Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their June “Father’s Day” issue:
A new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families. Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work. Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.
Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.
Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.
When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path. She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church? And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.
Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.
On Friday, I was driving my normal route home from school, and as I turned on to this one particular neighborhood street, I slowed down, as usual, on the lookout for the group of boys who sometimes are throwing a football from one yard to another, in some form of ultimate street football, as they throw the ball across this somewhat busy street. Once as I was coming down that same street, one of them unexpectedly darted out in front of me to retrieve the ball, and while I was not that close to hitting him, it still un-rattled me, and ever since, I take it nice and slow down that street. On Friday, however, there was no football. All four of them were standing on the edge of the street, in a perfectly straight line, and as I approached, slowly, all four of them saluted me. I laughed, saluted them back, and proceeded on my way home.
This brought back a flood of memories of two of my favorite former students, who, while being quite different from one another, were even more different from everyone else in my homeroom class that year. They were rocket smart, good writers, and very well-rounded in their base of knowledge. They were being raised in households where reading was important, and they had been avid readers since they were old enough to hold a book. One particular shared interest was military history, and they took it upon themselves to declare me, their homeroom teacher, their commanding officer. As a result, every morning, they would be waiting in the hall when I approached my classroom, and they both stood at full attention and saluted me. I would salute them and say, “Good morning, gentlemen.” The other students would just shake their heads.
One day I was out of school for a field trip with a different class and upon my return I found a note on my desk from my substitute teacher, “I caught these two boys cheating on their vocab test, so I took their tests away from them. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it so I didn’t send them to the office.” I looked at the two tests, and I immediately knew what had happened. It was my two 8th grade soldiers. First of all, they would never cheat, too much honor in them to ever do that. Secondly, they sat across the room from each other, and there was no way they could have seen each other’s papers. Thirdly, and most importantly, as they were the two smartest boys in the entire 8th grade, who in the world would they cheat off of if not each other? When the boys came in that day, they both looked at me sheepishly, and rushed up to my desk to explain. Before they could say anything, I handed them their tests and said, “Go and finish your vocab test. I know you weren’t cheating, but next time be more careful when there is a substitute teacher.”
You see, what they were in the habit of doing was to race while taking the vocab tests. Because the students used file folders to shield their work while taking tests, they could not possibly see each other’s work, but they would listen for the other to turn the page to the next part of the test. They would actually peer up over the top of their file folders to make eye contact with each other as if to say, “I finished page one, going to page two, I’m ahead of you,” and so on. They always finished first and second, and it was a mad dash up to my desk to turn them in, which I also had to tamper down because it made some of the other students anxious with them finishing so quickly. And, they never got a single question wrong, perfect 30/30 each and every vocab test the entire year.
These two boys were also Trekkies, and we would talk sometimes at lunch about various Star Trek episodes and discuss the different Star Trek series and the many iterations of that franchise. The other kids in the class had no clue what we were talking about, and while I sometimes worried that our Trekkie conversations and the whole saluting business served to further set them apart, I decided that they were not bothered by it, and in fact, so confident in their own personalities that they didn’t seem to care what the others thought anyway.
After nine years of teaching middle school language arts, teaching roughly 80-100 students a year, I frequently see someone or meet someone who reminds me of one of my past or present students. On Saturday, I proctored the ACT at a local Catholic high school. There were 23 high school students in my room, and as I checked their photo ID’s and admission tickets, I was supposed to assign them seats, which I did. There were quite a few standing at my door when it was time to start admitting them and they seemed very anxious to get in and get started. One young man in particular seemed to be somewhat agitated that he was not first in line and nearly breathing down the neck of the girl standing in front of him. He ended up in the desk directly across from my desk so I had the opportunity to watch him throughout the nearly four-hour standardized test.
This guy was obviously an athlete, judging from his stature and build. He was clean-cut and casually, but neatly, dressed in a lacrosse sweatshirt and nice jeans. As soon as he sat down, he took out of a small string bag (Washington Nationals) not one but two calculators, placing one on his desk and one on the floor under his desk. He also had a water bottle which he placed next to the calculator on the floor, and then next to the water bottle, he placed one cough drop. On the top of his desk, he lined up six #2 pencils, all brand new and freshly sharpened, with unused erasers. Next to them in the little pencil well across the top of his desk, he lined up four AAA batteries. His final item in his arsenal: a wristwatch which he synchronized with the clock on the wall over the whiteboard. I had to bite the side of my mouth to keep from smiling at him as he readied himself for battle against the ACT.
