One of the first realizations I had when I began teaching English was “my God, this is really hard.” The time, effort and dedication it takes to be a good teacher. Being an exceptional teacher is even harder, but I’ve been lucky enough to have more than one in my life.
My good friend writes a blog called Teaching Ain’t For Heroes. A few days ago, she asked her readers to talk about their favorite teachers, which is what inspired this entry. Though I had many wonderful teachers afterwards, especially in college, there was something special about my teachers in seventh and eighth grade. I look back on those years with a golden glow, and a lot of that is due to them.
These teachers encouraged me to explore my intellectual curiosities, they challenged me, and brought forth an enormous outpouring of creativity. Most of all, they helped imbue me with a sense of confidence at a time I badly needed it.
The first teacher is Jeff, my seventh grade English and history teacher. I don’t remember much about English class other than learning how to write five paragraph essays, but history class remains vividly clear. Jeff managed to make history come alive as we learned about the founding of Islam, the Crusades, and the Italian renaissance. Even art history became interesting in his class. The spring of seventh grade, I got to go to Italy with my family, including a trip to Florence. I had the time of my life, seeing works of art that we’d talked about in person, and I relished being able to teach my parents all that I’d learned about Italian renaissance art and architecture.
I also remember researching destinations for a travelogue, places I still wish to visit one day. Most of all, however, I remember learning about and dressing up as Margaret Paston, a medieval English gentlewoman, for our end-of-the-year renaissance feast. Her life story fascinates me, and I still entertain dreams of writing a book about her one day. Jeff’s class opened my eyes to the world. History is not an easy subject to make come alive, but he definitely made history class one of the highlights of my day.
Another favorite teacher is my middle school Latin teacher, Lainey. From the beginning, she noticed my enthusiasm for learning about Ancient Rome and allowed me to explore it to my heart’s content. It’s because of Lainey that I got into creating my own websites using HTML in middle school, that I read obsessively about Caesar, Anthony, Cleopatra, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire, and that I had the nerve to submit (and get published) in a Latin newspaper. When I discovered an online game about Ancient Rome, Lainey gave me full permission to play and explore it during lab time. When I finally saw the Roman Forum in person, I stood nearly breathless with wonder thinking “that was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins! That’s where Cicero gave his orations! ZOMG!” Again, like Jeff, Lainey’s encouragement and support helped nurture a love of history. As a librarian to be, I’m also struck by the fact that Lainey’s willingness to embrace technology helped teach me many vital internet skills. Lainey’s class functioned the way I hope to have my library classes one day: to teach kids to not only use technology, but harness it to explore and learn and further their own interests.
In eighth grade, I had two teachers who made a huge impact on me because of the way they encouraged me. I suspect they don’t even know the impact their words had on me, but even now, some eleven years after the fact, I can picture their comments to me in my mind’s eye. Sally, a wonderful, caring English teacher not only sat patiently with me as I tried to negotiate the complexities of English grammar (to this day, a horrendous weak point), but taught me that my words had power. The assignment was to write some kind of fiction piece, I think, in relation to the book A Lesson Before Dying, and I can’t remember exactly what I wrote (though I have the paper somewhere in a folder), but she not only asked me for a copy of my writing, she told me in her comments that my piece had made her cry. It was the most astounding feeling, realizing that I could provoke emotion in someone through my words, and, more importantly, that Sally wasn’t family, who routinely praised me for my writing skills. This counted for real.
My history teacher that year, Kathy, was an equally wonderful and had wonderful lessons and projects (well, she and Sally both), but what I’ll always remember is our final exam that year. We were given the choice of writing a creative piece that demonstrated our knowledge of American history. I’d never really written historical fiction before, but I had an idea and I ran with it, writing the story of a girl living in Revolutionary War America. Kathy loved it, and told me that she believed I had a future as a historical fiction writer. Ever since that day, it’s remained a dream of mine. It’s hardly coincidence that every novel bar one that I’ve dreamt up has been a work of historical fiction.
The last person who deserves a mention for making my middle school years so incredible is actually my principal, a woman who is retiring this year, Barbara. She let my best friend and I run wild with our imaginations decorating the school dances when we went to her to complain, and never told us that our ideas were too insane. You always knew you could go talk to Barbara for help or to talk, and her kind and gentle demeanor put you instantly at ease. I can’t imagine a better principal, and I wish her all the best as she enters a new phase in her life.
So to Jeff, Sally, Kathy, Barbara and Lainey, I extend my deepest and heartfelt thanks. Thank you for helping shape me. For giving me confidence. For teaching me it’s ok to be smart and to love learning. For inspiring me as I strive to become the kind of educators you are. Thank you a million times.