Vanessa Martin has come a long way from her Catholic school days when she was taught by nuns in the Washington, D.C. area.
A graduate of Benedict College with an undergraduate degree in English education and with a master’s in teaching from Columbia College, she instills her love of reading with her students.
She said a teaching career felt right, though she began college studying computer science.
“I always enjoyed school. I always stayed after school helping teachers with bulletin boards or correcting papers,” she said. “I was always under the tutelage of a teacher.”
Martin said the career path chose her more than she chose it.
“No one was surprised but me. Friends and family knew I had it in me,” she said.
She said one of the greatest challenges to her job is the parent support for high school students. Noting that it declines after a certain age, she lamented that many parents take a hands off approach by grade 12.
“I believe that is the most critical part of a child’s life because graduating is one of their greatest achievements,” she said. “Sometimes parents become involved after it is really late in the game, like May, when their child is in danger of not graduating and by then it is often too late.
She remembered her school days when students all went to class together and there were few extra programs, yet the students were held accountable for their studies and managed to learn the material. She said it is not necessarily a progressive change to primarily measure success by test scores and closing achievement gaps. While she prepares students for standardize test assessment as part of her duties, she focuses a large deal on making real world connections with her British Literature students so they become active learners rather than just skilled test takers.
Whether they are reading Shakespeare, Chaucer or Beowulf she realizes that from a student perspective the texts can appear boring.
That is why Martin uses a historical approach to teaching literature that connects the texts to family, the real world and emphasizes student discussion and reflection.
For instance, when teaching Macbeth she leads a discussion on insanity and the conduct of Macbeth’s mother while linking that to murder conspiracies and to psychological and social issues in the news today.
Students also are required to read a contemporary text that parallels the British Literature selection.
They then do recitations, create brochures, billboards, write letters to characters and create movies as they think critically about texts.
Students also watch portions of movies and pair them up with the scene or act in a play to help the play come to life.
Martin believes that by giving a student choices, the student is more likely to find the motivation and the means to take something away from her English class.
Her career began with teaching students who had made some bad choices in life. Her 14 year teaching career started at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Teaching there showed her the valued of a structured class environment where a teacher has custody and control.
The time there allowed her to learn how to handle situations that could become intense by using an assertive response to disarm the conflict rather than aggression that could inflame the issue.
“Teaching at DJJ helped me learn to deal with at risk students and divergent learners as well as deal with unruly and disrespectful students,” she said.
Those lessons carry over to her classroom where she holds her students accountable with high expectations. Martin said the high expectations are a two way street.
“If you have high expectations of your students then they have high expectations of you, she said. You have to make sure you activate that prism of knowledge in children,” she said. “Until you find where they are mentally, socially, culturally and emotionally you cannot teach them.”
Martin lessens the intimidation factor to reading classic literature by trying to convince her students that they are merely learning about what they already know firsthand—the human condition.
The nature of human beings has not changed over the centuries and once one student responds along those lines, the effect is contagious with the rest of the class.
“I have learned to really enjoy the role of teacher and my position as a gift. As a teacher I fully understand my responsibility to community and value to society,” she said.
By striving to provide the best quality education experience for her students every day, she said that helps keep her sharp because the next day the students expect the same.
“I want to be that unforgettable teacher (in a child’s life). Students know I give them my best and because I give my best it is not so hard to get them to do their best,” she said.
Martin said her greatest success is when students come back to say thank you for the quality of their education and how it has prepared them for college and beyond.
She seeks to build a bridge that cannot be broken that prepares her students for college and what they will learn in another teacher’s class at the post secondary level. She lives for those light bulb moments when students say aha and that “everything Mrs. Martin taught me made sense.”