~ By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
So how do you go from being a traveling hardware salesman and college dropout to landing your dream teaching job at your high school alma mater?
You can ask recent Fresno State alumnus Jacob Simmons about his “15-Year Plan.”
Simmons, a first-generation college student who returned to school to earn his bachelor’s degree in English Education from Fresno State in 2016, just started his first year as a full-time English teacher at Kingsburg High School this fall.
A self-described “terrible student” when he first started taking college classes, Simmons says he spent six years after high school “turning into something that I always detested, as a student. I was completely disengaged. I didn’t like being the student who hadn’t read the book. I didn’t like being the student who’d only show up once every three class periods. I didn’t really like what was happening.”
Even though he found English and other classes in the arts and humanities interesting, Simmons says the timing wasn’t yet right for him to be successful in college. He failed to find the motivation to show up. He got poor and incomplete grades. So he left to pursue a job, “to really sink my teeth into something and to learn what that feels like to commit to something,” he says.
So, you ask: What did you do for work?
“Industrial sales,” Simmons says. “Selling hardware and personal protective equipment for Fastenal in Salinas.”
What did that job look like?
“You know those Fresh Express salads? I took care of all their apron needs, hair net needs, batteries, nuts and bolts, anything.”
How exactly did you get into that line of work?
“I had a pulse.”
And you laugh together.
Then Simmons continues: “It was always a means to an end. Once I felt like it was time to move on, and I had a little bit of money saved, it made the whole transition back to school better.”
And what were you thinking about school that whole time you worked in sales?
“I thought, someday it sure would be nice to go back to Fresno State and have a do-over.”
And Simmons did. Coming back to Fresno State in the fall of 2015, he was a long shot to earn a spot in the English teaching credential program. Two and a half years later, he finished it.
“I came back with what I believe was the lowest grade-point average a person can have, with just enough time to fix it,” Simmons says. “Even if it hadn’t been a long shot, I felt completely committed to English and the arts. It was really nice to feel like: ‘You know what? I love this, I’m interested in it, and I’m actually doing the best I can now.’ That felt great.”
English faculty make an impact
Simmons is one of dozens of new Fresno State alumni who join area high schools each year as English teachers, infusing a love of reading into the lives of youth. These new teachers — with freshly minted bachelor’s degrees in English and English Education, as well as single-subject English teaching credentials — serve as ambassadors for the arts and humanities in the community, turning young people on to literature and writing for life.
Although he says he has always loved reading and the arts – even during the bumpiest moments of his “15-Year Plan,” from starting community college in 2002, to dropping out of college in 2008, to eventually earning his English teaching credential in December 2017 – Simmons credits his Fresno State English professors and their teaching expertise to fueling his determination.
“These three women seemed to have their finger on the pulse of being an instructor, in a way I hadn’t really seen or thought about before,” Simmons says. “I was always impressed with their knowledge of the subject matter. Their knowledge was never a question. But their methodology for teaching, the modeling that they did, blew me away. I started getting ideas on how to teach.”
Simmons took two classes each from Dr. Godfrey and Dr. Hendrix, and one from Dr. Najmi. In his first semester back on campus, his experiences in Dr. Godfrey’s literacy studies course, English 131, and Dr. Hendrix’s mythology and folklore course, English 167, served as examples for the kind of high expectations he wanted out of his own teaching.
He wasn’t just studying the material now. He was examining the depth of the material and how that material was being delivered.
On Dr. Godfrey’s teaching, Simmons says: “I didn’t realize someone could be that much of an expert teacher. Seeing how she went about her business, the skill and tact that she had in working with students, Dr. Godfrey really practiced the art of teaching in a way that I had never seen. I thought, this is something I will always owe my students. I never felt like she was cheating us or mailing it in on anything, ever. I admired that a great deal. I felt a real obligation to her to bring my best all the time, because I knew she was bringing her best for us.”
On Dr. Hendrix’s teaching, Simmons says: “I wish I knew as much about anything as Dr. Hendrix knows about mythology. She’s a well of information, and that stuck with me. We are always getting better at the practice of teaching, but I really hope to one day be an expert in something like her and to deliver it so well. To have that expertise, to know material front-ways and back. To essentially have so much literature committed to memory would really be something, especially for my teaching.”
Moved by multi-ethnic literature
In the final semester of his undergraduate work, Simmons took Dr. Najmi’s multi-ethnic American literature class, English 179. The subject matter was crucially important for him to learn as a White male, Simmons says, but he also quickly became a student of how Dr. Najmi teaches and learns herself.
“Like everybody, I had read all the dead White guys in the canon,” Simmons says. “I still love the canon. But in the multi-ethnic lit class, I was instantly reading things I’d never read. The history of Whiteness. The beautiful pieces of literature by writers who I was absolutely guilty of never associating in my mind as American writers. I was blown away.”
The class read works by 20th and 21st-century American writers such as Kao Kalia Yang, Julia Alvarez, Louise Erdrich, Mohsin Hamid, Wendy Rose, and more. Simmons says the works completely moved him, and he uses writers of color in his teaching, to ensure representation of authors well beyond the canon.
