You might not have heard of these “educators,” but trust me when I say I learned more from these deep thinkers than I have from most education classes. Sometimes I think that teachers (myself included) miss the forest for the trees. If you are anything like me, you look for new strategies, read all the latest journals and watch more webinars than you’d like to admit—all in pursuit of professional development. I’m not knocking these tried-and-true paths to self-improvement, but I am suggesting that sometimes we are standing right in the middle of a clearing in our own private woods, and the lessons we need are right there. Here are two of my “edu-heroes” whose lessons echo:
Autumn was one of my very first students. She was a quiet, but opinionated, young woman who taught me that students are listening, watching and absorbing, even when we least expect it.
Since the beginning of my career, I’ve had an important plan to make sure the girls I teach know their worth is not attached to their looks, that their bodies are their own, and that who we are is up to us. Obviously, this can be a tricky proposition, and I honestly have never wanted to politicize these issues, but rather clarify them by fully being the person I am. I wanted to make sure the girls I taught had a role model in front of them who was smart (and showed it), beautiful (because we all are) and confident to be exactly who she is (because really, what’s our choice?).
I had just finished my master’s thesis on Southern women writers, and I was teaching AP Literature about my two matriarchs, Zora Neale Hurston and Lee Smith—both unassuming, outspoken, unflappable women who were quite sure they knew who they were and didn’t care if you liked it or not. At the end of that year, when Autumn graduated, she gave me a card; to this day, nearly 20 years later, I remember what she wrote: “Thank you for teaching me to walk in my body like a Queen,” alluding to Lee Smith’s novel Fair and Tender Ladies. It was the moment when I first realized that I wasn’t just teaching literature, writing and grammar, but also philosophy. I have taken this responsibility very seriously, and it was a lesson learned from a high schooler in overalls.
My second life as a teacher began when I moved to New York and learned to teach middle school. To say that I was unprepared and overconfident is to put it mildly. I’d been a very successful high school teacher; but life happens, and there I was, teaching middle school academic intervention services. I was nervous, but I was sure that I’d win the students over. Within the first two days, I was ready to quit. Who were these balls of energy who (gasp!) hated ELA? I was unprepared for teaching children. Content, I knew. Kiddos, not so much. Take Tommy, a sixth-grader who was already taller than I was, who could never, ever get to my class even remotely on time. I only saw him every other day, and for the entire year, it was kind of like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Over and over and over. But, I liked Tommy. He had a winning smile, a great sense of humor, and a heck of a puppy dog face.
Fast-forward to Halloween five years ago. It was a dark and stormy night. Really. So, I had taken my daughter, Zoey, who was 6 at the time, trick-or-treating at the mall. Lines of wild children, wet and sweaty in their costumes, were trailed by a parade of tired parents. As I was daydreaming, a giant man came right up to my daughter and leaned down to talk to her. I yanked her closer to me, obviously. Then, I looked up and saw the puppy dog face. “Sorry Mrs. C. I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s me. Tom. Tommy. Remember me?” After I regained my composure, we chatted a bit, catching up. He was in carpentry and had just returned from a trip to South Carolina to build houses with his uncle. Before he walked away, he leaned over and said to my daughter, “Be nice to this lady. She was very nice to me. Always. And I wasn’t very easy to be nice to back then.” I admit it. I teared up. His face is the one I try to conjure up any time I want to reprimand a kiddo for something that annoys me, but which they most likely can’t help. Be nice. Always.
Teaching is daunting. We are only human. But, we must remember that we are privileged to have the opportunity to touch—and sometimes transform—so many lives. Though these are two of my stories, I know there are more, a roll book of relationships and moments. Todd Whitaker, education author and guru, says it best: “The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matters every day.” Do I always get it right? Definitely not. However, I’ve committed myself to listening and learning from these educators you may never have heard about.