Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Heart of a Teacher — Yearning to Breathe…Life

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.” (Hale, 1870) That is the heart of a teacher! That was the heart of Carol Findlater, my fourth grade teacher and inspiration. Miss Findlater loved and lived passionately and instilled in each student confidence of success. I write about Miss Findlater here, because she connected students to herself in a way that transcended intellectual sharing of content knowledge and physical space for nine months, and she instilled a passion for life, not just learning, that continues to inspire my own learning and teaching years later.

Miss Findlater shared her life with her students; I will never forget the day she burst into the room (she typically burst) and cried out to her beloved 8 year-olds, “You have to hear this!” She proceeded to share Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” and to this day, I love and quote the words: 

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! (Lazarus, 1883). 

I believe that Miss Findlater saw her students as “yearning to breathe free” and she committed herself to breathe life into each of us. In fact, I do not recall wanting to become a teacher because I loved children or even had a desire to help students. As I reflected on Miss Findlater’s influence recently, I realized that I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to be fully alive just as Miss Findlater was passionately alive. She presented “an authentic self to students” (Phelps, 2006). In 1966, most of the adult women I knew were homemakers. Miss Findlater was an adult woman who read and wrote poetry, and sang songs to us like “MacArthurPark” even though we could not comprehend the meanings, and roared with laughter when we played, and cried true tears when we hurt.

Thinking about Miss Findlater, I decided to visit the alumni page of my old neighborhood school, and yes, many students had written of their memories of Miss Findlater. For instance, a boy from my same fourth grade class recalled:

A quickie about Miss Findlater. She was my 4th grade teacher at Peter Burnett. She was one of my favorite teachers I’ve ever had. She was so nice. When I was the window monitor and put my hand through the window and cut four of my fingers nearly completely off she was so concerned she came to the hospital with me. I remember her very fondly (Jones, 1998).

Another former student wrote:

I was an adult the last time I saw Miss Findlater (can’t remember the year, late 70s maybe).  I visited her at Peter Burnett School. Hadn’t seen her in years. She came out from the teacher’s lounge and recognized me immediately (Wright, 1998).

Those students who were fortunate enough to have Miss Findlater never had to worry that they would “go through school and have no one know what you looked like” (Corbett, D., Wilson, B., & Williams, B, 2005). When Miss Findlater passed away, I attended her funeral, along with the entire neighborhood. Many of us who had traveled a fair distance and arrived only a half hour before the service, had to stand outside as the church was full. We stood, with dignity, and we knew that Miss Findlater had touched each of us with respect, and love, and life.

As I think about Carol Findlater, I admit that I am closely looking at where and whom I teach. Currently, I work with struggling students in a private school. I recall, though, and often feel called back to the students in the inner city where I taught prior to coming to this school. Family brought me to my current school; my heart may be leading me back to classroom teaching. Regardless of where and whom I teach, I long to be and continue to admire those teachers who are the Carol Findlaters of their schools. All schools, regardless of location, public or private, have students who need life breathed into them – who feel like “huddled masses” in the midst of an environment where everyone else seems to be in control. Those are the students I want to teach. I want to teach those “huddled masses” – those who feel disenfranchised, not quite fitting; instilling a passion for learning because all students deserve the tools to succeed. Of course, desire is the first step.

The next step is taking the risks involved to be that type of teacher. Phelps (2006) notes that Barth wrote “one thought-provoking question for teachers to consider regularly is: “How much are you prepared to risk of what is familiar, comfortable, safe, and perhaps working well…in the name of better education for others?” (Phelps, 2006) That question hits like a slap in the face! Do I risk anything for my students? Do I truly advocate for students? (Phelps, 2006). I believe I try, but I know I face the challenges of helping our struggling students succeed in a school with demanding, rigorous expectations, as well, as the challenge of bridging the understanding gap between parents and teachers, teachers and students, and in some cases, students and their parents regarding learning issues.

I have an interesting, evolving role; I hope as I continue in whatever capacity I am in and wherever I am, to strive to breathe life-giving respect and passion into my students daily. “I am only one, but I am someone; I cannot do everything, but I can do something” and I will (Hale, 1994).

References

Corbett, D., Wilson, B., & Williams, B, D., Wilson, B., & Williams, B. (2005). No choice but successEducational Leadership, 62 (6), 8–12.

Phelps, P. H. (2006). The three Rs of professionalismKappa Delta Pi Record, 42 (2), 69–71. Used by permission of Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education.

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My Thirteenth Winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would have loved to have had Sam in one of my English classes, given what I understand now, what I’ve worked to learn as a teacher. The memoir powerfully shares her journey, though it shares too little of her poetry and essays — she can write. I will be buying her book of poetry. I found myself copying whole pages to refer to again and to share with colleagues. Oh, what we do to kids when we can’t/don’t see the invisible struggles. Every teacher should read this — yes, I know that some (as even I did in places) will resist believing the extent to which Sam is affected by her learning difference — and some, as I did at times, will wish that she could see herself without the “label.” Nonetheless, put those issues aside to walk a few seasons in another’s shoes — might make you rethink the path you take next with your students.

