April 2018

Friday, June 21, 2013

End of Teacher Ann's Era

After 46 years in secondary education, my partner Ann returned her school keys yesterday and will not return to a school in the fall. It's time for her retirement, and she says she's had a great time all the way, but she's ready to stop now.

Ann started teaching in a Debre Berhan, Ethiopian middle school in 1966. Other than her Peace Corps training in Boston, she had never spent any significant time away from the West Texas region where she grew up. She says that people had an easier time understanding her West Texas accent in Ethiopia than they did in Boston, where she had to go out with a translator if she wanted to order dinner in a restaurant.

When Ann and I visited Debre Berhan eight summers ago, we went to her classroom in the school where she had taught, which was empty on that day. In some ways, things had not changed. The desks were still the same, still in rows as they had been when she started. There was a new blackboard, nailed over most of the one that she had used when she was there. I sat in one of those all desks and raised my hand. When she called on me, I used one of my two Amharic words, "Algebunum!" or "I don't understand." She says she heard this cry many times each day when she taught these students who were so anxious to understand.

Ann began her first day of teaching by telling her first class something of her story. Students had studied English throughout elementary school, but this would be their first year to have classes in English. At some point, she said something that should have provoked a response, but her students continued to nod agreeably. Very slowly, she said, "If you understand what I'm saying, raise your hand." One student who was repeating the grade raised his hand. She started writing numbers on the black board and sensed relief from her students.

When she returned to the United States from this lush Ethiopian town, she attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, which is not lush. With her Masters in Teaching, she moved to inner city Houston where, in the year before integration, she taught in an all-black middle school. It is hot and humid in Houston, so she said that she and her students sweated rivulets for ten of the months in the two years she was there.

Her classroom was on the first floor and sometimes people from the street wandered in. Once a tough girl came to see some of her friends, and when Ann told her to leave, the girl threatened Ann, "Leave me alone, or I'm gonna..." Ann walked towards her, chest puffed out: "You're gonna what?" Ann asked. The girl left and Ann got the reputation as a tough lady.

After her first year of teaching, Ann spent the summer in Seattle with Peace Corps friend Rita. They lived in an apartment on Lake Washington. It was blue skies and sunny most days, with temperatures ranging from the 70s to the 90s instead of Houston's sweltering 100s. They could walk out on a deck over the water or said their Hobie Cat on pretty days, which was most days.  "This is a lot nicer than Houston,"she thought, so after an other year sweating in Houston she moved to a small town in the Seattle suburbs and began teachig at Issaquah High School, where she would teach math (and one year be "Activity Coordinator") for 26 years. She and I met in a carpool from Seattle to the suburbs.

Ann moved for her last four years teaching in public schools to help open a new school in a mostly upper scale neighborhood on the Pine Lake plateau. Humanities teachers like myself had rooms with beautiful views of the Cascades, but Ann spent her four years in the basement with the math and science teachers.

After 30 years, we threw a big retirement party, and she went to work as a school reform coach funded by the Gates Foundation. Her heart, however, was still in the classroom, though she wasn't ready to return to the rigors of public schools again, so she took a job with The Northwest School, a progressive independent school on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

Ann taught high school math at The Northwest School, and is widely created with revamping the math department into a highly respected program with a rigorous and creative reputation and a staff that worked together to improve teaching. Instead of the 35-40 students she had in each math class in Issaquah, her classes ranged in size from 14-18 students. At the end of  her first day, she came home,  jaw dropping, and said, "My students thanked me for teaching them at the end of each class." These expressions of gratitude would continue throughout her seven years in the school. She walked a little over a mile to and from school each day, and she often described her tasty lunches, using her hands to emphasize the exquisiteness of each dollop. "Every kid should have a school like this, " she often said. I call it "School Heaven."

Cute Cousin Michael and I visited one of her Calculus classes a couple of weeks ago. First, a student presented her solution to a difficult homework problem and answered questions from the other students. Then Ann's "lecture" began. She'd ask a question and would tap on icon on the white board, apparently a smart board, and the question would pop up. The students weren't surprised, but CCM and I loved it. When the question stumped her students--I think each one did--she'd say, "Turn to your group and talk about it." And the students would. After introducing some new questions for them to struggle with,
CCM whispered to me, "I could learn Calculus from her!"

In her last class with students, she drew student names and let each winner choose something to take home from the room: two took Escher posters, three took math t-shirts (Mariah, who had once yelled out, "Who needs drugs when there's math?"took the one she was wearing. Fear not, the students had made her a pi shirt with notes from each student on the back, so she wasn't nekkid.) Macy went home with Ann's Calculus book, Ann's name printed on the side.

Yesterday was Ann's last department meeting, and she gave her department presents, too. She emptied her closet of math tools like play doh (for geometric shapes and volume), cut gutters (for racing marbles down a ramp to determine velocity), and barbie dolls (for barbie doll bungee jumping, which had some mathematical application that I can't now remember.)

Ann's been a math teacher for as long as I've known her. In our first years, she would sometimes work so hard or get so frustrated that things hadn't gone as smashingly as she had hoped, that she would cry. Most of her hard work, however, has been the kind of heartful effort that my yoga teacher Victoria today called "Joyful effortlessness" or what makes sense to me as "Effortless Effort." Her effort has come from her heart, and she has a great heart.

What will she do now? She is wisely not yet committing. She's joined a committee at church and has decided that she will volunteer as a math tutor at The University of Washington's Women's Center, where many of the young women are immigrants to this country--quite a few from Ethiopia. She is giving her heart time and space to lead the way.

She's my partner, it's true, and I do love her, but she's also just dang amazing.

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