Teacher magic: reflections on engagement and inspiration

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fills you up with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.
– Robert Frost, American poet

My most recent photo of Jacob, at an Oakland A's game on Mother's Day, of course.

My most recent photo of Jacob, at an Oakland A’s game on Mother’s Day, of course.

My son, Jacob, is finishing up eighth grade and will be promoted this Thursday evening. As I ponder the past two years of his middle school life, I am – first of all – amazed at how quickly the time has whizzed by. I think of how much he has grown in his 13th year – physically mostly, but also emotionally. While I’d like to take credit for the good stuff as a parent, I realize that his phenomenal academic year has a lot to do with the growth I’ve had the pleasure and astonishment to witness. I should say more specifically, the two teachers who have made the biggest impact on his academics thus far.

I appointed myself to put together a drive for cards, letters, and donations for our history and English teachers because I wanted us as a parent community to thank them for inspiring our kids. Throughout the year, I have had conversations with numerous parents who have also witnessed the pleasure of their kids being engaged in American history and reading and writing in their English class.

As I wrote my separate letters to the teachers (Jacob wrote out his cards without the usual pushback when I ask that thank you cards be written), I thought about the two teachers who inspired me when I attended my K-8 school.

Sixth grade: unconditional love
Everybody loved Miss Rossow, my sixth grade teacher. Those who were “stuck” in the other class envied those of us who were lucky enough to have been assigned to her class. Miss Rossow was energetic and creative. She nurtured her students and was always positive, which gave us the freedom to do our best and to overextend ourselves. We clamored to please her with our work and our behavior. I remember her reading to us Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in an animated voice and handing out Wonka chocolate bars when she finished the book. For me, she opened up the world of books and imagination.

My 6th grade class picture, with Miss Rossow in the bottom let. I'm in the top row, in the middle.

My 6th grade class picture, with Miss Rossow in the bottom let. I’m in the top row, in the middle.

We knew we had a good thing going, but many times it isn’t until something is taken away that you fully realize what you had. After Christmas break, Miss Rossow didn’t return. We cried. We were sorrowful. We didn’t know what had happened. She wrote the class a letter, letting us know that she had moved to Washington state and was going to get married. She said she would write to us, but she never responded to our stream of letters, which we eventually stopped writing when we realized she had a new life without us. We felt justified in refusing to cooperate with the long-term substitute teacher, and tried very hard to ignore the taunts from the kids in the other class. I remember the long-term sub calling me in during recess and letting me know that she understood that we were giving her a hard time because we were hurt by the sudden departure of our beloved teacher. She acknowledged that she could never rise to such vaunted heights. As one of the “good students,” I was asked to behave and set an example to the other students. I begrudgingly agreed. The rest of the year lost its magic, but I continued to nurture my love of books. [An aside, it wasn’t until years later that I put the pieces together. Miss Rossow had gotten pregnant, which led to a hasty wedding and move. This was, after all, 1973.] I don’t remember what her married name became or in what city in Washington state she settled, but I am forever indebted to her bringing magic into the classroom.

My 8th grade school picture, fall 1975.

My 8th grade school picture, fall 1975.

On becoming a writer
When I was in eighth grade, Miss Lerda was my home-room teacher, but we switched out for language arts and social studies, which was taught by Mrs. Bone. The latter, who wore pants and pantsuits, was unconventional to the point of being hip back in 1975-1976. She was tall and thin, with cropped bleached blonde hair and a pointed nose and a distinctive nasal voice – I can still hear it in my head. She crossed disciplines with her assignments long before it was de rigueur with academic standards. I kept many of her writing assignments. We read about such historical events as the French and Indian War, and then wrote fictional first-person accounts, with students choosing the character to represent. I chose a young American woman living in Schenectady who was about to be married and worried about her beloved soldier. Admittedly, it was very heavy handed and smarmy, but Mrs. Bone applauded me for my imagination and suggested that I become a Gothic romance writer.

The end of school means summer dressing and cool colors - like a silk shift.

The end of school means summer dressing and cool colors – like a silk shift.

We read a lot of Mark Twain, whom I grew to appreciate. We were always reading and writing, and I couldn’t get enough of either. I credit Mrs. Bone for leading me down the path of majoring in English and wanting to be a writer. Love what you do. She was certainly following her passion. My cousin Janet, who is also a teacher, knew Mrs. Bone as a colleague for many years. Mrs. Bone retired within this past decade, leaving behind a robust legacy of having inspired decades of her students.

