Relishing the rewards of a life as a teacher

For me teaching has been a blessing, a rewarding, a calling. For a long time, I wanted to go into medicine very badly, and it was almost a curse. I thought that I was either going to be a preacher or a doctor; those seemed like the only two options. My father would often talk about his mother in Mexico who was a kindergarten teacher. I was very proud of that fact, but I kept telling myself that I didn't want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a doctor.

I found a job in a hospital when I was 16 or 17, at my mother's urging. When I got into college I found that the hospital had what they called an "extern" program, which brought in selected students from nearby colleges. Surgery fascinated me, and I caught on very quickly. Due to the extensive amount of time I spent at the hospital, unfortunately, my grades suffered. I didn't do too well in my pre-medical work, and subsequently, was not accepted to medical school.

Not ready to pursue a master's degree, I was unsure of what to do next. During this time, I ran into my fifth grade teacher who had become assistant superintendent for curriculum. He invited me to his office and when I left that afternoon, he had offered me a one-year opening position for a junior high general sciences teacher. I had this attitude that was prevalent in my generation, "those who can do, and those who can't teach."

What was supposed to be one year turned into four because I liked it so much. I'd wake up in the morning andI could hardly wait to go to school. I could actually see the moment that students understood something which, to me, was like magic. What I received daily was positive energy the students gave me for being successful at what I did; the success of being their teacher. It felt good to know that the students responded positively to what I had planned for them as a learning experience.

And the person doing those lesson plans was me. The reflections from their eyes showed me I was good at making the mysterious simple to understand. Through them I found my true calling. You feel good about what you learn you can do best. That is what was happening to me, and it took a bunch of 12 year olds to teach me that about myself. I remember the comments some of them would make: "Mr. Adame, your good!" "You should be teaching college," some of them would say.

I had a student who was really close to me, with whom I had fallen out of touch for 10 or 11 years. Then last spring, I got a phone message, saying "this is a voice from your past," and it turned out that he had seen "Mr. Holland's Opus," and he decided that he had to find me. Those are the things that make this profession very rewarding, those kinds of contacts, when students remember you and are grateful. This comes from my ability--my gift--to be relevant to their lives, as an adult to listen to what they have to say and validate that what they know and believe is important, that it does make a difference. And, while in this mode of communication, to take a "teaching moment" to move them into yet another realm of realization and comprehension about what they may be struggling with. The impact comes through the unconditional regard (that it is done without judgment) you hold for them as a person--that and lots of sincere caring.

After my four years there, I left for the UCLA school of public health, to get a master's degree in health education in the pursuit of entering medical school. Instead, after completing a master's thesis on sex education, I took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1975.

I found that I liked the whole university ball game. I was given the opportunity to work at high positions, where a person with only a master's wasn't really supposed to be, but they had faith in me. I went there for one year and again stayed for four. The dean there said that I belonged in academia and I should get a Ph.D. and teach as a career.

After spending three of the richest years of my life pursuing my Ph.D. and working as a teaching assistant at Cornell, I did a national search, and I must have had 12 interviews that year. I had tentatively accepted a position at Kent State but got on a plane and came to an interview at Emory. I got to the campus and fell in love with it.

So I came here in 1985 and I revamped PE 101. Yes, it's a required course, and that's why I make every attempt to make it as pertinent, interesting and viable to students' lives as I can. Even though we're in a huge lecture hall with 275 students, I bring in the kinds of people who can get students involved. I purposefully build in a variety of speakers so that they're not getting the same thing every time. Students also have the opportunity to interact with each other in weekly small discussion groups.

This is my 11th year, and I get students who come up to me and ask if I'm still teaching that health course, and I say, "yes." "Don't you get bored, don't you get tired," they ask. With my research, and my service agenda, and the stuff that I do with students in residence halls, there's no time to get bored. Plus teaching is, after all, part of who I am.

Dan Adame is an associate professor of health education and chair of the health and physical education department. This article is taken from remarks he made at a Chaplain's Tea on Oct. 8.

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