Category Archives: Education

Politician or Leader?

Congressman Hechler

That’s me in the middle in the white dress I made for the occasion.

Al Gore was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in 2006, and he spoke eloquently to a group of teachers and filmmakers about the importance of educating our young people to take better care of the planet.  Having launched Current TV a few months before the conference, Gore touted the importance of connecting our students to technology and film.

Hearing a preview for Gore’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Showyesterday morning, I rolled my eyes, picked up my bag of books and my car key, and left my husband to watch Gore hawk his new book.  This evening I learned that Lauer spent more time skewering Gore for his decision to sell Current to Al Jazeera than talking about the book that I won’t be buying.

I grinned, pleased that the interview didn’t go as well as Gore had planned.  He called himself a “recovering politician,” but I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t setting the stage for a presidential run in 2016.  If he does, I won’t be voting for him.

I met Gore at that 2006 conference.  I had practically danced when I got an invitation to a reception after the keynote.  He said in his address that he was eager to talk with educators and filmmakers about how they were teaching young people about issues facing our country.  I watched as he spoke for about a minute with each person—longer with those who had clout at the conference.  I listened politely as he talked with people aspiring to get his attention for their projects.

When it was finally my turn, I shook his hand and introduced myself, and I didn’t get a complete sentence out of my mouth about my students.  As I talked, he looked over my shoulder at a well-known media personality on the other side of the room.  Before I finished the sentence, he said, “Well, good for you,” his feet already in motion to move past me, his hand in the air in a wave to the person over my shoulder.

I had stuck with Al Gore when most of the country thought he was an alarmist about climate change. I stuck with him after the ridicule that followed a campaign comment he made about taking the initiative in “creating the Internet.”  I stuck with him after the debacle of the 2000 election.  By 2006 he had reinvented himself, and I stuck with him as he made fun of himself on late-night shows and found other ways to advocate for the issues that mattered to him.

My mom used to say, when I tried to encourage her to vote, “What’s the use in voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?”  I lectured her for her cynicism and badgered her until she started voting again.

But in that moment when Al Gore debunked the myth he’d created about his belief in the importance of great teachers, I understood how my mother felt.  And while I was no fan of President George W. Bush, I was glad that if someone had to lose to him, that someone was the man who had brushed aside a teacher he had claimed to value as the key to the future.  In that moment, for me, Gore ceased to be a leader and became a politician.

I still disagree with my mother about the uselessness of voting, and I think there are leaders in both parties who try every day to live up to their ideals.  But I wish that all of us could have one minute with the candidates—one unfiltered minute.  For me, it took less than a minute for Gore to destroy everything I’d ever heard about him from the media, a few seconds that didn’t even register in his brain.

And I’m glad that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in West Virginia who taught me that some are leaders first and politicians second.  Congressman Ken Hechler sponsored a group of students from my high school for a weekend in Washington.  Though none of us could vote, he took the time to walk around the Capitol with us and to ask each of us questions about our lives and our dreams.  He ushered us into the office of Senator Robert Byrd, who, though he was legendary, invited us to sit down in his office and talked to us about the history that surrounded us.  And after the trip, Congressman Hechler sent us all a personally signed photograph of the group from his district.

I want to believe that we still have leaders like Congressman Hechler and Senator Byrd who believe it’s important to give attention to the least among us.  Do you have stories of such leaders?  I’d love to have you share your stories in a comment.

For Whom Are You Grateful Today?

Omar Teachers

I am thinking of Percy Dillard today.  My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard terrified me at the beginning of the school year that fall of 1963.  He wore a black glove on one hand, which I think he had injured in World War II.  As if that weren’t scary enough, he announced on the first day of school that we would have a spelling test every Friday—and that for every word we missed, we would get a lick with his long wooden paddle, which still looms large in my mind after 50 years.

For first grade, I’d had Mrs. Fenny, a chubby, friendly woman who mothered all of us.  Mr. Dillard had none of her qualities.  He was a black man, the only black teacher in my elementary school, and I only know now how unusual that was, even today—for a second grader to have a teacher who is male and black.

When I came home in tears on the first day of school, my dad thought I was afraid of him because of the color of his skin.  My father had quit school in fifth grade, and his response to my tears was this:  “That man is just the same as you and me.  But he got hisself an education.  You listen to him.”

When I protested to dad that he was scary, that he wore a black glove and planned to paddle us for every missed spelling word, my dad laughed. “Well, then, I guess you won’t be missing any spelling words this year, will you.”

And I didn’t.  Mr. Dillard became less scary each Friday, and I still remember that he told us that we were all equal in his room and that what would set us apart was how hard we worked.

