Sunday, May 1, 2016

Remembering Teachers on Appreciation Week --- Why they Matter.

            Even though I left the classroom some years ago, Teacher Appreciation week always makes me nostalgia.   Perhaps this because it falls in May when my heart and mind is turning back to the classroom, and I remember these tough final weeks of school.  The rhythm of the year pulses through me, and I can still feel the urgency of those teachers in their last mile of the marathon when they draw on every dram of energy and optimism to move the students along just a bit more before they rush out from the school into summer break.  
            Teaching is a demanding profession, and one in which we all have almost too much experience; and thanks to all of our years in school we know teaching all too well.  We’ve all been those students rushing out of the school doors into the freedom of summer.  John Dewey said that this is the challenge of training teachers.  No matter what skills and techniques teachers are given in their training they tend to teach as they were taught.  They emulate the years and years of modeling provided them as students in classrooms.  While a teacher may have five or six semesters of teacher training, he will have had fourteen or fifteen years of teachers models.  Each year, another teacher, or as many as eight, have spend nearly two hundred days showing the student what teaching looks like.  Imagine being a education professor competing against that much prior knowledge.  Such a thought gives me cause to worry for I can clearly recall — perhaps more clearly than the good ones — all the bad teachers I had in my career.  
            I should admit that I offered teachers much challenge to their abilities since most my memories of them involve some sort of punishment or confrontation.  One slapped my face for back talking him in gym class another taped my mouth shut because I dared him too.  There was the one who called me to the front of the science class my first week in a new school and told me to grab my ankles.  Yes I was being rude and, I thought, incredibly funny, but he gave me a swat with his wooden paddle right there in class in front of everyone, forcing me to be proud and arrogant in my misery
One notorious PE teacher was great bully of drill sergeant proportions.  He ran his classes like boot camp right down all the students in matching white uniforms.  We showered everyday and if the subsequent towel snapping turned into a fight, which in seventh grade means some weak swearing, daring and shoulder pushing, the two pugilists were ushered into the gym to don the boxing gloves.  This, of course, encouraged the bullies to pick fights with lesser opponents and cemented our hatred. 
There are lessons to be learned from teachers such as this, but they are better off left alone.  I tremble to think that these were the teachers that modeled teaching for me, and I wonder, was I that sort of teacher to some students?  Was I the nightmare they faced each day for a year?  And, I wonder, what about the teachers I don’t remember?  Their classrooms are not in my head.  Not consciously anyway.  The experts say that emotions are an important element in the memory process, and that we remember things best that created an emotional response.   This seems to be proven by my memories of school for these teachers that made school hell, the ones with a definite emotional response, them I remember.  With these experiences how could I become a good teacher?  
            I not only remember the mechanical drawing teacher who threw wooden blocks at us when we weren’t attentive, but I also remember his impatience at my poor tool skills.  All my drawing where ugly, smeared messes that helped convince me that I couldn’t be an artist when I grew up like I wanted to at then time.  Maybe I would never anyway, but the semester before, an art teacher, convinced me I could.  He had every kid in his class thinking we were making wonderful art as we gouged crude patterns into copper plates or shaded charcoal mountains and logs cabins in perfect perspective.  Unfortunately the positive energy of that one art teacher couldn’t overcome the shadow cast by the dark side of teaching. 
            Luckily, there were other good teachers in my life.   I calculate that from 1959, when I entered first grade at Ninilchik School on the Kenai Peninsula until 1971 when I graduated from East High in Anchorage, I was under the influence of at least eighty teachers.  I can remember only a couple dozen names and of them only a handful, or I guess, two hands full were teachers worth remembering for what they did to help me learn and grow to into who I am.  The others, I’m sure also shaped who I am and what I am, how I think and choose, but I must believe that those I remember as important in my education, where the most important.  
            Some teachers were memorable because they were fun or kind, like the chemistry teacher who taught me more about flying than he did chemistry.  He was nice guy who loved both chemistry and flying.  His class was at the end of the day, and I was often nodding in back of the room soon after the lecture started unless someone managed to get him talking about flying.  I liked this fellow, but I would not rate him as a great teacher.  He did spend a lot more time talking flying than he should have, and he didn’t teach me much chemistry, and finally, he should have flunked me and he didn’t.  He should have flunked me because I didn’t learn much Chemistry, and I didn’t pay attention, except when he talked about flying therefore I bombed most of the tests.  “I think you understand this stuff, Dan,” he said, “ You just aren’t very good at taking tests.”   I was good test taker; I just didn’t know chemistry.     
            I also had an actual flight school teacher.  The man who taught this class made it interesting with his harrowing tales of flying in Alaska – he was a real bush pilot.  After taking this class it was my plan to get my pilot’s license then become a professional pilot, cruising around the states in a Leer jet for some big corporation.  That’s the effect of good teachers.  They make us dream.   
The truly memorable teachers, the ones worthy of emulation, were the ones who made me feel good about myself while challenging my thinking and making me paddle rough water to strengthen my stroke.  It was these teachers that came to mind when I tried to be a better teacher.  It was these teachers that I thought of when I began to shape my teaching.  It was these teachers that I thanked when I was recognized as Alaska’s Teacher of the Year.
The first of these models for teaching was in first grade and second grade with Mrs. Hawkins.  I mostly remember a classroom where I felt comfortable and welcome with big cardboard boxes laid down on their sides that we used as cubbyholes for napping or reading.  I remember learning to write properly for the first time with the fat pencils on the broad sheets of newsprint that smelled of the ink made the fat guidelines for beginning writers.  Mrs. Hawkins showed us how the paper must lay at oblique angle on the desk so that the right hand could move naturally across the page.  She stopped then and walked back to my desk, ignoring all the other students for a moment to show me, a lefty, that my paper needed to be turned the other way, a opposite angle from the other children’s paper.
 “Danny,” she said, “You’re left-handed and you need to turn your paper the other way.  Always remember that when you write.  It will make it so much easier.”   I was different, and worthy of special attention for my teacher.  I was different and there were special rules for me.  I think I grew to feel that way about many things; that I was different and there were special rules for me. 
Later, as a graduating senior, I discovered that Mrs. Hawkins role as a teacher extended far beyond her classroom.  Among the few graduation cards that came in the mail was a small package from Mrs. Hawkins.  It was an audiotape of my first grade class reading aloud.  I then remembered that she had used a reel-to-reel tape to record us as we read aloud so that we could hear how we sounded.  Who could imagine that she had archived those tapes, and then twelve years later transfer them to cassettes and tracked down addressees for graduates scattered to the winds?  No student of mine ever got that long a reach from Mr. Walker. 
            That same year, after a semester of community college, I  quit school and work and went “looking for my head”.  I was footloose and restless like many a child of that time.  I was hitchhiking along the Sterling Highway heading into Ninilchik when a car passed, stopped, then backed up abreast of me.  The window opened and Mrs. Hawkins leaned out the window into the winter air.  “Danny Walker, what you doing?” she asked with a voice full of disappointment.  I was an uninspiring sight with my shoulder length hair and second hand clothes.  
            “Headin’ for Ninilchik.”
            “Why in world aren’t you in college where you belong?”  I had no retort.  “Young man, I always counted on you going to college.  It would be a pity if you didn’t.”  She shook her head and drove away. 

            I have always been proud that in the end I didn’t disappoint Mrs. Hawkins, a woman who, for reasons never clear to me, was my teacher for a long, long time.   Years later I could proudly tell her that I not only finished college but followed her into the proud profession of teaching. 

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