Tuesday, May 6, 2014

My Teacher Appreciation

It is Teacher Appreciation Week, though you could be forgiven for not having noticed. It's the perfect time for all of us to stop and say a few words about the teachers who made a difference for us, whose work we respect, and whose lives in the classroom (and beyond) inspire us. Here are some of mine:

Susie and I went to high school together. She eventually returned to this area as a music teacher, a job she did with energy and panache; then, she was stricken with cancer. And she still did the job with energy and panache.She beat the cancer, and then it came back. She was determined to teach and to work and to live with just as much energy and determination as she could. At one low point in chemo, she would direct choir and then, after the period was over, go back behind the building and throw up. She didn't want to alarm her students, but she also wanted them to see her live right up until the end. She was a great choral director, but she was a beautiful and spirited human being, and her willingness to be open and available to her students right up until her death allowed her to be a huge gift to them.

Mike was my high school English teacher. His passion for the work and the reading and the writing and just everything about the class showed me that teaching could be-- should be-- just plain fun. Whether he was performing a story as all the characters or demanding that we get involved in the discussion, he showed me how energizing teaching could be.

Janet was my eighth grade teacher. She was the queen of the project, and it was in her class that I discovered the great secret of English teachers-- math teachers have to teach math, and phys ed teachers have to teach phys ed, and science teachers have to teach science, but in an English classroom everything is fair game. We wrote and performed plays and we did art projects and we did pretty much anything that she would come up with. I learned that there was sooooo much more to English than just reading and writing.

Jack ran a classroom where it was a good thing to be smart. That may seem obvious, but you know how it is-- in high school, having brains is not always the path to social success. But in Jack's class, it was good to know the answer, and it was a plus if you were smart enough to keep up with his nimble, sharp mind. In Jack's class I learned that the best way to learn new words was to hear them and use them. He wasn't cruel, and he didn't leave the slower students in the dust, but in his class, it was cool to be on top of things, to know answers.

From Tony, I learned patience. Tony could carefully and slowly explain anything, and if a student didn't get it, he would explain it again. And again. And again. And I watched him explain well past the point where I would have had a hard time keeping the judgment out of my voice. But Tony explained that everybody had to get there in their own way at their own time. I landed my first full time job when Tony hit the lottery and retired to sit on the back porch of his mobile home, drink beer and read great books. (Tony gave me my first copy of A Confederacy of Dunces)

Penny knew more about teaching at the beginning of her first year than I knew at the end of my tenth. And she had a natural gift for putting students at ease-- before her classes presented oral reports, they would sing the Brady Bunch theme song as loud as they could. I have no idea why that works, but it does. Once a nine weeks, Penny would take a Penny Paper Day and stay home, grading papers for 16 straight hours. Penny could never become comfortable with the compromise between what she knew she should be assigning in perfect world and what she had time to do in this world, and she left the profession. So my last lesson from her was that you have to make choices if you don't want to burn out.

Ed was my high school band director. He was the most ego-free band director I've ever met. He told us a million times that it was our band, not his, and we had better take responsibility for it. Most of what I know about fostering student leadership and ownership I learned in the high school trombone section. I also learned from Ed another type of success-- his big successes were not just the students who became professional musicians or music teachers, but those of us who kept playing our whole lives. I'm not a musician, but my life would suck without music. I got that from Ed-- not all our students have to follow in our footsteps to have had their lives enriched by what we teach them.

Those are just some of the biggies. Here's my challenge to you-- I have told every one of these people how they were important to me over the past several decades. You should do the same. Drop a note, send a card, stop and say hi to one of the teachers that made a difference in your life.

It is hard to talk about Teacher Appreciation Week without sounding self serving, but we all owe a huge debt to the teachers who made a difference in our lives. If we're going to live out what we value, we need to tell them so. Take some time this week.

1 comment:

  1. At the beginning and end of every semester, I have my students write "Dear Mrs. Chili "letters; they write about their expectations and hopes for the class at the beginning and about their experience of the class at the end.

    Today, when they finish writing their letters, I asked them to compose a short thank you note to their favorite teacher - and then to go home and MAIL them. It really is the least they can do.