The 'lesson within the lesson': Teaching students about their own lives

Shonda Buchanan never wanted to be a teacher.

In her Inspired2Educate submission, Shonda describes how she wanted to travel and write for a living -- essentially, she wanted to become a blogger before blogs even existed.

"So, when I received my B.A. in English at Loyola Marymount University, I began working at a magazine [and] worked my way up from staff writer to assistant, to associate, and then managing editor," she said.

But fortunately for us, and for her students at Hampton University, something changed. In addition to editing the magazine, Shonda taught writing workshops for at-risk students. "There was a moment in one of those classes where I was teaching a poem, and basically, I could see how no one had ever thought that these students could realize their world through language," she recalled.

"That was my moment where I thought, 'I should probably go back to get my M.A., and I should probably start teaching ... because I might have a little bit more to offer higher ed than I thought.'"

Many students are fortunate that Shonda made that decision, and we're fortunate we can learn from her story; she's this month's honoree in the Inspired2Educate program, which encourages current education professionals to nominate a teacher, administrator, or staff member who inspired them to start their careers in education.

Shonda credits Dr. Rico, her college literature professor, with sparking a deep and lasting love of language; however, it wasn't until Shonda became a teacher herself that she realized how much of an impact Dr. Rico had on her.

Shonda was the first person to graduate from high school in her family. In college, Shonda was a single mother caring for a small child. Dr. Rico would allow her to bring her daughter to class in her car seat. And then in her master's program, Shonda would sometimes pick her daughter up from school and bring her to class in the evenings. Shonda's "nontraditional" college experience and the accommodations made for her by Dr. Rico and other professors make Shonda particularly empathetic to her students' unique situations.

"Having that memory of Dr. Rico being lenient towards me as a young single mom kind of allowed me to see that people have circumstances which are sometimes within their control, but sometimes beyond their control," she said. "It's our job to see that, as educators, and to not be so hard and strict and fast with the rules. Because they want to be there to learn."

Shonda's empathy toward her students is not the only aspect of her teaching that she credits to Dr. Rico. Dr. Rico made the literature come alive for her students. She helped students relate what they read in the pages of Shakespeare to their own lives and struggles and triumphs. And Shonda strives to have the same impact on her own students.

"Every morning when I come to teach, I'm thinking, 'What is the lesson within the lesson? What is it that I can help my students keep in their back pockets for ten years later?' This was an idea that was introduced in my freshman composition class, and Dr. Rico was really passionate about this," she explained.

Seeing how Dr. Rico's dedication to the craft of teaching has been passed down to Shonda, who is passing it on to her own students, reminds me of the multiplier effect that teachers have on society. This is something I see consistently in the Inspired2Educate submissions I read each month. Shonda is doing her part to encourage the next generation of educators ... which is why we are so happy to honor her this month.

"We need you," she tells her students. "If you want to do something that will allow you to learn from the population you're working with, become a teacher. If you want to give back to future generations, become a teacher."

We couldn't agree more. Thank you, Shonda.