It’s May. If you’re a teacher, you know exactly how many days are left until the end of school. You might even know the total hours, how many more bus duties you have to attend, or how many more bleach wipes you’ll need to clean your room because your school’s custodial staff went AWOL one day last week. Fatigue has set in. It feels as if you are the base acrobat with all of your students balanced on your shoulders in the shape of an inverted pyramid and your goal is to carry them all through the remainder of your state-mandated testing and curricular content to the last day of school without dropping any.
After a late night of grading research papers or after scraping a partially fossilized raisin from your classroom floor 2 hours after the last bell rang, you might find yourself wondering, “Does any of this matter?” “Am I making any difference at all?” “Will they remember anything I’ve taught?”
Take heart, weary teacher. It does. You are. They will.
I had the privilege of having an awesome public school experience in my day, staffed by many talented, hard-working, intelligent, and caring teachers. I learned a lot and credit them with all kinds of things, but I’m pretty sure they have no idea of the lessons I carry with me today that I can trace directly back to them.
So, in honor of them and in honor of you teachers who are still in the trenches, here are few of my favorites.
Lesson # 1
Don’t underestimate yourself.
I think my second grade teacher may have literally hung the moon. For sure, she was the bright and shining sun of our classroom and we all willingly fell into orbit around her. Second grade was listening to her rendition of Ramona the Brave, writing my pen pal from her hometown in a state far away, and vying for the honor of having Tex (a longhorn puppet situated atop an empty Pringles can) sit on my desk for the day.
One day she stepped in front of our little desks holding a sheet of paper pressed tightly against her chest and announced, “Students, one of you made a perfect score on our recent quiz over nouns. There were absolutely no mistakes. It was excellent work. Would anyone like to guess who it was?” Many of us guessed names. I racked my brain, “Who are the smart kids? It’s probably one of them.” I started forming guesses in my mind of who might be able to accomplish such a feat. Finally her eyes shimmered as she looked my way and said, “Well, Jennifer, it was you!”
It must have been a funny sight when my jaw dropped to the desk and my blond pigtails shot straight out from my head. I remember the mental progression from, “But I thought it would’ve been one of the smart kids” to “Oh my, maybe I am one of the smart kids.” She thought she was teaching about parts of speech, but really she was teaching about parts of me I hadn’t realized yet.
Lesson # 2
Take pride in how you present yourself.
“Come on, now, that’s bush league. We don’t do bush league around here.” The baseball metaphor was totally lost on me, but I quickly figured out that when my band directors scolded us for being “bush league,” it meant someone was being lazy or sloppy. I carried white shoe polish for my marching shoes. We lined our hat buckets up in straight vertical and horizontal lines in the stands so that when we took the field at halftime our vacant seats looked sharp. Concert season brought pressed black taffeta symphony gowns and tuxedos. While traveling, our busses were to be kept clean and our manners to the general public were to be impeccable. As visible representatives of our school, people would form opinions about what kind of school we attended based on what they saw of us. That idea was frequently reiterated.
My band directors might not have anticipated that I’d hear the phrase “bush league” echoing in my memory all these years later, but I’m glad it does. And, I suspect that the same thing resonates with a good number of my former classmates. It’s a reminder that we set standards for ourselves based on who we want to be and what we represent. We set a standard of professional behavior when we face less than professional people at work. We maintain a standard of a polished appearance and speech when presenting ourselves publically. We are poised confidently with the knowledge that when it’s “go time,” we know how to look the part, act the part, and be the part.
Lesson # 3
Music is magic.
It’s magical to buzz around the cafetorium stage in your home made bumblebee costume or to sing of “Goin’ to Texas” with the rest of your 5th grade class to celebrate the state sesquicentennial because your music teacher was crazy enough to tackle multiple grade-level musical productions each year.
My fifth grade social studies teacher and his guitar are solely responsible for my ability to quote the Preamble to the Constitution, but don’t ask me to do it without singing the song.
Direct object pronouns in Spanish? A breeze when you set them to the tune of Barry Manilow’s Copa Cabana.
T.S. Elliot poetry is pretty cool in its own right, but discovering that Andrew Lloyd Webber used it as a basis for his musical Cats and then getting to listen to the music in class? Even better.
Watching the school’s performance of Annie Get Your Gun and The Pajama Game from the orchestra pit with an assortment of student and adult musicians is pretty exhilarating. Definitely the best seats in the house, even if I was desperately trying to keep pace with the infinitely more talented adult musicians.
Somewhere between the bee buzzing and the humming along with Mr. Mistoffelees, music’s magic took up permanent residence with me. My teachers connected art to academic content and then academic content back to art. They shared their outside interests and talents with us and wove them into our daily activities. Possibly they were trying to soothe our savagery. But one thing I know for certain is that when you sing and dance and play with kids, it goes directly to long term memory.
Lesson # 4
For some roads there is no shortcut.
As a high school freshman I took Honors U.S. History taught by the head football coach. Many athletic director/head coaches don’t teach academic classes due to their other responsibilities, but he loved history and we were his one class a day. His delivery method was somewhere between drill instructor and auctioneer. After a while you got used to the shouting and the breakneck pace. The man knew his stuff. He started barking biographical stories, statistics, and facts the second we hit the door. We scribbled madly, our hands several sentences behind our ears. But our brains held on as tightly as they could because he was fascinating.
When tests came around, nothing less than his level of knowledge would satisfy him. He insisted that we know the big picture and the tiny details. I began the year laboriously studying for his exams, rewriting my notes, and retelling his lectures to my dad, who was a history buff himself and could critique my comprehension. I did really well, and then I got cocky. Surely that level of preparation wasn’t necessary. I listened in class and took decent notes. I decided to just glance over my notes the night before the test. I’d be fine.
WRONG! When he passed back that test, he flicked it onto my desk like you’d dispose of a rotten grape. No words, just a shake of the head. An F. He and I both knew I’d earned it. He set a standard of excellence in his class that required his students to demonstrate complete mastery of the subject matter. Mine had been shoddy, at best. When I got home and told my dad what had happened, his only words were, “Well, I guess that didn’t work out how you thought it would.”
I’ll confess, it’s been more than 25 years since I took that class and I can’t recite the number of Americans killed on D Day or tell you the exact date that the Treaty of Versailles was signed. But, I can tell you that there are times in life when there are no shortcuts and my attempts to circumvent difficulty aren’t going to lead me where I want to go. Life requires what it does. You face the challenges that are put in front of you, and sometimes they’re harder than you anticipated. Sometimes there’s no alternate route, no short cut, no pre-blazed trail. I’m grateful that this gruff and gritty man cared about us enough to teach the tough stuff.
So, to all you tired teachers, you matter. You make a difference. You count! (Really…keep on counting, you’re almost there!)