Ode to Public School Teachers, Pizza and my Kid’s Future Education

El and I went to our favorite pizza joint for lunch today.  Well, I’ve had better pizza, honestly, but it’s hard to beat 1.50 a slice and the run of the place for my crazy girl who loves to watch the guys put all the pies in the big, “door of fire”.  I was getting her situated in the booth when I noticed a rather large party a few booths ahead of us.  It was evident immediately that it was either a work study or a class trip of 8-10 special needs teenagers, accompanied by a teacher/aide for each student.  As we ate our lunch, I watched the two head teachers interactions with their students.  Most were non-verbal, half were stimming so badly their sodas were spilling on the tables.  One was shrieking, not angrily or in pain, but it was a mournful sound non-the-less.  One was weeping quietly in the corner.  I watched as these teachers gently brushed pizza crumbs off of shirts.  I watched them smile and praise their students on following directions.  One stooped down to kiss the head of the weeping student and was, in return, gripped in a bear hug- in which he sat, holding the sad boy for the next 20 minutes of lunch.  I watched them hold hands and affirm with their eyes.  I listened as they extolled their efforts of cleaning up, of washing their hands.  I watched one gently inspect a lip that was accidentally bitten.  Even lunch could be hazardous.  I watched with emotion as these teachers did what they do best- teach with their whole selves; every thought, every teachable moment, every word or action peppered with love and affection for the student, and a desire to see them learn and grow.  And I couldn’t help but wonder if I was witnessing the last vestige of the old guard of teachers.

I ended my public school teaching career before some very big changes to the system.  I’m glad I left on a pregnancy leave and a deep desire to be the one who raised my daughter, rather than be forced out on principle, or truly, lack of bravery on my part.  I only caught the glimmers of the stressors of teaching to a test.  My job teetering in the balance based upon a merit grade was just a rumor.  Part of me feels a deep guilt not to be standing in the trenches in the classroom, fighting alongside my fellow co-workers for the rights of our kids.  That’s what good teachers call their students.  Their kids. The other part of me is so glad that I left.

I taught high school.  All ranges, from lower level learning freshman all the way up to AP Global Literature for seniors.  Most people are scared of high school, or feel it’s too late by the time teenagers get to you to change anything in them.  I thought (and still do) think just the opposite.  I was their last stop before becoming an adult.  A participating, active member of society.  It was up to me to teach them what that meant, who they could be and give them the tools to get them there.  It wasn’t always about Bronte or Beowulf- though, if I could instill an appreciation for literature along the way, it was an added bonus- but about shaping their character.  Teenagers are brilliant beings- they are saavy and manipulative and vibrant and sullen and passionate.  If you can excite them about something, they will take it and run.  And keep running.  Good teachers will do that.  Good teachers did that.  Before they had panic attacks about their classes test scores.  Before they had to write over a hundred SGO’s on top of lesson planning and grading and teaching and cafeteria duty and prom chaperoning and dance recital visiting and break-up monitoring and divorced parents consoling.  I wonder how it would have affected my demeanor in class if I knew my ability, my passion for literature and for kids, my drive to see them succeed would be summed up in a number sent to Trenton.

When El goes to school, I want her to have a teacher who loves what she does.  Who day dreams about colorful bulletin boards.  Who cries when s/he reads The Giving Tree at story time.  Who teaches compassion and sharing in the same breath as the alphabet and the number line. Who brings in ice pops when it’s hot and hot cocoa when it’s cold and who sings like Mary Poppins.  Seriously.  I have high expectations. So, I’m praying for her/him now.  I’m praying for Ellie’s future teachers like some folks pray for their kids future spouses.  For real.

I know there are still teachers that will persevere despite the obstacles they will have to hurdle in the process.  I know because I am proud to have worked alongside each and every one of them. There you go.  I worked in a few different districts, but the teachers and staff I had the privilege of working beside in the Elmwood Park Public School District in New Jersey are some of the finest educators I know.  I’m thankful they hung in there and are all still striving to serve our kids.

And I’m thankful for the opportunity I have now to teach a student in the way that he/she learns.  To be able to personally tailor lessons to meet their needs and watch their knowledge, courage, confidence and joy grow.

It’s supposed to be a joy to be an educator.  It still is for me.  Here’s hoping the rest can hold on to the same.

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