Graham Litterst, English language teacher at South Junior High School, wanted to stay as far away from teaching as he could. Both his parents were professors. His mother taught at St. Cloud State University and his father at the College of St. Benedict. Growing up, he saw first hand how they dedicated themselves to their students, whether it was bringing work home to do late at night or staying late to help a student. It was a lifestyle that never appealed to him.

As a teenager, he shied away from jobs that had anything to do with education until he noticed that he started gravitating toward teaching kids snowboard lessons or coaching. While attending college, he unexpectedly had his first child at the age of 19. He asked himself, “How do I support my family with a degree in anthropology and religion?”

Upon reflection and a college professor’s advice, as well as taking into consideration his love of culture, religion and language, he decided to become a Spanish teacher. As time went on, he added an English as a Second Language minor (ESL). It was during his student teaching that he discovered that his ESL classes were much more rewarding.

“ESL students were so much more interested [in learning],” says Litterst. “It’s a very rewarding profession,” he says of ESL teaching. “I get energy from the students I work with. [And] I work within a field that is highly needed.” The students Litterst works with often come from a background of little or no education.

“A lot of these kids are coming from trauma,” he explains. “It [learning] takes twice as much effort due to language and culture barriers.” What he loves most of all is the moment when he knows a student just gets it. Something clicks, and all the pieces fall into place. “They just eat [education] it up,” shares Litterst. “Having that level of interest is just so rewarding. The growth is so quick.”

As he reflects back on his last year, there were times where several of his eighth-grade students seemed to have flatlined in their learning since he had had them in elementary school. Their oral proficiency was good, but their reading and writing skills were low. As seventh-graders, the group seemed to be filled with drama and negativity, which can be a common issue in middle school. Litterst tasked the class with doing a 15 to 20-minute presentation about who they were and where they were going for their future.

“Some of the presentations were incredible!” he exclaims. “They put together amazing presentations about their time as refugees, describing the loss and death they’ve experienced in their life. One student, in particular, realized she wanted to complete her education and move back to Africa to help other refugees that have suffered. She truly became a leader in the class. It literally brought tears to my eyes. She figured it out and got it.”

To this day, Litterst still checks in on that student who is now in high school. In fact, he keeps a folder of letters from all of his students who have shared their “aha” moments with him. The folder is just another reminder of why he loves to teach, while his classroom reminds him that he is exactly where he was meant to be all along.

(Story originally appeared in May 2018 on District #742 blog)