I’ve had several students just like this young man, in fact, I have one right now. He is always prepared, always ready. He works incredibly hard every single day. As soon as I ask a question in class, his hand shoots up. Often when I call on him, he is not really ready with an answer, which is somewhat frustrating for me, but he is so eager to participate in classroom discussions and so eager to always be first, that enthusiasm sometimes wins out over actual knowledge. I can just imagine him three years down the road, showing up to take the ACT somewhere, and unloading his own arsenal, which no doubt will have been checked and double checked to ensure he is completely and totally prepared to do his very best on that test.
Saturday night I went to see a musical at another of the local Catholic high schools. Two of my former students had lead roles, and there were several others in the backstage crew. The two onstage had been very involved in our drama club when they were at my school, and both had significant roles in the plays I directed their 7th and 8th grade years. It was wonderful watching them, because as good as they were in my plays, they have grown and matured so much over the course of their high school years. At one point, I teared up, which my husband noticed right away, and he asked me about it today.
I’m not sure what made me cry; it wasn’t the song they were singing, as this was Nunsense the Musical, which is an irreverent and hilarious parody of nuns and the Catholic Church. I think it was the fact that I felt like I had a small part in how those girls ended up on that stage with lead roles. I realize that I had nothing to do with their vocal talent or acting skills; that is a result of God’s blessings and perhaps genetics. But, at least for one of the girls, I do feel that she developed a love for singing while being in her first play with me.
We weren’t even doing a musical, but there was a somewhat awkward transition from one scene to the next, and I was looking for a way to smooth it out and blend the two scenes together. She was playing the role of a young mother, out Christmas shopping with her mother-in-law, pushing her baby in a stroller. While waiting for the mother-in-law to come back into the scene, I asked her if she could perhaps gently push the stroller back and forth, which she did, and I asked her if she could sing a little something softly to the baby. She said, “Sure, like what?” Since the play was set at Christmas time, I asked her if she knew any Christmas carols. She said, “Away in a Manger?”, so I told her to go ahead and try that. And, out of her mouth came the sweetest rendition of “Away in a Manger”, perfectly in tune, that I’ve ever heard. I think she was a little shocked at how surprised I was. I asked her if she had been in choir or had taken voice lessons, and she said, “No, but I like to sing in the shower.” Later that school year, she auditioned for our school’s musical, and it was pretty clear to everyone that she would be Belle in our Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve lost touch with my two soldier boys because one was an only child and the other’s younger sibling transferred to a different school. I’d love to know how they are doing right now, what they are majoring in. If everything is going to plan, they should be college juniors this year. I wish we could have a little reunion and talk about what they think about Chris Pine as Captain Kirk.
The budding actress with the great voice whom I “discovered” in a small middle school Christmas play, is currently a high school junior going on college tours and mapping out her future. Her mother shared with me that she is interested in physical therapy, with an eye toward minoring in music. I couldn’t be more proud. These are the intangible rewards of teaching, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.
In 2002 I left a stressful but lucrative job as a real estate paralegal to live abroad for two years as an expat trailing spouse. It was the first time in my adult life that I had nowhere to go each weekday. Other than maternity leave in 1990 and 1992, I had been employed full-time since the summer of my college graduation.
At first, I had lots of things to do: get my daughters settled into a new school in a foreign country, learn my way around town, figure out shopping in a foreign language, unpack and settle into a new house, etc. Eventually though, the “to do” list grew shorter and I grew restless. The answer of what to do with my days came via the school’s weekly newsletter: “Help wanted in the high school library”. The library has always been one of my favorite places on earth. Sign me up!
And so began my two years volunteering in the high school library at the international school my daughters attended. I also volunteered in my 5th grader’s classroom, teaching a series of classes on the cuisines of ancient civilizations. The teacher told me after the first class (lentils and sausages), “You should be a teacher!” Soon after, I began substitute teaching and finally, acting as a teacher’s aide in a middle school class where students designed projects to solve global problems.
When we returned to the states in 2004, I worked for three years as a youth minister, spending a lot of time with middle school and high school students. I continued substitute teaching and finally decided to make a permanent career change into education. Putting the cart before the horse, I got a full-time teaching position and then started a graduate school program to become certified to teach English in grades 7-12. It was hard work learning to be a teacher while actually teaching, and with the addition of evening graduate courses, I often wondered whether it was worth it. Eight years later, I can answer that with a resounding YES.
