Recently I was at an education conference, and the speaker asked us to “think about that teacher, the one that really made a difference for you.” Not exactly an original strategy–I can’t count how many trainings I’ve been in where the presenter asked us to reflect on “that teacher.” But this particular speaker kept referring back to “that teacher” throughout her speech, inviting us to keep them present with us.
For me, this was a gift. I was going to be leading a workshop in a couple hours, and although I was excited about the opportunity and passionate about my topic, I had woken up that morning all nerves and self-doubt. I had kind and supportive colleagues and friends with me, and that helped, but it really added an extra layer of reassurance to mentally invite my 7th grade teacher to the table. As plain as day, I could see her face and hear her voice–excited for me, encouraging me, telling me for the millionth time the things that I’m good at. Always my most enthusiastic cheerleader, Ms. Fell’s voice echoed in my head, giving me a confidence boost to get me through the day.
I’ve had lots of great teachers, and occasionally in these reflection exercises, I focus on one of the others. But more often than not, my thoughts go straight to Ms. Fell. I’ve thought a lot about what made her such an incredible teacher. I compare myself to her, and wonder if I’m coming anywhere near living up to the teaching bar she set.
Ms. Fell taught what we called “block,” and what my current district would call “humanities.” We were in her class for the equivalent of three class periods–social studies, language arts, and literature. Her classroom was home. I have a snapshot memory of one day when the bell rang and we were all supposed to leave for lunch, but not a single one of us moved. We just kept working on whatever we were doing, as if we hadn’t heard the bell. I don’t remember what we were doing that day, but it wasn’t anything extra special. We just felt so safe, comfortable, and happy in Ms. Fell’s class; we had zero desire to leave our bubble for the chaos of middle school hallways and the cafeteria. She had to tell us multiple times to LEAVE, before we reluctantly accepted that class was over for the day.
Her classroom was full of joy. We laughed all the time. There was always music–work time was accompanied by Frank Sinatra or the Grease soundtrack. At any given moment, Ms. Oehling might burst in from next door, and if she had “I Will Survive” playing, we immediately dropped everything for an impromptu dance party. (That opening piano slide still throws me back to 7th grade and makes me grin like a weirdo.) There were prank wars and all kinds of shenanigans with Ms. Oehling’s class. Decorating our classroom door was an event. Spirit Week was an event. Sure, anyone can wear pajamas on pj day. But only Ms. Fell set up a tent in her classroom for camping day! (I still don’t understand how we were supposed to dress for camping day… But the tent was awesome.) We’d use our classroom money to buy treats for movie days, and those treats always included sour patch kids.
I sat through a training years ago on how to bring fun into the classroom…. I was a new teacher at the time, but even then, I thought it was the dumbest thing. Whose life is so sad that they need a training on how to have fun? Who needs a gimmicky acronym to help them pre-plan the elements of fun? That’s not fun! I know what a fun classroom feels like; I was in Ms. Fell’s class. It wasn’t forced or gimmicky. (Ok, maybe the tent was a little gimmicky… but we loved it!) We were just living our best lives in that classroom. We were ourselves, the teacher was herself, and fun just happened. All the time.
I read an article recently that unsettled me a bit. The author said that you can be a student’s “favorite teacher,” or their “best teacher,” but you can’t be both. The favorite teacher is fun, warm and fuzzy, and her classroom feels safe and welcoming. The best teacher holds high academic standards and doesn’t bend, so you have to learn a lot in their class. But these cannot be the same person. The author asserted that it’s better to be the “best” than the “favorite.”
It rubbed me the wrong way, and my insecurities kicked in. I know that I’m a favorite teacher for a lot of my students. There’s plenty of love and laughs in my room. But does that mean I’m not strict enough, academically rigorous enough? I feel like I have very high standards for my students. But I get the impression sometimes that others (who, notably, have never watched me teach) don’t think so. There’s definitely a sense that a teacher is either nice, or demanding, and those are mutually exclusive categories.
Except, I know that’s not true. I know that a teacher can be nice and fun, and an immense amount of learning can happen! Because that was Ms. Fell’s class. I remember more of what I learned in her class than any other from middle school.
I’ll prove it.
