Celebrating Success and Failure

by | 05.12.17

Emily Francis is an ESL teacher in North Carolina. Connect with Emily on Twitter @emilyfranESL.

When I started going to school in the United States, I was embarrassed.

My age landed me in a ninth grade class, but the highest education I’d received in Guatemala was sixth. There was too much to worry about in Guatemala: watching my younger brother and sisters, helping my family buy food, staying safe in a tumultuous country.

We immigrated to New York City to be with my grandmother because my mom wanted a better life for us. So there I was, new to this massive city, experiencing all the shock and displacement that come with being foreign in a new home and placed in classes three years beyond any I’d taken before.

Still, I loved it. All of it. It was the first time I was able to embrace school and education. I went to school in the morning. I went to satellite classes in the evenings. I spent nights surrounded by dictionaries and thesauruses to do my homework.

And as hard as it was, I did well. I learned the language in a year and a half. I tested out of my ELL classes. I completed 42 credits.

But things came apart for me right at the end on a test I couldn’t pass. American history. Go figure. I was so disappointed. I’d given everything I could. I had worked so hard over such a short period of time. But I didn’t graduate. They said, “Come back next year and try again.” I didn’t. I was done with school. It wasn’t for me.

And that was the hardest part, that it wasn’t for me. Failing at school made me question everything I believed I knew about myself. Ever since I was a little girl, I’d wanted to be a teacher. Taking care of my brother and sisters, I worked with them on their numbers and the ABCs. It was always on my heart.

My grandmother was a preschool teacher who retired from New York. I remember her telling stories after school – not what she said or what happened to whom, but the passion and joy that spread across her face as she told them.

After I dropped out, I went to work as a cashier. I needed to help my family. I did that for several years, moving from New York to North Carolina. And that was fine for a while, but a time came when it just hit me: I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do with my life.

I got the bug for education again. I found a local community college and got my GED. My GED is framed on the wall of my classroom. It was passing that test that allowed me to keep going.

I went on from there to find success in college: I got my associate’s degree, my bachelor’s and then my master’s, but a test – another test – did me in. I couldn’t pass my Praxis to become an elementary school teacher.

When I think back on that American history test and the Praxis, I feel such empathy for my students. It never got easy for me. I’m not sure it ever does for ELL students. It’s hard to build confidence, and there’s so much failure.

But if there’s one thing that’s been true for me, it’s that belief comes when you least expect it and most need it. I found my first job in a classroom as a teacher’s assistant in Angie Power’s first grade class. I spent eight years with Angie, and it was exactly where I was meant to be. Because of the time I spent under her wings, learning from her right alongside those first graders, I knew I could do it when it came time to walk out of her classroom and into my own.

After all my starts and stops, the ups and downs, I’d found a place to learn, and I’d found someone who believed in me. I walked out of Angie’s class ready, for the first time, to become what I was meant to be.

They made me the educator I am today, an educator who understands the fears and anxieties of my students and their parents. They made me an educator who will be for my students what I didn’t always have: someone to believe in them. They made me an educator who’s still got so much to give.

And I’m thankful to everyone who supported me. To my mom and my family, to my grandmother, to Angie for teaching me right alongside those first-graders, to my cooperating teacher Sarah Collins, to all who’ve shaped my path: Thank you. Let’s never stop believing in each other and in our profession, appreciating what we get to do and cherishing the opportunity we have to inspire our students to learn, dream and succeed.

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