Now considered a veteran teacher, I am still surprised at the many things teaching taught me that I had never considered when I was just the parent of two school-aged children. While some of my top ten list may seem frightening to a new teacher, overall my message is that teaching is the hardest work I have ever done but also the most rewarding.
- While reading is FUNdamental, a lot of students do not think reading is FUN. Being an avid reader, this came as a shock to me. Both my daughters are big readers and while my husband prefers nonfiction to fiction, he loves getting lost in a new book or revisiting his favorite science fiction writers again and again. I had no idea so many children thought reading was boring or hard work only associated with school. Of course some in every class love to read but they are clearly the minority and generally prefer to keep that fact to themselves. In my attempt to turn some of my students into readers, I’ve reorganized my classroom library. Instead of placing the fiction books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name as in the public library, I’ve organized them by genres and shelved them in small baskets clearly labeled “Sports Fiction”, “Mysteries”, “Animal Stories”, “Science Fiction”, “Historical Fiction”, and so on. This has helped some. When students finish a test or classroom assignment, they know they can go to the shelves and find a book to read while waiting for the rest of the class to catch up. I purposely end seventh grade literature on a high note, by teaching the Agatha Christie masterpiece And Then There Were None. This mystery draws them in and hopefully sends them home for the summer wanting to read another of Christie’s jewels. In eighth grade we read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. As Dr. Watson retells the story of the curse on the Baskerville family, we learn about the Victorian era and how to distinguish red herrings from foreshadowing. I post my personal reading list on the wall outside my door, changing it each time I finish a book during the year so that they can see that I am reading for fun, too!
- Everything inside the bells takes half the time you estimated. As a new teacher entering the profession as a second career, lesson planning and mapping out a unit were a mystery to me. I would write out my lesson plan and on paper it seemed as though there would not be enough time to cover it all. But, the bell would ring and I would begin, and nearing the end of the material I had set out to cover I would glance at the clock, utterly shocked and horrified that the period was only half over. This led to scrambling for something to fill in the rest of the period. I got better at this as time went on, and—while by no means perfect—eventually I developed an innate sense of how long something was going to actually take in the classroom. I still have days where things don’t last as long as I had estimated, or days when the bell rings before I have completely finished my lesson, but those days are fewer and fewer.
- Everything outside the bells takes twice as much time as you estimated. The converse of #2 above is that lesson planning is time-consuming, and so is everything else that goes along with that lesson plan. There are copies to be made; things to laminate; bulletin boards to imagine, create, and put up; tests and quizzes to create; grade books to set up and maintain; communications to parents and administrators to write; papers to grade; grades to post; and the list goes on. I teach middle school language arts with the ultimate goal of getting my 7th and 8th graders ready for high school English essay, term papers, A/P exams, and more. I have to assign essays to my students in order to accomplish that goal, and grading them and giving effective feedback is time-consuming and never-ending.
- Beware the faculty room if you want to stay healthy. There is always food in the faculty room. Sometimes it is just a dish of hard candies, and sometimes it is a Costco birthday cake which serves 75 that has been dropped off by a parent after a family celebration. Muffins, donuts, cookies, chips, boxes of Christmas candies, trays of sandwich wraps, and more all find their way to the faculty room. It is a danger zone for anyone trying to lose weight or just to maintain a healthy diet.
- Beware the faculty room if you want to stay positive. This one is tricky to discuss. Comradery is important. We all need to vent, to talk about things to relieve the stress, or to get advice as to how to handle a difficult student. When faculty morale is down, however, the faculty room becomes a place that breeds negativity. After years of struggling with this, a veteran teacher, mentor, friend of mine said to me that it is perfectly okay to eat a sandwich at your desk in the peace and quiet of your own room instead of joining in the fracas. Some days I do just that and use the quiet time to catch up on emails or to just check my Facebook and Twitter accounts, something I would not normally do during the school day. This year, after a few years of transitions in administration and faculty, I decided my classroom theme would be the Pharrell Williams hit song “Happy”. I decorated my door with smiley faces bearing the names of my 8th grade home room students and played the song full blast every morning during home room period to get everyone back in the spirit of coming to school. I changed my ring tone on my cell to “Happy” and sometimes, when the faculty room gets to be a bit too much, I have been known to pull out my phone and play the song. Everyone gets the message—gossip, sniping, and snipping immediately turn into laughter. Other times, I just excuse myself, and in the words of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, just “walk away”.
