Sunday, April 12, 2015


I haven't yet written about my coworkers, but the teachers I worked with at Georgian Hills Elementary were the very best people.

As a first year teacher there, I had a lot to learn (which is an understatement) and I needed a lot of help. The teachers there had plenty of their own challenges to face, but they always had time to help me and guide me, and never seemed to lose patience with me despite all I had to learn.

When I first started teaching there, there was one other teacher in my grade level (first). I love her endlessly. A former social worker, she got into teaching because she wanted to help children become good people. This was evident in everything she did - I most remember her classroom rules. We were required to post not only the rules of our classroom, but the the rewards for following the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Under rewards, I put things like stickers, positive notes home, extra privileges. The first reward she put down was "A great education." And that is what she intended to provide.

She always worked late. I worked late myself, but she was usually still puttering around in her classroom when I left around 5 or 6. I would go in sometimes to see what she was working on - it was always some fun new activity she had come up with from reading teaching blogs, or some educational game she had purchased with her own limited funds that she was setting up for the kids to use the next day. Of course, it was also often data entry, which the public schools require in endless streams. She was not fast at data entry because she was having problems with her eyes, and had to visit a doctor regularly about them. I offered to help a few times, but she knew I had enough to do and would never let me.

She was from a small town in Tennessee, and her parents, she said, although poor, had really impressed upon them the value of education and hard work. Her mom would come home from cleaning houses (or maybe it was factory work) at 9:00, and her children had to have all their homework finished and ready to show her before they all went to bed. She was exhausted, but never failed to check that the homework was done. Ms. Evans (not her real name) lamented that parents were not like that anymore.

I remember when we were talking about what we liked to do, before school started and before I was really aware of the deep implications of the task ahead (the school year). I told her I like to bicycle, and she said, "Outside? You like the outside?" Taken aback, I said yes. "I don't like the outside."

She had an old car that we took a ride in to go to Knowledge Tree (I think she spent most of her paycheck at that educational goods store).

I had trouble keeping discipline my first year teaching, and whenever I needed to send a child out of the room (which is called the "Buddy Teacher" technique), she would always take them to let them simmer down and shape up in her room. But she had a very large class size herself - 26 first graders, which in a school like ours, high poverty, is far too many.

She had been working at the school for eight years, and it was the first place she had taught in Memphis as well. I remember lots of things about her, but mostly how kind she was to me and to her students, and how full of honesty and integrity.

Exhausted after a long day teaching, after school one day she said she was going over to help the music teacher set up for a program the next day. I was falling-down tired, and I knew she must be more exhausted than me, and I couldn't really believe she was doing this, so I said I would help, too. We went in the music teacher's car to pick up supplies and decorate the middle school cafeteria, where the Holiday Program was being held. I couldn't figure out why she was making such a huge sacrifice (and until you have taught you do not know what a huge sacrifice it was) to help the music teacher, but it must have been just selfless love for the school, for the students (and I did it to help her). We were the only two teachers who turned up to help, I think.

I miss her a lot. I still talk to her sometimes, but there's just nothing like the relationship you get when you work side by side with someone.

There were other teachers there just as amazing as this one. I really could not believe it when I got there, what a sanctuary this was of kind, loving, human beings working incredibly hard to educate children.

There was a kindergarten teacher there, my first year, who I would have sworn was using mind-control on the children. Kids who would not act right for me under any circumstances, would do just as she said and do it sweetly and kindly when they were in her room. It took me a while to really understand what was happening: she was a master at developing relationships with children. It wasn't that they loved her, exactly, although they did love her. It was that she understood them, their motivations, everything about them, and they knew she wanted what was best for them, and they trusted her. She had also been at that school a long time. I can't say enough good things about this teacher, who helped me immensely: to understand kids, to develop teaching techniques, and to help with individual troubled children who she gave me advice about and counseled one-on-one.
I will write more about her later, because she taught me so much.

I didn't have a lot of contact with "Ms. Kaye" my first year when she taught kindergarten (except of course she was always willing to participate in the "Buddy Teacher" method and help me with discipline), but my second year when she, I, and Ms. Evans all taught first grade together, I was always in her room after school, venting. What she helped me most with was dealing with the bureaucratic nonsense that seems to go hand in hand with public school teaching. When my principal said, "Do it this way," Ms. Kaye was always on hand, that very afternoon, to show me how I could prove to administration that I was doing it that way. More importantly, she gave me an attitude to take, both to defend myself, and to survive in a "data-driven" bureaucracy - make time for yourself, and keep your students' needs first. She showed me what a confident professional looked like, and I'm happy to say I was able to help her in small ways as well - mostly computer areas. I found lots of ways to enter data quickly.

My third year teaching, I had a new colleague, who had come from a school that had been "taken over." I was amazed at the ability of this woman to work. She literally stayed at school every night until 7:00 (after arriving before 7:00) working on manipulatives, activities, and things to post in her room. She was incredibly intelligent, honest, and kind - but not a push-over, either. She helped me in innumerable ways.

These are just the people I worked most closely with, because they were teaching my grade level, or close to it. Almost every teacher there was just as selfless, smart, hardworking, and good, as these people I am describing.

Another thing I think I should mention, since I know there are a lot of racist people in Memphis, TN, is that every one of these teachers is African-American. There are a lot of companies and private schools in our area that really need to improve their diversity, but the Memphis City Schools had already done it, and as a result already had a workforce of competent, dedicated professionals twenty years (at least) ago. Now I'm afraid this diverse and competent workforce is getting destroyed with charter school takeovers and the demeaning of the teaching profession. We must fight this, and we will.