Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Am I Here?

Post by Diana Steiner: Diana is in her 15th year of teaching World Languages - German and Chinese. This is her second year at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter @die_frohe_frau

I, like many of my colleagues, begin the semester by introducing myself on the first day of class.  Students are usually surprised when I tell them I am a first-generation American and a heritage language learner.  The second surprise tends to be that I was a trained interrogator and Chinese linguist in the Army for five years.  The inevitable questions are “did you torture (waterboard) anyone?”, “could you interrogate me?”, “can you REALLY speak Chinese?”, “where did you work” and “why are you a teacher instead of still being an interrogator?”    The first questions are easy to answer, “no” and “yes, but I won’t”, “yes, but I am a little rusty”, “the 8th Psychological Operations Battalion at Ft. Bragg and the US Embassy in Beijing” but the last makes me stop and think.  

Why am I here?  Good question.

Answer #1:  I need to teach.  It is a drive, an undefined something.   When I was five years old, I told my dad I wanted to be a German teacher, like him.  Along the way, I changed my mind only once (pediatrics was scuttled by my inability to comprehend calculus), but I have always been drawn to teaching.   I started as a Sunday school teacher for three year old students when I was 16, then worked as volunteer tutor through high school for elementary ESL students. I wasn't sure I would be good at it, but I did it.  What did I learn?  Preschool was not for me!  But I will never forget my ESL student, Joey.  He struggled and struggled with reading.  The time I spent with him on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons working on phonics and fluency resonated with me.   I don’t know where Joey is now, 25 years on, but I do still remember the smile and hug he gave me when I left the tutoring program to go to college.  It is the memory of a smile that compels me to be here. 

Answer #2:  I have something to share.  I don’t know why exactly but there is something inherently satisfactory about watching another person with little or no knowledge of something begin to use, internalize and perhaps come to love what you have to share with them.  I have been to a few places and done a lot of things in my 44 years on this earth.   If a story I tell a student about what I did as a soldier or as a furniture and humidor maker or as an assistant manager of a garden store or as a contract translator for a large software firm helps them define what they want to become in life, then I have been successful.   My favorite teaching moments have not necessarily been in the classroom, but rather when a student comes to tell me, “Hey, Frau!  Guess what?  I am going to join the Navy and be in intelligence”, or “Hey, Frau!  I placed into German 201”, “Hey, Laoshi!  I am going to continue with Chinese in college!”   “Guess what!  My mission is in Singapore and I will have a head start on Chinese.”  I am glad that I can share with my students and they, in turn, share their milestones with me.

Answer #3:  I like teenagers.  Call me crazy, but you can have a really good conversation with a bunch of fifteen year old students.  It is amazing to me what kids are interested in.  Cars, music, books, movies, I have talked with my students about all of these topics and more.  I taught at the college level for ten years but I never really had a chance to get to know my students.  At most, I would have them for two semesters, for 101 and then 102.  High school is the place to be.  I have the chance to really get to know my kids, because if they choose one of the two languages I teach, they are stuck with me for the long haul. I see the trust they place in me after a few semesters.  I have taken kids who have never been on an airplane before for a thirty-day trip to Germany to meet and live with another teenager, who for all intents and purposes is a complete stranger.  Over time, my hair has gained its own moniker, “the Frau-Fro” and many of my classes have a class joke, usually some vocabulary word that has taken on a life of its own.  I have a very odd collection of trinkets on the bookshelf in my classroom, ranging from origami stars to a small model of a German Tiger 1 tank to a Chewbacca PEZ dispenser.  And I remember the kids who gave me those things.  The first time I had seniors who had been with me for four years, I cried at graduation.  Those were my kids walking across the stage and no parent in the audience could have been prouder.  As I am writing, I am in my classroom with ten kids who are really into learning about Asian culture.  They are teaching each other Korean games and rolling on the floor with laughter.  They are freshmen through seniors and probably don’t hang out with each other much during the school day, but every Thursday afternoon, they spend 45 minutes with each other, playing music and videos from Korea, Japan and China and exploring  what THEY want to learn about, not what I am compelling them to learn.  When they ask me to teach them something, like writing Chinese characters, I am happy to lead the session.  When they don’t, I sit back and smile.

So that is why I am here.  Did I answer the question in a way which would be acceptable to the 15 year old boy who asked it?  Probably not, but it certainly made me reflect on the answer. 

  It’s you, kid.  It’s you!


  1. Guten morgen, Frau Steiner. Heute ist Sonntag und das wetter ist kalt mit schnee! Du schreiben sehr gut! Das ist alles! Okay...enough memory of my high school German class. I hope I didn't massacre the language too much. Just dropping in to say I enjoyed your blog. My favorite was, "I need to teach. It is a drive, an undefined something." I feel the same way and can't imagine doing anything else. I also liked when you said they get to learn about what they want...sometimes you lead class and other times you sit back, smile, and watch them. That is pure magic!

  2. Diana,
    Your commitment to kids is both genuine and infectious! You are "real" in the classroom and your passion and energy for teaching comes out every day. No, you are not crazy. You are what every school building and student needs....someone who loves what they do and wants to share it with them. Keep inspiring Diana! - jimmy