Devastated. Terrified. Lost. Disbelief. Alone. Depressed.
After being a teacher for 15 years and a department chair for 8, I finally experienced THAT year. Above are the words that described my feelings on one particular day following an event at my “job” (I had never really considered being a teacher a job before – it was always a calling). For the first time in more than two decades, I questioned who I was and what I was doing with my life – I began to wonder if being a teacher was truly for me – if I was any good at my “job”. To top it off, I was teaching a new AP course (AP Economics) through which I was struggling. On top of all the other balls I had to juggle (including writing new curriculum), I found myself getting up at 3:30 in the morning to lesson plan and to try to grasp these economic topics. Before this class would come in every day, I would break out in a cold sweat, hoping that I could answer any questions that they had for me. I am the father of three children and we struggle through many stressful issues of which I don’t want to get into here – but my home life can be chaotic and not always a place for me to find peace. Thankfully, I have a strong and loving wife who is my best friend – as she is also a teacher, I do find support from her. Following all of these issues, I decided to resign my position as department chair and found myself completely lost. I still loved being a teacher and being with my students, I loved being a department chair, but I was shaken to my core, both as a professional and as a human being. I will not write about the particulars of this event, just know that it was challenging, to say the least.
Luckily, a few years ago, a staff developer had thought enough about what I did as a teacher to recommend me getting out on social media – blogging, Twitter, etc. Me on social media? That’s what THOSE teachers do – the ones who want to show off, the Millennials (selfie anyone?), the ones who were all fluff and no substance. I just couldn’t imagine myself putting ideas about comic books on social media for people to see – besides, no would be interested in what I had to say anyway. Obviously, I love using comic books in my classroom, but, at this point two or three years ago, I only spoke about them in class a few times. But then a member of my department strongly suggested, alongside this staff developer, that I share what I do as well and I respected his opinion. I began to tweet and blog – I found many supportive teachers who were fellow nerds like myself – I even managed to bring a few over to my way of thinking. Certainly, my Tweeps helped me to share my passion during my worst year and gave me inspiration as well. However, this was not enough to quell the devastating events of this school-year. Thank you, AJ Juliani (an amazing educator himself – @ajjuliani) for being that staff developer that truly believes in the power of sharing as it makes everyone better.
As I continued to struggle through my AP class, writing curriculum, and finding my role, a miracle (and I do think she is a miracle) happened and this worst of years became the most wonderful experience of my professional career as a teacher. Vicky Pasquantonio (@vicpasquantonio) came into my life as an editor at PBS Newshour who just happened to read my blog. She contacted me and asked me to write an article to be posted on PBS’ Teachers Lounge (a wonderful resource for teachers) about how I used comic books to academically and personally connect with students. I was absolutely taken aback – someone wanted ME to write about using comic books in MY classroom? Vicky is one of the warmest and supportive people I have ever “met” (I would love to meet her in person one day – she has a huge bear hug coming her way) as she gave me constant feedback during the process. I loved our conversations over Twitter and email as she began to help me find my way in education once again. As I wrote the article, I began to look at my classroom and experiences in a new light – I did some amazing things in my classroom. I began to find my pride again and allowed myself to see what great students I had in front of me and they gave me a lot of support as well. My wife, an English teacher (who will most likely check this article to ensure proper usage of the Oxford comma), help me write, rewrite, and rewrite the article many nights after we put the kids to bed. We shared many of our experiences of teaching and our conversations became more and more positive as we chose to focus on all the great things that happened in our classrooms. Once I hit that send button to Vicky (a moment I will never forget), I was nervous and excited. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t realize how long things could take from writing to publishing – I just assumed it would be published that very night! It took awhile, but Vicky stayed in touch with me and offered much encouragement on the article and other things that I had been tweeting about. Then, in a meeting at work, I received a call on my cell phone. When I checked it later, it was Vicky with the most excited voice leaving me a message that the article had been published! She then texted me and gave me even more information. I think Vicky was almost as excited as I was – she truly believed in what I did in my classroom and was genuinely happy for me. She is truly a dedicated, hard-working, and genuine person – much like I would expect from such a giving organization like PBS. She if life-changing and wants teachers, who often do not have a voice, to have a large platform from which to share their experiences. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-i-use-comic-books-as-a-learning-tool-in-my-social-studies-classroom/)
All of a sudden, my cell phone began to light up with “likes” and retweets as people around the world began to share my article and what I was doing in my classroom. My life changed in that moment – I felt empowered, encouraged, and respected. I cried. I took my family out for dinner. I shared my article with my children and I could see the pride that they and my wife had for me. I cried again. I honestly went from the worst year to the best year in the space of a few hours.
When I shared the article with my students, they were floored and so happy for me. They were so excited that what we were doing together in the classroom found a large audience – they were as much a part of the journey as anyone else. Then, students began to write comments on the article – I was absolutely stunned at their kindness and amazing words. We talked about the article and how people can make a difference in the world by sharing their passions. We honestly bonded as we all found that we “mattered” and could make an impact on the world around us. Students had received texts during my class (earning them a teacher look) from their parents who were also excited about the article. they wanted their kids to know that this article was out there about their teacher – and about them. All this from comics.
I received support from other teachers and principals as word spread about the article – even clapping for me at a faculty meeting. The school put my article up on their website and many community members liked and shared the article. I was able to share this with my mom (we lost my Dad to ALS several years ago), and she was both proud and a bit surprised (for comics?).
