From the time I can remember my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always the same. A teacher. But life is a series of paths filled with unexpected twists and turns. My husband joined the military while I was still in college and I had to choose: stay and continue my education on the traditional path, or move with my husband and continue my education online? I chose to move and shift to an online education program. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Development, I worked with children in a variety of capacities, primarily as a preschool teacher and behavior therapist. But I never lost my desire to teach in public schools.

I can still remember the day I found the CarolinaCAP program. 

It was one of the first days of Spring, and pollen was beginning to cover everything. I was sitting at a picnic table outside of a job where I was absolutely miserable. I felt defeated, unsure, and frustrated. I was experiencing burnout and was desperate for a change. Scouring the department of education’s website and Googling “alternative certification in South Carolina,” I discovered something new. I read a short article about an alternative certification program partnering with districts in South Carolina: CarolinaCAP. 

I knew this was the answer and a pathway into the teaching profession. I knew the classroom was where I was meant to be. Once I was accepted into the CarolinaCAP program, I began looking for teaching positions. I had found the program, now I needed to find the job. I turned to Williston School District 29, the inaugural district for CarolinaCAP.

By the time I completed the CarolinaCAP application process, Williston only had two positions left to fill. Both were sixth-grade positions: one in Social Studies, and one in English Language Arts. I was terrified. I had never taught children older than five. The idea of middle schoolers with their attitudes and newfound independence was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I wanted to teach and this felt like an obstacle that might turn out to be an opportunity. 

So I took the leap and applied for the sixth-grade English Language Arts position. After being hired for the position, I spent many weeks working in my classroom to make it warm and welcoming. I wanted my students to have a safe and comforting place to come each day. I cleaned, painted, decorated, and endlessly rearranged the desks. I had planned all of my classroom procedures and knew exactly how I wanted my classroom to run. Then, I was told I would be teaching virtually when school started. 

I felt completely out of my element. 

Little did I know, the things I was most unsure about would become the start of something amazing. Because of the risks I took, I not only learned how to connect and work with middle schoolers, I learned how to connect with them virtually. I saw firsthand the struggles with isolation and remote learning my students were facing, and I played a part in helping them cope. In a reflection at the end of the school year, I asked my students to tell me something they would remember from my class. One student responded, “You never gave up on us, even when we didn’t understand.” Another student shared, “You always asked us about our weekend and how we were doing.” I learned how to reach and engage students who were feeling isolated and alone, even though we weren’t together in the same physical space.

I also learned to use many different tools and strategies to make virtual teaching engaging. This learning, experimentation, and risk-taking led to the opportunity to run a school-wide professional development session on virtual engagement. I was nervous to lead learning for and with my colleagues as a first-year teacher. I worried other teachers wouldn’t find the information I had to share valuable, or that they would roll their eyes at my naive first-year enthusiasm. To my surprise, the staff was not only receptive, but appreciative of what I had to offer. My colleagues actively participated and asked questions during the session. After the session, I received emails posing follow-up questions, thanking me for my time, and asking for additional support. They recognized the time and effort I put into the session and met me with enthusiasm and encouragement.   

Then, right before the start of the second semester, I was thrown another curveball. I would now be teaching in-person and virtually. While I was thrilled to have students in the classroom, I was also overwhelmed. Again. I had just gotten the hang of virtual teaching. Now I would have to switch gears and juggle both teaching and learning modalities simultaneously. But this obstacle turned out to be another opportunity in disguise. I was able to maintain virtual teaching and experience teaching middle schoolers in person for the first time. 

After a year of unpredictability and experimentation, my first year as a middle school teacher culminated in unexpected recognition. Each year staff members vote on both a “Teacher of the Year” and a “Rookie Teacher of the Year.” I found out that spring I was selected “Rookie Teacher of the Year.” It was such a validating experience after all the hard work I had put in — from preparing to teach as a CarolinaCAP candidate, to working to learn virtual engagement strategies and support my fellow teachers in their virtual teaching journeys, to learning to manage and teach middle schoolers in person. Seeing the excitement on my middle school students’ faces and hearing them say, “My teacher won Rookie Teacher of the Year!” brought a genuine feeling of happiness and pride. I’ve built relationships with students I will never forget. The support I’ve received from my colleagues, administration, and the district as a whole has allowed me to grow into the educator I always believed I could be. 

My first-year experiences taught me how important it is to keep an open mind. What I initially viewed as obstacles, turned out to be opportunities. I have become both more humble and more confident. My journey in education thus far is not at all what I expected it to be, but every opportunity has led to positive growth. I love Williston. I love middle school. And I even loved virtual teaching, although I am glad to be back face-to-face. 

Teaching has always been challenging, and today’s teachers are facing more challenges than ever before. But if you have a passion and interest in classroom teaching, jump in with both feet. Alternative certification programs like CarolinaCAP support candidates working in other fields who have the desire to teach. The right support can transform your obstacles into opportunities. When I accepted my first teaching job, I was full of doubt. Now, I know this is exactly where I am meant to be.  

I was defeated, unsure, and frustrated. Now, I am thankful, inspired, and fulfilled.  

Brittany Caniglia is a current participant in the CarolinaCAP alternative certification program and teaches middle school English Language Arts in Williston, South Carolina. She graduated from the University of Washington and has a background in child development, reading intervention, and behavior therapy.