Reflecting on the joys of inspiring youth, schoolteacher Rebekah Stoll realizes that her students have equally inspired her
Twenty students gathered around five working kitchens, aprons in place, recipes set before them with excitement in the air and the warmth from the ovens heating the chilly classroom. Enthusiastic chatter from students can be heard as they are preparing their feast. Later in the day, there are 24 young men and women eager to begin their first sewing project, each needing my immediate assistance. The sounds of scissors cutting fabric and sewing machines humming is in the background. These are the sounds of students learning through creativity.
Inspiring youth is an important and challenging job. There are many pressures on high school students that stem from social expectations, familial obligations, and academic overload. Creating a safe, creative outlet for students helps them master the necessary skills to cope with their daily struggles. One field of study that can help students with these challenges is Family and Consumer Science (FACS), the modern-day version of home economics. While these courses are required at the middle school level in New York State, most people do not realize that this field still exists. Districts are quick to eliminate these programs even though there is an initiative in education for College- & Career-Ready skills and Career & Technology education — right where FACS teachers fit in. Yes, we still enjoy baking cookies, but more important, we offer courses on parenting, child development, nutrition, fashion, life skills, culinary skills, career success, and money management.
In an environment where students can be themselves, where they can be creative, comfortable, successful, and safe, they are likely to transfer those assets to other areas of their lives.
After an unexpected layoff, I was lucky enough to obtain a new position quickly. Shortly thereafter, I realized that starting my new job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had become stagnant in my former one. I had not been taking risks, I had been too quick to fall in line with the status quo, and I had not pushing myself hard enough. I had to reinvent myself, as I was teaching different courses at new grade levels. It was overwhelming but eye-opening, and I was reminded of how amazing students could really be.
A wonderful sophomore student named Stephanie* enrolled in my Basic Foods class. Stephanie is a very quiet, shy student who is also very intelligent. In class she was engaged, asked great questions, would do additional work at home, and shared some of her successes with me. Her mother communicated how much Stephanie loved my class and was so grateful to have the opportunity to learn from me. Stephanie and I are both vegetarians and I was granted permission to expose my students to alternative nutritional venues. Because of this, my students were able to explore different cooking techniques, consume a variety of vegetables, explore food ethics, and learn about nutrition in ways they had not been previously exposed to. This shared experience allowed Stephanie to feel more comfortable in my classroom and so she was able to be herself and open up a little bit.
Partway through the year I asked students to write a few words on their own time about the class so we could add it to the course catalogue the next year. Stephanie said:
“My experience so far in cooking class is amazing. When I get older I plan on going into the Family and Consumer Science field. I want to be able to continue classes like this throughout my high school years so I can get as much knowledge on cooking as I can. My favorite topic so far in this class is the baking unit because I love to bake cupcakes.”
Recently I discovered that Stephanie is an entrepreneur, running a successful cupcake business as a high school junior. Her customers rave about her culinary skills and her attention to detail.
As an educator, seeing a student use the skills learned in class in the real world is both inspiring and amazing.
Other students may not enter with Stephanie’s sense of purpose and direction. Maria’s* direction is less certain; she is less sure of what she wants to do with her life. Under tremendous stress in terms of her academic work, she fears the possibility of falling behind, but all of that disappears when she hears the hum of the sewing machine in her Advanced Fashion class. She is able to be creative, express herself, and get lost in the moment when she is sewing. Some days she comes to class upset over her difficult trigonometry class, feeling like she is going to fail at life because she is struggling academically. Once she gets to work in the fashion class, however, she finds her groove and creates beautiful pieces of art. She may not always like or appreciate the work she does, but she pushes herself to try new things and improve her skills.
Maria’s class was assigned a project where they had to choose a famous artist’s work and recreate it in fabric. Some of the students complained at first because they were not making clothes. Maria dove into the project immediately, diligently working during class and spending countless hours of her free time perfecting her work. Her finished product is absolutely beautiful! The students all remark when they come into my classroom how much it looks like the original piece. It would have been easy to dismiss the project when the students began complaining, but Maria’s excitement encouraged me and the other students to continue. Eventually, the assignment was a success with the class. It is often difficult for teachers to break out of their comfort zone and try a lesson that is somewhat unorthodox, but students like Maria help revitalize our enthusiasm for thinking outside of the box.
Although I was devastated at being laid off when it first happened, it really was the best thing that happened to me professionally.
I met many amazing students, faculty, and staff that will stay with me forever. New opportunities arose which made me a better, stronger, more flexible teacher, while exposing me to new challenges. Students like Stephanie and Maria are what make teaching so rewarding. They are what make all the difficulties and moments of self-doubt worth it. I may not be the reason that Stephanie has a baking business, and Maria may have found a love for sewing without me, but I am proud to have assisted in their journey. They motivate me to strive for connection with all of my students; you can never predict your effect on them. Although my goal as a teacher is to give students a safe, comfortable environment in which to learn and be influenced, I often find that I am the one being inspired by their creativity, lust for life, excitement, and sense of possibility.
*Names have been changed to protect the students’ identities.
You may also enjoy reading Youth Activism | Are You There? Messages From Our Future by Shea Ki