If you could take a semester off, what would you do? Megan Shields-Stromsness ’03E took two teaching jobs in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. She left Amherst last spring to teach fourth-graders with severe disabilities at Park Day School and an adult ESL class at Diablo Valley Community College.
Shields-Stromsness did not leave specifically to teach. Her only prior teaching experience had been with English 6: “Reading, Writing and Teaching.”
“The thinking we did about education and the actual teaching made me really interested in how people learn and made me understand and respect teaching as something that challenges the mind and the heart,” she said.
But the transition from student to teacher was difficult. “When I imagine myself, I certainly consider myself to be closer in age to a fourth-grader than to a fourth grade teacher,” she said.
Although she left with no clear intention of teaching, the time away was an invaluable experience for her. Shields-Stromsness, who co-taught, was also specifically responsible for the instruction of a 13-year-old boy named Sammy with cardiovaliofacial syndrome, a disease similar to Down’s
syndrome, who Shields-Stromsness described as “very smart with an amazing sense of humor.”
“He was a great creative writer, and he loved poetry and drawing, but couldn’t count past 13,” Shields-Stromsness said. Her most memorable experience with Sammy was helping him confront his own mortality and express it to his classmates. “The hardest day that we ever had was the time Sammy had been out for a week, and when he came back he was really scared [and] he wanted to tell the kids he was afraid of dying,” she said. “One of the most powerful things I’ve ever done was to be a part of that discussion with him about who dies and where you go when you die.”