My first grade teacher died recently. I felt a depth of sadness when I heard about it that surprised me. I hadn’t seen her in years, and I’ve no idea, really, who she was as a person. She was my teacher. I remember her face and her voice. I remember her hairstyle, which was a cross between beehive and scarf-wearing, teased and sprayed grandma. I remember that she barked at me on the first day of school, saying that I would spend my reading group time in the library because “you already know how to read, and I don’t have anything for you to do.” I felt guilty at first for being different, but I look back on that as the best thing that could have happened. I spent first grade sitting on a beanbag chair, devouring “Little House on the Prairie” books and “The Great Brain” series.
She let me go out to the playground with a paper bag and pick up pecans for her, which seems strange now, but at the time, I loved being the chosen one.
She wasn’t huggy and never called me honey or sweetie. She was of the generation of teachers that believed strongly in keeping smiles in reserve until after Christmas. She valued conformity, following directions, and nice handwriting. She wasn’t the teacher I loved the most, but I certainly remembered much about her and my experiences in her classroom.
I became a teacher and wound up teaching first grade at the same school I attended. I thought of my teacher often, while reading books to my class, sitting in the Teachers’ Lunchroom, and watching kids play around the pecan trees on the playground. I began to think of her as a whole person, expanding her boundaries to include being a mother and a friend.
Some teachers who knew her were still teaching, so I began asking them what they remembered about her before she retired. All of them were intimidated by her brusque manner, and each person had stories about her publically dressing down a child. But every teacher I spoke with remembered other remarkable things. She adopted children and helped raise a child who needed more family support. If she heard of a child in need of something, she would go out of her way to provide it anonymously. Over the years, she bought needy children clothes, shoes, coats, school supplies and even beds. At the time, few people knew what she provided for those children. It was only after she retired that people started talking about her generosity, probably because she would have forbidden it while she was around.
I’m sorry to say I still don’t know much about my teacher as a human being. I fear that many of us don’t think of teachers as whole people, and therefore, don’t think much about their lives, their passions, their disappointments, or their ‘personhood.’ That may be why people are so quick to make pronouncements about education and educators. It’s easy to attribute the ails of education to one-sided, flat caricatures as long as we don’t see teachers as fully formed people.
I don’t know my first grade teacher and now I’ll never get the chance. But I’m happy to say that I am making room in my memories for her to be a real person and I hope my own students and their families will afford me the same consideration.
As we all move forward together, striving to overcome the myriad challenges of educating all children, recognizing that the issues involved are complex and intertwined, I encourage you to think of your teachers and your children’s’ teachers as people; people who love and hate, laugh and cry, whisper and shout, curse and bless, live and die. They are wonderful, fallible, and interesting human beings engaged in the struggle to make a positive difference in the lives of children. If you’re a teacher, I implore you to make room in your thoughts for the ‘personhood’ of parents, administrators, legislators and other stakeholders, just as you do for your students every day.
My teacher died. She was a complex and interesting woman who made it her life’s work to make a difference for children. I remember her.