Seasons of Being a Literacy Educator

This year I made a career shift. After 26 years of English teaching at the high school and college levels at Iowa schools ranging from Iowa Valley High School in Marengo to Unity Christian in Orange City to Northwestern College, I am now working part-time out of my home. I supervise pre-service teachers in their practicums, sub in local schools, and do freelance editing. These jobs allow me the flexibility to travel with my semi-retired husband and to visit my new granddaughter in WA.



Because I am only 51, my decision struck some as strange: Shouldn’t she be pushing full throttle at this stage? Shouldn’t she be stepping up to positions of leadership in her institution and her professional organizations? What a cop-out to back off at this age.



Of course, no one said these words (at least not to my face ☺). But I felt them. I felt somewhat guilty for making this move. Part of this guilt comes from knowing that many people cannot make this choice for financial reasons even if they are tired (as I was) and looking for a career break, if not a career shift.



The guilt felt familiar, reminding me of what I have felt at different stages of my career as a literacy educator. Should I teach at a private school in the tradition of my family or serve at a community school? Should I stay home with my babies or continue to teach? Should I continue in K-12 education or become a teacher educator at the college level? And no matter what position I was in, I always felt as if I could be doing more: preparing more engaging lessons, providing more feedback on student writing, creating more meaningful assessments, etc. There were moments when I longed to return to my waitressing days when the expectations and hours were more cut-and-dried.



Maybe it is just my Calvinist background that feeds my guilt (we Calvinists are born totally depraved, with a strong sense of sin), but I am suspicious that many teachers live with some level of guilt. Fortunately, my background also taught the more empowering concepts of calling and station. Whereas I feel clearly called to be a literacy educator, that calling has been lived out in different stations throughout my life.



My first full-time teaching position was at Iowa Valley High School. What a greenhorn I was. I’m sure that my principal and colleagues shook their heads over me on a regular basis, especially since I replaced a veteran English teacher working on her doctorate. Teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment about killed this rookie who had never read Russian literature in her life. But with the support of across-the-hall math teacher Elaine DeFosse, I kept my head above water. My students, of course, made every effort worthwhile, like when my senior’s essay on Amana school consolidation won top honors in a UNI writing contest.



From there, nothing in my career went as planned. I took time off to see my son through cleft lip and palate surgeries. Then I ended up teaching college students, including pre-service English teachers. Who knew that I would have the fun of bringing them on annual pilgrimages to the ICTE Conference?


At the 2011 ICTE Conference, we celebrated Ashlee (Eiseland) Koedam’s 18th birthday with a Harry Potter cake at the Stoney Creek Inn. These students have gone on to teach around Iowa (Sibley, Pella, West Lyon) as well as in Idaho, Washington, Kenya, and Bahrain.


Next semester I will supervise five Northwestern College student teachers. I love my role of coach: asking questions, offering suggestions, listening to stories, and mostly encouraging them to have high expectations for both themselves and their students. How wonderful that these bright and caring young adults are joining the field of literacy educators.



Today I write this essay from Sunnyside, WA where I am taking care of six-week-old Rose while my daughter-in-law transitions back to work. Rose and I have a daily story time. She is learning the joy of sharing words in relationship, which is what ELA teaching is. Literacy education is my calling and always will be.

Grandma Kim with Baby Rose

Kim Van Es is a lifelong literacy educator, starting from teaching her little brother to read at “school” in their basement. She coaches writers and preservice teachers for Northwestern College.