National Teacher Day for an Ex-Teacher

IMG-7873I had big dreams. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism and already a decently impressive resume at the age of 25, I was well on my way to achieving those dreams. The dreams were ESPN The Magazine or Sports Illustrated.

But when I received a job offer for a sports writing position at The Macon Telegraph, a newspaper I’d interned at a few years prior, I turned it down. I decided to stay in LaGrange, Georgia, working for The LaGrange Daily News, a small newspaper that certainly wouldn’t propel me to sports writing stardom.

Then my dreams began to change.

In October of 2005, I had to write the most difficult sports stories I’d ever written. Dazman Anderson, the quarterback of one of the high school teams I covered, was was fatally shot in the back. I interviewed students and staff for dozens of stories throughout the aftermath of Dazman’s death. They were heartbroken. I was heartbroken. I began to learn more and more about the teenage population in Troup County, Georgia, and the issues they faced.

I wanted to be part of the solution.

So one afternoon after interviewing a coach after baseball practice, I sat with him on a picnic table and our conversation turned towards me.

“Natalie, you’re so good with these kids,” he said.

I thanked him, and said I loved covering high school sports, and I loved the kids in Troup County. That’s why I didn’t take the job in Macon.

“No, it’s more than that,” he said. “You really care about these kids. You’d make an outstanding teacher.”

IMG-7877Between the coach’s words, and a stirring from the Holy Spirit, it didn’t take long for me to agree to change my career path. I would be a high school English teacher. This was an especially easy path in Georgia, given their extreme shortage of teachers.

I was accepted into the Master of Arts in Teaching program at LaGrange College, had an informal interview with the principal of Troup County Comprehensive High School, and within a few months I was teaching high school English.

My journey through the world as an English teacher could be a book, even though my stint as a teacher was short-lived. Two years in Georgia, three and a half years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and one year in Uganda, and I was done with teaching.

Aside from teaching, I’ve been a Crime Beat Reporter. A Sports Reporter. A Marketing Assistant, a Customer Compliance Administrator, a Communications Coordinator, and currently, a Director of Marketing and Donor Engagement. Not to mention years of being a waitress and working at Dairy Queen through college.

No, I haven’t done it all. But I know enough to know this- teachers work hard. I even feel comfortable saying they work harder than most, if not all, of the rest of us.

IMG-7876Teaching is hard. The hours are awful because they never actually end. The hour of “planning” teachers get each day is usually filled with professional development or other meetings. Teachers spend hours and hours on nights and weekends grading papers and planning for what’s next. They hunt down parents who need to know their child is struggling. They send home notes of praise when a child is performing well.

Teachers not only teach, but they counsel. Children don’t leave their issues from home at the classroom door, they bring them into the classroom with them, and sometimes their teacher is the only one who says, “I’m here for you.”

My job description said I was to teach literature, composition, and grammar. But it was so, so much more than that.

I had a student whose mother had been murdered. By her father.

I had a student dealing drugs so mom could pay the rent.

I had a student who wanted more than anything to get pregnant so she would feel loved by someone.

I had a student who wanted to go to jail so he would have some structure in his life.

I had many students whose parents told them they were worthless.

I had a student whose twin brother committed suicide.

I had dozens of female students who had abortions because their mothers insisted on it. Multiple abortions.

I had a student who was shot over Christmas break, survived, but knew those same people were still after him.

I had a student hauled away from school in handcuffs and placed in the back of a squad car. I never saw him again.

I had female students who cut themselves.

I had male students who told me they wanted to die.

And my job, and the job of my co-workers, was to teach them. English. History. Math. Art. Music. Science. Everything those kids carry into the classroom, and it’s the teacher’s job to get them to focus on education.

But more than that, the job is to get them to pass a test.

IMG-7874When I taught in Georgia, my school took a, “We can do this, and we’re in it together” approach to standardized testing. But when I taught in Indiana, it was more of a, “Your students better pass or you’re in trouble.”

Still, I loved teaching. It was incredibly fulfilling. I loved my students, and, for the most part, my students loved me.

