IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Ended Up Teaching in the Same Classroom Where I'd Been a Student

My first day was a mix of excitement, fear, and an inescapable feeling of deep oddness, not because I didn’t feel qualified, but rather, because of the location.
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Catherine Kustanczy
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My first day was a mix of excitement, fear, and an inescapable feeling of deep oddness, not because I didn’t feel qualified, but rather, because of the location.

I am a journalist. I am a broadcaster. I am a teacher. Stating I am these three things equally has been a slight challenge, because I’m still working out the real and full presence of that third one in my life.

When I returned to Canada from a horrendous NYU graduate school experience last winter, I wasn’t sure where I was going, who I was, or what I wanted. I knew I loved writing, talking, interviewing. I also loved radio, storytelling, and engaging. What would allow me to integrate all these passions? Could I make a living at it? Was it worth pursuing? Was it worth trying? 

Everything I’d tried up until this time last year had felt like huge failures, including, most notably, my short-lived NYU experience. Even now, family will tell me it was a waste, that it was a colossal (and costly) mistake, that it shouldn’t have ever happened. Yet I suspect that had I not had that experience, of trying and failing, that I wouldn’t be on the path I am now.

Perhaps one of the best things that came out of my brief time at NYU before returning to Canada was connecting with a wonderful teacher who encouraged me to try teaching myself.

“You’d be really good at it,” he’d said one early winter day as we sat in his office, chatting about art and writing and the strange nature of inspiration.

I tossed it around in my mind: Teaching. Me?

The truth is, I used to be a teacher, long ago, but not in a classroom. After years of piano classes and the strenuous, horrifying experiences of conservatory exams and Kiwanis competitions, I thought I’d try my hand at music in a different way: I’d instruct people — kids — in my home. It turned out I had a knack; because I was a teenager myself when I started, I found I had a natural rapport with many of my younger students, and a casual sort of ease with older ones, some of whom would bring their kids to me, then wait, in my kitchen, reading, before sitting down at the long, mahogany grand piano in my living room.

Some days my teaching was more about therapy than music. I’ll never forget comforting a line of weeping teenagers the day Kurt Cobain died. After that, I saw them pour a new kind of passion into their playing and music studies. It was satisfying and just plain nice to watch how they took the few seeds I’d given them and went off to plant their own forest. To paraphrase Nelson Henderson: Teaching is a tree under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

I used that quote in my Facebook status the night before I started teaching this January.

My first day was a mix of excitement, fear, and an inescapable feeling of deep oddness. It wasn’t because I didn’t feel qualified (though self-doubt certainly crept in a few times), and it wasn’t because I hadn’t taught before, but rather, it was owing to the location. I'd be teaching in the exact place I graduated from 10 years ago. Not only that, but I teach in the exact classroom where, a decade ago, I was once a student. 

This used to be my classroom. Now it's MY CLASSROOM.

This used to be my classroom. Now it's MY CLASSROOM.

Teaching has reminded me of my experience and my capacity for engagement. Engaging online is a huge part of my career as a journalist and broadcaster, but engaging face-to-face with students in real time is a whole other ballgame. I was nervous about this in the beginning. Within a few minutes of my first class, however, I realized how much I enjoy interacting with students in person, how much I can gauge their own engagement with the things I present, and how vital (and rewarding) it is for me to alter approach, from moment to moment, and from person to person. Each of my students is a cool, smart, funny, busy person with a life and responsibilities connected to that life; each comes with a separate story that is worthy of respect and consideration.

Teaching feels like a very natural extension of my journalism career, as well as a nice extension of my personality. In this last year, one filled with pain, setbacks, massive disappointments, and no end of self-doubt, I realize one simple thing: I like to see others succeed at stuff they’re good at. Interacting with students — whether in class or via the many emails that sail back and forth between classes — has been the most rewarding part of teaching so far. 

The oddest part has been the feelings that creep up after classes are over for the day. As I walk out of the building each week, it’s quiet, it’s dark, most everyone has left for the day. Eerie fluorescent lights emanate from empty classrooms and make angular, stark patterns on the old familiar floors. I’m alarmed not only by what I remember — Did I really fall asleep in that editing suite? Did I really get kissed by that guy against those lockers? — but by what I forget — I don’t remember the bathrooms being here, I don’t remember what I did for that class, I wish I remembered that teacher’s name. Former classmates will post photos on Facebook, and I can’t place the event at all. And that isn’t owing to college high jinks, either. I simply don’t remember.

I've walked these halls a thousand times.

I've walked these halls a thousand times.

And that’s something else teaching has made me acutely aware of: age, and the inevitable passing of time. But I’m glad that reminder is there, in a way. I wouldn’t have felt ready, or prepared, or in any way legitimate had I decided to teach before this point in my life. The integration between teaching and journalism has, for me, made each one distinctly better. As writer Sara Novic tweeted, “A thing I learned about #teaching/ #writing: You can't get your schoolwork "out of the way" b/c it is never over. But write anyway.” 

Keep writing, talking, listening, engaging — for you, and for your students, and your life. There is no such thing as “failure.” There is only the beautiful opportunity for more learning.