Friday, May 14, 2010

Those Who Can, Teach

It wasn't very long ago that I was a teacher myself, both appreciating and teaching alongside my past instructors, having worked at my own former middle and high schools. I even had to get used to calling my formidable middle school P.E. teacher Mr. D by his first name, "Jack."

Now the mother of a first grader and in the role of assistant principal, I appreciate teachers in wholly new but still personal ways. Teachers who love your child and bring out the very best and uncharted territories within her character: what can you say about them? You want to marry them. They help make your child even more wonderful. They tell you your child is wonderful in ways you haven't yet glimpsed. And they help fix the parts of them that aren't so wonderful.

Ask any administrator what it's like to watch amazing teachers ignite the minds of children and she will describe the familiar ache for what I have characterized as a most meaningful calling: tapping into the potential of young minds and souls, and broadening their visions of our world.

The gift of being a school administrator is having myriad opportunities and license to walk into classrooms and capture those teacher and student moments of beauty, day in and day out, (bureaucratic and emergent parts of being an administrator notwithstanding). In other words, I am capable of being inspired every day. It never grows old to watch a teacher groove on students' ideas, and to see students lunge across desks to share their views with peers, or witness their heads nod with deep understanding and approval at the wisdom bouncing off the walls of their learning space.

Teachers mold and fortify young minds, bolster egos and confidence, swell hearts with pride and massage them for openness. They send young people out into the world to be our future waitresses, doctors, mechanics, commentators and critics, leaders, employees, teachers, pastors, counselors, neighbors, and presidents.

But teachers can undo positive edification in an instant, and I defy you to find someone who can't name a teacher who has torn a limb off the tree of their personal faith in themselves.

So we honor teachers for the potential they have to be so huge in our lives. Besides parents, who spends more time with our children than those educators whose every pimple, weight loss and gain, slip of the tongue, bad hair day, new blouse, poor mood, error and character flaw is examined daily by a cast of dozens?

All the while, these folks try their best to transfer passions for their subjects while connecting content to current events, sharing personal triumphs and defeats, and humbling themselves before a critical and savvy audience.

They face the same pressures as Tiger Woods to be role models without the seven-figure salary.

Some of the sweetest, most hilarious, most significant and most oft-recounted moments of my life occurred in classrooms or the places my teachers took me.

Here are a few of my most memorable instructors. I am fortunate to call many of them my friends today:

Mrs. N, my kindergarten teacher, about whom I have few specific memories, but the rosy glow around that year is all that really matters: my first year of public school was a good one.

Ferg, my 9th grade geography teacher, 12th grade Modern History teacher, and Leadership advisor, who taught me about drumlins, Robert's Rules of Order, and what's worth taking seriously.

Mrs. McC, 5th grade teacher who named her green car "Cecil" after "Beany and Cecil," for whom I had no cultural reference but which my parents appreciated. She was strong and beautiful and made me feel smart in all the right ways.

Mr. M, intimidating AP Lit and Theory of Knowledge teacher whose lessons on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now blew my mind and which I borrowed when I taught the very same class in the room next door, more than a decade later.

Mrs. C, whose grace and generosity and kindness made middle school manageable and even glorious for brief shining moments. She loved my first poems. My role model in 8th grade.

Mr. S, who taught me physics for two years but who also sent me subtle signals that I was better than the relationship I chose with a popular senior who ultimately dissed me. Mr. S wanted me to honor myself.

Mr. F, who was colorblind and organized his closet around coordinated polyester-pants-shirts-and-tie combos. He convinced me in 6th grade that I was a math genius and I believed it and proved him true for as long as it was important.

Mrs. P and Mrs. U, who both nurtured the artist in me. I often wonder how dimensionally disabled I would be without them.

Ms. H, who made middle school P.E. less awkward and let her tender heart show to insecure sixth graders who desperately needed to know we were worthy.

Those folks, and others, patted me on the back, and more. They gave me half my gumption, enough facts to blurt out some satisfyingly right-on answers on Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, and a sense that I would change the world.

They're responsible for my poetry and prose, my paintings, and my pursuit of a career in education.

My teachers called me on my bullshit, too: Mr. F phoned my mom when my best friend and I learned enough sign language to talk silently throughout 6th grade math class; Ferg cried foul when I let my grade in second-semester senior history drop after I was accepted into college; Mr. S wrote me my first and only referral for asking him if he was as dumb as he looked.

Teacher Appreciation Week is almost over, but it's never too late: Let your teachers know what they taught you. Let them know you remember. Let them know you've made something of yourself, just like they knew you would.

And honor those who are teaching you and yours today.

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