In 9th grade English class, Mrs. Johnson required us to write in journals every day for 30 minutes straight. Okay, seriously, I think it was 5 minutes, but it seemed like 30 minutes some days. I'm quite honestly not sure whether she ever read what we wrote or not, because my on-again/off-again boyfriend was in the class, and I'm certain I was paying a lot more attention to him (and M & Ms and Corn Nuts that the band and choir would sell for fundraisers) than to ANYthing I ever wrote in that class. I also have memories of writing while chewing Big Red gum. Come to think of it, it seems that the class encompassed boys and food. Not so different from any age, right? By the way, if you have not ever experienced the fine delicacy of Big Red gum, I highly recommend it for an accompaniment to writing (note: cure for writer's block = Big Red gum).
Mrs. Johnson also had a rule, which I believe is teacher-genius if ever faced with a Satan-spawned booster club who decides to include Corn Nuts as a sales treat. The rule was: no one could eat their Corn Nuts in class unless EVERYone in the class ate Corn Nuts. I truly should not have to explain her Einstein-like theory to anyone, anywhere, who has ever been around someone eating Corn Nuts. However, for the sake of those of you with high-falutin' palates, I'll tell you the reasoning: if you are in the room with said Corn Nuts eater and you are not partaking, the stench is nothing short of noxious. Hmmm....I think I just got knocked out of becoming the next Corn Nuts spokesperson role for which I might have been considered prior to this blog. But the strangest phenomenon occurs (I think it's Newton's 3rd law that states "for every action, there is an opposite reaction") when everyone in the room is eating these crunchy, malodorous snacks: no one is offending by the scent.
But I digress...
Mrs. Johnson assigned us to do this writing assignment every day to get used to writing. Some days, we were assigned a topic on which to write, with titles like, "What is your favorite book and why?"; "What are your summer vacation plans?"; "Why do you care about this ridiculous boy who is sitting beside you that breaks up with you every two weeks and you still take him back every time he asks?" Okay, maybe that last one was just to see if you were paying attention or to see if I was paying attention to anything besides unrequited love (it was not until next year, when we would read "Romeo and Juliet" in Sophomore English class, that I began to see the craziness in caring so much about this silly first love. It was, after all, definitely not worth a knife wound or poison, as far as I can tell).
But, some days, Mrs. Johnson would tell us to simply write about whatever we wanted (free write, she called it). I strongly suspect, although I have no proof to back up this claim, that she simply couldn't think of a topic for us on this day. All those years of Freshmen English, Big Red gum mixed with the scent of Corn Nuts had likely gotten the best of her. Free Write?? What was this nonsense? A couple of the boys in class had the nerve to ask, "But what do write about?" as if "free write" wasn't self-explanatory (I want to feel certain that my love interest would not have been one to ask such a vapid question, but I have a feeling he might have been one of the rebels to do such a thing). Mrs. Johnson had a sarcastic tendency to her; I suspect she must have inwardly rolled her eyes every day at least 10 - 15 times. She answered something like, "You can write 'I don't know what to write on this paper because I have nothing in my mind' 100 times if you would like but you will write SOMEthing for the entire 5 minutes."
But some days are simply like that, for those of us who call ourselves writers. "Ha!" Mrs. Johnson would likely say, in finding out I actually call myself a writer (note that I am not quantifying the quality of writing, but I do love to write), "Oh, really, and you remember being assigned to write in your journal about topics like 'Write about all things that are red' and 'What would a human do if it were really a dog?', and paying more attention to who had an extra nickel so you could buy M & Ms?? REALLY??" But there we were---assigned to "free write" when some days, we freshmen were just more concerned about whether we would get asked to Homecoming or whether we would be given a football mum (never mind...it's a Texas thing, I fear, but I have included a picture for your viewing pleasure).
And today, the first day of vacation with Dave and our sweet Labs, Rudy and Kirby, I was trying so very desperately to come up with a topic to write about. Who knew? My topic has somehow become the lack of a topic. That, I suppose, is what vacation is supposed to encompass: think about nothing, do nothing, and just enjoy. Now, all I'm missing is the Corn Nuts!
