April 2018

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

NL #36: My Teachers

NL #36: I have been lucky to have lots of teachers who believed in me and were passionate about learning--mine and theirs--through the years. Among this strong set of teachers have been four whom I believed most cared for me and my learning and connected to who I was and what I needed. All of these teachers inspire my own teaching and my own current work with teachers and students.

My fourth grade teacher, Martha Anne Shuler, had died platinum gold hair that didn't quite match her dark eyebrows. She could raise one eyebrow. (When she raised it at me, I didn't need her to raise her voice. I knew I was being bad and should shape up immendiately.) When I first started teaching, some of my students drew a giant picture of the "evil eye" on the blackboard. Apparently, I gave them the silent and deadly "evil eye" when they were being bad. I'm sure I was channeling Ms. Shuler. She drove a yellow Corvette. As a new teacher, I drove a Mustang convertible--my own version of a Corvette. Now I drive a Honda. And my hair, well, it just stays auburnish. Ms. Shuler and I continued to keep in touch until her death from cancer when I was in my first teaching job. I still think of the way she held us up to the monkey bars to see if we could hold on for 30 seconds, because a bunch of people had died in a church fire when they couldn't hold their own weight up for 30 seconds. We would live, she told us. I also remember the invisible way that she somehow helped me adjust to a new school. I still don't know how she did that, but I learned that new places were interesting, not to be feared: a lesson I'm still learning.

In college, my professor Cynthia Lewis, inspired me to deeper understanding of and joy in literature--and to compassion for myself. She believed in me when I didn't. Cynthia had long dark hair and was considerably younger than many of our professors. She was our eating club's advisor, and I remember a drunk freshman, mistaking her for an upperclass beauty, hitting on her. On the rare times when I walked by her office door instead of knocking on it, I could hear her inside howling with laughter at something she was reading. She loved us, and she loved the literature she taught. Before the dreaded Senior Symposium, a course required by all English majors and taught in my year by her, she gathered us together to ask us how we would best learn, and then she used our ideas. At that meeting, I remember, she mentioned that while we would each have different reading lists according to our interests, of course there would be some literature that all English majors should have read: Melville's Moby Dick, for instance. My friend Forrest and I exchanged glances. I mouthed, "Have you read that?" and he responded, silently, "No." I read Moby Dick that summer before my senior year. It's still one of my favorite books. Cynthia's dual passion, for her students and for her subject, continues to inspire me. I want to be like that.

As a teacher, students and adults have been my teachers, but one coach and one student have had the most impact on me. Jenn McDermott, my coach, took me on when, after fifteen years of thinking I was a decent teacher, I struggled more in a new context than I had expected. Jenn helped me to move to a more student-centered and process-oriented classroom. I still remember the first week of school, when Jenn was in my class and my freshmen were so excited about their writing that they had an impromptu poetry slam. As students jumped up to share their work and cheered one another on, Jenn and I sat at the back, celebrating their writing and their enthusiasm. At one point, Jenn leaned over and said to me, "Congratulations,Mary." Such genuine growth and sharing were the goals. No test ever matched it.

Students along the way may have been my greatest inspiration. Most recently, my student Yessica and her mentor, an older student named Yadira, have taught me the most about students who are turning from disillusion to engagement. In her first week or so as a freshman in my class, Yessica often missed class, though when she was there she seemed focused. Concerned, I called her mom--who speaks primarily Spanish. Her mom came right to the school, and I met mother and daughter in the front office. In speaking with her mom, I blanked on the Spanish word for "worried" and asked Yessica how to say it. "I don't speak Spanish," she said. Of course. She was mad. Over the year, she grew into a dedicated student who inspired me and others. From time to time I would communicate with Yadira when I was concerned that Yessica was falling away again. Yadira counselled me to be patient, that it would take time for Yessica to change her life. Yesterday, Yessica, now a graduating senior, told me that she received a full scholarship to the University of Washington. That kind of hope inspires me.

I'm not really a sit down and shut up kind of teacher, or student. You? Mary

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