Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Words Sustain Me

During a discussion of various end of the year stressors, I overheard one of my colleagues say today in the teacher's room, "I won't ever win any popularity contests but..." The comment is one I have heard before when a teacher holds the line and has high (or dare I say appropriate) expectations for his/her students but struggles with some internal conflict that such teachers are less often rewarded with visible acclamations of praise and affection from their current students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. I can think of several excellent teachers, for example, who have never been recognized with the honor of a yearbook dedication or who have never been asked by a class of students to do the honor of giving a commencement speech at graduation. They are the teachers who are considered the "hard asses" or the ones whose consistent efforts aren't "flashy" enough to win any heralded write-ups for "favorite teacher".

Today I got thinking of this seemingly unjust truth. I thought also of how often the "popular teachers" have only been at our school for a few years. Whether they were dismissed or left of their own choosing I am not always sure. But I truly believe that it's the "unsung heroes" that have earned my respect and admiration over the years. These are the teachers I have witnessed working tirelessly to provide a sound, thoughtful, and rigorous curriculum while delivering instruction that is innovative and attentive to the needs of our changing society. They are the professionals who I would most want my own children to have as their own teachers.

Where do I fit in as a teacher? I'm not always sure. I do know that I have been criticized by some of my colleagues, administrators, parents, and students for being traditional (however they choose to define that word) and have been equally criticized by those same stakeholders for not being traditional enough. I have been both praised and condemned for being creative in the classroom, heralded for being open and honest in my communication for students one day and scorned for not being more open the next. I remind myself and my colleagues that we're in a business where the product of our hard work cannot be readily seen. Our students graduate and it's only by chance that we learn whether or not our teachings did them any real good in their lives later on. But we have to have faith that we do indeed impact our students' lives in positive ways, in more ways than any standardized test may indicate, I might also add. It is my strong belief that to be a good teacher takes no particular style, personality, or set of instruction materials. Rather, it's an intuitive process of seeing what students need, of seeing where they are when they enter your classroom, and pulling out all the stops to insure that they will have grown in their academics and more importantly in their inner selves, when they leave your classroom four or nine months later, depending upon the course. To achieve this I strove to demonstrate sincerity while maintaining a sense of humor, and at times I have pushed buttons that were uncomfortable but necessary I believe. I have been strict but have occasionally bent my own rules when I deemed it to be the better route to take. I have been an educational contortionist, or so it has felt at times, while doing my very best to be fair and equitable to all.

For twenty years I have kept little scraps of paper, typed notes and handwritten cards expressing thanks and appreciation for what I do. These have been received from fellow teachers, administrators, parents, and most importantly students I have worked with. It's probably time that I find a central location for what has become quite a scattered pile of these written reminders (some are in a pink file folder, some are tucked inside books, some are in my desk drawers of my classroom), because I tend to be rather forgetful and quite hard on myself each year thinking that I'm not effectively or adequately reaching my teens. I suppose I tend to remember the negative feedback more than the positive feedback. But I suppose that, in and of itself, is a trait of my personality and one I need to work on. I remind my students of that when they get their work returned and I encourage them to see their strengths as well as their weaknesses, so again I remind myself to practice what I preach. Pat yourself on the back, Anne. You're not perfect. You never will be when it comes to teaching or anything else. But you deserve high praise for how much you care about doing right by these teens, for how hard you work, for how much you research and reflect and for how often you pick up the pieces of a bad day and move on...

Today, it was a beautiful letter from Paige that did my pep talk for me. One of my seniors, a student I have had for two years, took time to write to me. Her note was full of much needed reminders of my compassion and skill as a teacher, however there were two things in particular that she wrote that touched me deeply. One was of how her mother had reminded her of how much she had complained about my class at the start of her junior year. "She hates me", Paige had told her mom, referring to how annoying my insistence was that she produce better quality work. She described the day when she realized why I was pushing her so hard and she expressed gratitude that I'd done so. The second heartwarming part of Paige's letter was in her expression of understanding for me as the teacher I am. She commented upon my sensitivity, my open and emotional sharing of my passion for what I do, and for the way I take time to get to know my students better through writing. Without realizing it, Paige accurately hit upon a part of myself (as not only a teacher but as a human being) that I have always known to be true about myself but for which I have often condemned myself for, that I do much better stating a truth when I write, and that I encourage students to connect with me through their own writing...hence, all my assigned journals, blog posts, essays, or simple response-writing "check ins". I suppose it's the introvert in me again, the one that needs quiet to process her thoughts and ideas. But oh how I sometimes long to be that extroverted teacher...the one I was more routinely when I taught Drama.

When I lost my beloved elective Drama classes (for I am "an English teacher, not a theater teacher" after all), I lost a part of myself as a teacher that has been difficult to regain. Now a teacher of only required English courses, I have struggled to accept myself as the teacher I am, one who is a bit more serious and quiet than I used to be. Still, I am true to my own individuality, to my own core beliefs as a teacher. And I do make a difference and I do believe I have played an important part in shaping the future. How do I know? Well, that's the beauty of teenagers. They grow to become adults who periodically take time to write a note to an old teacher whose life and continuing career is forever brightened by their words of understanding and appreciation. So to Paige today and to all of my former students who have taken time to let me know that my efforts were not in vain, thank you for giving me the fuel I have needed to continue on this path. Your words sustain me. I love you.

To those of you who have read this blog post to this point, I issue you a request. Please write a note to one (or more) of your former teachers. Take a little time to deliver the note to them in whatever way you can. It does not matter how long it's been or whether or not you think they'll remember you (although I am pretty sure they will). People in other professions receive awards or monetary bonuses for producing great "products". Teachers are lucky if they can hear from former students from time to time. Please take a few minutes to let a former teacher know how you are doing in your life, what you remember about them or their classroom, and what you wish for them to know as they read your note.

And on that note, although it would take me quite some time to craft all the letters I should write, I am going to pick one teacher from my past, a professor and my graduate studies work advisor, Dr. India Broyles. Like Paige, I had Dr. Broyles all wrong when I first met her; many of my peers misunderstood her at first too. Thank goodness I had time to get to know her and to understand her perspective. She was amazing. She was one of those people I never expected I'd learn much from. Oh how naive I was! It was only when I began teaching that I truly learned the truth that there is something to learn from each person you meet in life. For that and for many other lessons she taught me, I am going to write her a note and get it sent off this weekend.

1 comment:

  1. Anne, You are amazing! I know I only met you last year but right from the start I knew you were an awesome teacher. I could see your deep love of teaching and of students. I could also tell you had great respect for your peers. I admire you! Cheers, here is you, Anne!