“I always think about Dr. Najmi,” Simmons says. “How is she represented in my classroom, in the literature that I choose to present to the students?”
Simmons was connecting with Dr. Najmi’s teaching style, too.
“I have a lot of respect for the way Dr. Najmi interacts with people,” he says. “I believe her to be not only the most genuinely caring professor that I had, but I think she has a curiosity about her, for the world, that is something I’ve always wanted to maintain for myself. She is always investigating. A new writer, a new genre, a new style to write in. She is always learning. I could feel her curiosity in class, and that was something that really resonated with me.”
Sharing meaningful texts and creating meaningful curriculum has become the most interesting part of his teaching job at Kingsburg High, Simmons says. It’s a creative outlet, an opportunity that some teachers may not see.
“It’s so inspiring to me to seek out new texts, new methods, anything I can get my hands on to try and take in new information and see what I can do with it,” Simmons says. “I attribute that solely to my fascination with how Dr. Najmi operates in her classroom.”
Simmons says he tries to teach his sophomore and junior English students in Kingsburg that not everybody’s life experiences have been like theirs. Kingsburg is generally more affluent than other small rural towns in Fresno County, so he hopes to give students a greater sense of the world through the literature in his classes.
“It’s important that these students have an experience or learn about an experience that isn’t their own,” Simmons says. “There’s an awful lot of power these students will have when they leave this high school. In the literature we do, I try to bring to them a sense of otherness. In what ways can we work to help? What responsibilities do we bear? How do we start to tackle the idea of negative peace? It’s really important to me. That’s why I like teaching here.”
Word clouds on the subject of justice from Mr. Simmons’ junior classes.
A question from a mentor
You pause when Simmons refers to the idea of “negative peace.”
You ask: Negative peace. Where is that from?
Simmons tells you this idea comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” when Dr. King expresses his grave disappointment with White moderates, who feel to him the biggest threat to freedom for people of color.
“The White moderate,” Dr. King wrote, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom …”
This leads you to ask Simmons a tough question, a question that his mentor, Dr. Najmi, suggested you ask him:
What is the dynamic like for you with the brown faces in your classroom right now, and how do you negotiate that as a teacher who presents as a White male authority figure? How do you navigate the social climate in the class?
Simmons says he introduces Dr. King’s letter and the idea of negative peace at the very beginning of the year. The idea has become a philosophy in his classroom. “It’s not something I will ever harbor,” he says. “For the sake of comfort, I will never stop engaging with the students or asking them to engage.”
Simmons makes a conscious effort to answer student questions with a question, rather than suggesting an answer. His classes can feel “a little philosophical at times,” he says – no more of the “what’s the author’s deeper meaning” type questions, which suggest one correct answer – but the broader questions challenge the students to engage with critical thinking on a level that takes time and vulnerability, and they also give students more ownership over their analysis and understanding.
“I’m trying to put it completely on them to discover on their own,” Simmons says, “which is uncomfortable for a lot of these students, particularly at this school. Because they’re forced to think that they may be wrong, or that they’ve never thought of something before.”
Simmons doesn’t like analytical writing that feels apologetic – this probably is, or could be, or just may be – full of qualifiers and deflection. Students, he says, have been taught there’s a right answer, but he tries to teach that there are only answers that you can define and defend with evidence, so students learn that knowledge is something they have access to. They’re more inclined this way, he says, to sit and really think about a question and to investigate their own answers and assumptions.
You ask: Is this a surprise for them? The White male authority figure who doesn’t dictate “the answer” to them?
“It’s a big surprise for them, I think, because I don’t present as somebody who would have this type of conversation in a class,” Simmons says. “They expect a certain thing of me, when they see me.”
How does that make you feel?
“It makes me feel great because I want them to see. I told Dr. Najmi years ago that I like looking the way I do because I can show people who look like me that it’s all right to ask questions and it’s all right to break your indoctrinations.”
What do you hope the effect will be on your students?
“It’s important for them to be able to tear down whatever idea they have in their head of what a person should look like, who thinks this way, because then it’s harder for them to reject. If I look like them, then all of a sudden I’m the first person who looks like them who has asked them to think about justice before. It is so important for these students to understand, that sense of justice and how it has, sadly, not been for everyone.”
When you look at what you’re doing now — your focus on justice, your teaching, your own learning — what changed for you, after you returned to college, after the years of odd jobs?
“The arts are great, I love them, and I’m passionate about them. But I absolutely love being a teacher. It’s something I had never considered before, when I was working sales. That was my thinking going back to college: This time, it’s mine. I want to be here for something other than myself.”
Why is teaching now at your alma mater, Kingsburg High, so meaningful to you?
“I feel a part of the fabric of this community, a part of this school. I’m invested in it. This is where I went to high school. This is where my nieces and nephews go to high school. I care deeply about the education that the students get at this school. I’ve dedicated myself completely to it. I can do this.”