Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I love teachers.  I have experienced them in a variety of areas in my life, as a family member, a student, a colleague, and finally as a parent.

When I’ve stopped and thought about it, I have realized that my family is lousy with teachers!  My dad was a speech and debate teacher in high school for 37 years.  My sister is a special education teacher.  My aunt taught 2nd grade for…ever?  My cousins have been teachers, administrators and professors.  My mother in law teaches ESL for adults.  My father in law has also taught classes, as has my sister in law.  That’s a lot of teacher folk!  When you grow up with it, it doesn’t seem that extraordinary, it’s just normal.  I began to get a sense of how much my dad was adored when we couldn’t leave the house without bumping into a former or a current student.  He taught in San Marino, and we lived in Altadena, so we weren’t in the same town.  Despite this, errands and outings were nearly always met with choruses of “Mr. Stuart!”, “Stuuuuu!!!” I remember going to school with him a few times when I was in high school myself.  I knew my dad was funny in our home life, but I had no idea he was such a funny teacher. I didn’t witness this, but lore has told that he chucked a chalkboard eraser at a student who had fallen asleep. He also insisted that a particular student remove the safety pins in his lip before coming into the classroom, but returned them at the end of the period.  I loved watching him interact with his students!  He kidded around with them and laughed at their jokes, but he also kept them in line.  They loved him and had fun with him, but they also respected him.  Now that I have the perspective I do, I understand how tough of a line must have been to toe. The fact that students who graduated before I was even born took the time to attend his memorial service last year spoke volumes.  With my other family members, I’ve seen so many positive traits, including hard working, dedicated, intuitive, creative, and caring.  What a gift it’s been to have these teachers as members of my family! I had a fabulous foundation in that arena.

As a student, quite a few teachers stand out.  I attended public school in Pasadena for my entire K-12 career. There is an amazing group in my mind that deserve standing ovations for everything they did for me.  Dear Mrs. Hayes, my 3rd grade teacher, was my very first favorite. She was creative, outgoing, and kind.  She passed several years back, and I was genuinely saddened.  Mrs. Patterson in 6th grade whipped my behind in shape, figuratively.  In addition to being exciting and interesting, she also had incredible radar when it came to social issues.  6th grade was a tough year for me, and somewhat of a turning point.  My skin began to break out, and I experienced the joy of the mean creatures that are 11 and 12 year old girls.  I was picked on and ridiculed, big time.  I actually, almost got into a physical fight that year.  Of course, having no idea how to handle these difficulties, I chose to pick on others so I would feel better.  I’m not proud of this, and the kids I did pick on ended up being amazing people.  I’ve actually apologized to them ad naseum.  At the time, Mrs. Patterson saw what was going on, and stepped in.  She called my mom in to talk, and my attendance was mandatory.  I remember this vividly; she said to my mom, “I just can’t picture Jane kicking someone’s butt.” This was true for two reasons, the first being that I can’t fight and would have been pummeled to death.  The second reason was that a mean girl, a fighter, wasn’t anywhere close to who I really was. I think I can say that I experienced a mean girl “season”, but I thankfully outgrew it. Mrs. Patterson saw it, and made me regain my senses. I continued to be picked on that year, but I stopped being a perpetrator.  To this day, I have never been in a physical fight in my life. I can’t say that I’ve never been mean since then, but I have taught my own children that mean kids aren’t allowed to live in our house.  This may sound harsh, but Mrs. Patterson’s lesson stuck with me.  No mean people allowed, I won’t tolerate it.

High school began, and again, several teachers were responsible for keeping me in line. The most special and my very favorite teacher of all time was my 9th grade English teacher, Ms. Aljean Ivory. My best friend and I were placed into her Advanced Placement class, but once we discovered how much work it would entail, we were desperate to escape.  We acquired the necessary forms and took them to have her sign us out, and she refused!  We were shocked and incensed. How could she refuse our request, we had the right to not take an AP course if we didn’t want to!  She would not budge.  We both doubted we’d get very far pursuing this with our parents, so we begrudgingly gave in and attended.  I remember one day during which she was teaching Shakespeare, I believe it was Hamlet.  She acted out a death scene, and my friend and I both thought she had turned into a lunatic, yelling and collapsing to the floor. Who knew what an impact this woman would end up making on my life? She wouldn’t allow us to settle for mediocrity in ourselves, she pushed us.  She saw our potential and didn’t care if we hated her.  Ms. Ivory taught me how to write. How do you put a price on that, or measure the value?  We learned the joy of literature, even the dreaded Shakespeare, and learned how to express ourselves through writing and poetry.  In the years that followed, she was the advisor to the Peer Counselors Club, and my best friend and I both participated. She was a wonderful trainer, but we never actually counseled anyone.  Just last week, my best friend asked me why we never received our Peer Counseling sweatshirts we ordered, it’s gotten to be a joke that has spanned over 20 years. Despite the lack of actual clients, I learned a great deal being in that club, and I believe she had an enormous influence on what I decided to do with my life.  Years later, by pure coincidence, she and her son were able to attend my wedding.  That meant the world to me, and I’m not sure I even had the chance to thank her.   High school held other gems as well, including Mr. Barnes, Mrs. Toh, and Mr. Moore, all English and Social Studies teachers.  I learned so much from all of them.  They taught me the ability to think of things critically, to understand issues from the opposing viewpoints, and the power of the written word.  They opened up the world for me, and I am forever grateful.