So why did I leave teaching mid-year in 2011? It wasn’t the students. It was politics. Administration. Not being able to teach how I best know how. Standardized testing. The list goes on and on.

As education continues to get worse and teachers keep losing battles with administrations who don’t support them, schools will lose good teachers.

I was a good teacher. Maybe I wasn’t a great English teacher, but I was a good teacher. I know this because I still hear from former students, both from Georgia and Indiana who say, “Miss Trout, you believed in me when no one else did. Thank you.”

I hear from students who just got out of jail who say, “I’m going to start living right, Miss Trout,” because they want to make me proud.

Just today a former student gave me a shout out on Facebook saying, “I appreciate Miss Trout for teaching me in 9th grade and always keeping me positive.”

10372329_10152113701606573_5822805670897977551_nAnd that makes it all worth it. All I ever wanted was to make an impact on some students, and I did.

Don’t forget that each teacher in your child’s life also wants to make an impact. No one goes into teaching for the money or the prestige. Teaching has neither of those. People go into teaching because they care.

I’ve never worked as hard as I did when I was a teacher. So, today, I’d like to thank all of the teachers in my life. The ones who taught me. The ones I taught with. The ones I taught who will one day teach others. Happy National Teacher Day from an ex-teacher who will forever admire the work you continue to do.

Shining where I’m placed…

I never really understood how youth pastors did their jobs. How in the world did they spend day after day, weekend after weekend with a bunch of teenagers? How can they possibly enjoy spending so much time with kids?

Sure I realized my passion for working with kids when I was a sports writer in Georgia, especially after one I knew and loved was fatally shot and it turned everyone’s world upside down. I knew then that the times I felt most alive where when I was with teenagers.

The hot sun shines down on Kyampisi, Uganda and all its beautiful trees.
The hot sun shines down on Kyampisi, Uganda and all its beautiful trees.

Things changed. I moved to Indiana, and while I still had my share of amazing students, it wasn’t like it was in Georgia. I ended up leaving teaching, only to realize a year and half later that it really was where I belong.

Here I am now, back teaching high school English, only this time at a Christian school in Uganda. Working with these kids here has made me realize something… I get it now. I get how the youth pastor’s do their jobs. They work with simply amazing kids.

Overall, so far my experience here has been a great one, but there are some issues that are hurting my heart. Issues that are bringing out insecurities in me that I haven’t felt since high school. And it has nothing to do with my students. My students have actually become my escape. I enjoy being with them.

I think some people find it odd. I was told it’s encouraged that we sit with students in the cafeteria, and since I’ve started doing so, my days have been better. Some find that strange, I’m sure, and I almost questioned myself a few times about why on earth I would rather spend my lunchtime with a bunch of teenagers than adults?

We are to shine like a sun over this calm, Indiana lake.
We are to shine like a sun over this calm, Indiana lake.

God gave me my answer when I was reading the book of Matthew the other day:

“You’re here to  be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve kept you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
Matthew 5:14-16 (The Message)

God sent me to Uganda to be a light. I will do that in whatever way He wants me to shine, and I honestly feel like the number one way I am to do that is with my students. If people think it’s strange, then so be it. I’m here to be light, to “bring out the God-colors in the world.” And I couldn’t be happier.

Sorry Satan… you lose.

Confession time. When I listed my biggest fears before I came to Uganda to teach high school English, I left the biggest one off the list: I was horrified to teach at a Christian school.

With some of my students my last day at North Side.
With some of my students my last day at North Side in 2011.

There’s no question that the majority of my students at Troup, Northrop and North Side loved having Miss Trout as a their English teacher, but not every experience I’ve had with teens has been pleasant. The worst experience I’ve ever had was with a group of Christian teenagers at my church in Georgia.

I thought working with the youth group would be perfect. I was in my first year of teaching, and putting together my love for God and for teens seemed like the perfect combination. I accepted the challenge of working with a group of sophomore girls. I was ecstatic to be a part of the youth group! I would be a mentor for these young ladies, and I figured it would also help ME stay in line in other areas of my life.

