“Slick delivery and structure. It’s like they have a director backstage orchestrating the performance. They’re smart, but given that this is what it takes to point out the obvious doesn’t bode so well for our schools.”
I only hear from her about once a year any more and as usual it conjures in me fond recollections of student-teaching in her classroom, and in this particular instance, it is accompanied by the odd thought of her so far away from her own students today, sitting amongst a few thousand others, attentively listening to a panel of experts share how to make her school and her classroom more successful. How to “gear-up” for Common Core and be accountable to student learning.
Years ago, when I was a young teacher-to-be, I was assigned to the very small, rural high school in a small town near the river. The school was only 350-students-and-16-teachers-small in fact. The student body was largely made up of deep, long-time farming families that spanned generations in this area of the far-northern, central California valley. There was a rich, agricultural heritage that permeated the school historically and surrounded it physically by way of orchards and rice fields that washed directly up along the edges of the campus. As one might guess, there was a large percentage of Latino students and a fair number of Caucasian students as well. Beyond those demographic terms, their lives were very similar as were those of their families for generations in most instances. While I elected to use the descriptors rich and deep above, I would not extend them to describe the fiscal resources of the community, the school or most of its families. “But,” the Principal explained to me in the demure school library, where the walls were adorned by the pictures of EVERY graduating class dating back to the early 1900′s, “I not only know every student on this campus, I also know most their families.” That was rich. He glanced at my assigned class rosters, “Let me see here. You’ll have Elba Mendez in 3rd period, I had her mother as a student in 1982, Margaret, right there.” pointing to one of the frames on the wall. “And, her uncle and I graduated together as well.” he added pointing to another. He could then identify her siblings, uncles, cousins, aunts, parents, and even grandparents. That was deep. As I quickly scanned these pictorial homages to the denizens of this small community, I focused in on where he had gestured to his and Elba’s uncle graduating class. Sure enough, a row down from her tio, there sat a spry, bright-eyed 18-year-old version of the Principal himself. Class President, baseball star, soon-to-be college student and eventually, a returning teacher to this very school where he would go on to live out his educational career.
My Mentor Teacher was a woman I did not expect to find in this very small, very cloistered corner of the county. She was not small, was well traveled, and had a very diverse series of life events and choices before landing at this site. She seemed in no way common to this environment, yet was entirely comfortable in it. (She had been a nationally-ranked shot-putter attending the Pan-Am games in Cuba, had taught in Kinsasha in the Democratic Republic of the Congo before being whisked out by helicopter in the face of advancing, hostile bands of rebels intent on killing or capturing teachers and intellects as part of the ongoing civil war there, and had recently worked with friends to personally design and build a straw-bail, sustainable, energy-efficient two-story home nearby on her horse ranch with her partner prior to such endeavors being en vogue). She was familiar though to the dynamics of this town and these students based on her own experiences growing up in almost the exact same type of community and school, only 20 years earlier in a small town even more remote, 220 miles further to the north straddling the Oregon border. She taught both English and History, was a fervent believer in project-based learning, and also adhered to giving students direct structures by which to learn to read and write critically.
She wanted desperately for students to see and understand the world far beyond their small town. She often tied their instruction back to the tenets of Joseph Campbells’ literary motif, The Hero’s Journey. She challenged students to consider the humble and beautiful familiarness of their hometown as wonderful, but also recognize the restrictive nature of those same things when trying to define their own identities in the context of a community that knew them before they were even born. I introduced her to the Internet, as a means to bring more of the world to more of our students, she was mildly intrigued…she in turn introduced me to teaching. Not as an exercise, or an area of study, but as a calling…as a passion. She allowed me to experiment and take the lead on unconventional projects. She allowed me to fail. Fail miserably, and not bail me out even though she was sitting in the back of the room with a look of, “Well, you got yourself here…now what?” She made me go with the kids on a 4 hour bus ride to San Francisco and take them to see Phantom of the Opera in a classic theater setting. Upon arriving in downtown SF a “mere” 5 hours early “so the students can experience a city”, she prepped me with, “We will need them back at the bus an hour before tonight’s show.” I inquired, “To ask them to share-out what they saw and learned this afternoon?” “No” she replied, “So you can tie the boys’ ties for them.” Through all of the on and off-site adventures of that year, the only rule she ever attached to my foibles was the condition that we would talk about the teaching/learning experience, examine it, understand it, and ultimately accept it, good or bad, but never reproach it. She also reserved the right to introduce any parts of my classroom failings to the general conversation that occurred daily in the staff lunchroom (roughly the size of a small bedroom or a large bathroom, take your pick) as the fodder of great laughter and guffawing for the other teachers. Even in a small staff room, at a small school, new teacher’s need to anticipate creating a large space for humility.
Slightly disparaged, but opting to warmly see my lunch-room admonishments as “faculty initiation” and thus acceptance, I would trod back into Wendy’s classroom each day determined to try something new. She would invite me to introduce Marvell’s and and Donne’s carpe diem poetry as a tool of antiquated seduction and I would in turn invite students to compare those methods of young poets from centuries past to similar efforts by young artists of the ’90′s. Venn diagrams with Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love on one side, 2Pac’s What You Wont Do For Love on the other. It kind of worked. We started a drama program. By general solicitation initially (and then admittedly subtle coercion of kids with border-line academic GPAs required for sports and extra-curricular activities) we gathered over 25 students to join in our after-school drama program and put on a full production of Leonard Wibberley’s 50′s era, cold-war satire The Mouse That Roared in relation to our post-World War II US History units. We did a showing for our whole school, the elementary school, and two evening performances for the community on an old stage in the cafeteria that had gone unused for over a decade. I had no idea what I was doing; the school didn’t seem to notice and the students didn’t seem to mind. A friend of mine who managed a Pier 1 a city away allowed us to borrow about $4,000 in merchandise as stage props for two weeks to create a very believable throne-room for our play. Without permission from her company, nor insurance from my school, we drove the loosely bundled items through the open air of the orchards in the back of our trucks to the waiting hands of students eager to create Grand Fenwick’s palace amongst the folding tables and lunch trays of our aged school cafeteria late into the night. Years later, I would confess my early ignorance to the Principal regarding the drama program and teaching in general that first year. His reply, “I knew what you were doing. You were caring, and that’s all I’ve ever asked of any of my staff.”
I could go on. Suffice it to say, I survived that year. And more importantly, so did the kids. I owe them a debt of gratitude as I do to all of the students I was able to eventually meet in my career. I hold a special place for all my former colleagues as well. But today I am thinking about my original Mentor Teacher and that particular small-town Principal, and the humble community that gave an unknown, unqualified new teacher unfettered access to their most prized possessions by way of their children. There is a richness beyond dollars you find in some communities, and if you’re lucky, you will come across such a place and they will share it with you. I hold those early experiences and my time in education foremost in my work to this day. I try to carefully consider the spirit of my former students, the hopes of their families, and the passion of my former colleagues as key arbiters of my work each day. As we internally discus social learning models, resource metadata schemas, and how to graft formative results into adaptive summative systems I often take pause and consider where are the teachers, students, and families represented in these constructs and in that moment, they still aid me.
So as I wrap up this post, let me end with this thought on national efforts to reform education, statewide attempts to reinvent professional development, and unilateral approaches to re-focus communities on the learning of their youth. The degree to which we collectively come to understand how to best improve our schools, will largely correlate to the degree we recognize that people like my former Mentor Teacher and Principal should not be in the audience, but indeed should be on the stage…if there need be a stage at all.