I heard a teacher say, "My principal doesn't even know what I do. I'm not even sure he even cares." It's very likely true, even though the principal may not have any idea that the teacher feels this way. Based on my dissertation research, many teachers feel this way, and my master's level students getting their Educational Leadership degrees to become principals often hear me talking about the importance of relationship building with staff as quickly as possible, once hired.
Now, think back to your own childhood when you were in school. For some of us, that might be a longer stretch than the capacity of our memories. What type of thoughts did you have about your own teachers? For me, they were mostly positive. My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Edgerton, acknowledged my love for learning and reading but also recognized I needed a little extra TLC (read: I was pretty needy) after my parents had gotten a divorce. In 8th grade, the sternest teacher I ever had taught us science, particularly how to recognize different types of rocks, complete with a trip to Enchanted Rock near San Antonio, TX (I'm not trying to divert to playing tour guide, but if you haven't been, you really need to). But that isn't the main thing for which I remember Mr. Katzer. I remember him most for approaching me when my boyfriend had broken up with me. I thought, "Oh no, here it comes. This former Marine officer is going to tell me to quit crying in his science Lab". Instead, he leaned down and whispered in my ear, "I heard what happened. Just remember: there are a lot of fish in the sea, and you deserve a better fish, anyway." Fast forward to Trinity University, where Dr. John Moore, the department chair (who had awarded me a scholarship that even allowed me to attend Trinity) and my "boss" (as I was engaged in a work/study program through the Education Department), would call me into his office some days just to talk about education and life. There are so many pivotal educators who made an impact on my life as an educator and on my life as a human, and I pray you have those, too, even if some of them might be negative examples (someone who told you that you would never amount to anything, but you worked your hardest to prove them incorrect).
Fast forward to the workshops, consulting, and partnerships I am able to have developed with so many colleagues around the globe. Sure, as with all teaching, some days might be better than others, but I will admit---most of them are pretty darn amazing! I have the blessing to "work" with educational partners from Bogota', Colombia, the Virgin Islands, the Yukon Territory, schools all over Saskatchewan, universities, and many states in the U.S. I truly consider many of these people friends and thought partners. Every once in a great moon, I encounter a participant who seems too busy for the work we are doing. Maybe a teacher is texting on her phone when I have asked everyone to discuss some topic in table groups. Maybe it is a student in one of my graduate courses who is upset because they feel I graded their paper too harshly. Maybe a principal thinks they are needed at their school more than they are needed in the workshop I am facilitating. All of the above have happened once or twice. But I also often encounter a paradigm shift from the types of characters above. I firmly believe that, when such shift occurs, it is because the person and I have developed a relationship.
One such scenario recently took place for me. I had the benefit of being with a group for several days. On the first day, one of my participants was "compliant" but definitely not "engaged" (huge difference, right??). Picture the child who couldn't care less about school and then just add a few years and a few inches of height. Voila! You have a picture of my participant. I tried to joke; I tried to implore; I tried to institute reminders; I even tried to get the district group to help; nothing seemed to matter. Fast forward to Day 2---still using humor and passion, I attempted to engage this participant, when all of a sudden, break time came. He didn't leave the room. Instead, he came up to me and told me that he recognized he had been disrespectful to me and he apologized. I agreed it might be disrespectful but not as much to me as to the rest of his colleagues who wanted to learn with him and the teachers back at his school that he truly wanted to help get better. We talked all throughout the break, and a miraculous (or perhaps not so miraculous, depending on what we know about relationships) thing happened. He began engaging, nodding his head to something a colleague said, reading the material requested, asking questions aloud, and so much more. By the last day we were together, he came up to me at the end and said, "This is really important stuff. We should all get more great learning like this! Can you come back and teach us some more?" And then the clouds parted, the Heavens opened, and the angels sang, "Hallelujah!" (or maybe that was me singing "Hallelujah and pass the peas!").
Did I do something special? While I would love to take some credit for it, I simply cannot, other than I didn't give up. What made the difference was the relationship he and I began to form. He walked out with a major paradigm shift, and I walked out on Cloud 9, knowing that I cannot save every 'student' I teach; but for that one with whom I establish a caring relationship (two-way, by the way), it makes all the difference in the world!
