Teachers: giving us gifts we’d likely miss on our own
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve picked a few of my major influencers and asked them to fill out the below Q&A. Here are their responses. I encourage you to reach out to your teachers and ask them to share their wisdom. They’re swamped this time of year, so this Q&A is a good way to tease out their pearls without giving them “homework.” And I encourage you to share their answers with your peeps. Let’s shine a collective light on those who have been the wind at our backs! THANK YOU, TEACHERS
Now Booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats! Do you have a teacher you would like to sponsor, or ARE you a teacher who needs to fill up YOUR cup? Haven has worked with many educators, and I have seen it be the very thing that has them return to their students with renewed spirit, conviction, and useful tools of inspiration.
#1 Nan Caldwell
Nan Caldwell (Lake Forest Country Day School, Spanish Teacher and much much more) was a huge part of the formation of my spirit and mind. She showed me, by her sparkling example, how I could be myself in the world, without compromising my heart. She was the reason I spent a year in Italy, my junior year in college, which I have written about in my memoir and elsewhere, and will be talking about on my deathbed. And she also taught me a love for languages, and took me to Spain and Portugal with our 9th grade Spanish class, which primed the pump for a lifetime of devoted travel and open-minded/hearted-ness. Thank you, Nan! You know how much I adore you and always will. And you know how many many young minds and spirits you have help formed. Here are her pearls of wisdom:
Q&A for Teachers. (all questions optional but encouraged)
What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she/he has one? You are ready to sacrifice a higher paying career for one that truly may make a difference in the world.
How did you become a teacher? (DNA, default, other?) It must be DNA. I have two uncles and three aunts who are teachers. My father followed a business career, but I’m a throwback! I always wanted to be a teacher- even when I was little.
What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings? (Coffee? Gerunds? That one kid in the back row?) Duty!
Which battles were/are worth fighting for? (Would love to hear some trench stories, esp if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!) I think that in today’s world it is important to help students stay grounded and focused on values. Faced with ubiquitous social media sway, it is easy for them to fall prey to materialistic and/or cruel outlooks that influence their behavior. Honesty, kindness, and generosity never go out of style, but it takes some targeted work to maintain that perspective.
What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom? (Feel free to rip on us. It’s the least we can do. Fictional names, please.) One time, I had the students draw monsters that they later had to describe in Spanish for their classmates. One little boy drew something that looked like a monster octopus. In his description, he said that it had tentacles coming out of his head and tentacles coming out of his body and six tentacles for legs….except he had the word for testicles! Heh! The kids had no idea!
If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be? (Go ahead. Offend us. We really need to know.) Let your children make mistakes. Don’t get involved in social problems. Offer your child some advice, but step back. Remind them always to be kind and inclusive, no matter what.
What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students? (My personal favorite was: Weekly ice cream truck– 3rd grade. Thanks, Mrs. Dino. 7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second. Thanks, Mr. Virden.) Food. It works. They love games, too. And stories!!
Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions? (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like. Day in the life…) Up at 6:00, at work by 7:15. Teaching, hall duty, study hall, recess duty, lunch duty, coaching after school, clubs, service projects, 400 emails to answer….home around 6:00. Make dinner, eat, grade papers until around 10:00. Watch the news so that you are prepared to be a teacher the next day!
In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be? Ditto an Ivy League education? Ditto private schooling? Private schools are as varied as public schools- some excellent, some not much better than a good public school. The good ones can provide extra personal attention to the individual needs of each child. That attention and care can usher a student to more fully explore and achieve his/her potential.
College is the right place for academically minded and socially concerned students. I do not think that every student should feel that college is the only route to a successful career- especially if he/she is passionate about a specific field- gaming, coding, arts, trades, etc.
What is a moment in your teaching career that makes you especially proud? (BOAST, PLEASE! You deserve it! Or…full disclosure. ie: The day I nailed Suzy in the face with an eraser for picking on Matilda.) Occasionally a former student sits down and writes a thank you letter. Getting one of those makes every day worthwhile!
What can teachers do to prevent burn out? (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem) Set realistic goals. Don’t overreach and try to be super-teacher. Take one challenge at a time and strive for patience and good humor.
Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better? (Here’s the soap box…) All of society’s challenges and solutions begin with families and schools. Plain and simple. Start there.
What is/was your dream take-away for your students? As a teacher of world languages, I hope to open a door through which my students can more authentically explore the history and cultures of other peoples, global issues, and our responsibilities as Americans. We become not only better guests in other countries, but better citizens of our own. The path of this knowledge can lead to professional and personal opportunities that are not as readily available to monolinguistic people- opportunities that may begin with friendships, jobs and travel, but ones that also have the potential to telescope toward international relations, human rights and peace.
