Students Become Teachers: What My Students Teach Me

02/25/2013 03:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013

This article was written by Skye Suttie. Skye is Year Up New York's Lead Business Communications Instructor.

I used to play "school" when I was a kid. I would teach my imaginary class the intricacies of building an effective Lego compound, and then give a quiz. What was on this quiz? No idea, but I do remember writing wrong answers, so as the game continued, I would be able to grade these quizzes. I would mark the answers right or wrong (with a red pen, of course), and be happy when my imaginary students would do well. Mental health check, anyone? Reflecting on this game, I recognize that being a teacher is who I am and always have been. I'm never not a teacher (and that double negative is intended), and I recognize that I'm surrounded by teachers, especially at Year Up.

As a Year Up Instructor I've pushed, encouraged, corrected, challenged, and hugged hundreds of students during my tenure. I've learned more about the English language than I ever thought I would so I could teach my students the difference between "good" and "well" and why "myself" is often misused and abused. I equip my students with the professional writing skills they need to succeed in their professional lives. When I started, I thought I knew everything (ah, youth), and this reflected in my teacher-centered approach. Although that tendency lingers, I recognize the roles of student and teacher are fluid. As a result, they often reverse, and I've learned from my students as much as I hope they've learned from me.

Below are three of the many lessons my students have taught me, and while I'm just highlighting a few here, I also want to point out I'm not just writing about anomalies.

1. Be Tenacious

When Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New York tri-state area, it wasn't until the waters receded that the damage was visible for the world to see. We lost a week and a half of classes because the subway was closed, and many roads remained impassable because of flooding, downed trees, and power lines. Many Year Up students had significant damage to their homes. When classes resumed, I learned some of my students were living in shelters or were still in their homes with damages ranging from warped floors to sewage in the water compounded by no electricity or heat. Heartbreaking and encouraging. Encouraging? Absolutely! These students showed up and continued to show up. In the face of adversity, they continued to come to class, actively participate, submit all of their assignments, and excel. Their tenacity showed me that if I want something enough, I cannot let anything stand in my way. I was, and remain, inspired by their continued positivity and commitment. We should all strive to be that tenacious.

2. Be Fearless

One thing I've learned as a Business Communications Instructor, is that people fear public speaking more than death. Personally given the choice, I would rather give a speech, but to each, her own. Four weeks into the Year Up program, I assign an elevator pitch that students must deliver in front of the class. This 30-45 second pitch elicits hysterical laughter, silence, super-speed delivery, or tears. One of my recent students fell into the 'super-speed delivery' category and delivered her pitch in less than 20 seconds, omitting a majority of the content. She scoffed at my advice to practice more throughout the program, so for her final presentation (at week 18), I didn't know what to expect. She nailed every point. Her delivery was evenly paced, and as I listened, I saw her confidence replace her fear. I later found out she had been practicing relentlessly. She had challenged herself to overcome her fear and won. She recognized her capability and became fearless. This taught me that I can do more than I give myself credit for and, like her, be fearless.

3. Be Hopefully Realistic

It can be easy to get swept up in the negative things in life, which is why it's important to remember that it's all about perspective. This leads me to the most important lesson I've learned from my Year Up students: be hopefully realistic. Life is full of challenges and how we react to those challenges helps to shape who we are, both personally and professionally. A recent graduate from Year Up's Class of July 2012 said to me, "It's not a mistake; it's a lesson." After hearing this, I thought about how much insight my students have from the obstacles they've overcome. I thought about how much I have to learn from them. The alumna who shared this always keeps a positive outlook, and is hopeful that everything will work out in the end. At the same time, she recognizes what she must do to realize her goals, and is currently working full time while enrolled in college. She is hopefully realistic, and encourages me (without knowing) to be the same. I'm hopeful for the future because I know my students will be at the helm, and they are limitless.

Year Up students are consistently enthusiastic and engaged. They remind me every day that I've made the right choice to remain a teacher.