The exact opposite happened. I was open with the girls about my past, like my crazy partying days at IU, and it totally backfired. Their allegiance was to their previous small group leader, a young, pretty, married woman they had known their entire lives who was now leading a different grade. They refused to accept me. My heart was open to them, and they completely shut me out.

It was bad. It was hurtful, and my heart still aches when I think about it. I ended up leaving in the middle of the year, as well as leaving the church, because it was so bad. There was no reason for me to stay when they refused to let me into their lives and their hearts and learn anything from me. I was shattered.

These feelings all came back after I agreed to teach at Heritage here in Kampala. Satan really tried to attack me by saying, “Natalie don’t you remember what happened in Georgia? You can’t teach Christian teenagers. Christian teenagers hate you! Remember?” Satan is so good at reminding us of our insecurities that have been buried for years.

A few days before school started, and my nerves were already out of control about this whole “teaching Christian kids” thing, we were told we had to sign up for a committee. Our options were: special events, performing arts, enrichment, and spiritual life. I didn’t even think twice about it when I heard “spiritual life.” I signed up immediately.

It was like Satan attacked me again. “What are you doing? You can’t talk to these kids about God! Look at the mistakes you made in life! If they find out, they’ll turn on you just like the kids at church in Georgia!”

Satan is such a dirty liar.

Waiting for the rest of the youth group to arrive at last week's kick off.
Waiting for the rest of the youth group to arrive at last week’s kick off.

Can I tell you that I already know these kids love and trust me? Not only do I make them write essays and read books, but I also tell them about everything God’s done in my life and what He can do for them… and they still respect and love me?

Yesterday in my 12th grade class we got into a deep discussion and somehow my testimony came up. As I was telling it, I was starting to have those awful feelings and wonder if I would forever lose them if they knew where I once was in life.

But I kept talking.

And when I was done, one of my students said in his beautiful Kenyan accent, “Awesome, Miss Trout. Thanks for being honest. So many Christians lie about the dark times in their lives, but you aren’t afraid.”

Satan has consistently reminded me of what happened in Georgia so many years ago. But once again, God is the victor. What Satan once used to tear me down, God is using for His glory.

“And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us?
And if our God is with us, what could stand against?”

I said I’d never teach again…

In December of 2011, I packed up my belongings at North Side High School and left the profession of teaching for what I thought would be “forever.” I gave away nearly all of my teaching materials. After all, I was never going to teach again. Why hold on to all those things?

Fast forward to today: I am not only a teacher again, but I am a teacher at an international school in Uganda. God certainly has funny plans for us sometimes!

It’s been a year and a half since I’ve been a high school English teacher. I’ve had a year and half of teenage-free life. It’s been great, and it’s been sad. I miss “my kids,” as I so often call them.

Today was the first day of school at Heritage International School in Kampala, Uganda. All six years I taught in the US, I was nervous on the first day of school. But this, for so many reasons, was pretty horrifying for me. With God’s help, I survived.

5:00 a.m. I awoke to a mosquito buzzing in my ear. So much for that mosquito net around my bed. I could go back to sleep for another hour or just get up. I tried to go back to sleep, but the mosquito wouldn’t leave me alone, and my mind began to race with the typical first-day jitters.

6:30 a.m. I left the house and walked to school by myself. The sun was slowly rising, it was cool outside, and I had wonderful prayer time as I made the trek to Heritage. It was so serene as I thanked God for the simple things like palm trees and sunrises.

7:30 a.m. From the teeny kindergarteners to the towering seniors, Heritage was flooded with students of all sizes, ages, and nationalities. Many of my high school students greeted their teachers they were familiar with. It made me think of when I was at North Side and Troup, and students would greet me with hugs and high fives. Now, once again, no one knew me. I was just “that new English teacher.”

8:30 a.m. The morning assembly was well underway! We sang a few worship songs, prayed, and new teachers were introduced. After the primary grades were released, the middle and high schoolers stayed for additional information. I gave the presentation on the school’s “Honesty Policy” and had to talk about my Journalism class so kids knew what they were signing up for!

