June 5, 2011

Inspirational Teachers


My summer is off to an amazing start- full of movies, books, painting and cooking (I know, I know- me, actually cooking? What has gotten into me?). One of my birthday presents (24 and loving it!) was the immortal classic Anne of Green Gables movie marathon, and as I watched a film I could act out by memory in my sleep, I realized that this movie was one of the reasons I became a teacher. It isn't that far fetched for my profession to be influenced by my biggest past time/hobby/extra curricular activity because I probably spend more time watching the silver screen than sleeping. I am so thankful that I was inspired to follow teaching as a career path and not dragon rider, Jedi or hobbit (all of which would be totally sweet by the way), because my life is full of purpose and joy and I get to influence the minds and lives of children. Whether I teach English or social studies or art (please God not math), I can't think of anything I would rather do with my life than guide children to higher learning.

Anne (with and e) Shirley is one of my favorite literary characters and someone I thought of as a kindred spirit as I grew up. Whenever I was sick or blue I'd pop in the Green Gables VCR and be transported to a happy world, full of mishaps and makeups, romantic tension and love, laughing as I watched an awkward girl grow into a graceful and confident young lady who chose to teach. As I grew older and actually read the books, I realised that teaching was one of the only professions available to young women at the time, but I still saw the beauty in her daily life, and took her journey into adulthood as an example for my own. Every adolescent girl needs a good role model in order to see the light at the end of the teenage tunnel.

One day in high school I'd come down with some sort of bug, and Anne was making me feel better (this was before I had discovered the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, which also does the job stunningly well). I was halfway through the first installment (when Anne is in the depths of despair after Dianna is forbidden to be her friend when her mother thought Anne got her drunk), and I will never forget the feeling of excitement and euphoria that I got when Anne meets Ms. Stacey for the first time. That was the moment I decided to be a teacher myself. Her introductory speech was the best in teacher history. I think I stole direct quotes from Ms. Stacey about being a guide and never being afraid to ask questions and expecting only the best everyday from herself and her students for my first day speech. It pretty much is my teaching philosophy, wrapped into a glorious two minutes, and I wanted my students to feel like Anne, getting out her pencil and ready to prove to her teacher that she was worthy and smart and able. And then Ms. Stacey goes onto provide an after school class, make home visits, never publicly humiliate, and push her students as far as they can go with great standardized results. I wanted to be her my first year, but I'm not there yet.

There are so many other teachers from books and movies that I have been and continue to be inspired by. Here's a list of their names and why:

Ms. Honey vs. Ms. Trunchbull (Matlida): "I can't abandon my children. And if I couldn't teach, I'd have nothing at all." Ms. Honey is aptly named because her sweetness and ability to see Matilda's talents always inspire me to be kind to all my students and focus on their strengths. She is the direct opposite of her aunt, Ms. Trunchbull, who once said, "My idea of a perfect school is one in which there are no children... at all."  Roald Dahl was amazing in his ability to create the perfect villain for children. If you want to read a great passage out loud to children, read the first chapter of The Witches- it'll make the kids squeal with delight.

Mrs. Wormwood (Calvin and Hobbes): Her perseverance in the face of overwhelming pessimism and insanity lend a whole new level to this comic for me as an adult. Plus, I have peppered my walls with Calvin's misadventures at school. They keep me honest.

I grew up with all of the professors from Harry Potter (by J.K. Rowling). I loved the good ones, despised the dreadful ones and learned some valuable lessons myself.
"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." and "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Headmaster Dumbledore
"Don't put your wand there, boy!" roared Moody. "What if it ignited? Better wizards than you have lost buttocks, you know!"

Teenage high school comedies don't provide the most inspiring educators imaginable, but they certainly stick with you.
Ed Rooney (Ferris Beuller's Day Off): "I don't trust this kid any further than I can throw him."
Grace (secretary): "Well, with your bad knee Ed, you shouldn't throw anybody."
Lesson to be learned- if you ever get in any sort of fight with a student, you've already lost.
Mr. Duvall (Mean Girls): "I have a nephew named Anfernee, and I know how mad he gets when I call him Anthony. Almost as mad as I get when I think about the fact that my sister named him Anfernee."
Lesson to be learned- pronounce student names right? And don't write a mean book. Or lie. Or get hit by a bus.
Mr. Schneebly (School of Rock): I’ve touched your kids! And I’m pretty sure they’ve touched me!”
Lesson to be learned- words don't sound the same inside and outside your head. I told my kids I was acting weird once because I was on drugs. I blame it on the drugs I was taking at the time. (Wisdom teeth people, come on- where were your minds going?)