Will books ever die? I hope not!!! Please don’t let them!
***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI. Sharpen your #2 pencil. And spit out your gum.
WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!
#2 Janet Edmonds
Ms. Ed (Janet) was my boarding school English teacher (Westminster School) and I think she taught me something about Hawthorne, (“yea verily” comes to mind), though what I remember most was her love of words. She had that English teacher wonderlust for books, liked she’d torn herself away from one to get to class, and was eager to feed us with its (and her) knowledge. Somehow she waded through the classics with us and took us along with her. She didn’t stand on any desks and speak in Latin…but she did hold us in the elegance of words through the ages, and often when I’m sitting alone with a book, trying to understand just what the author is trying to say, or writing one and doing the same with my own muse, I think of her quiet countenance and take heart. Thank you, Ms. Ed! Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Love, Laura
Questions and Answers for Teachers.
What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she or he has one?
They bend and hold us so we can see the light
My hunch is that answers to this question will be like fingerprints, like the unique patterns on whales’ flukes. I think you have a teaching spirit if you start teaching and find that you like it. Plenty of people start teaching and leave after a year or two, but some of them may have turned into excellent teachers had they stayed in the work. There are many factors that go into loving or liking teaching besides your subject and students. You have colleagues, managers (going by names such as the dean and the principal or headmaster), and the rules and values of the institution where you work. A problem in any of those areas can drown a teaching spirit. I loved my subject, students, and colleagues (your best teachers at that school, Laura, were also my best teachers), but as strict as I might have seemed at times (maybe you all saw through that), I could not stay on board with the conservative ethos that existed in many boarding schools in that era. I did not think it was fair or caring for some students. I fought it and I left.
How did you become a teacher? (DNA, default, other?)
I wanted to be a teacher when I was in sixth grade because my English teacher assigned a couple of amazing novels and opened up the worlds in poems as if they were flowers with hundreds of petals blooming slowly under a warm sun. I just wanted to be able to do what she did—understand novels, stories, and poems. Of course I discovered that being serious and enthusiastic in a field did not mean I could “make” another person feel the same way. And when we got right down to the purpose of teaching and learning English in high school, what was more important than literature was strong, clear writing. I was 22 years old when I started teaching high school students, and even though I often miss it 30 years after leaving it to work in publishing, I know I wouldn’t have the nerve to try again. I would no longer dare to hope that I could teach someone who doesn’t write with even a tiny bit of ease or who sees no point in acquiring some fundamental skills. Maybe that’s the biggest problem—conveying to a student that there is some long term relevance to them about what you trying to teach.
What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings? (Coffee? Gerunds? That one kid in the back row?)
A clock radio.
Which battles were/are worth fighting for? (Would love to hear some trench stories, especially if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)
May I please have an extension? I have some good battle stories: What it felt like when the faculty met to discuss a wonderful boy’s discipline record and whether his most recent infraction merited expulsion, and I was the only one to raise a hand saying no; Why I left . . . .
What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom? (Feel free to rip on us. It’s the least we can do. Fictional names, please.)
I need an extension for this question, too. You told me you would send a few questions, but you’ve sent term paper assignments. Did you know that? For now I will only say that the funniest things that happened with you guys in and outside of the classroom do not require any “ripping” on you—just joy and gratitude for the warmth and laughter the memories bring.
If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be? (Go ahead. Offend us. We really need to know.)
Please, please, please try to realistically understand and love your child’s strengths as a wonderful person instead of crushing him or her with totally unrealistic demands about what college you want him or her to get in to.
What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students? (My personal favorite was: Weekly ice cream truck– 3rd grade. Thanks, Mrs. Dino. 7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second. Thanks, Mr. Virden.)
May I contort and distort this question in order to retort and report, Laura? My tricks were all to avoid connecting with my students. I used pop quizzes, extra laps around the field . . . .
Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions? (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like. Day in the life….)
Again I want more time to answer, but here’s my short answer that applies to teaching in a boarding and day school: Responsibility and discipline. Teachers are responsible for the intellectual, physical, and emotional safety of many teenage human beings. It’s a huge responsibility, and there are school rules to help ensure that safety. Violating the rules can have serious consequences such as suspension and expulsion.
In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be? Ditto an Ivy League education? Ditto private schooling?
I wouldn’t want those things to go away, but I’ve long thought that a person who really wants to learn is going to learn at any institution he or she goes to. It’s the student and not the school that makes the biggest difference although graduating from a school with a widely respected name can be an advantage.
The people who have taught me what I love and how to learn more about those things, who helped me discover the things that give my life meaning are people who did not go to college or end up getting a degree.
