Tuesday, May 26, 2015

I Can't Believe It's Been 37 Years

Recently for a retirement party a friend asked me to make a top ten list of memories of my teaching career to use at a retirement party. Below is the letter I wrote to this dear friend:

Dear Mary,

At first when you asked me to give you my top ten memorable moments in my 37-year career, I thought, OMGoodness, I can barely remember my name let alone something that happened 37 years ago. But then when I was up at 2:22 a.m. thinking about it (because that’s when I do my best thinking) I started making a list (not in my mind but on my phone because I would forget it, if I didn’t write it down) and the list started to grow and then I thought, OmGoodness, how can Mary expect me to narrow this list down to ten.

First, I must confess, I never wanted to become a teacher until I was told I couldn’t be one. I was very artistic and I wanted to be an architect but the architecture classes were on the second floor of the gym and there was no elevator. Then I took a Children’s Lit class in junior college and I thought, where have these books been all my life? (I was not a reader as a child believe it or not.) I decided then that I was going to be a teacher because I fell in love with children’s literature. A counselor told me I shouldn’t waste my time because no one was going to hire a teacher in a wheelchair (remember this was in the early 70s). That comment motivated to become a teacher even more.

I believe God leads one where one needs to be and he lead me to teaching. The second I walked in that first classroom 37 years ago, I knew I was “home” and I have NEVER regretted my decision to be on educator.
Here comes my list! I definitely couldn’t get it down to ten and I am sure as I write this I will think of more.

My first year of teaching I taught a self-contained Learning Disabilities class. At that time self-contained classes were a dumping ground for poorly behaved misfits. Everyone in the school had beautiful welcome signs on their door but the sign on my door read, ”Please leave all weapons at the door with the guard.” My class had a nine to one ratio of boys. I had many horrible human-male-children in my room but I had some sweeties also. One day one of the “evil ones” said, “Nobody in a wheelchair is going to tell me what to do.” I went to put my hand out to calm him down and talk with him and my sleeve got caught on steering knob of my chair and I rammed that kid up against the chalkboard. In my head I was thinking, Oh, my God, oh, my God, I am going to be fired but while I had him pinned against the chalkboard I calmly said, “I would suggest you do everything I tell you to do when I tell you to do it.” And then I spun around and eyed my other trouble-makers, as they gawked at me, and said, “And that goes for you, too.”  And then I spent the next entire year praying that I wouldn’t get fired for the incident.

That same year a parent thanked me for finding her son’s sense of humor. She said they didn’t know Charlie was funny nor had they ever seen him smile. He was eleven.

A parent from my first year class ran into me several years later in the grocery store. She said she had to thank me for all I had done for her child. She continued to say, “You told my son that it was okay that he didn’t become a doctor or lawyer. That it was okay to be a mechanic as long as he became the best mechanic possible. My son is a mechanic and I want you to know that he is the BEST mechanic there is.”  Mary, teachers don’t get validated enough and some rarely at all. Those moments of true heart-felt validation are some of my most memorable. I have a note from a parent that I have stuck on my bulletin board every year for the past 20 years. I had a note from a student that I carried in my purse for a very long time. Two of my proudest moments were having a student nominate me for the Silver Apple Award and receiving runner up for the Arizona Teacher of the Year. Mary, don’t wait to validate others or yourself.

Now, time for some funny moments:

I once was having a conversation with a kindergartener. That was my first mistake. (Don’t try to talk to a kindergartener. I would suggest not even making eye contact with them, if you don’t have to. If you have to make contact, just smile and shake your head. Don’t wake the sleeping lion!) I don’t know how the conversation started but it ended with her sticking her tiny finger in my Pillsbury-Doughboy stomach and saying, ”Yea, Miss C, but you’re comfortable like a big, over-stuffed chair.”

Once I had this bad boy in my class, by the way, Mary, once one is known for their disciplinary procedures one gets all the “bad boys” put in one’s room. One day I was talking to Stanley’s mother and informing her of the difficulties I was having with him. She told me that she spanks him with a spatula and maybe I should get one. The next day Stanley’s brother came to my room and handed me a grocery bag and inside was a spatula. I hung it on my wall and every time Stanley started acting up I would look at the spatula and look at Stanley and look at the spatula and look at Stanley and Stanley would stop whatever he was doing instantaneously. That spatula saved my life that year. Hail to the spatula!

Once I went from teaching upper grade to second. Those darn little thangs cried, every time someone looked at them. It was my fault because I talked to the little thangs the same way I talked to upper grade students, not a good idea. I had just finished explaining to the little thangs that when I say jump they should respond how high? I was in the process of calling up reading groups, that was before I found my true reading philosophy, the name of each group was whatever the title of the basal book they were reading (I was so creative.). I was writing on the chalkboard (remember those?) so I had my back to the group and I said, “Okay, Stand Tall!” implying that I wanted that group to come to my reading table and when I turned around all 28 of those little thangs were standing straight as a lightening rod, next to their desks with their arms at their sides. My initial lecture worked.

