Sunday, May 5, 2013
Teacher Appreciation Week
Teacher Appreciation Week starts tomorrow. It's a week with a long, long history, all the way back to the 1980s. No one appreciated teachers before then. Or since, really.
Oh, sure, there are those special teachers in our lives, the ones we'll never forget. I have a handful--from elementary through graduate school, people who made an enormous difference in my life, who, in one way or another, believed in me, helped me believe in myself. How can you ever "appreciate" something like that? An apple? A gift card to Starbucks? No, all you can really do is hope you get around to telling those people before it's too late. I missed on a few, realizing only after the person's death that I'd never really thanked him or her. It's a terrible feeling, knowing you can never thank someone.
Of course, I also had teachers who were special in a negative way, people I will not forget because they were cruel or grotesquely incompetent. We've all had some of those. And there were also many who didn't really affect me at all, one way or another. We were in a room together for a while. We got along all right. We forgot each other pretty quickly thereafter.
From the very beginning of my public school teaching career (1966-1978, 1982-1997) I experienced students and parents who were very appreciative. The parents told me so; some even wrote notes (which I still have). I was fortunate enough to encounter some folks who saw I was trying to do good things--even when I failed to accomplish them. And I have to say that throughout that time I had very few students who persistently gave me a hard time. But there were some. Of course there were some. Just as I'm sure there were some who despised me and my classes. No one is right for everyone. Didn't you have that experience as a student? Liking a teacher your friends didn't? Hating a teacher they loved?
I also had--throughout my career--parents who gave me a hard time. Who complained about grades. Or something I said. Or something I had the kids read--or write about. At some parent conferences I saw red, angry faces, heard hurtful words. (Remember the moment from The Taming of the Shrew when Kate's father warns Petruchio, "But be thou arm'd for some unhappy words"? An understatement.) In 1982, the year I returned to Aurora after a four-year absence, the school board approved my return by an overwhelming vote of 3-2. I was fortunate to have three-fifths of the Board appreciate me!
In later years when kids started doing evaluations of their teachers, I would always have a few who zinged me for this or that. Fair enough. And often deserved. After a while, though, I quit reading them (the good, the bad, the ugly). I was always much harder on myself than my students were. I always knew what I could have done better, knew where I'd screwed up, knew which kids I'd failed to reach--and why. It made for some long, regretful summers. Some vows to do better the next year.
And then the next year came, and I made some different mistakes, screwed up in some novel ways. Another regretful summer. More vows. And on and on until I retired (for the final time!) in June 2011. I had great fun with my last classes--but there are some things I would do differently, if I could. There were some things I said I wish I hadn't, some things I didn't say I wish I had, some gestures made and unmade ... You know ...
I wouldn't want to be a public school teacher right now--not in this era of education = test-preparation. I look back at all the great teachers I had, and I know that the influences they had on me--and on my classmates--would have been greatly diminished if test scores had been a principal concern for them.
The teachers I appreciated--and continue to appreciate as I type these words--were the ones who taught me to care about something, who showed me how to do something, who got me to love something I never thought I would, who recognized my abilities and made me feel good about them, who showed me how exciting an intellectual life can be--a life of reading, thinking, writing, traveling. Who showed me the wonders of this world--and then taught me there were far, far more of them out there, waiting for me. And all I had to do was to get myself ready.