Colleen Clemens on Traveling in Cape Town and the Power of the First Step

Noodle Expert Colleen Clemens talks about why students should explore Cape Town and the power of taking the first step on your big journey.

Noodle Expert Colleen Clemens talks about why students should explore Cape Town and the power of taking the first step on your big journey.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I was so lucky to have had Mr. Ritter for creative writing when I was in high school. He taught us to find our voices during a time when it feels like no one is listening to you. He gave our work attention as if we were professional writers. He showed me graphic novels that helped me broaden my view of what writing could be. And when I started my teacher training, he took me into his classroom where I could learn the skills required to engage even the most challenging students. Mr. Ritter passed away a few years ago, and — even though he had long been retired — the community deeply mourned his loss. To say that I have had the teacher I always wanted (and want to be) is a blessing!

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

I don’t even know where I first saw the reminder “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but I have invoked it every day since then. When I approach a large project like a writing assignment or a closet that needs to be cleaned, I have to remind myself that all I can do is start. Becoming overwhelmed by a big task can be paralyzing, getting in the way of creating something important. When I remember that one step in the right direction is the only step I can take, I feel like I can do anything.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I tell my daughter all of the time that the world is a big place. The world offers us an opportunity every day to connect with others and learn about the environment. If the student had never traveled before, I would send her to Cape Town, South Africa. The city offers a student the opportunity to learn about challenges of segregation and poverty and successes of community building and reconciliation. She can climb Table Mountain and learn about tenacity. She can take a boat to Robben Island and see the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. She can go out and hear music and dance. One can learn much about the world from visiting Cape Town.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

When I was in graduate school getting my Ph.D. in English, I took a course on Renaissance love poetry, something of little interest to me. I felt like I didn’t have the authority to do assignments like write a book review and an abstract. I earned lower grades than I would have liked. I learned that I needed to value all learning experiences and trust my voice, a lesson that has served me well as a scholar and teacher.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I always say that I embody the word “vocation,” that my career was a calling. I used to set up my stuffed animals and teach them how to read and sing. Now that I have been teaching for twenty years, I still love seeing the light in a student’s eye when she “gets it.” Teaching has actually been better than expected in many ways, though I never thought it would be as emotionally challenging as it is. Students are humans with their own wants and needs, and when they struggle, their teachers want to help, even if we sometimes can’t.

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