Monday, May 6, 2013

Teachers, Appreciated

I've never had a "bad" teacher in my life.

I feel like that statement says two things about me: 1. That I've been fortunate enough to have had people who honestly cared about their responsibility and their students over the course of my public school education and 2. I have always been self-aware enough to know that when I was doing poorly in school, it was my fault for not taking actions to close that gap (because I was, to be perfectly honest, never one to try at the things I wasn't good at), and not my teachers'. Maybe it says 3. I just came out of PG, and the idea of a bad teacher has lengthened the continuum.

Now that I've come to what I think is "full circle," I can finally write this post. However, I know in the near future, I'll probably go around this loop once more only to realize how different my perspective was then/now. Such is life.

In elementary school I had several pleasant teachers in my life. Ms. Gibbs was like the my school grandmother who taught me about the letters and how to hatch eggs. She also taught me about leprechauns and I still think I saw one on the light fixture that day. Ms. Gordon was strict and probably my least favorite teacher, but in her class I read the word "amphibian" aloud to the class (my sister taught it to me that week) and I felt so proud of myself that it almost makes up for the fact that she wouldn't let me go to the restroom so I peed myself in the computer lab. Ms. Budman had a lot of sass, looking back I didn't understand sass as a kid. She was a good teacher, very organized, and what you'd imagine teachers in books to be like (holiday theme sweaters and all. Ms. Weinstein was also strict. She had high standards for us and pushed us. I learned a lot in third grade and it was a good year. With Ms. Ryder I probably had the most fun, having macarena contests and pretending to be an indentured servant on a boat, but probably learned the least. Although in retrospect, maybe she taught in a non-traditional, hands-in manner. She did teach me how circuits worked and that year we built dioramas that had lighting fixtures that turned off and on. That's pretty impressive for being nine.

But Ms. Fliegel was my favorite. And that's probably because I was one of hers (teacher's pet alert!). She was like my school mom. She was extremely open (answered our very first sex questions), easy to understand (she spoke in examples we could understand), sweet (when I passed out in said sex class she cradled me until the nurse came), and she was the right balance of fun and strict. She really cared about her students, even the annoying ones. Two years later I had heard she died and I was pretty sad. She was meant to be a teacher and it's a tragedy she wasn't longer.

In middle school, I experienced another batch of good, or at least well-meaning, educators. Ms. Beane and Ms. Christopher were made an effort to connect to their students; Ms. Worthington kept it cool even when the class didn't; Ms. Dalkiewicz was challenging and sassy; Mr. Thorne wanted us to learn and grow so badly; Ms. Dusterhoff was a great, but strict math teacher (imagine a German mathematics drill sergeant); Ms. Hilliard was easy to approach; Mr. Sheldon was awkward, but passionate about history; Mr. Craemer taught me my basis of biology; Mr. Boone supported me despite how terribly I played the flute; and Ms. Fandey was funny, a great teacher, and compassionate (when I earned a C on a quiz, she pulled me aside to ask if I was having personal problems). I look back on middle school and smile fondly. Not because middle school was a good time, I was awkward and trying to find my place in things, but because my school was amazingly cohesive and everyone worked together to give us an ideal foundation into teenagerhood.

And then in high school, Ms. Demos was the Ms. Frizzle of mathematics - she loved math and that made us want to love math; Ms. Smith was the sweetest English teacher I had ever had; Ms. Nataro was strict and brilliant and taught me steady persistence; Mr. Schmidt helped me to get my rhythm on (and it is only because of him that I have any rhythm); Ms. Kenefick taught me how to stay calm in the heat of a moment; Mr. Wattecamps taught me that it's okay to be a little bit crazy - all smart people are; Mr. Woodruff taught me the depth that a good discussion can have; Mr. Su and Ms. Hannegrefs taught me a ton about psychology and how to engage students through conversation; Ms. Mannino taught all of us how to handle large amounts of work and come out on top; Ms. Boyle taught me what it's like to be a teacher and encouraged me to pursue the profession.

I was also lucky to have had an excellent science department that honed my interests and abilities. Every science teacher I had during high school was inspiring and smart. They all knew what they were doing and how to do it well. That can't often be said about an entire department. Mr. Kuehner was this brilliant physicist who paced, probably because his mind moved faster than we did; Ms. Zanni was an intelligent chemist who taught me the basics of chemistry; Ms. Gallo was a hugely animated teacher who I hope to be more like as I grow in my biology teaching career - she didn't lecture us much, but I remember so much from class even today; Ms. Lee and Ms. Considine were laid back, but completed the job moderately well and I could tell that she cared about her students; Ms. Schlossnagle made learning anatomy fun, despite how detailed it was (and she always recognized us as "doctors" when we did well on a test). Ms. Gregory is who reminds me of myself as a teacher - intelligent, but a little scatter-brained and fun to have class with; Ms. Valli was a bit loopy, but I could tell that she knew a lot about physics and had a kindness to her.

However, the teacher who had the single-most influence on my teaching today would be Mr. Heifetz. What a phenomenal educator. He was incredibly challenging for a middle school teacher. I would never be that challenged again in any of my classes. He pushed us to think, to analyze, and to do work those much older than us struggled to do. He made us, at least me, want to be better. And most remarkably, he did this all without making us want to quit or rebel. He showed me how good surmounting challenges could feel and more importantly, that we could. He didn't accept that we were middle schoolers. We did intelligent, real work and we appreciated him all the while for it. The push didn't feel mean. It felt like he knew that we had so much potential, but only a limited amount of time to discover it. He taught us how to build character, stop complaining, and to "get some hair on our chests." It also helped that he was sarcastic and had a charm to him. Middle school girls thought he was cute because he was so brilliant in our eyes! But looking back, I still think he was brilliant and I know every student he has today thinks the same.

I don't think of myself as a teacher - not yet - it's too soon to tell if I've influenced any lives. It's still an amazing job that I'm constantly fascinated by. If you have had a great teacher in your life, like the 30+ I've had, please take the time to thank them for taking their time in developing you.