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To Teach With Power, Tranquility, and Grace

To Teach With Power, Tranquility, and Grace

Kottler, Zehm, Kottler assert in On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension  that “teachers who appear in charge of their own lives, who radiate power, tranquility, and grace in their actions, are going to command attention and respect. Their students will follow them anywhere” (Kottler, et. al, 2005, p. 22). This power, tranquility, and grace are the markers of self-efficacy and professionalism, and I strive to develop them through on-going reflective practice, continual renewal both personally and professionally, and in teaching from a deep-seated conviction that all students deserve my best no matter what looms on the political/environmental horizon.

Reflective practice may occur on the first day of school, after the first activity, when I pause and look out on the class and muse, “Yes, this is what it’s all about” or wonder “How can I involve more of the students” or the on the first day of summer break when I ask myself “what worked and what didn’t work this year and what do I want to create, develop, learn during this summer to improve next year?” Reflective practice takes place continuously within and beyond the classroom, as I reflect on what is being taught, why it is being taught, and most importantly, who is being taught. In fact, when I reflect on these questions, the focus becomes what do I “believe children should receive as a result of their educational experiences” and in turn, what do I want to give to enrich my students’ educational experiences (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 13). When I focus on what my students need, I reflect on what I am giving in terms of content-area skills, in terms of life skills and experiences, and in terms of my students’ confidence in their own abilities and potential. Reflection leads to the development of expertise in my subject area, and leads to self-efficacy – the belief that I can contribute to changing lives. One may teach for many years, and may indeed be considered a competent teacher, but truly experience alone proves  “hollow without reflection” (Nieto, 2003, p. 9). I think of musicians. When I listen to Yo Yo Ma play the cello, I am drawn into not only the music, but also the passion of the musician himself. This differs greatly from listening to the amateur who practices the cello, mastering the technique of bow and finger-placement, but who does not feel the music flowing through every part of him as he plays. When an artist with passion plays, every movement from head to toe exudes life; I not only desire to develop pedagogical techniques, but also passion for those I teach – then I will exude life – power, tranquility, and grace.

Reflective practice naturally leads to continual renewal of my personal and professional self. With regard to my personal identity, reflective practice motivates me to examine my own experiences when seeking vital connections with students. If my job is “not only to teach children, but first to interest them in learning” then I must be an interesting person with interesting experiences to share (Kottler, et al, 2005, p.17). Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler note that Parker Palmer state “We teach who we are” (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 19); I must develop my own identity in order to have anything worth giving to my students that will help them form their own identities. When I read for pleasure, attend cultural or sporting events, or spend time with friends on the weekend, I want to bring those joys into the classroom on Monday morning; then I will enliven whatever content is to be explored that day for I am clearly alive to the students.

Professionally, as I engage in ongoing reflective practice, I need to then seek out professional development opportunities both formally and informally. The reflective teacher sees student achievement and his/her methods as inter-related. The professional practitioner will hone his/her pedagogical skills; consequently, when I see areas of need in my students, I need to develop my own understanding of possible approaches by reading professional journals and attending conferences such as those provided by the California Association of Teachers of English or the Association of Supervision of Curriculum Development. In addition, I want to improve in taking the initiative in sharing observations with colleagues, problem-solving and creating with the informal group of colleagues with whom I teach. Phelps writes of this collegiality as a key aspect of professionalism when he notes “Conversations that are focused on improving situations and concerned with helping students are respectful and caring. Professionalism is thus mirrored in teacher talk that seeks solutions” (Phelps, 2006) Reflective practitioners motivate reflection in both their students and their colleagues, leading to continual growth both personally and professionally, and thus evoking respect from both groups, as well. This is my goal.

Finally, during the process of reflection and renewal, I reaffirm why I teach. The current political arena in which educators find themselves can seem much like a bull-fighting ring. I, goaded by policies and red-tape, may charge again and again, only to be struck repeatedly to the point of exhaustion. I will not only survive this fight, but I will stay on my feet; I will be resilient. I, as Bell Hooks encourages will be the one who is able “to teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students” providing “the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (Nieto, 2003, p. 37). This means that even if I do not have much influence on the number or types of state, district, and school-mandated assessments to be given, I can create an atmosphere of “team-spirit” among my students as we anticipate and prepare for these assessments. Curriculum may be determined by others, but I will present that curriculum in a way that specifically considers the learning needs, academic abilities, and personal interests of my students; and likewise, I will know clearly my own teaching style, personality strengths, and interests that will enable me to connect the curriculum with the students.

To teach with power, tranquility, and grace – to know myself so intimately that I can freely share with all, both students and colleagues – that is true professionalism – that is my desire.

References

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Phelps, P. H. (2006). The three Rs of professionalismKappa Delta Pi Record, 42(2), 69–71.

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