We hardly ever took tests. We did projects… We spent lots of time learning about the Renaissance, which I can spell, and tell you about how it means “rebirth,” and how it was exciting to study after getting through the Middle Ages. I’d thought the Middle Ages would be fun, because castles, but then I learned that feudalism and illiteracy didn’t sound so great. Much more fun to watch science, art, religion, philosophy, and everything getting a jump-start in the Renaissance. We eventually wrapped up our unit by putting on a Renaissance Faire. We all came in the evening, and each hosted a booth as the Renaissance figure we’d studied in depth. (This was where I really learned how research, note taking, and 5-paragraph essays worked.) My booth was about Shakespeare, and as I told people about “my” life in Stratford-upon-Avon and “my” works in the Globe Theatre, visitors could try writing with feather “quills” dipped in ink. Later, I changed costumes, and played Juliet from the top of the stairs in the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene. I swore that if he would deny his father and refuse his name, I would no longer be a Capulet. But I wouldn’t let him swear by the moon, the inconstant moon.
Earlier in the year, we studied Ancient Greece, which was topped off by wrapping ourselves in bedsheet togas and participating in our own Greek Olympics in the cafeteria. By that point, I knew lots of myths, and I knew that I’d rather live in Athens than Sparta, although my table group’s name wasn’t either. I think we were Corinth.
I would say that Ancient Greece was when I first started to appreciate democracy, but it wasn’t. That came earlier in the year, when we had assignments around tracking the presidential election. I created whatever we were calling “sketch notes” in 1996, and watched conventions, speeches, and debates. I remember watching my first presidential debate, and not understanding many of the issues yet, but thinking that Bill Clinton was the only guy on the stage who knew what he was talking about. Bob Dole kept dodging questions, making bad jokes, and to my mind, came across like a kid faking his way through a presentation without doing their homework… I was shocked at school the next day, when I heard from classmates who found Dole’s performance compelling. (Oh, young Kristine, welcome to the first day of the rest of your life…) I also wondered why Ross Perot wouldn’t go away, and how splitting a major party’s vote seemed like a good idea on his part. (Look away, young Kristine! You don’t want to see 2016! Just don’t look.) I don’t remember politics getting much discussion time at home back then. And we were given plenty of structure that demanded we pay equal attention to both sides. It felt good to be hearing directly from the candidates and starting to form my own opinions. Felt even better when Forgot-To-Do-His-Homework Dole lost the election!
Every week we were required to find a current political cartoon, and write a short reflection. Throughout the year, I hit on all the major issues of 1996/97–from Tickle Me Elmo, and Dolly the sheep, to income inequality, and whatever Newt Gingrich was up to that week. (Now that I’m thinking about it… Political cartoons are a great teaching tool. I should be using those.)
We did lots of writing, and learned to assess ourselves with the 6 Traits. We learned to trim “to be” verbs out of our writing. We learned to use adverbs correctly.
We memorized all the countries and capitals in Europe.
We went as a class to see Beauty and the Beast at the 5th Avenue Theater. I’d been to the children’s theater before, but this was my first time seeing a Broadway musical. I was thoroughly dazzled. I had no idea such magic was possible. I hoped that I’d spend the rest of my life seeing shows like that. (So far, so good.)
I learned so much in Ms. Fell’s class. It’s hard to even believe it all fit in one school year. But I’m drawing the very strong conclusion that one can be nice and an effective teacher.
And she was so nice. Ms. Fell cared about us as people. She talked with us like humans that were worth conversing with, not just kids to be bossed around. When I got sick and spent a couple weeks in the hospital, she came to visit me. Back in the classroom, she had me convinced that I was a good writer, and that I was good at speaking in front of people. I don’t know if I really was any good, but she convinced me that I was, and gave me opportunities to practice, grow, and shine.
When I think about the kind of education our students deserve, I think about Ms. Fell’s class. Every kid deserves that experience. Every kid should feel safe at school, in an environment where they can just breathe and laugh and be loved. Every kid should get to be so swept up in the joy of learning, that thoughts of grades fall off their radar. Every kid should get to deepen their understanding of the world around them, and the world that came before them. Every kid should be told that they’re good at things until they believe it deep in their bones. Enough to still carry it with them twenty-something years later.
Thank you, Ms. Fell, for being “that teacher.” I’ll keep trying to be the same!