I did not realize how important teachers are until I stopped having them; I stopped meeting in formal classrooms, I stopped addressing people as “Doctor” or “Professor,” and I stopped feeling the pressures of a system that I could no longer understand. As a sophomore at Wake Forest University with a decent GPA and a long list of extracurricular activities, I embodied everything my high school wanted in an alumna. I utilized every interpersonal communication tool, every study skill, and every ounce of extra energy to do more, but the overachiever routine that got me into college was not helping me get anywhere past orientation. It was not until I received a particularly awful grade on an exam in Accounting 111 that I realized the system was no longer working for me. After the fall semester of my sophomore year, I left Wake Forest because I did not know what I wanted; two-and-a-half years later, as I enter my final year at William and Mary, I finally figured it out.

Taking a break as a student is what made me want to be a teacher. By stepping out of the system and reflecting upon my own ideas of and experiences with formal learning, I gave myself the opportunity to explore the world outside of academia. Now that I have returned, I refuse to distinguish one area from the other and I want nothing more than to help others blend their studies with their experiences. The William and Mary School of Education aims to do just that and I want nothing more than to better communicate William and Mary’s goals to others.

Though I experienced my major moment of realization amidst my college education, I learned how to solve my own dilemmas long before even thinking about taking the SATs and writing personal essays. In the spring of 2008, when I was “supposed to be” a second-semester college sophomore, I realized that, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had the answers that I needed all along. I chose to apply for the Elementary Education Program because elementary school is where students learn how to learn. It is impossible to force someone to understand anything, but elementary school teachers have the opportunity to teach their students how to fail successfully. Children do not fear failure until they are taught to do so; therefore, I feel that it is especially important for elementary school teachers to give their students the opportunity to experiment, without fear of failure, until they realize their own solution.

My family has always believed that you learn the most, the best when you learn from yourself. In fact, forty-seven years ago, my grandparents, both schoolteachers, founded a summer camp in order to promote that style of learning outside of a formal classroom. Camp Riverbend has been my second home for as long as I can remember and I have undoubtedly learned more while on its grounds than I have while anywhere else in the world. For the longest time, I thought that everyone’s grandparents had swimming pools, jungle gyms, giant sandboxes, and a river full of box turtles, and I am overwhelmingly grateful for my continuing adventures at Camp as a counselor, a lifeguard, and an arts-and-crafts specialist. I feel that it is especially important to incorporate the traditional classroom concepts with outdoor adventures and natural applications. It worries me that fewer and fewer elementary school aged children know more about how to take tests than they do about real world situations that do not involve filling in a bubble with a number two pencil.

As a third grader, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who had the same concern. Mr. DiLeo was the third grade teacher to have because every year, his students put on a Halloween haunted house and an end of the year play. Most mornings, I could not get to the bus stop fast enough. I was so invested in perfecting my design proposal for the haunted house, reading through the hand-written script, and looking for spelling and grammar mistakes that I did not even realize that I was learning. I learned how to work in a group during the first few weeks of school when the class developed and agreed upon an idea for our play. I learned to respect others when some people got a little to frightened in our haunted house. I even learned how to paint scenery and project on stage—all before I reached age ten.

During my semester off, age twenty, I realized that I learned how to adjust in the real world because of what I learned from Mr. DiLeo and his colleagues. I knew enough about myself to know that my time off would be best spent anywhere other than my parents’ couch, so I explored and experimented. At first, I worked in a retail store in the mall because I liked clothes and it paid. Nine months later, J.Crew not only improved my wardrobe, but it taught me how to work with others in a professional setting and it helped me realize that my future career path had to involve working with people.

Even though I only set out to have one job that winter, opportunities arose for me to experiment with other part-time career options. While attending a basketball game at my high school, I ran into the school’s athletic director, Mr. Vanasse. When I disclosed that I was home for more than just a long weekend, Mr. Vanasse asked me if I would be interested in coaching the sixth grade girls’ basketball team (although I only attended Pingry for high school, Pingry is a K-12 private institution). One of his goals as Athletic Director was to develop a stronger athletic program for the Lower School students, and I was happy to help. I had no coaching experience, so I relied on my past experience as a varsity basketball player and as a swim instructor in order to successfully complete the program, teaching the girls to dribble a little bit better and to hate basketball a little less.

News spread across the Pingry community that I was home for a semester and, even though I was not yet comfortable with my decision to take time off, I found that people really supported what I was doing. A teacher, Ms. York, whom I knew as a soccer coach and an advisor, asked me to talk to the current group of Peer Leaders that, as seniors, just finished the first round of the college application process. The Peer Leadership Program pairs two seniors, a male and a female, with a group of randomly selected freshmen with the hopes of creating a student-to-student support system. The groups meet once a week, every week until Spring Break during a period otherwise designated as Physical Education for the freshman and as leadership class for the seniors. Although I did my best to hide my failure from my former teachers and classmates, Ms. York wanted me to talk to the Peer Leaders about what I took away from the program and from Pingry. I reluctantly admitted that I did not exactly know why I was unhappy at Wake Forest and that I was still trying to figure it out, and Ms. York responded, “The fact that you recognized your unhappiness and are trying to do something about it is all that matters.” The opportunity to maybe, one day, pass on that sort of wisdom is why I want to be a teacher.

Fortunately, I continued to receive unique opportunities to look for solutions to my discontent. I started babysitting and, soon enough, I became the “surrogate mom” in a few families for weeks at a time. Most of the families were connected to Pingry and/or Camp Riverbend proving, yet again, that one’s education reaches far beyond the classroom. As if by fate, a colleague of my grandmother’s was looking for someone willing and able to be a teacher’s aide at a local nursery school and I jumped at the opportunity. I loved getting to know each child, what they liked, what they responded to, and how far they could go. I saw one child in particular, a four-year-old boy who just moved to the US from France, surpass the teacher’s expectations as he quickly picked up English phrases and, within two weeks, asked with a heavy accent, “Jenni, will you play with me?” I was hooked.

Since that encounter, I have continued to try to push myself without even considering limitations. By the fall of 2008, I was still undecided on what I wanted to do with college so, instead of applying to transfer before I was ready, I chose to study abroad through University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea. The program allows students to live on a boat for four months, take college-level classes, and circumnavigate the world. All of the courses required students to participate in Field Directed Practicum (FDPs) in at least three of the countries we visited in order to better incorporate what we learned with the real world. As a psychology major, many of my FDPs involved volunteering in hospitals, orphanages, and local schools. While onboard, I was able to take a class entitled Introduction to Science Education, and learn from a leading teacher and scholar “how to teach by not teaching.” Ed Sobey taught us ways to create classroom situations so that students demonstrate understanding of a topic, such as friction, before they are ever formally exposed to the actual subject. At first his approach seemed revolutionary, but then I realized he was simply letting natural curiosity take its course.

While I learned about learning on Semester at Sea, I figured out one thing that I wanted: to transfer to William and Mary. Now that I am in a learning environment that suites me as both a student and a person, I want more. I want to be like the people who have taught me how to learn and how to fail. I want to learn from the best how I might realize these goals because I am confident that no matter where my journey takes me, I am meant to be a teacher.