That November, Mr. Dillard stood at the chalkboard, the classroom door open, when Mrs. Fenny came running to the door, tears streaming down her face, and said shrilly, “The president has been shot!”  Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face her and put the chalk down in the tray.  He stepped outside the door and closed it, and we children watched in silence as they talked.

Mr. Dillard returned, sitting heavily at his desk.  He looked at us sadly and said, “Children, our president is gone.  And we’re sending you home to be with your families.”  He watched stoically as we gathered our things and went home to watch the television coverage of the stunning loss of a leader with such promise for the future.

In the past four years, I’ve heard President Obama’s critics say that Jack Kennedy was the last great democratic leader.  But President Kennedy’s critics said much the same thing about him in the years he was in office before a tragic and early death catapulted him to the ranks of the greatest presidents.  And, thinking of that day, it’s hard for me to breathe when President Obama is surrounded by hordes of people, as he is today for the Inaugural Parade.

I wish Percy Dillard had lived to see President Obama inaugurated, but Mr. Dillard died in 2001.  I would never have called him my favorite teacher—I loved the motherly ones who told me how gifted I was.  But I feel fortunate to have spent a year in Mr. Dillard’s class.  He was the only elementary teacher I had to work hard to please.  And he taught me that effort was the great equalizer.

A few years later my dad lost his job, and my family moved to an all-white town in the next county where another coal mine was hiring.  I would not have another African-American teacher or have classes with people of other races until I got to college.  But because of Percy Dillard, I grew up knowing that diversity is a positive thing and that overcoming discrimination in all its insidious forms is essential.

Mr. Dillard, while spell-check now makes it less important never to misspell a word, I know that you taught me far more important lessons.  And I hope you’re up there somewhere today, watching, and knowing that, like President Kennedy and President Obama, you have a legacy.

Nothing to Fear?

First-year Teacher

“I don’t think there’s going to be a world in ten years,” my student said mournfully, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Yeah, me neither,” said the boy sitting in the next row, slumping a little lower than his usual slump.

My English classes had just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a novel published in 1957, twelve years after the United States bombed Japan to hasten the end of World War II.  Two years later, Gregory Peck starred in the movie version of the novel as the handsome American captain who had brought his nuclear submarine to the coast of Australia as the radiation fallout slowly drifted south.  In the narrative, no life remains north of the earth’s equator, and the inhabitants of Australia know that their days are numbered.

In the real world—the one my students and I inhabited in the early 1980s—humanity lived in terror, and the arms race dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers.  After that first class discussion, I grew to recognize the fear in some students’ eyes and the resignation in others’.  I asked my students whether they shared Shute’s view of our ultimate demise.  Few of them believed that they would grow up and fall in love—or even live long enough to go to college and pursue their dreams. I assured them our leaders would find a way to harness our power to destroy, though I was 25 years old and shared their anxiety.

Many of those students wrote arguments about banning all nuclear weapons and felt angry when their arguments, along with a growing movement in our country, fell on deaf ears.  Those students would now be almost 50, and I wonder if they ever think about those days, that novel, our discussions.  You wouldn’t find Shute’s book in most high school book rooms now.  The science is inaccurate and the story somewhat maudlin.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of our own military seemed far less dangerous in the wake of September 11, two weeks after we offered a temporary home to a 25-year-old teacher who had moved to Maryland from a small town in Illinois.  Our daughter was a sophomore in high school, the same age as the students I taught when I was 25.  By 9/11, I had been teaching almost 25 years, and I had never seen anything like the chaos of that day, when students, many of whose parents worked in D.C., found out that the Pentagon had been attacked.  There weren’t enough phones in the building for all the hysterical students and staff to make phone calls to their loved ones—so many that we couldn’t even get calls out on the jammed lines.

Just as we were learning to breathe again the following fall, October 2002, we suffered terror of another kind when, for three weeks, a sniper randomly attacked innocent people going about their lives.  Most of the attacks happened within five miles of our home.  My mother had been visiting from Richmond, and the last attack occurred the day my husband drove my mother to Fredericksburg to meet my brother from Richmond—at the very exit the sniper chose.  They sat for hours in the snarled traffic on Interstate 95 while, at home, we waited for news.

That young teacher, who had her own apartment by then, often stayed at our home during the crises of her first years in Maryland, and she wondered whether she had been wise to abandon the safety of a small town in the Midwest for the dangers of our nation’s capital.  My fears—my students’ fears—of nuclear fall-out seemed almost laughable when I looked into that young teacher’s eyes, into my daughter’s eyes, and tried to breathe deeply enough to assuage their alarm that the world had gone mad.

