because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Words To My Students Whom I Adore

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springtime classes, originally uploaded by Wolfram Burner.

People generally remember a favorite teacher, but what they may not realize is that we teachers also become very connected to our students. We aren’t supposed to have “favorites,” but there are one or two who always weasel their way into our hearts because of their talent or wit, their work ethic or their ability to get their peers back on track. Over the years I have collected many favorite students. They were not always stellar English students when I taught them, but they have all become stellar people. This poem was written many years ago while teaching at Metairie Park Country Day School, but it epitomizes how I feel at the end of each academic year.

To My Students

We pepper the field
sprawled in comfort,
air on faces
in hair, on cheeks, freckled
and sun-kissed, we
relax together, separately
seeking inspiration and
silence in a too noisy world
saturated by too many good ideas
already created. Children shriek
around us, the squeak of
swing-sets swinging, pony-tails
bobbing, we were children
once too, clawing at the dirt
unafraid to scream or spit
point or stare, but now
we care.
These months
we have explored
together, through heat
and humidity
through the wet-kiss of storm, we have
connected, grown closer
a tight group of bodies
and minds which dip
and soar like butterflies
over cornfields. It is springtime
already and they
blossom before me, open their petals
stickily preparing for bigger gardens.
As we sit scattered across the field
surrounded by outside smells
I miss them already,
these people that I love.

Tell me about one of your favorite teachers!

The Day I Got It All Wrong

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photo from goldsardine at flickr.com

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo just so happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye several years earlier although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you are doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me?” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive, understanding – and even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who  apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in-class ever again.  But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt.  I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick-actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t  get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

Teacher Appreciation Day: A Wee Confession

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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.