Thursday, May 9, 2013

Teacher Appreciation Week

Expect for a listless tweet by Arnie Duncan and a couple of stray posts on my Facebook page, the whimper, otherwise known as Teacher Appreciation Week, has almost passed. In an effort to make it more audible, I wanted to write about some teachers...and realized I had forgotten some of their names.
The female teacher who encouraged me to draw pictures with colored chalk--she also hugged me as I wailed real tears as a witch ran through the blankets we were about to nap on (a Halloween surprise gone awry).
And it makes me wonder, after 19 years, how many have forgotten me. And, quite honestly, I don't blame them. Life rolls on. Out of sight, out of mind.
Mrs. Grasso, an elementary/middle grade teacher, drove from Philadelphia to Springfield, Delaware County, to watch me play ice hockey. While I also remember that she was pretty tough on us, her gesture of coming to watch me play still hangs with me.

In the past, when I saw "teacher appreciate week" I didn't really think much of it. Occasionally, a nice luncheon may have been planned. But for the most part, it takes it place on the hooks in the closet of national days of recognition.
In 8th grade, Sister St. Christopher thought of me when a local pharmacy called the school looking for delivery boy. I remember her pulling me into the hallway at Stella Maris--the hallways were always so dim with the evergreen carpet, beige and brown tiled walls, and low wattage bulbs overhead. She offered that I was the first person she thought of when the man asked for someone trustworthy and from a good home.
In reality, what sticks to my bones is the humanity of the people who taught me. Not the books or worksheets.
Mr. Carey was my 9th grade English teacher in all-boys Catholic school. We read The Canterbury Tales. I remember learning the word vermin. Yet, what I took from that class--even though I struggled to earn Cs and Bs--was his sense of humor. He made that slice of school a moment of joy--irrespective of my grades. 
Many years later, I ran into Bill Carey at bookstore in downtown Philadelphia. Introducing myself to him, he stared at me--I was lost among the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other boys who passed through his class. He had forgotten me.
We made small talk--he was very gracious and flashed the smile uncovered the sense of humor I remember--and then parted. 
I realize I have to read and listen to others to continue to grow as a teacher. I realize we have to pay attention to the scores and the outcomes and learn to adjust our curriculum and methods. And I realize, throughout a teaching career, when we count all of our administrators, parents, and students, we are held accountable to an entangled web of standards by thousands of different people. Yet, in the end, what sticks?
Mr. Smith was a well-liked math teacher. He also coached a pretty darn formidable girls basketball team. As a senior, I was failing Mr. Smith's math class.
My father called him on my behalf, and the next day Mr. Smith (his friends called him Smitty) offered me some help with my math--I could be the statistician for the girls basketball team. And so I did. I recorded their statistics, crunched their numbers, and Mr. Smith checked my work...and made corrections. 
I haven't seen Mr. Smith since that year--1986. But I happen to see a retired teacher (Dominic) who worked with "Smitty" and who subs in our building. Dominic shared that "Smitty" is battling Alzheimers Disease.
Our family has seen Alzheimer's at work in close friends and family. So, I am familiar with the courage required.

Privately, I grieve for Mr. Smith's fight with nature and time. In honor of those of who have helped shape me, I want to appreciate my current colleagues in my building and beyond our borders.

Our work wears on us, doesn't it? Even the positives take a piece of us...because they don't just happen. The positives are product of a lot of energy, emotion, and initiative.

And I have to acknowledge the negatives in education. They don't wear us out so much as they incite the bone spurs emerging on us--parts of us thicken. These negatives...they make the next round of positives that much more challenging to happen. Sometimes they rub on our teaching so much it can lead to a lot of discomfort in our positions as teachers and colleagues.

Yet, in my experience, the great ones worked through that discomfort and found a way to be be a force of good. The great teachers in my life were not those who needed to calculate or deconstruct or recite to impress me or move my opinion, the great ones were better than that.

The great ones showed me compassion.

And there is no accounting for that...except in the fact that it is the one thing I will always remember.

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