- People outside of education do not understand your job. As a working parent, I envied the teachers at my daughters’ school, because when their 3:00 dismissal bell was ringing I still had two and a half hours at work. Ha, little did I know! Even with two planning periods a day, and I know I am pretty fortunate because many other schools have far fewer, there is not time do everything that good teaching demands. I also envied the fact that teachers had the summer off. I now know that summers are the time to take apart that unit that isn’t quite working and think through how to make it stronger and more effective. There are professional development courses to take, certifications to renew, new textbooks to review, new novels to read. Then of course, there are the small things that I didn’t understand, like bathroom breaks. I had never considered that I had to align my bathroom breaks to my teaching schedule. Need a hot cup of tea or a drink of water? In an office environment, no problem, but in a bustling middle school with students changing classes every 40 minutes, and both your planning periods in the afternoon, you just have to keep calm and carry on. There is also the delicate matter of respect. When parents are anxious or upset over their child’s grades, they sometimes forget that they are writing or speaking to a professional. This has been very difficult for me. I am quite certain that these same people would not speak to their doctor or to their lawyer that way, but for some reason they are comfortable speaking to their child’s teacher in a less than professional and respectful tone.
- Classroom management is as difficult as negotiating a peace treaty. When I started teaching I was told the old adage, “Be a witch until Halloween” as well as other things like “Don’t let them see your fear” and “Be consistent and treat everyone the same all the time.” This of course works, and you will have a quiet and calm classroom. What you might not have however is an engaging classroom with the free exchange of ideas. Yes, there has to be a set of classroom rules. Yes, you must be consistent. But, you also have to demonstrate that you are human, that you care, and that you want the best for them, from them, and out of them. This demands a balancing act. After two years of being tough, I decided to take a page from the old Sears and Roebuck catalog in a long ago campaign where they advertised “the softer side of Sears”. Occasionally I let them sit wherever they want, even next to their friend who will distract them. After weeks of being cooped up with inside recess due to frigid weather, I will tell them to grab their class novel and head outside for independent reading in the sun on the black top. These little things make a world of difference in the life of a middle school student, and can have a big impact on their attitude and attentiveness.
- Catholic school parents traditionally have large families. One of the most rewarding things I have discovered in teaching has been the upside to “teaching my way” through an entire family. I am now teaching the youngest children in families that had children I taught during my first and second years. I’ve been able to get to know the parents and develop a real rapport with them, establishing trust and respect on a two-way street. I have been able to see the common threads that tie these siblings together but also to see the differences that they each bring to the family name. “You had my sister” or “my brother really hated reading until he read Agatha Christie in 7th grade” are some of my favorite things to hear the first week of a school year.
- Teachers do not just teach, a/k/a be prepared for “other duties as assigned”. That is something you must realize early on. A K-8 elementary school is a huge machine, with moving parts everywhere, and to make it run smoothly sometimes requires all hands on deck. Parking lot duty in all sorts of weather, the dreaded recess duty, after school clubs, spirit week, arts festivals, science fairs, school plays, field trips, clean-up services as needed, these are all tasks that teachers do in the normal course of a school day. Being flexible is the number one key to success on this front. In fact, flexibility is the number one key to success in education in general.
- Teachers are smart. To teach something you must have mastered it yourself first. This also came as a surprise to me. My grammar and punctuation has improved immensely since I started teaching English. I instinctively knew how to punctuate sentences and which verb form to use in a particular sentence but after teaching for eight years, I also know the grammar rules to back it all up. In my attempt to connect the literature I teach to world events and foreign cultures, I have become more knowledgeable in world wars, international politics, world religions, and much more. Researching authors and their life stories while teaching their literature has made me a more well-rounded reader myself. My basic math skills, which admittedly were quite poor, have improved enough to be noticeable to my closest friends and husband, something I had not imagined would happen while teaching language arts. Grading papers and determining percentages, calculating field trip fees, and many other things have helped me improve in this area.
As I write this it is mid-April and as my eighth year of teaching draws to a close, I look forward to a “summer off”. I am feeling tired and worn-out. But, I am renewed in the knowledge that I have helped my eighth graders prepare for high school and have made real progress with my seventh graders in their writing and reading comprehension. I look forward to summer break and to the start of a new school year, where I have the opportunity to start anew, to return to school energized and ready to improve and strengthen my materials and lesson plans, to continue to develop my teaching skills to be the best that I can be. As I said earlier, teaching is the hardest job I have ever done but it is also the most rewarding. Shaping young minds may sound trite, but it accurately describes the important and noble job of helping children along their academic path. It is not for everyone but for those with the courage to meet the demands of this vocation, it is life-changing.