Month: May 2020

An appreciation of teachers

This year’s Teacher Appreciation Week had me thinking about the teachers in my life.

First is my mom, who taught for 30 years. The first 15 years she worked for the county school system as a teacher of the homebound and hospitalized. In that role, if a student could not attend school due to illness or injury, she would teach them at home. Each week she would meet with that student’s teachers to gather information and assignments and then work with the student so that they could stay current.

For each student she’d have to take the week’s lessons and understand them, formulate how she would teach them, drive to the student’s home and spend a couple of hours teaching (amidst all of the normal chaos of a home). Then the cycle would repeat, with progress being reported to the teachers at school.

Mom, leaving a student’s home.

She had to carry in the trunk of the car all of the necessary books, handouts, and such that all of her students would need.

She loved that job. Ask almost any teacher and one of the major barriers to their success is classroom size. She always had a classroom of one. She really got to know each student and their families.

Her own disability (she lost both of her arms in a farming accident when she was five) provided hope and encouragement. Students suffering with pain, disability and fear would see a woman with no arms driving a regular car (sometimes even with a manual transmission), carrying heavy cases of books and materials, writing, drawing – doing everything anyone else would do. Beyond teaching she was proof that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

She sure went through a lot of cars driving all over Michigan’s rural Van Buren County!

Then the state eliminated funding for that program and made it the responsibility of the individual schools. If a student needed at-home teaching, each principal had to find someone to fill the role.

Mom stayed with the county intermediate school district and worked for the vocational school. This was where high school juniors and seniors would go to learn a trade or job skill. The programs included courses such as commercial photography, printing, data processing, construction, nursing, etc. Students could graduate high school and immediately move into a job.

That role gave my mom another 15 years of different teaching experience: helping students who lacked a particular skill to be successful in their chosen field. For example, if a student had trouble with reading comprehension, my mom would develop a one-on-one curriculum to help them so that they could be successful with their skills training. And because she also had degrees in counseling and personnel management, she helped students to identify jobs that would suit them after graduation and coordinated on-the-job internships.

I mention all of this to say that I saw teaching from the teacher’s point of view. All of the stories you hear about the amount of time and preparation that it takes to teach are true. Hours were spent each week to prepare, grade papers, and plan. Teaching, and doing it well, takes so many hard and soft skills that are subtly needed, but little appreciated.

I saw the rewards of teaching, too. From seeing a struggling student finally “get it” to running into a former student as a successful adult, I can tell you that having summers off was not the motivation to teach.

I then think about my own experiences as a student. Several of my mom’s students came from my own school. This meant that she got to know the teachers at my school while she worked with those students which lead to me getting “inside” information on my teachers. It was sort of like listening at the door of the teacher’s lounge, without all of the second-hand smoke!

It wasn’t until several years ago that I realized how fortunate I was with my teachers. I had been talking with friends who shared stories about their worst teachers. I had no stories to share. I had classes that I was not good at and teachers that I liked more than others, but I had good teachers.

I went to school in the very small town of Gobles, Michigan. It was rural and poor. But the teachers were first-rate. Many spent their entire careers at that small school system. They could have gone to other schools and certainly earned more money, had more and better supplies. But they stayed. Many driving quite a distance to teach there.

But they were good. I suppose it’s natural to not remember a lesson on multiplication tables, or U.S. history or pig dissection. But I remember the kindness and interest they showed toward me. I wasn’t scared of teachers. I didn’t have mean teachers. I had fair teachers who knew their subjects, who taught them well, who cared about us as and our minds, so that we’d be ready for whatever was to follow.

I was so fortunate! And I know that a student sitting next to me in the same class may have experienced it differently. But for me, I was blessed with some great teachers. Teachers I think about, and whose lessons I remember to this day.

For example, my English teacher, Mrs. Brill, who always believed in me, left encouraging and constructive comments in my journal, pushed me to read books that didn’t at first appeal. Who during regular oral book reports, which scared the living daylights out of me, always kept eye contact with me and made encouraging gestures and stayed awake and attentive during 30+ monotone, dull and repetitive reports. More than anyone else in my life, Mrs. Brill made me feel like I had potential, that I could become someone other than a fat, shy, awkward teen. She treated me like an adult, someone who had value.

Mr. Grossa, my shop teacher, who helped me with math by showing me that I could learn it better if I found purpose in it: measuring wood for a project. That algebra, which was a terribly difficult concept for me, was useful when I needed to determine the missing length of a board. That a mistake on a project was not a failure that must be abandoned but rather was a prototype to learn from for the next try. But the biggest thing Mr. Grossa left me with was an ability to plan. Until that year I was easily overwhelmed by large tasks. Mr. Grossa taught me how to lay out a plan: break things down into small steps that could be understood. Then start to attack the plan, learn, adjust the rest of the plan, and so on. This is a skill I think everyone needs in order to be successful. Mr. Grossa taught me this lesson probably sooner and in a more concrete way than I otherwise would have.

Mrs. Hibbard, who I had for sixth grade in a combined fifth and sixth grade classroom. She loved word humor which has always amused me. She used Mad Libs to teach language rules in a fun and memorable way. She also read to us. I have fond memories of sitting on a large, round rug and Mrs. Hibbard reading The Chronicle of Narnia to us. But she was teaching me how to read. She’d ask us questions about the story: what we remembered from last time, what we thought might happen, why a character did something or what they may have been thinking.

Mr. Mayer was my high school physics teacher. He was never afraid of questions. I found myself surprisingly interested in physics and electricity. I was fascinated by series and parallel circuits and based on my many questions he changed up lessons to allow the class to pursue our questions and interests. I remember asking some question about electricity and the following week he had built a doll house all wired up with lights so that we could experiment – all to answer my question. He could have given a statement to answer my question or drawn a picture on the chalk board. Instead he spent his weekend building an experiment so that we could learn based on our interests.

Mr. Amrstrong, my high school biology teacher, helped me to better understand how percentages work. I always sat next to his desk and while we were doing assignments, he’d be grading papers. I’d watch him punch numbers into his calculator and record grades. I had math classes, but watching him so frequently just “use” math made it practical for me.

These are just a few of many examples and impressions great educators have had on my life.

Teachers of course must know their material, that is a given. But it’s the connection with students, the world the students live in, the student’s interests and skills, that lead to success. A good teacher is a combination of years of education, ongoing training, and a heart that knows how to meld all of that into an experience that truly educates.

Gobles High School.