Year in 2017.  While living in Asia, he also visited Thailand and the Philippines. In addition to his teaching, Dylan spent the past summer at the Jersey shore and is looking forward to exploring new opportunities in Indianapolis, at the beginning of next year.