That same year I taught next to Lynn Barela. She always had an interesting group. We had an opening between our rooms so I could hear everything that was going on in her room and one day it was during recess (Do you remember recess?) and I heard one of her African-American boys shouting, “Mib Umbrella, Mib Umbrella, I can’t suhee! I can’t suhee!” I zoomed over to her class to assist her with the blind little boy. I found her at her sink washing his face. He had had so much afro-sheen in his hair that it had melted in the heat and had run down his face into his eyes.

One year I had two boys named Robert. One was Robert Montijo and the other was Robert Mountino so it was hard to distinguish to whom I was speaking. One sat in the front of the room and one sat in the back of the room, so I called them This Robert and That Robert. Well, This Robert became sweet, kind This Robert and then there was THAT ROBERT. Every day the kids would come in from the playground with complaints about That Robert. Poor boy, Mary, be careful when using nicknames.

Here’s a “you know you’ve been teaching a long time when” story. One day I was at a cowboy bar and a young cowboy sitting at the bar kept turning around on his stool and staring at me. I couldn’t imagine why he kept staring at me. He started walking towards me and I knew he wasn’t going to say, “I think you’re purrty, do you wanna dance?” As he got closer, he asked, “Miss C, is that you?”

“Yes it is, Marvin (another bad boy),” I replied.

“Hell, Could I buy you a drink? I think it would be damn cool to buy my fifth grade teacher a drink.”
Not being one to turn down a free drink and not being one that has had many cowboys want to buy me drinks I said in my best fifth-grade-teacher voice, “Watch your language, Marvin, and yes, you may buy me a drink.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

Some of my greatest accomplishments were: getting students to love reading that said they hated reading and there was nothing I could do to make them read, doing inclusion with the special ed students long before the word inclusion was invented, gender splitting way before permission had to be sought, Read-to-Me Nights, Literacy Parade, Early Morning Reading and Silent Fridays (best days ever) just to name a few.

Ready for some advice? There was a time in my career when I was struggling with the way I was “expected” to teach reading. I hated basal readers and I thought all reading “programs” were a scam. I read a book by Debbie Miller called Reading with Meaning and in the book she wrote about helping a young teacher and what she told that teacher was an epiphany for me. She said, “First, pick a philosophy and then read every book possible on that philosophy and become an expert on that philosophy.” I did what she said and I have never looked back and it was the best decision I ever made. No matter what you do pick a philosophy that you believe in and run with it and don’t look back.

Teachers must build relationships with students. I don’t mean be their friend. They have friends. They don’t need friends. They need someone to look up to and respect. One day I was on the high school campus at lunch. I went to pick up my coaching check. I was the cheer coach for a couple of years now that is another set of stories. If I thought kindergarteners were scary, let me say, there is nothing scarier than being in a room with fifteen competitive, hormonal teenager girls! As I was cruising across campus, I heard the security guard screaming at someone on the other side of the campus. When I looked in the direction of her rants I noticed one of my ex-students, another “bad boy” (I told you I had a lot of “bad boys”.). He was leaning against the wall, glaring at the security guard that was squawking at him. I rolled up to him and said, “You know, Toby, I’m thinking she wants you to tuck that hangy-down-thing on your belt in your pocket. Would do me a favor and tuck that in your pocket?”

“Miss C, I would be happy to do that for you. Why don’t people ask me to do things, the way you always do with kindness and respect?”

“I don’t know, darling, but what I do know is that purposely disobeying to prove a point gets one nowhere.”

“I know, I know, you’re right.”

I smiled at him, gave him a hug and said, “I’m always right and don’t you forget it.”

As I left campus, I heard that big, tough, gangbanger shout, “I love you Miss C.”

I waved and shouted, “I love you too, Toby!”

It’s important to believe that children can succeed, no matter what. I don’t care who the child is, what his background is, or where he is from I believe he can achieve and I expect him to achieve. Believers are achievers.

Finally, hold the magic of teaching in your heart. Mary, if you ever lose that magical feeling move on because children deserve to have teachers that believe in magic. One day early in the morning I was in my classroom working on something for a bulletin board and I was using glitter. It must have been early in my career because only young teachers have glitter in their room. We old teacher become wise about glitter and ban it from our rooms. So there I was working in my room and a young boy enter and asked, “I need to know how you did it?”

“Did what?” I replied.

“Got my brother to change,” he said.

“Who’s your brother?” I inquired.

“Richard,” he replied.

“Oh, Richard, I like him a lot,” I smiled.

“That’s the problem. No one does,” he said suspiciously.

“Does what?” I asked feeling like I was doing a Who’s on First monologue.

“Like Richard. So what did you do to make him like school, start doing his homework, and be nice to people?”

I really didn’t know how to reply and I had a handful of glitter so I blew the glitter in his direction and as the glitter sprinkled down and turned his shirt sparkly gold I grinned and whispered, “It’s magic, kid, it’s all magic.”

As he confidently walked out my door I heard him mumble, “I knew it was magic.”

I want to thank all the people I have taught with and learned from over the years. I don’t want to start naming names because I will forget someone. I want to thank all my students I have had. They have taught me more than I ever taught them. And my students have always made every day unique and different. Every day I leave my room happy to have been there and every morning I enter happy to be back. Finally, I need to thank God for leading me to teaching because teaching is my passion, teaching is what I do well and teaching is my magic.

Cathy Cunningham
Soon to be retired teacher

Paco's Perspective
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The Flip Side
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