Artist • Author • Activist • Advocate

They are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day in my son’s elementary school. Yesterday a note came home asking parents to send in $5 and to have each child bring in a single flower so that room parents might construct a bouquet to present to the teacher along with a conglomeration of gift cards. Upon receiving these instructions, I took $5 out of my purse and, because nothing is blooming in my yard, I hurried to my local grocery store in search of a few rogue stems, no small feat given that Sunday was Mother’s Day. And then it occurred to me: Here I am running around, but what is my child doing to express his gratitude to his teacher? I mean, I put in the bucks for the gift certificate. I schlepped across town to find flowers. Being an evil teacher-parent, this morning, instead of letting my child watch Sponge Bob, I asked him to compose a short card thanking his teacher for all she has done for him this year.

These days I remember Teacher Appreciation Day with nostalgia, as it simply doesn’t seem to happen at my local community college. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe I haven’t been there long enough to enjoy such privileges; perhaps it is because I don’t really have a home-base: I am without an office and float between classrooms. Maybe it is a college phenomenon: Students come and go, even within a semester. And because everyone has his or her own unique commitments (work, family, finding time to get wasted), there are precious few opportunities to get to know each student on a more personal level. I miss that.

When I taught at the secondary level at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid-1990s, I worked my booty off. A new teacher, I was forever making lesson plans, grading papers, trying to stay one page ahead of my students. I served as Faculty Advisor to the student-run Literary Magazine and, to make extra money, I proctored on Saturday mornings any time the S.A.T.’s were administered. Every teacher knows you don’t enter this profession for presents or monetary rewards; that said, the folks at MPCDS were crazy thoughtful. On Teacher Appreciation Day, faculty and staff were served a delicious lunch and — I’m not sure if I am making this up or not, but I am pretty sure that one year the chef actually made us Baked Alaska for dessert.

Sometimes it felt like Teacher Appreciation Day came three times a year: on Appreciation Day, around holiday time, and then again at the close of the school year when students would pile candy, crawfish pies and mounds of baked goods atop my heavy steel desk. There were always a few lovely cards and letters stuck in there, too. I loved those best of all.

Essayist Cynthia Ozick writes: “We often take for granted the things that most deserve our gratitude.” I know this to be true. I like to believe the fruit of my day’s work, though nearly invisible now, remains that way until about a decade later when former students suddenly start crawling out of the woodwork – as doctors and lawyers and book editors and engineers and social workers and real estate agents and photographers – and teachers. And then, unsolicited, amidst casual conversation, they let me know I made a mark on their lives.

So, I keep on keepin’ on: developing new curriculum, continuing to take courses myself, hoping to inspire my students to believe that reading critically and writing masterfully are two of the most important skills they can develop during this lifetime. At the end of each semester, I bring in doughnuts and recognize folks who have made perfect attendance (an astounding accomplishment in and of itself these days) as well as those who have repeatedly blown my mind with their written expression.

Let me be clear: I do not want a candy-filled mug that with the words “#1 Teacher” stenciled on the side, nor am I secretly pining for a t-shirt that declares I am the “World’s Greatest Teacher.” I do not mean to imply that my students are unappreciative people because that is simply not the case. I would, however, like to suggest that in this age of the all-too-convenient reckless communication that comes in the form of email and texting and IMing – a short but sincere, handwritten note expressing appreciation is truly the greatest gift a student can give a teacher. Ask any teacher and I’ll bet he or she will tell you the same thing.

After twenty years, I still have them all.

photo from john_a._ward from

In an effort to stay competitive in my job at my local community college, I recently signed up to take a 20 hour course to learn the latest and greatest ANGEL technology which – in theory – is supposed to help me to help my students by allowing me to “web enhance” my class. Some people teach entire classes online and love it. I have not jumped on this bandwagon. In fact, I imagine that is not a wagon I will ever jump onto without kicking and screaming.