Today, the arms race we started is rarely fodder for the 24-hour news cycle.  Occasionally we read an article about the danger of a rogue nation, like Iran, being close to having a nuclear weapon, but, for the most part, our demons are different.  Somehow, our leaders have managed to get a grip on the fear that plagued us when I was a young adult.  We still have a nuclear arsenal, and while we worry about rogue nations, we haven’t let that fear loom so large that we are paralyzed by it.

And though September 11 has shaped our character as a nation, we have even found ways to address our vulnerability to make it less likely, though never impossible, for such an attack to happen again.

Yet, still, we fear.  We fear the next mentally ill man who will storm into a school and kill our children.  We fear radical extremists who are willing to strap bombs to their own bodies and become human explosives, decimating everyone in the crowded areas they choose for what they consider a glorious death.  We fear even our own people, citizens who feel they need assault rifles to protect themselves.

We.  I.  I am afraid, and I can scarcely breathe when I think of all the unspeakable danger that could take my children from me in butterfly’s breath.  The world is a scary place.  But the only way we can move beyond our paralyzing fear is to tackle our challenges together.  And maybe, just maybe, thirty years from now one of today’s 25-year-old teachers will be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember when my students were afraid of that.

Tell me your stories of fears that have never materialized and the joy that comes from moving beyond them.

What Is Intelligence?

College Graduation

Dad, Mom, and Me at my College Graduation

An unimaginable luxury before I left the classroom to work as a content specialist, the past few days have given me a respite while most of my colleagues returned to work.  For the first time in 35 years, I worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and took a vacation as teachers were returning to the classroom to prepare their students for semester exams.

But I’m not sure anyone who feels called to be a teacher can ever stop thinking about kids.  Even after five years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams—where I’m late and on my way to school in my pajamas, where I can’t find my way to the room where kids await, or where I have no control over the students I’m supposed to be teaching.

And, in the same way, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking about what I’ve taught my students or what they’ve taught me.  I began teaching 35 years ago this month.  A poor kid who went to college on an aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study, I finished college in 3 ½ years, anxious to earn money and find that better life my coal miner father assured me I’d have if I got a degree.  And though I’ve worked hard, I’ve had an easier life than my parents—able to offer my daughter more opportunities than my parents were ever able to offer me, though they wanted what was best for me.

Because of this, when I think about education, I’m bothered by a climate where the contributions of people who don’t have an education are sometimes not valued.  I believe that we should offer all students a course of study that prepares them for higher education if that is the path they choose.  But I also believe that the person who repairs my car and the person who comes to my house to unclog my drain have knowledge and skills that I don’t have—skills that should be equally valued, even though they chose not to get a college degree.

Not every person who has a college degree is wise.  And not every person who has only a high school diploma, or even the person who dropped out, is unintelligent.  My husband and I laugh about the time when our plumber, a father of two daughters, gave us a very practical lesson in parenting.  He had been my husband’s former student, never interested in school but always a hard worker out of school and the person we always had confidence in when we needed a plumber.  He sat on the floor, working deftly to replace cheap, faulty pipes installed by our builder that began to spring numerous pinhole leaks as the house aged.  He talked easily as his hands worked, and we chatted about the challenges of parenting teenage girls.  I mentioned that I wished I could get my daughter to stop slamming doors, and he told us a very funny story about removing his daughter’s bedroom door from the hinges and telling her he’d replace it when she convinced him she could stop slamming it.  She stalked off to the bathroom, her younger sister on her heels, begging her not to slam the bathroom door, lest it, too, should be removed.  The next time my daughter slammed the door, we told her that if she did it again, we would use our plumber’s solution.  I don’t think she ever slammed a door again.

While that’s just a humorous anecdote in our family, I could easily tell many more important things I’ve learned from people who haven’t had the opportunities for higher education that I’ve had.  Someone once told me that we have something to teach and something to learn from every person we meet.  I learned many lessons from my father, not the least of which was the value of a college degree, though he was far from perfect and had only a fifth grade education.  And while I parent differently from my mother, I learned from her, among many other things, what it means to love unconditionally and to be strong in the face of adversity.

So how do we find a way to honor each other’s intelligence?  I’ve thought about this a lot since the presidential primary, when our president was called an intellectual snob—a president who, like me, had to work hard for his degree.  I don’t believe that was a fair assessment of a leader who wants others to have the opportunities he’s had.  But while teaching in a highly charged academic environment in the Washington suburbs, I have encountered many intellectuals who have denigrated those who don’t place the same value on a PhD.

As with most things, the answer lies at neither extreme.  How do we find a balance?  I’m not sure.  But I believe we begin by telling the stories of people from all walks of life who defy the stereotypes of what it means to be intelligent in a world of different kinds of intelligence.

So tell me those stories.

What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.