Working Backwards: A Life in Teaching
By BARBRA NIGHTINGALE
Dr. Barbra Nightingale is a Senior English Professor, Honors Coordinator, and Phi Theta Kappa Advisor Emeritus at Broward College in Florida.
I have always done everything backwards. It probably stems from a game I played as a child in Chicago. On Friday nights in the summer, a few friends and I would put all our clothes on backwards and be pushed (not pulled) in a wagon all the way around a very long, winding corner to where another group of kids anxiously waited to see if we would arrive. We talked backwards, walked backward, and otherwise delighted these kids who only knew us as “The Backwards Family.” I have continued this way ever since.
I came to teaching as a third career somewhat late (by the usual standards) in life. Having lost myself somewhere in the last months of high school, I chose not to go to college. I worked for a year, married (for all the wrong reasons), and a year later gave birth to a child (for an equal number of wrong reasons). At twenty-one, I found myself divorced, uneducated, unskilled, and with a one-year old daughter to support. I expected and received no help from ex-husband. I enrolled in a government funded Certified Laboratory Assistant Program, and one year later graduated at the top of my class. My medical career, though, through a series of ups and downs, ins and outs, brought me to New Orleans in the 1970's, escaping from an abusive husband. There, at Ochsner Medical Center, I learned a new phase of lab technology, radioimmunoassay. Blood testing using radioactive isotopes. Soon, I received a letter from the American Association of Clinical Pathologists offering me an upgrade to Medical Laboratory Assistant (which meant a raise in pay), without being retested. All I had to do was complete my Associate’s degree by the following December. My lab studies in Chicago had given me 32 semester hours which transferred to Delgado Junior College, where I immediately enrolled. I had to attend classes four nights a week, after work, for a year in order to complete my degree within the specified amount of time. In December, I did graduate, with my five year-old daughter my only witness.
From New Orleans, I moved to Miami, having again been given some interesting opportunities, and was trained on the job to be a Nuclear Imaging technician. To become certified in this field, I had to have a B.S. degree. I enrolled at Florida International University for a degree in Health Administration, this time only two nights a week (I wasn’t under such severe time constraints), but due to a grandfather clause, I was allowed to take the Nuclear Registry test early, which I passed. However, by that time, I had grown disillusioned with the medical field, doubtful of my contributions to society.
Several years later I quit the medical field, and became an Independent Sales Representative for a variety of manufacturers. I still continued with my degree, however I graduated, and through the chance coincidence of taking an elective creative writing class (I had always written poetry), I met a group of poets who changed my life. Since they all had Master’s degrees, and I thought their poetry superior to mine because of it, I decided I should pursue a graduate degree to make my writing better. In order to get accepted, I had to take 12 more credits of English and Literature classes at FIU, so, while pounding the streets selling men’s accessories, I was also studying again. At that time, I had no thought to ever teaching, I was just bent on being a good poet. But my poet friends were all now telling me I was “born to be a teacher.” Well, they were right on one count: as a child, I did love to play at being “teacher.” One of those poets was also the Division Chair and head of the English Department at Broward Community College (now Broward College), who had come to know me quite well through my poetry and cable TV show I was hosting as part of the South Florida Poetry Institute. She offered me a job as an adjunct. I was flattered but terrified. What did I know about teaching? I said no. When she asked again, in the summer, I said yes. As luck would have it, many of my new friends were teachers at Broward, so I sat in on their classes, took copious notes, and in the Fall, taught my first English composition class, and began work on my Master’s degree in Literature at Florida Atlantic University. Thus began my teaching career, and I have been here ever since.
I remember my first day in class: How was I ever going to keep my secret from them? I didn’t want them to know it was my first time ever in front of a classroom. (I’m not known for being shy or overly discrete.) But this secret I managed to keep. And at the end of the term, when I sat with my department chair and read over my student evaluations, I cried. I left that room walking 10 feet off the ground. I have never felt so good about a job in my entire life.
The next semester, she gave me two courses, and thereafter, I taught three each term, until I was offered my first temporary full time appointment several years later, and then again ithe following year. While many dread reading evaluations, I lived for them. I couldn’t wait to read them. I still have (in a box in a closet) every single one of my evaluations!) The best one I ever read, I think, said, “She expects too much of us, just because we’re honors students.” That one prompted me to send out a letter to ALL my students telling them that yes, I did expect a lot from them, but no more than they expected of me. That we were all in this together, and my being in the classroom with them constituted a contract, as such, and that I would do my best to fulfill it, and yes, I expected them to do the same.
I decided that if this was going to be my new career, I needed to know everything I could about teaching, so I enrolled once again at Florida International University for a doctorate in Community College Teaching, Higher Education. I remember thinking “five years! Five years of my life!” But then, I thought, “well, five years is going to pass whether I do this thing or not, so I might as well do it and have something at the end of it.” I received my degree (in only FOUR years!), again, having worked full time all the way through. I received my tenure and my doctorate all in the same year. It seems I was still doing things backwards.
The point of this story is to share how much I love teaching and what it has done for my life; to praise the system that helped me achieve goals I didn’t even know I had. Never have I felt more self-worth or gratification. I consider teaching an ultimate act of community service. So much so, that I have become a Service Learning junkie, so to speak, making it my mission to ensure that students take advantage of every opportunity afforded to them, opportunities I didn’t have but wish I did. Opportunities for them to grow themselves as dedicated and self-fulfilled members of the community. I incorporate many official (and required) Service Learning activities in my courses, especially my honors courses, because I feel that these connections, especially the chance ones, might change a life forever, much as it did mine, so long ago.
I am looking forward to my retirement soon, mostly because it will afford me something I haven’t had much of: leisure time to discover what new adventures in the community might await me, and where I could best be of use. I might join an elder learning institute and take classes again, or become an activist in my community or both! I might even join a gym and learn yoga. I urge everyone to keep pushing that envelope, keep going to the limit, because at the end of the road, what you find, most importantly, is yourself.
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