IMG_20130815_1048289:45 a.m. These kids already impress me. The high school was divided into four teams for “team building” out on the basketball courts. I experienced something I never once saw in the US from teenagers- encouragement and support. If someone messed up, someone else would say, “Nice try. You’ll get it next time!” It was clear that they look out for each other. They have a bond that students at large high schools will never understand.

10:50 a.m. The cool and dreary day turned into a wet one. Rain fell from the sky as I prepared my classroom for the 12th graders that would be there in 30 minutes. As if the thunder wasn’t loud enough, the pouring down rain on the tin roof of my classroom made it incredibly loud. Nerves started to come back as I anticipated the seniors walking into my classroom. There were only eight of them, but before they came in I started to feel like the little kindergartners coming to school for the first time.

11:20 a.m. The seniors naturally sat in the desks in the very back of the classroom. No problem- I just moved closer to them. What a group! They come from India, South Korea, UK, Germany, Uganda and Massachusetts! They certainly made me smile a lot with their questions and comments. One student and I especially hit it off. He is the one from the US, and he loves the NFL and NBA. The students got a chuckle when I high-fived him for liking “real” football.

12:45 p.m. Five students. You might think it’s a dream come true, but teaching that small of a class can actually be quite a challenge. The good thing is, they are great kids and have a great sense of humor. They come from the U.S., Canada, South Korea and Uganda. They asked lots of questions about Journalism, so I’m hoping lots of them sign up!

1:40 p.m. I sat at my desk in an empty classroom as yet another gecko scurried by my desk. My day was done. While I have to stay at school until after 3 p.m., my day of teaching was finished!IMG_20130815_104900

Now, after a long walk home in the rain, I am home with just our dog, Simba, and Domalee, our househelp. I am more than satisfied with my first day at Heritage. I know I said I’d never teach again, but I’m so glad that God’s plans for me were different!

From there to here. Not as easy as it looks…

IMG_20130801_093930I never once led people to believe I was moving to Africa to live in a hut and feed the poor. Anyone who had those ideas completely came up with them on their own.

My home here in Uganda is gorgeous. The school grounds are amazing. We have electricity (most days). I can Facebook and email on a daily basis.

The physical similarities end there.

I worked in my classroom all day without electricity. I was greeted by two lizards in my classroom- one behind a bookshelf and the other under my desk. I put up torn and faded posters around my room since I didn’t pack any, nor can I run to the store to buy any. Today I realized about a hundred things I still needed for my classroom and just had to accept the fact that I won’t be getting them until I’m back in the US next summer.

Transition. This morning at New Teacher Orientation we talked about transition. Anyone who thinks that because I have a nice house and a big classroom means I don’t have a transition to make is seriously misguided.

This is Africa. It might not be the Africa you pictured, but it is Africa. I don’t have a television. I don’t have unlimited internet. I don’t have texting. I cannot drink the water from the faucet. I have to take public transportation (a sweaty, crowded minivan or a boda) whenever I want to go somewhere not in my own neighborhood.

Transition. To say I’ve got a transition to go through is an understatement. This morning a teacher was telling us about holding his crying children the night before who just want to be back in America. Another teacher has left her husband in America until he can get his immigration papers cleared. Some of my co-workers are teaching for the very first time. Others, like me, have a huge adjustment to make going from a public school system to an international school.

But there are others going through transition as well… our students.

Heritage International School was originally just for missionary kids. It’s since opened up to locals. We have more than 25 nationalities represented in our student body. Let’s face it- not all of these kids are thrilled at the fact that their parents have moved them to Africa.

People seem to have this misconception that doing mission work overseas means only helping the poor. While I plan on taking trips to villages to do just that, the majority of my time will be working with teenagers. American teenagers, English teenagers, Ugandan teenagers, etc. etc. Do they need Christ any less because they are not poor and living in huts? Also, don’t they need someone to teach them while their parents ARE out in the villages helping the poor? IMG_20130806_120151_new

There are also a number of my students that are NOT Christian. The school, being openly Christian, gives us the opportunity to witness to kids who don’t know the Lord!

Transition. We’ve all got a transition to make. The teachers. The students. The parents. Me.

If you think this has been a walk in the park so far, it hasn’t been. I’m as happy as ever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tough. I’ve got a lot to learn and certainly a lot to adjust to.

