Thursday, May 8, 2014

They Made a Difference

Teachers from K-12

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and I've been thinking a lot about the teachers I have had - particularly those who have made a positive difference.

The first teacher I remember being such an influence, was Sister M. Deborah, CSA.  I had Sr. Deborah for 3rd and 4th grade, at St. Joseph's - a four room Catholic grade school in Berlin, Wisconsin.  Sr. Deborah was young, maybe nineteen or twenty at the time.  Word had it that she was pulled out of the convent early because there was a teacher shortage and she had a gift for teaching.  I can't verify the first part of that statement, but I can attest to the second part.

Our classroom had approximately 40 students in it - half in third grade and half in fourth grade.  Each grade had its own curriculum for reading (4 separate reading groups in each grade!), math, and spelling.  We had religion, music, art and physical education all together in one group.  Long before the days of experiential education, I remember clearly two things I learned from Sister:  that learning was fun, and that if I finished my work before everyone else did, there was always a book from the "library shelves" I could explore.  My favorites?  The dictionary and the encyclopedia!  I learned that in some situations, I was responsible for my own learning.

The second teacher I remember "making a difference" was Sister Mary Patriciana, OP. Sister Mary Patriciana was tiny - even shorter than I was in 8th grade.  She was new to St. Dennis Catholic School in Madison, Wisconsin my 8th grade year.  St. Dennis was a much larger school - grades 3-8, in a twelve-room school.  She was not only the 8th grade teacher, she was also the principal, replacing a much-loved teacher/administrator.  Although I'd only been in the school for one year before she came, many of my classmates felt much closer to her predecessor.  We weren't particularly nice to her: we were respectful to her face, yes - but not nice. Behind her back, we called her "Mighty Mite."

At that time, I had volunteered to play the organ for weekday mass.  I wasn't particularly good - I could pick out a song on a piano keyboard, but not much more than that.  But we didn't have an organist and I was raised to volunteer to help when I could.  For reasons I won't go into, the parish priest chose to make negative comments about my "playing."  One day, he was particularly cruel in scolding me in front of the congregation.  After I finished playing that specific song, I closed the organ (without being told we were done) and tried to hide my tears.  Sr. Mary Pat came up to me, put her arm around me, and pulled me into a less public corner as I cried.  She wiped my tears and then said words I never thought I'd hear from a Catholic Sister: "Father was wrong to speak to you that way.  He should not have been mean to you. He was wrong."  With her support, I found it possible to walk into my class composed and not respond to my classmates' curiosity.

What I learned from Sister Mary Pat was that people in authority are not always right, and that no one has the right to humiliate someone else.  That was a brave message to teach me, back in those pre-questioning days.  She must have said something to the priest because he stopped picking on me in class as well.

I had some good teachers at Edgewood High School in Madison, too - Sister Alfred Marie, SND,  who taught 9th grade World History and was absolutely fanatical about how to write a research paper.  The first day of class, she informed us that our semester exam would be a research paper entitled, "The Causes and Effects of the French Revolution."  When we all panicked - she reassured us that she would teach us how to take notes, organize materials from multiple sources, make proper citations, and write a research paper.  She kept her word.  From Sister Alfred Marie, I learned that structure and organization have a critical role in education.

Sister Tobias, SND, taught Spanish, through immersion.  Our first day of class, she explained that would be the last day we could use English in her classroom - and that she would only speak in Spanish from then on.  She assured us that we knew more than we thought we did - and that we could figure out the rest from the cues she would give us.  I suspect she used a lot of pictures and movements - but we learned.  From Sr. Tobias, I learned that sometimes we just need to immerse ourselves completely in a new situation, even before we figure out all the answers. 

When I was a sophomore, we moved to Watertown High School.  I had a number of good teachers there - but two stick out in my mind:  Bruce Wittenwyler and Earl Hennessy.

Mr. Wittenwyler taught 10th grade English - American Lit.  He was enthusiastic and asked great questions.  Even though we weren't sure it was "relevant," we learned a lot about different eras of writing, how they differed from each other, and how they reflected the times in which they were written.  What I remember most about Mr. Witt, however, was how he made a new kid - who joined the class 2nd semester Sophomore year - feel a part of the classroom community.  Without making a big deal about it - he just included me and made me feel a part of his classroom community.  I was "one of the gang" - a fairly new experience for someone who at that point was attending her fifth school in 10 years.

Mr. Hennessy taught 12th grade Sociology (second semester, Senior year) - and by that time, I really had become "one of the gang." The group of us thought we were really something pretty special - and we discovered early on that we could distract Mr. Hennessy from book work by asking questions about current events.  And there were plenty of current events to ask questions about.  The Vietnam War was at its height - and some of my classmates would be drafted after graduation.  Campus unrest (including in Madison) was at an all-time high - we were just a year after Kent State.  We were seeing the effects of the Civil Rights Movement - not only in black/white relationships, but also in the use of some of the nonviolent protests for addressing other issues.  Finding an issue was easy - and so was getting Mr. Hennessy to facilitate our discussion of those topics.

We really thought we were quite clever, until one day, when he asked a question during our "diversion" and then cited six of us who were not allowed to respond - "to give someone else a chance to express themselves.  Discussion needs to have more than just a few people involved," he told us. From Mr. Hennessy, we learned how to disagree agreeably - how to disagree with someone's idea without attacking the individually personally.  The lesson may not have been in the text book, but it was a critical lesson for us to learn as we prepared to take our place in the adult world.

So those were some of the educators in my life who made a difference.  There were others during those twelve years, but these six were remarkable. The lessons I learned were not included in any curriculum, but they were life-lessons which helped shape the person (and teacher) I've become.

Thank you, Sister Deborah and Sister Mary Pat, Sister Alfred Marie and Sister Tobias, Mr. Witt and Mr. Hennessy.  You made a difference.