I realized many years later, as I thought about what I wanted to write in Jacob’s two teachers’ thank-you cards, that I “only” had two teachers who stood out in my K-8 years who truly made a difference in my life – in the classroom and beyond. Perhaps it’s not uncommon to have just a few teachers who have been inspirational. Most of my K-8 teachers were serviceable; I paid attention and did the work, and I was rewarded for my diligence. From a child’s perspective, I couldn’t tell if I had a “bad” teacher – one who didn’t teach what he or she was supposed to teach in that year. How would a child know what was covered in the curriculum? I was unaffected by the few yellers I had as teachers – mostly because I was an obedient student and didn’t think any yelling was directed toward me.

Impacting the rest of your life
When you get those inspirational teachers, however, makes a big difference. Whereas Miss Rossow instilled in me a love of books and opening up my imagination, Mrs. Bone set me up, so to speak, for high school, where you hope you begin the process of critical reading, thinking, and writing. And this is where I believe Jacob got very lucky. His English and history teachers have helped build that foundation in preparation for high school.

Cool accessories for summer: Antique document holder turned necklace (Kate Peterson Designs, El Cerrito, CA), Neeru Goel chalecedony earrings (India), Sundance ring, and KPD sterling silver bangles (El Cerrito, CA).

Cool accessories for summer: Antique document holder turned necklace (Kate Peterson Designs, El Cerrito, CA), Neeru Goel chalecedony earrings, Sundance ring, and KPD sterling silver bangles (El Cerrito, CA).

Last year – I’m forgetting the circumstances for the confessional – Jacob reluctantly admitted to me that he didn’t like to read or write. You can imagine how his words were akin to arrows not only piercing my skin but lodging in major organs in my body. He had no good enough reason other than just not liking either. I wrung my hands. I was confident in his math and science abilities, though he can be lackadaisical in both subjects, but I worried that he wouldn’t have the reading and writing skills required in not only high school and college, but in life, really.

David and I attended Back-to-School Night last September and visited Mr. Aloi’s history classroom and Mr. McCormick’s English classroom. In their presentations, they both outlined what they would cover, what books they were assigning, and what competencies our kids would develop upon completion of the school year. Whereas Mr. Aloi, who is a veteran teacher, was “salty” in tongue and a little goofy, he presented history not as the memorization of people, dates, and events but as stories that uncover human desire and motivation. The kids would learn how to take notes and write coherent papers. If he was as entertaining in his teaching as he was giving his presentation, we knew he had the ability to engage the students. And he did.

Cool silver accessories against muted colors.

Cool silver accessories against muted colors.

Jacob animatedly told many Mr. Aloi stories over family dinners. As one parent told us at our last band concert of the school year, we ought to get the kids T-shirts that say, “Mr. Aloi says….” because they so enthusiastically relate his stories to us parents and families. He gained their trust and he earned his street cred. At Back-to-School Night, he also told us that his classroom was always open. He understood how difficult middle school years are, and he offered his room as a haven for shy kids, for kids who didn’t have any friends. And many kids did hang out in his classroom because they enjoyed being around him. For all that, I say, thank you, Mr. Aloi, for engaging my son and his classmates, and for his new-found appreciation for American history and for him wanting to put in the extra effort on his writing assignments because of that enthusiasm and engagement.

Mr. McCormick, whose half-way rolled-down shirt sleeves partially hid tattooed arms, introduced himself at Back-to-School Night as a former marketing writer for Clorox who went back to school to get his teaching credential. He enthusiastically told us about his love of teaching and astounded us with his desire to teach middle-school age kids. This is his third year of teaching and he was deservedly awarded Teacher of the Year for the district. Throughout the year, unprompted, Jacob would tell me about the books he enjoyed reading, in particular, Lois Lawry’s The Giver. I watched him put effort into his English assignments and he took pride in his grades. Not too far into the school year, he told me that history and English were his favorite subjects. I was shocked by this revelation, coming from a kid who hated reading and writing. Only a great teacher could coax such a statement from a reluctant student. Mr. McCormick seems to have the rare gift of understanding and being patient with middle-school kids, and to boot have the ability to engage them with the subject and his assignments. As a result, he commands their respect.

Inspiration and engagement equals happiness and meaningful fulfillment.

Inspiration and engagement equals happiness and meaningful fulfillment.

While Jacob is ready to move on to high school – albeit mixed with fear of being with older kids and a much bigger campus with more students – there’s a part of him that he admitted to me that will miss his middle school. He had a good year, he related to me wistfully. I know why, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

As parents we have such a big influence on our kids. Teachers and coaches, I read in an article, are the next tier of people who impact our kids. As we enter the last week of school for my son, as we prepare for his eighth grade promotion ceremony on Thursday, I step back to acknowledge my gratitude. I’m grateful for his two teachers for making such a big impression on him – both in the classroom and beyond – and me.