In the weeks after Vicky published my article, I was also interviewed for Geekadelphia and made their Geek of the Week (this really made my principal laugh! – in a kind and supportive way!!!!). (http://www.geekadelphia.com/2016/05/18/geek-of-the-week-tim-smyth-the-comics-inspired-teacher/) Then Vicky and PBS also published an article for teacher appreciation week (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/its-teacher-appreciation-week-who-inspired-you-to-teach/) – asking why teachers became teachers. This allowed me to share my thoughts about my Dad and his powerful impact on my life – it also allowed me to share an awesome picture that a student took of me as Superman. Forgive me quoting my comments here, but I still find them powerful. No one had really ever asked me before why I wanted to become a teacher. I always knew that my father had a hand in it (he knew so much about history), but seeing it in print really solidified it for me. Once that article was posted, I cried. I mean I really cried. Luckily, I was on prep in my classroom and alone. I was able to let out so much grief that I had been holding onto after seeing what my father went through and needing to take care of my family. I hadn’t really had the chance to grieve – he died during the first week of school – I didn’t even take a day off of school because I knew, as do all teachers, how important the first week of school is to everyone. Seeing these words, my own words, allowed me to let out so much. I again found so much more inspiration to teach when I realized that my Dad lived on through me in my classroom. Below is the quote:
“My hard-working Philly cop Dad and I never were able to connect through the usual topics of sports or music. However, he always captivated me with his stories about Hannibal, the Civil War or World War II. His way of telling stories – both hysterical and somber – made me want to share these same experiences with others. I went into teaching in order to make my father proud of me but also to share who he was with future generations. Although we lost my dad to ALS, I know that I share a piece of him each and every day when I make my students laugh and when I see their faces light up during fascinating stories.”
Vicky again sent me some awesome messages and told me how heart felt and meaningful my words were to her. The teachers who post at PBS are not just seen as some faceless person submitting an article and then moving on. I truly feel a part of the family as I continue to have contact with Vicky through Twitter and email.
Following all of this, Dutch Godshalk, editor for Montgomery Media, came to interview me in my classroom and published an article on me in the local newspaper and online. (http://www.montgomerynews.com/articles/2016/05/19/ambler_gazette/news/doc573dfd68b1353407316544.txt) I was laughing so hard when it came out — I made the front page in my Superman pose! My poor wife had to go into the store to buy multiple copies (I won’t divulge how many I made her buy) and the owner asked her why she was buying so many. when she pointed to the picture on the front page, he smiled and said – oh, you’re married to Superman! (Did I mention how awesome my wife is?) My kids were thrilled to see their father on the front of the newspaper and could not wait to take it to school to show their teachers. Dutch really took a lot of time to discuss my classroom experiences and he also showed genuine interest. Dutch and Vicky have shown me that words really can change the world when you care enough to be invested in the topic at hand.
I then decided to put in an application to present at WizardWorld’s Philadelphia comic con (my family goes every year. Again, my wife is awesome!) on comics in education. The person in charge of programming took a look at my articles and gave me immediate approval. I just presented on June 4th – my wife and kids were there in the front row to see me speak, all alone, to a room full of people. After I presented for my hour, many of the people stayed to ask me questions, to ask if they could email me for suggestions and inspiration. Some just came up to shake my hand and tell me what a great presentation I had given. This was all while the Back to the Future reunion was going on, so I must have done something right! Hearing my wife and kids telling me how proud they were of me gave me some of the best feelings of my life. It really was the most terrifying thing I have ever done – again, I was one of those quiet teachers who thought that those who shared what they did were just being boastful. I had no idea if anyone would even show up. I am proud of myself (this is a new feeling for me) for doing this and know that I could not have done it without all of the support of those around me. My students came into class and excitedly asked me how my presentation went. I walked them through some of it, shared some pictures, and also told them that I shared specific work that they had completed – they found this to be awesome. Some laughed at seeing me in a TMNT costume – but in a good way – it’s always good to show students your human side.
What’s next? I was invited to present on a panel at the San Diego International Comic Con in July. When I texted my wife during work, her only response was – go for it (did I tell you she’s awesome?). We rearranged our summer plans, cut back on spending, and are now in the middle of planning a bucket-list adventure that had never even entered my mind before all of this happened just over two months ago.
I have also applied to present my lessons to a social studies conference in Harrisburg – this will be a whole new audience, so I am nervous. This was because Anthony Gabriele (@mrgabriele), a curriculum supervisor, cared enough to reach out to me via email and suggest that I present at the conference.
Now I have people thanking me for giving them inspiration for classroom ideas from around the world. I have students who tell me how much they love being in my class and the passion I bring to the lessons. Just two years ago, I questioned using comics in the classroom – I was too A-type and by the book. I questioned myself (I still do). But now? I am a better teacher and I love going to work each and everyday. I am so thankful to the people who helped me in this crazy journey and to my students who have shown me so much love and support.
My only regret is not realizing the power of sharing with others earlier in my career. I have found so much inspiration from fellow teachers on Twitter and Facebook – and also from authors and artists. Share your passion! Shout it out loud! We live in a world where teaching is not always respected and where we focus so much on testing – let the world know what you do. It is not boatful or selfish — it is only selfish if you keep your great ideas to yourself.
Next year, I will go back to being my more quiet self – my exposure has been bordering on obnoxious. But I will enter the next part of my career with a newfound confidence and excitement.
I am so grateful to be surrounded by such support – family, friends, neighbors, teachers, administrators, parents, and, yes, students.
Thank you, AJ. Thank you, Vicky. Thank you, Dutch. Thank you, Anthony. And to my wife and best friend – thank you with all the love in my being.