For the last 14 years, I’ve worked as a public school psychologist and I work with teachers every day.  With every year that passes, I’m struck more and more with how difficult their jobs are.  People tell me they can’t imagine doing my job, and it is tough.  However, I would go stark raving mad as a classroom teacher.  I don’t know how they do it. I’ve written about this before, but the general public really doesn’t understand how difficult of a job it actually is.  Are all of them wonderful?  Of course not, but neither are all doctors, lawyers, investors, and dare I say, school psychologists.  There are some bad apples is every profession, but the majority of the teachers I’ve worked with are exceptional. Classroom teachers have to deal with mediocre pay, zero respect most of the time, changing standards, horrific behavioral issues, insane parents (yes, I said it), and the challenge of teaching to the gifted children in their class while simultaneously teaching the average and learning disabled kids.  They are buried in paperwork. They have to attend endless, boring meetings (yes, again, I said it.) These are the people to whom we have entrusted our children’s education! What could possibly be more important than this?  Yet they’re ridiculed and sometimes vilified, having members of the media accuse them of having a “part time job.”  Off by 2:30 and summers off, that must be a cakewalk!  This mindset makes my blood boil, and my little 41 year old self who has never been in a physical fight feels as though I could actually take on some of these deluded people.  I could take them….I know I could.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of being able to call many of these people my friends.  The stories these people have are simply incredible.  These amazing folks deal with the day-to-day stresses of the job, while having to endure some heart-wrenching personal issues at the same time.  I suppose this is true of all adults, but the teachers I work with have managed to do it with incredible dignity and grace.  The same people were there for me when I was dealing with personal loss, and difficult situations.  They took the time to listen to ME, which still surprises and pleases me.  Some of these people have called and texted me at night and weekends regarding students we were working with together.  This was something I encouraged, but I didn’t expect it to happen.  People have their own families and obligations. However, the dedication these folks have to the kids they work with is astounding to me. They don’t only care about teaching academics to these youngsters, they care about them as children, as if they were their own.  Additionally, some of the teachers I work with have been gifted with the most hysterical, twisted, clever, perfectly timed humor you could ever imagine.  These people have made me laugh until tears were streaming down my face. You people know who you are.  Thank you!! You make my job that much more tolerable.

Finally, over the past decade, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing teachers as a parent. Like most parents, I expect my children to be attentive, polite, courteous, smart, hard working, sensitive, caring, enthusiastic, friendly, obedient, creative, extraordinary little beings with perfect handwriting. Yeah, God didn’t make children that way.  Regardless, it’s a curse we all seem to have as parents to varying degrees.  As the parent of a 1st and 5th grader, I’ve been amazed every year with my children’s teachers.  My daughter is a unique little person, and I have been blown away with her teacher’s abilities to tap directly into her spirit. The attention they’ve given her are priceless, and something she will remember forever.  When she accidentally chucked her retainer into the garbage during lunchtime, her 2nd grade teacher went back with her to the cafeteria, found the can she threw it in, and set it aside before letting me know.  How many teachers would keep a bag of lunch garbage in their classroom?  I had the honor of going through the garbage, of course, and the retainer was rescued.  You, sir, saved me hundreds of dollars! Both of my children were lucky enough to have the same Kindergarten teacher, the one who told us our daughter would be reading by the end of the school year. We politely smiled, and thought to ourselves, “Yeah, right.  There’s no way.”  Miraculously, this prediction ended up being true, for both of our children. These teachers have cracked down on my daughter when she’s needed it (increasingly more often), and reassured me there’s no need to fret about my son’s difficulty articulating the “r” sound. They have high expectations and don’t mess around, and my children rise to the occasion because they’re encouraged to do so.  They appreciate and foster my daughter’s creativity and my son’s mellow nature. When there has been a concern, they have let me know immediately and we’ve dealt with it.  I feel as though we’re a team, and together we will ensure our children work to their full potential.  This is an invaluable thing.

For those of you out there reading this who don’t encounter teachers as often as I do, take a moment to ponder this.  Who was your favorite teacher and why? Do you know how to contact them?  If you can, please consider doing so and telling them your thoughts.  I guarantee it will make their day.  I’m in the process of trying to track down some of mine, all of whom have retired.  For those of you with children still in school, please tell their teachers how much you appreciate them when you feel it.  Teachers rarely get thanked for their hard work, and oftentimes it’s the best part of their job. I feel very lucky.  I’m related to incredible teachers, have had wonderful teachers, my children have had and continue to have top notch teachers, and I get the joy of working with these professionals every day.  They are the unsung heroes in our society.  Give ‘em some love!!  I love them something terrible.