Then there are the truly inspiring movie characters, the ones that make you feel all gooey and good on the inside. Here are some personal favorites:
John Keating (The Dead Poets Society): "O Captain, my Captain!" and "Carpi Diem!" That last scene always gets me. And I've always wanted to stand on my desk to change my students' perspective of the world.
Yoda (Star Wars): "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." I pulled this one out when I was teaching about the holocaust and genocide. Then there's "Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?" which I tell all my little ones who get bullied, and my personal favorite that I like to think of whenever I visit the school cafeteria, "How you get so big, eating food of this kind?"
If you're like me and you can't get enough of Yoda, I really recommend the new book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. It really transports you into the mind of a 6th grader, if brave enough to face it you are!
Jamie Escalante (Stand and Deliver): This is a movie about a man who teaches math at a high level to kids everybody had given up on, and the best part is that it's true. He had a certain style of teaching that I could never use though: "It's not that they're stupid, it's just they don't know anything." Escalante and his kids are accused of cheating because they did so well on the AP exam, and I have felt his despair when facing the system that has failed this country's children. "You know what kills me... it's that they lost the confidence in the system they're now finally qualified to be a part of. I don't know why I'm losing sleep over this. I don't need it. I could be making more money, with less hours, and have people treat me with respect." To which his wife replied: "Respect? Jaime, those kids love you." It's worth watching.
Bill Rago (The Renaissance Man):  A great movie about a guy who teaches the Double D's so that they can make it through boot camp in the army. He uses Shakespeare's Hamlet on high school drop outs and it WORKS, though it didn't start out too smooth: "He wrote plays. Plays...? You know, like TV without the box." When in doubt, let the kids get up and move to a beat- if anything, it will use some of their energy up.
Detective Kimble (Kindergarten Cop): Extremely funny with great quotes, though not the most realistic of classrooms. I love this exchange- it says it all about children:
Detective John Kimble: How do I look?
Phoebe O'Hara: Take off the gun.
Detective John Kimble: That's a good idea.
Phoebe O'Hara: Little bastards are gonna eat you alive.
Detective John Kimble: Get some rest and don't worry. I've been working undercover for a long time. They're six-year-olds. How much trouble can they be?
Phoebe O'Hara: On second thought, take the gun.
Eugene Simonet (Pay It Forward): This is a touching and devastating movie. I tried to do the same lesson, have my students come up with a way to save the world, but it didn't get that far. Maybe someday.
Trevor McKenney: Are you saying you'll flunk us if we don't change the world?
Eugene: Well, no. But you might just scrape by with a C.
Coach Boone (Remember the Titans) There are so many inspiring coach stories out there- this one is my favorite. "This is no democracy. It is a dictatorship. I am the law." I have often told my students that I am the queen of the universe so there's no use arguing. It actually works.
And of course, I had to mention Ms. Shields (A Christmas Story) because I too have a drawer of confiscated goodies that kids have brought to school.

All this talk of teachers portrayed in the media makes me wonder about who else has inspired me or shaped how I approach teaching (because like it or not, teachers often teach the way they were taught). Besides literary or film examples of great teachers, I had some spectacular teachers myself growing up, and I still remember moments in their classroom with a fondness that will never be forgotten. Mrs. Dickenson, who was so sweet and kind. We grew chicks in incubators in her kindergarten class. She let me perform Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on my guitar during the talent show and wrote me a kind note during the summer which I still have. Mrs. Stringy, who taught me the difference between its and it's and showed me the importance of following directions (she gave us a sheet of complicated directions, the first of which was to read all directions before beginning and the last was to ignore all the directions in between. I will never forget standing up and shouting "TURKEY!" as long as I live). Mr. Mulligan who taught me my times tables and who I almost killed with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mr. Smith who told me to draw every day and said I could go far with my artistic abilities. Mr. Lewis who was so darn cool as my band teacher and kept me involved in music all throughout high school, which became my second family and helped me branch out of my shy shell by hitting stuff to the beat. Mr. Burkhart who never really taught us anything about biology but taught me how to tell a great whopper of a story. Mrs. Siepp and her craziness. Mrs. Watson who was so tough and pushed me to try harder even though every other teacher just let me do my own thing, and boy did I work hard. In return she supported me through a tough time in high school, protecting me with a ferocious strength reminiscent of a lioness. Father Gordon, who actually drank a glass of beer in my Literary Catholicism class and Dr. Els who used the entire last class to explain how to make beer (this was college of course). Dr. Eifler who gave me so much practical advice on how to be a teacher, wrapping it up in memorable lessons, some of which involved her slamming a textbook onto the floor, trying to throw a football through a solid door, and shooting the chalkboard with a squirt gun.

There are so many other teachers that taught me so much, and I wish I could recall their names. I will sometime later tonight, awakening at 3 am to say, "Oh that was her name!" This often happens, especially with comebacks. But for now, here's to the teacher that taught me how to write an essay- I wouldn't have survived college without you. Here's to the teacher that taught me the meaning of practice, to the teacher that made me read 20 novels during the 7th grade (some of which I taught my students this past year). Here's to the teacher that let me eat lunch in her room. Here's to the countless coaches that let me have fun and play while working my butt off (literally). And here's to that one teacher who made me do a report on aluminum. I still use organic deodorant because of that report.

I cannot forget my first and most important teachers- Mom and Dad. Thanks for everything you two.

I see so much of myself in my reflections on what I enjoyed learning as a child and young adult. Just as we are what we eat, I believe I teach what I was taught. I hope that next year I teach my students the lessons they need in a manner that is kind and reminds me of those who I admire. Apparently I've got quite the arsenal to choose from!

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