As you pray for me, please also pray for my fellow teachers and my students, whom I will meet next Friday. Also pray for teachers and students back in the United States. Starting a new school year is a time of transition for everyone, but with God by our side, we know we can face it and be successful.

“And he said unto them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15

Such pride and disappointment…

That's me- cheering for the Troup Tigers at a football game in Georgia in 2007.
That’s me- cheering for the Troup Tigers at a football game in Georgia in 2007.

Having taught high school English for five and a half years, I had the pleasure of attempting to educate nearly 800 students. While I didn’t succeed at educating some of them, I certainly did succeed at getting to know my students and loving them with all my heart.

When I was teaching, I didn’t allow students to be my friends on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, for obvious reasons. But now that I’m not teaching, I’ll allow it (unless the kid was super creepy). Social media has given me the opportunity to see what my former students are up to.

Some make me smile.

Others devastate me.

I smile when I see the class clown as a Marine. So serious, so important, so driven.

I smile when I see that students who struggled to pass my English class are now graduating from college.

I smile when I see the heartbreaker has found the love of his life and is getting married.

I smile when I see the jock getting ready to open his own barber shop.

I smile when I see the yearbook editor doing mission work overseas.

Then there are the others.

I am sad when I see they’re doing drugs.

I am sad when I see them have kid, after kid, after kid.

I am sad when I see they pride themselves in being “thugs.”

I am sad when I see they love to advertise the fact that they have guns- and aren’t afraid to use them.

I am sad when I see that they clearly think that’s what life has to be like.

And then there’s the one you invested so much time in, only to see him a complete disaster down the road. I’ve seen my fair share of former students in the news, and not for good reasons.

If you’re a teacher who has a heart for the “bad” kids, you know who I’m talking about. For me, there was one specific “bad” kid I cared about so much my first two years teaching in Georgia. He won my heart over the first day of school. He even eventually got the reputation of “Miss Trout’s favorite.” He was a mess, no one believed in him, no one saw the good in him, but I did. Despite the fact that he was a drug dealer and whatever else he did outside of school, I loved him like he was my little brother. And I was going to save him.

One of the hardest things I had to learn in teaching was that you can’t save them all. While that doesn’t mean you stop trying to “save” all the ones who need it, it means you have to know you tried your best to make an impact on someone’s life and how they turn out but that sometimes… you don’t.

I shed so many tears over this kid when I was his English teacher for two years. He was never rude or disrespectful to me. Well, if he was, he’d be back later that day to apologize. I didn’t let him get away with things. I wrote my fair share of office referrals for the kid. But for some reason, I never stopped caring about him. Even when I moved back to my home state of Indiana, hundreds of miles away, I prayed for him. Still do.

And then a few weeks ago I saw on his friend’s Instagram, a photo of him with the words under it, “Free Marquez” (name has been changed). My heart dropped. I knew right away it had to do with drugs. The journalist in me did my research, though. It was much more than drugs.

There were actually six charges. Two of which were armed robbery and aggravated assault.

It made me cry. Was I completely crazy to ever believe this kid had a chance? I knew his home life. I knew the people he ran with. I knew that not long after I left Georgia, he dropped out of school. So why am I so shocked?

Because my heart is broken.

One of the things America has seen recently in the wake of what happened in Newtown is the fact that teachers love their students. They would do anything for them. As crazy as they are, as out of control as they are, as completely hopeless they sometimes are, teachers love their students. No matter what.

You would think this makes me give up on Marquez. What could possibly change now? Plenty. Here’s where my spiritual gift of Mercy comes in, and my faith in God. I’m still going to pray for him. I’m still going to believe that one day he’ll fix his life. He might not, and I might never know what happens to him. But I’m not giving up. Teachers don’t give up.

I might not be a teacher anymore according to the state of Indiana, but in heart I will always be a teacher. I still refer to my former students as my “kids.” Like a mother, I’m very proud of so many of them. Words can’t express how proud I am! And like a mother, I love my “kids” unconditionally. No matter what he’s done, that includes Marquez.