I believe part of the educational experience – at every level – involves the relationship between the instructor and the pupil who need to interact with each other in real life, not just via email. I also believe it is necessary for students to learn in a classroom filled with other bodies – bodies that have minds and mouths which can vocalize serious differences of opinions and that it is an important role of the instructor to act as a moderator in some of these interchanges.

I attended the very first 5-hour ANGEL session and left feeling a little pessimistic. The man heading up the session started off with an ice-breaker activity where everyone introduced themselves, explained where they taught, in which department, and how they planned to integrate ANGEL technology into their curriculum. Many people attending the hands-on seminar were strictly online adjunct instructors. They were happy to have jobs and didn’t seem to mind that they had never actually met their students and seemed content to receive the one required digitally uploaded photo. One woman proudly announced she had individual conferences with half of her students via SKYPE right before a major essay was due. There were lots of ooohs and aaahs at this, lots of frenzied note-taking. Math teachers and gym teachers seemed to all really like ANGEL; I’m not sure what that means.

When it was my turn, the instructor pointed at me and asked, “And you? The one in the black turtleneck who is hiding a little?”

“Well,” I admitted, “I’m not planning to go all the way with this new technology. I am merely looking to enhance.”

I looked across the room and saw a few people roll their eyes. I wondered what that was about. And then I had an out of body experience. I realized they saw me as a dinosaur. I suppose at 43 years old,  I sort of am. I actually remember loose-leaf paper. It came in two choices: wide-lined and college lined. My 6th grade English teacher didn’t like us to rip out paper from our notebooks; “shredded wheat,” she called it, and she wouldn’t accept assignments written on it. That’s when I discovered my preference for college-lined loose-leaf paper. (This same teacher did not like girls to wear clogs to class and made us line up our shoes at the front of the room and walk in socks to our seats. Our shoes, she insisted, were “too noisy” and “forever falling off feet.” I’m pretty sure she had some major issues, but I digress.) In high school, Mrs. Landfear had us write in those black and white composition notebooks and taught us the traditional five paragraph essay format and citation which has served me well for my entire life.

As an undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I had a fabulous professor who required his students to read a particular book by a particular author and told us to write an essay on a topic of our own choosing due in one week. There were no email reminders. I would never have dared to call him, and anyway, I would have had to have found a phone-book, a payphone, and a bunch of quarters. If I didn’t know how to do something, like citation, I consulted my pocket manual or style book or I asked a fellow classmate. In other words, I figured it out myself. No one owned a personal computer. Instead, we hauled our books and our butts to writing labs, where dozens of computers loomed silently on long tables. If every computer was taken, you simply had to put your name on a wait list and wait for someone to finish. The room of thirty or so computers was linked to one black and white laser printer designed to handle only text. There was no Internet access because the Internet had not yet been invented.

These days I am repeatedly being told that students “need to be able to access online technology” because they have grown up using it. I have also been told they cannot read entire pages of text, so it is imperative to incorporate funny little pictures into my hand-outs. So far, I have refused to do it.

So what exactly am I hoping to do with this ANGEL technology? I suppose I might use it to provide my students with a page to see my Course Information Sheet, my policies regarding plagiarism, my deadlines; maybe a link to some grammar exercises; perhaps a link to to help them with the terrifying act of citing their sources properly. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do with ANGEL. I’m not a big fan of all this cyber-coddling. I will tell you what I will not be doing with ANGEL. I will not be using it as a place where students can have “online discussions” in lieu of real life discussions. And while proponents of the environment may shudder, my students may not send me their essays online in some drop-box so that they can blame technology when I didn’t receive it. I want to see their eyes scan their finished drafts, checking for comma splices and run-on sentences.

Who knows, maybe I’ll use it on the first day of class next fall, you know, as a homework assignment to get them to find my online site. Maybe I’ll have them do some kind of ice breaker activity; there’s no reason everyone should have to suffer through those heinous get-to-know-you activities when you can simply do them online, right?

Sigh. I always liked that part.

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