Do you believe in the liberal arts education? If so, why? If not, why?
Emphatically yes and no.
What can teachers do to prevent burn out? (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)
Go on a Haven Writing Retreat. (This experience is on my bucket list.)
Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better? (Here’s the soap box…)
There are things I can’t say, but I’ll start and stop with saying that principals and superintendents who are a) afraid of parents and b) unwilling to support the decisions of teachers in classrooms over complaints of whiny parents should not be principals and superintendents. If you won’t allow teachers to insist that students behave in classrooms, there will be no learning. Grrrrrrr
What is/was your dream take-away for your students?
Realize that you are “the decider” in your life. You get to say “yes, I can” and “no, I won’t.”
Will books ever die?
Maybe in a long time, there will be few paper books. In a long time.
What will you/do you miss about teaching?
***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI. Sharpen your #2 pencil. And spit out your gum.
WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!
#3 TERRY HAIGHT
Mr. Haight (Terry) was my grade school History and Social Studies teacher and maestro of a 50s a capella singing group called Terry and the Terrifics, to which I attribute my still-love of singing in harmony and busting out of Shaboom and Goodnight Sweetheart around campfires. He taught us by DOING, and perhaps this is why my teaching style is yes, instructional, but mostly, experiential. Total immersion is the best way I know. And I still know the difference between Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric columns, thanks to one of our Social Studies projects and my girlish moxie to ask ladies of the fine Lake Forest, IL mansions of my youth for house tours, the way t0 describe Raphaels’ lighting and spout off about it at the Louvre last winter, and got to the steps of the Parthenon, first chance I could. Thank you, Mr. Haight. Lonnie ding dong, a lang a lang a lang…boom boom…wah dah…a doobie doobie day-ee, indeed! Love and deep bows to you always! Laura
Reply to questions from Laura Munson:
My replies are in no particular order and are not answers to specific questions. Rather I am writing thoughts encouraged by your questions.
I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I worked as a camp counselor at Camp Kechuwa, run by Charlie Leake, for the summers of 1965 and 1967. Then I worked at the Hull House camp in East Troy, WI for the summer of 1968. My Father was a professor of History at Lehigh University, my maternal grandfather help found Lake Forest Day School, and my three sisters taught. So you could say there was a tradition of being an educator (and probably a tradition of enjoying summers in Ontario.)
Perhaps most important, I was a weak student and struggled with school. I wanted to make it fun to be in a classroom: A place where hard work was expected but also a place students wanted to come back to. So if there was a “Teaching Spirit” for me it was that I wanted kids to enjoy learning through doing. I remember there being plenty of nights when I’d find myself awake on the edge of my bed pretending to be teaching a class. Part of the “Spirit” was to begin the year by teaching, maybe even telling, and ending the year as a facilitator, as a Watcher of students learning.
To achieve some of this we introduced lots of ways of learning. We often had a “Social Studies Week,” listened to Amahl and the Night Visitors around Christmas, did a lot of group work focused on team play, map making, Word Games if there was extra time, singing, play reading, biography impersonations, and on we went.
Teaching was a joy, but it was hard. I had my students do lots of writing, but that meant hours of corrections and comments. If a student did poorly on a paper or test they could always retake it to improve. And effort really mattered. That meant lots of time to edit and support. There were long days. I remember right after I retired walking thorough the down town area around 11:00 AM. I couldn’t understand what all the adults were doing out and about. As a teacher there was no down time, and I’d feel guilty ducking out to get a haircut.
I taught at the Lake Forest Country Day School from 1972-1999. Aside from the students, the thing that kept me going was the advent of the computer in the classroom. And it was not just for adding up grades. I found the computer presented a more level learning ground for my students and me. “Oh, Mr. Haight. Why not try plugging it in?” “Mr. Haight. Let’s format it this way.”
I attended three summers worth of a great course of using the computer in the classroom put on by Summer Corps. I remember my right hand being so sore as I learned to use a mouse. Am I a supporter of Teacher Professional Development? YES. You should try something like a Writing Retreat. They say the Montana air and beauty will get your writing juices flowing.
I didn’t have any favorite students. I see many of them around town as they have moved back. I see some during the summer. And I see some in faint pictures wearing T-shirts and singing Terrific songs, a 50s a capella group I led with students for years.
I was fortunate to teach in a school that had a tradition of learning and expectations of excellence. We also had a terrific group of parents who supported their children but also the teachers. For parents I encourage you to learn about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, accept and support both, hug them all the time and love them madly.
THANK YOU TO ALL THREE OF YOU for indulging my questions, and for giving them your heart language and wisdom. You inspire me. Please consider reaching out to your teachers and shining a light on them!