Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thank a Teacher

There's been a lot of teacher bashing going on around here lately, and it's moved me to think seriously about those teachers who have touched my life in so many ways.

I always loved school. Playing school was by far my favorite thing to do during my childhood. I don't think I always wanted to BE a teacher, but of course that's how it turned out and I could not have been happier in my chosen profession.

Since I attended Catholic schools from first grade through high school, many of my teachers were nuns - all of them in full nun garb back in the 1950's and 60's. The young sister who was my first grade teacher had a total of over 70 students in a very crowded, but of course well-disciplined, classroom serving both grades one and two. I loved it - managing to pick up everything the older kids were learning as we went along.

It was my sixth grade teacher who inspired me to think I wanted to be a nun myself someday, a plan that lasted no more than a year or two, ending abruptly when boy-craziness took over and I developed one crush after another on boys in my class, boys in the neighborhood, Elvis, the Beatles, and on and on - ah, but that's another story altogether.

In my junior year of high school, Sister Sean was the one who awakened me to a love of literature and writing. She was young for sure and probably very pretty, but we didn't really pay all that much attention to things like that. What I remember most was that she set me free for the rest of my life to question the words and teachings of others. She not only said it was OK to ask questions (even about matters of faith and doctrine!), but it could be dangerous NOT to question.

I really didn't have a lot of questions at the time, and certainly no doubts about anything I was being taught. I swallowed it all, loved it all, and what I was learning was such a part of who I was at that time in my life that I had no inkling of the importance of what that dear nun was doing for me - and probably for many or most of my classmates, and all the others whose lives she touched. The questions came later when I was exposed to thinking that was very different from what I had known in the shelter of my family and parochial schools. But thanks to Sister Sean, I was ready and able to open my mind and learn from others without compromising my personal beliefs or values.

And bless them all for not standing in my way when I decided late in my senior year that I wanted to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison, known then - and now - for its outstanding educational programs, heavy emphasis on beer drinking, and strong liberal leanings. I was warned that the campus was full of Communists who would try to win me over, but the truth is I was highly motivated to do well academically - which helped in many ways, including the ongoing temptation of all those beer parties!

Among my list of teachers who impacted my life, I must include Mrs. F. in the elementary education program at UW-Madison, who brought me to tears when she called me into her office and berated me for never speaking up in class. I still loved school and learning, but really did NOT like my education classes, and had never, ever been one to speak up in class. I much preferred writing very long term papers with lots of footnotes and a long bibliography, or studying for days to take an exam. I did NOT like courses where participation in class was considered as part of the grade. But she forced me out of my shell, where I might still be hiding if she hadn't intervened at that particular time.

It happened almost by accident that I found myself working toward certification in the area of special education and there I found many teachers who inspired me. This was a brand new area at the time, and I found it both exciting and challenging to learn about all the many ways that kids could be "special" and in need of teachers who really care about them and want them to succeed.

After I had been teaching for some time, I heard a conference presentation on the topic of "Communication as Behavior" given by a highly respected leader in the field, Anne Donnellan, and my professional life took a critical turn. It was as if she gave me the permission I needed to see my students in a different light - limited not so much in their cognitive ability as in their ability to communicate what they know. When I was later introduced to Facilitated Communication through the work of people like Rosemary Crossley, Douglas Biklen, and Marilyn Chadwick, it completed my professional transition, and gave the last ten years of my teaching career the greatest possible satisfaction.

Along the way I was blessed with wonderful mentors, outstanding paraprofessionals, supportive parents and regular education teachers, and administrators who cared enough to learn why I did what I did in my classrooms. One particular student teacher in my classroom went on to earn her Ph.D. in special education and has never stopped encouraging me to share what I have learned about this field with others. I learned from some very hard-working and compassionate school psychologists, speech therapists, and occupational and physical therapists.

Most of all, I learned from the many students who allowed me to become a part of their lives, who put up with the many mistakes I made along the way, and who will be forever in my heart. Reminds me of the line from the musical "The King and I" --- "If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught." It certainly has been true for me - no one could have taught me better.

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