The Important Work is Outside Our Classrooms

By ROBIN MAITOZA

I was recently asked to be interviewed for a video promoting our College’s human services program. You see, our degree program recently went through a redesign to better reflect the demands of the field and to better suit the needs of our students. After going through the process of revising our program, my colleagues and I were excited to promote the positive changes to prospective students, employers, and community colleges in the area.

So, I agreed to be interviewed for this video even though I hate to be on camera. Once the camera person and interviewer got set up, the interviewer started asking questions about the changes to our program and such. I tried to effectively articulate the information, trying to ignore the video camera that was pointing at me. And then, the interviewer asked me what I enjoy about my job. This question was an easy one for me to answer, but the interesting thing, is that the interviewer stopped me after my response, and said, “You just lit up so much when you were talking about your work.” I was surprised there had been an obvious difference between how I responded to that question as opposed to the earlier ones he asked. He pushed me and asked, “So, why is that? What is it about what you do that makes you light up like that?”

So, I agreed to be interviewed for this video even though I hate to be on camera. Once the camera person and interviewer got set up, the interviewer started asking questions about the changes to our program and such. I tried to effectively articulate the information, trying to ignore the video camera that was pointing at me. And then, the interviewer asked me what I enjoy about my job. This question was an easy one for me to answer, but the interesting thing, is that the interviewer stopped me after my response, and said, “You just lit up so much when you were talking about your work.” I was surprised there had been an obvious difference between how I responded to that question as opposed to the earlier ones he asked. He pushed me and asked, “So, why is that? What is it about what you do that makes you light up like that?”

Wow. I had articulated to others, especially while interviewing for an academic position, why I chose to be an educator, but I never had any one really call me out on the emotions behind that decision. The interviewer definitely picked up on something more that I unknowingly and nonverbally communicated. Very insightful of him, I realize, in retrospect.

I did not start off my professional career teaching. After changing my major a few times in college (from accounting to elementary education to fashion merchandising), not doing well academically, and taking a brief hiatus from school due to personal struggles, I finally did graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business. My career started in outside sales where I worked for approximately six years with two Fortune 100 companies. I did well in sales, but knew I could not do this work forever as I really did not like it. I felt like I was missing out on something or not doing work that was particularly important in the scheme of things. After doing some soul searching, I realized my job in sales was not satisfying an important value of mine which is to make a difference in this world.

So I transferred my people and sales skills to a new environment and became director of development for a local nonprofit agency which provided counseling services to low-income families in a metropolitan area. It was here that I became truly inspired. After seeing the work the counselors were doing with the families, I decided to return to school to get my master’s degree in counseling. I worked as a counselor in multiple agencies and universities. This ultimately led me to start teaching on a part-time basis at a local university. Oh my gosh! I remember the feeling I experienced when I taught my first class. I had so much fun. I finally felt I had found my true calling. I discovered I was good at it too, and students responded to me. How exciting this all was. My career path had not been a straight or an easy one, for sure, but it felt amazing to finally reach this point of clarity.

After teaching on a part-time basis for a few years, I realized that if I wanted to teach full-time at a four-year institution, I would need to get a doctoral degree. So, I did. It was not easy as my three children were ages five and under at the time. But, I was determined and motivated. I received my Ph.D. in social psychology in five years, completing the requirements before many of the traditionally-aged members of my cohort.

I then landed my dream job: a full-time, tenure-track position at my current institution, a small, liberal arts college in the mid-Atlantic region. I had arrived and couldn’t believe it! I wanted to be at an institution which is more student-centered and where more of the emphasis is on teaching excellence rather than on conducting research. I found that exact place. I am now in my third year in this position.

And so, I told the interviewer that day as to why I love what I do is because I love making a difference in the lives of the students with whom I have the privilege to know. I realized very quickly after taking this job that I am much more than an educator. I am a coach, cheerleader, mentor, advisor, and counselor. Most of my most important “work” actually happens outside of the classroom. I never realized that would be the case, but it is. Now, I am not discounting at all the wonderful collaboration and learning that happens in my classrooms — that is evident and does happen. I thrive on being creative, engaging students, and designing the path in which we work through the material. But I also love getting to really know the students who are in my classes.

One of the distinct advantages of being at a smaller institution is that the class sizes are typically small. As such, this provides me with the opportunity to really get to know my students. And they come to me with their questions, challenges, struggles. They know I will listen and that I care. I think what I bring to the table is an extreme amount of empathy. Sometimes I think too much empathy, but I feel what they feel. I have shed many a tear with students who break down in cry in my office when telling me about a crisis or sharing an amazing accomplishment. I believe I have such empathy because I have endured many challenges in my life, but have come out stronger on the other side. I had my challenges as a child, young adult, and an adult so I know and understand pain. I think all of the difficulties I have encountered have made me a stronger, more compassionate person. And I think that translates to my students. They repeatedly tell me I am such a caring and accessible teacher. That’s why my office door is a revolving one, where I constantly have students coming in throughout the day sometimes just to say “hi”.

My students, regardless of which class they take with me, hear me talk about empathy. The other topic I always bring up is resilience. There are many definitions of resilience in the literature, however, the one that resonates the most with me is Dr. Froma Walsh’s definition. Froma is the co-founder and co-director of the Chicago Center for Family Health, the foremost family therapy training institute in the world, renowned for its unique family resilience approach and dedication to strengthening families in crisis. Dr. Walsh’s definition of resilience, based on her years in the field, is “the capacity to rebound from adversity stronger and more resourceful”. I firmly agree.

I am a better teacher, parent, and social justice advocate because of the adversity I have overcome. One of the main reasons I was able to overcome these challenges is because I had at least one caring adult in my life I trusted and to whom I knew I could turn when needed. Well, when the interviewer asked me why I enjoy what I do it is because I know I am that caring adult in the lives of the young people with whom I work. How rewarding is that! I cannot imagine doing anything else now. Despite all of the hard work, I get a tear in my eye when I have a student say, “You are the best professor I have ever had.” I know I am making a difference.

Robyn Maitoza is an Assistant Professor in the College of Behaviroal Sciences at York College of Pennsylvania. She is passionate about engaging and motivating college students to achieve their potential.

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