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Ownership of Learning

Teaching has been my life's passion. Before I even knew much of anything in this world, when I was a child, I knew I wanted to teach. Maybe it is my innate bossiness; maybe it is my take-charge personality. I don't know. I always remember having the feeling that I could explain it better than the teacher was doing, that is once I understood it. I was always looking at patterns of understanding, ways to break the topic down into its component parts. I think it was because sometimes that was the easiest way for me to learn it myself.

I have now been a teacher for more than twenty years and I still love it. For me it is not a job; it is an opportunity to help other people be as successful as possible in life. It is an opportunity for me to give them tools so they can do whatever they want to in life. The tools I try to give them include communication tools, critical thinking tools, and most importantly, a positive self-image. No one can accomplish anything in life unless they believe in themselves.

I feel so passionate about this that I become emotional in class when I talk about it. It is probably the result of what happened to my younger brother in elementary school in the 1950's. Back then if you did not learn to read by the ‘look say method," you were considered dumb. There were no mitigating terms used, no thought about different learning styles, no discussion of learning disabilities. I don't think they even thought about learning disabilities as a concept. You either learned they way they taught you, or you were dumb. My brother was not able to learn to read using the sight-method. It started in first grade and by the time he was in fourth grade, it was pretty serious. While he was a good athlete and a nice looking child, his self-image was slowly beginning to conform to the teacher's impression of him---he couldn't do anything right. By the fifth grade he gave up and my parents got frantic. They took him to UCLA to a special program where they evaluated him and at that point they decided that he had some kind of learning problem. It wasn't yet categorized as dyslexia, but they knew it was something. This feeling of ineptness permeated his whole world. Only a few areas escaped: music and sports. He was able to play any musical instrument simply by ear, but no one valued that. All that was important was his ability to read, write and do math.

My brother, Lee, struggled through high school getting Ds. Coming from an academic family, he was considered a failure. Naturally, his self-image was extremely poor.

My brother's problems in school had a profound affect on me. In some ways, I was just the opposite. I learned to read by the sight method and for the most part I did well, but not that well. While Lee had academic problems, I had social problems. I was too quick for the class and so I got bored and continuously got into trouble. I talked too much, ran around too much, didn't pay attention, slept in class. In brief, I was a pain in the neck for the teacher. I remember one incredible day when the teacher, probably at her wits end, put me under her desk. I had to stay there for what seemed like an eternity and do nothing. As a super athletic child, it drove me crazy. So I always got "unsatisfactory' marks on the "deportment" part of the report card.

My father was always looking at my deportment marks and criticizing me; he was always looking at Lee's grades and criticizing him. Lee was well mannered in class so his deportment grades were excellent.

Here in one family, we had two children diametrically opposite in learning styles, behavior patterns, and interests who both managed to get out of the public school system with very low self-esteem, but for different reasons.

The reasons are irrelevant, because what is relevant is how a student feels about him/herself. Of course, I never thought I felt bad about myself. It was not on a conscious level. Typical of a teenager, I rebelled and on the surface looked as confident as anyone else. The feelings of incompetence surfaced slowly throughout my life. Even though I won a Regents Scholarship at UC Berkeley, I thought I had serious self-doubts. I remember going to a therapist at Cowell Health Center for an unrelated problem and he said to me, "Someone as capable as you can do anything you want." I thought to myself, "Whom is he talking about? Me? That is because he really doesn't know me or he wouldn't think I was so smart."

The primary reason I worked like crazy was because I came from an extremely poor immigrant family and I saw education as the only way out. My first semester at Berkeley was a disaster, though. I had come from a high school in the Los Angeles area that did not have high academic standards. Even though I had gotten all As, I was struggling at Berkeley. 0ther students had read when I had only heard about. This only led to further erosion of myself image, but luckily for me, I managed to figure out the system, figure out how to catch up, figure out how to learn and graduate from Berkeley in only three years instead of the usual four. I rushed because I was so poor that I really needed to get a job. I worked twenty hours a week going to Berkeley as a reporter for the Berkeley Daily Gazette and I also worked as a Recreation Director for the Berkeley Department of Parks and Recreation. I got scholarship money, but it all amounted to not very much. By the age of 22, I was teaching full-time and still writing for the Berkeley Daily Gazette.

Even though I had been academically talented, but socially backward, I subconsciously didn't distinguish between the two: I simply felt bad about myself. I started to feel better about myself when I was able to succeed academically. Even though I had been class valedictorian, held a variety of elected positions in student government, and was even a cheerleader, I still had feelings of self-doubt. I am explaining all this because it is important to realize that feelings of incompetence early in life are extremely difficult to eliminate. It always seems to be part of a person's psyche.

In addition to being academically talented, I was also very good looking, but again though I knew it consciously, I never really felt good about myself. It is sad to think that I never really appreciated myself. I even modeled for several years, but even that didn't convince me.

My brother has had similar problems. While he never has been able to do well academically, he somehow struggled through to get a BA degree from a small California State College. He has never really held a good job, but since he is intrinsically smart, he has managed to do well financially. He is still coping with those terrible messages he got back in the first few grades of primary school.

I have elaborated on my story because it profoundly affected the way that I teach. No one in my classes is ever made to feel bad about themselves. But that doesn't mean that I tell them lies to try to make them feel good. I know what it is like to get insincere praise. It's useless. What good does it do to tell someone that they are great? Nothing. Just look at what had happened to me. So what I have devised is a way for students to succeed and in doing prove that they are capable.

© 2002 - Esther Wojcicki - Email: thewoj@hotmail.com