Wednesday, May 23, 2012

My Tribe

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion. 
I am the decisive element in the classroom. 
It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. 
I can humiliate or heal. 
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” 
                                                                -- Haim Ginott

Today I went to a luncheon.  A luncheon to honor new teachers that are just beginning the long adventure of educating children.  I picked up a name tag for my student teacher and next to her carefully written name was a gold seal.  A seal identifying her as someone special -- a scholarship recipient.  We were enthusiastically greeted as guests of honor.  We were given prime seating and warm welcomes.  We were the object of grandmotherly-like affection and care and it felt great.  We were the guests at the Solano County Retired Teachers Association luncheon. In a roomful of retired teachers you can bet there will be smiles, raffle tickets, prizes, birthday celebrations, generosity of spirit, genuine interest in your well being and kindness...always kindness.

Lately, it's pretty cool to dis the teacher.  It's flat out okay to insinuate that they don't work very hard (what with all that time off and early dismissal from school), that they have luxurious pensions and health benefits and that teachers are selfish, unprofessional amateurs.  "Hey -- we've all been in school...we know the drill.  It's just not that hard." This cursory stereotype has taken the luster off of becoming a teacher.  You must be a glutton for punishment if you choose the profession.  You must feel fine with a measly salary.  You must secretly want time off or worse you're just not very smart.  It's now perfectly acceptable to condemn a teacher that questions your child's behavior or mentions a difficulty with learning.  It's the teacher's fault -- it can't be the child.

And still there's the kindness.

There's a golden thread that binds teachers of children, desire for the child's best interest and success, insatiable curiosity about how children grasp new concepts or hold onto the big ideas, deep and abiding care.  These people are the day in day out/nitty gritty heroes.  On the playground they create peace after anger and frustration are let loose.  They hold the hand of a scared child.  They nurture and nudge while watching for signs of stress or insecurity.  They believe in the big picture but pay attention to the millions of tiny details that make up a classroom community.  They take a deep breath and go back for more.

The luncheon began with a flag salute.  Standing there amidst these retired professionals, I was humbled.  Moments after we pledged our allegiance, silence fell.  A strong male voice began singing God Bless America -- like school kids we all joined in.  Strong voices and timid ones; off key and choir worthy.  We were part of a stunning whole and that moment was sacred.  I could feel the pride, the patriotism, the joy in living and teaching and children and tears unexpectedly started flowing.  I can't remember the last time I was part of a group of adults that spontaneously sang God Bless America but it sure felt beautiful.  This was my tribe.

And because it's my people I need to let you know something.  It's no slacker path to become a teacher today.  Our student teachers take 15 courses in one year, while at the same time teaching in a classroom and planning for that.  They must take the CBEST, the CSET, the RICA and pass a high-stakes assessment that might as well be considered a thesis called PACT.  They are inundated with teaching techniques, pedagogy, philosophy and practical advice and yet it all comes down to the teaching.  They stumble and fall.  They try again.  They have a great beginning and lose themselves in the middle.  They are interrupted by fire drills, second language learners, special ed, speech and language, resource teachers and sick kids.  And yet somewhere in the middle of that thick forest of fatigue and failure a bright spot reveals itself: they watch a child begin to grasp something new; they witness firsthand a caring response from a child that has never shown compassion or empathy before; they get their first note that tells them they are wonderful and they are caught unaware by this perplexing swirl of pride, wonder, awe and humility.  Their heart is full and they know that even with the difficulties this is going to be their life-long pursuit...their craft.

Today, six student teachers stood before an overcrowded room of people who knew and understood and respected them and were passed the torch.  They received compassion, praise and kindness.  They listened and interacted and felt redeemed.  I was proud to be an onlooker -- proud to see my tribe in action.  Proud to know the kindness of teachers.

Within the next few weeks school is ending.  Take a moment to reflect on the teacher in your life who made the greatest impact on you.  Offer up a God Bless America in their name...or better yet, let them know how huge they were in your life.  If your child has an amazing teacher this year make the time to write a quick note of gratitude.  They don't need any gift except for the rare one of deep appreciation and respect. Let's make a promise to take a deep breath, notice the kindness and end the superficial, insulting disrespect of teachers.  We lend them our most precious treasure: our children -- let's honor them for their hard work and dedication.  They need it now more than ever.

"While parents possess the original key to their offspring's experience, teachers have a spare key.  They, too, can open or close the minds and hearts of children." -- Haim Ginott

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