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WRITE TEAM: What teaching taught me

It was in the late afternoon of April 1, 2017, when I had arrived at the La Salle County 4-H Extension Office. Clad in suit and tie and up to my knees in anxious sweat, I sheepishly strode inside.

Waddling my way down into the basement meeting room, I fiddled with my demonstration board before hastily assembling it. I had arrived early — perhaps too much so — and the ensuing half hour of dread felt like days stretched into hours stretched into minutes. Eventually, a lone soldier dared his passage into no-man’s-land, and I was met with my first recruit. Soon enough, the room began to swarm with fresh faces and my mind turned to a haze. I felt myself violently shake in my skin before I first opened my mouth to speak. Met with a dozen attentive eyes, I clumsily fidgeted with my syllabus before repressing my terror and forcing out an inviting tone. “Hello and welcome everyone to our inaugural meeting,” I recall warmly greeting the pupils before me. “Here we will cover chess basics and strategy, so I hope you’re all in the right place.” Before long and despite all odds, eccentricities, stammers, and shortcomings, I had lasted until the end of the hour.

I couldn’t have known it then, but it was my experience in managing and instructing a chess spin club for my local 4-H chapter that would inspire me to consider an unlikely career for myself: teaching. The thought of a socially anxious, professionally awkward, and devout introvert pursuing a career focused on public speaking and working with others may turn some heads, but truthfully I’ve always considered the idea. Unbeknownst to some, my reclusive behavior is just a facade built by my subpar socialization; beneath it, I am open, outgoing, enthusiastic, and comedic — I’d like to think so, at least. In fact, the idea of helping others to unlock their potential impassions me.

I think my love for teaching originates in my love for learning. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been interested in chess; I can recall memories of a mini-me fawning over the 64 squares and wracking my brain at the limitless possibilities. That desire to understand the complexities of the game would eventually drive me to the IHSA State Chess Championship, and later taking the opportunity to apply my proficiency as an instructor. Such a decision was unorthodox for me — possibly even unthinkable — but before long, I had discovered that I came alive upon commanding a room. Wherever I felt distraught or inept, I found motivation in each “eureka” moment reflected in my students’ faces. I soon found strength in my obvious flaws. In place of my awkwardness, I found a charm point. In my remarkable stuttering talent, I found a source of self-deprecating humor, and a means of easing the tense atmosphere. Eventually, I found myself a natural at the craft.

There is a saying that suggests your greatest weakness can be your greatest teacher — for me, social anxiety has been a harsh instructor. If social awkwardness were a sport, I’d be an Olympian; and I’d head home clutching the gold. But the world is not geared in the anti-socialite’s favor; because of this, I’ve long recognized the need to adapt to survive. Volunteering to lead a spin club was an unexpected, but vital step into the wilderness — one which highlighted an unrealized passion of mine. Through those many anxious hours, I discovered that I have what it takes to command a room confidently and diligently, something I never could have imagined prior. I’m a firm devotee to the philosophy that we are to learn from the experiences we endure, and that those experiences mold us into who we are destined to become. Perhaps there’s a firebrand beneath my deadpan facade — and teaching has taught me how to unleash him.

KELBY SWANSON Is a recent Ottawa Township High School graduate. He is looking to study psychology and philosophy at Illinois Valley Community College. He can be reached at tsloup@shawmedia.com.

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