Doing the best you can: teaching through adversity

Oct 06, 2021
Megan Holding

Countless Newman alumni are making a positive difference and transforming society on each continent of the globe.

In this contributing article, Newman alumna Megan Dunaway Holding ’06 talks about overcoming adversity while teaching, even through a pandemic, and how she has been inspired.

As a young, 20-year-old education major at Newman University in the fall of 2004, I vividly remember sitting in the office of one of my professor’s, absolutely crying my eyes out. I was feeling overwhelmed after the first week of classes. This was the semester I had chosen to take 21 hours of courses in addition to maintaining a spot on the Newman dance team and working 20 hours a week as a pharmacy technician.

The class that pushed me over the proverbial edge had just informed me of the number of required classroom observation hours and I didn’t know how I was going to fit everything into an already packed schedule. I was feeling tired and hopeless and it was only the first full week of classes.

This wonderful professor, Dr. Karen Rogers, who had just become my impromptu therapist, could have given me plenty of platitudes, something along the lines of “you’ll be fine” or “everyone feels like this.” But the advice given to me is something that has become somewhat of a personal mantra; “You don’t have to be the best, just do the best you can in the situation you are in.”

Megan (left) with Dr. Rogers.

This phrase has gotten me through a lot over the years. There have been many times when I have had to remind myself that I don’t have to be the best, rather I just need to do the best I can.

I’ll be starting my 16th year as a teacher this fall and when I look back at all that time, I can see how choosing to live by that advice, given almost two decades ago, has shaped my career. In hindsight, some of the stories of past struggles are funny.

One year, my electronic key card died the first morning of school and I was locked out of the building, sweating in the early morning August humidity, frantically trying to call someone — anyone — to let me in the building before students showed up ready for the first day of school. I know I’ve definitely had to put my hand over my mouth to hide a giggle when a student has shouted something hilarious, but also incredibly inappropriate during class.

This happens all the time actually. But don’t worry, I always address the nature of the comment. But these are my family’s favorite anecdotes for sure. I mispronounced Apalachicola while moderating the All School Geography Bee and spent the rest of the day being graciously corrected by more people than I would have liked. I’m sure times like these are never going to come to mind when someone thinks about how to be the best teacher, but I’m just doing my best every day — and sometimes that looks way different than even I pictured.

Life lessons

Don’t get me wrong though, there have definitely been times when doing my best felt like being the best (not saying I achieved that title — just that it felt like it).

I’ve helped my students through some incredible learning opportunities, such as creating a living history museum of Catholic saints and hosting an annual blood drive with the American Red Cross.

I co-chaperoned a trip to Washington, D.C., for eighth-grade graduates, coached an after-school Girls on the Run program, and yes, even in-person teaching during the pandemic sometimes felt like I was at my best.

Megan (left) volunteers for Girls on the Run, a program for young girls that promotes empowerment by teaching life skills through lessons and running.

Other times of struggle are, decidedly, not funny or heartwarming. I have had to help students navigate death, loss and domestic uncertainty and felt wholly unprepared for how to help them in the ways they need most. I’ve been in tears on my kitchen floor, crying over interactions with parents who are struggling to see that we both want the best for their child. Helping a class of children who are confused and afraid in the aftermath of hearing about another attack on a school in their country will never not be a moment lived in fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.

In all of this — funny, sad and gut-wrenching — I have had that small voice in my head reminding me that I don’t have to be the best, I just have to do the best I can in the situation I am in.

Learning the difference between being the best and doing the best I can has been a life-long lesson. That lesson would be called upon yet again in March of 2020.

Speechless is the only word that may ever come to mind. The closing of schools and moving to virtual school was something none of us were prepared for in the early days of the pandemic. But as professional educators, we all took the time to do the best we could to help our students — our kids — to navigate a situation no one was prepared to handle.

I am blessed to work for the Diocese of Wichita and the 2020-2021 school year was mostly in-person. The challenges that teachers overcame in order to do the best in that situation was incredible. Being the best version of ourselves suddenly looked vastly different than it had the season before and even the year before. Once again, as we prepared to start another school year, it was necessary to reconsider how we will redefine doing our best.

A teacher’s job is to help their students to think, to grow, to understand and to learn from their experiences. I will forever be grateful to Dr. Rogers — the caring, patient professor who comforted an overwhelmed undergraduate student — for imparting her wisdom to me that day so many years ago. I am still learning the difference between being the best and doing my best and it is my hope, that just maybe, our students will embrace this message in their own lives, too.

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