I am eternally grateful God tapped me on the shoulder when I was six to tell me I better start teaching my stuffed animals how to read, as teaching was going to become my life's work. I pray that I still feel this same passion when I am 66, 76, and 86....and beyond.
Just for today, I pray you remember one of my favorite lines which has been attributed to both Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt (and many people since):
Thumbs up if you knew it was Teacher Appreciation Week this week. Hold them up high. As we enter the "week" in which we are told to appreciate teachers (wait, what?), so many thoughts are swirling through my mind. This, as most of you know, is not uncommon for my brain to swirl around with emotions and thoughts and beliefs. I won't try to dismantle all of them, but let me try for a few:
1. Despite what some people think, teachers are actually appreciated much more than is talked about. Ask any parent the last day of summer how much they appreciate teachers. What about the day after Halloween? Spring Break? "Thank goodness they are headed back to school" is the battle cry heard round the world (or at least in parking lots and coffee shops where frazzled parents sit and cheer). Seriously, I hold a firm belief that teachers are appreciated quite a bit...but I don't think they are TOLD how much they are appreciated. This is human nature, in my humble opinion. We have a tendency to complain when our order is wrong at the restaurant, but it takes a lot of work to remember to thank the server for the great service when it happens. We grouse (on Facebook, apparently, a lot, I see) about the airline delaying us from getting home on time, but how often do we take the time to thank the gate agents for their patience when they are harried? The same holds true in education, I think. It seems easy to storm into the school to complain about a missed memo or a grade being too low, but how often is there simply a "thanks for caring about my kid every day"? It's almost as if we wait for the same entity that came up with the fact that May is also National Bike Month and National Hamburger Month to tell us that this week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and then we pull out all the stops. I am blessed to talk with teachers a LOT! Want to know what they tell me means even more to them than having lunch provided every day this week by the PTA/PTO/PTSA (whatever you call it in your neck of the woods)? Being told they make a difference in the life of your child. (Don't cancel the lunches and the coffee gift cards, though. They love those, too!)
2. Every teacher has a story of how they are in the position they are in of shaping the minds of pre-school, syrup-sticky fingered sweeties to helping doctoral students finish their dissertations. Sometimes those stories are born of family generations of educators ("I had no choice---teaching is simply what my entire family has done!"); sometimes, teachers choose the field because they hated school and wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people who might otherwise hate school; sometimes, there are those of us who lined up our stuffed animals and tried to teach them how to spell words correctly (and now have substituted the stuffed animals for a husband who has to endure said practice). Every teacher has a story of how they happen to be in this position that sometimes seems so thankless and sometimes feels as though they are defending every move they make (i.e. "I expect that you will spell the word 'principal' correctly and not as 'principle' if you plan on becoming one", I may or may not tell my university students). Perhaps, for Teacher Appreciation Week, it would be lovely to ask a teacher what their story is....and to truly listen to their answer.
3. Teaching, as most everyone knows (but it doesn't hurt to have the reminder) is such complex work. While there is no formula for doing it correctly, there are so many pieces to the comprehensive process of educating students, it baffles the mind! While it is a role not for the faint of heart, it is also the most fulfilling, passionate, enduring endeavor I can think of. To have students return (in person or on Facebook) and tell you something they remember and will hold near and dear to them that YOU taught them is a treasure unmatched by most any imaginable gift (even better than a coffee cup with "World's Greatest Teacher", which is pretty cool, too). Certainly, we live in a time in which there are disputes about our education system and how it can be improved, and it CAN! So, let's get in there, with all the passion we can muster and weigh in on the ways we can improve the work that impacts all other work!
Just for today, why not consider the impact a teacher had on your life and take a moment to thank them? For the record, I tell my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Edgerton, on at least a yearly basis, the tremendous impact she had on my decision to become a teacher. P.S. I don't wait for Teacher Appreciation Week to do it. And, Mrs. Edgerton, I still read "Where the Red Fern Grows" to kids (my niece, my grand-niece, students in schools, etc.) any chance I get because of you.