by Sandra Nipper Ratledge
[After being elected the 1992 Teacher of the Year at Cleveland Junior High School, I was required to write an essay regarding my philosophy of education. Here then, are my thoughts about being a teacher. I retired May 28, 2010, after thirty-two years of teaching English in junior high and middle school.]
An English teacher is shot to death in a Kentucky classroom, a janitor wounded, and the class held at gun point; two junior high girls plot to murder their English teacher in Ohio while students wager $200 on the outcome; four students carry dynamite on campus in Jackson, Tennessee. These shocking headlines only days apart send shivers down the spine. Now is the time for educators to pause for reflection, to evaluate purpose and progress in long-range terms, and to search the soul. Are we ready to meet tomorrow only or also the next five years? Are we prepared for a profession as demanding as teaching, yet so precarious and dangerous -- so scrutinized, yet so life-threatening?
Sunday afternoon found students setting up science projects in the Cleveland Junior High School gymnasium. In the midst of such commotion, the principal and most educated faculty member, skillfully wielded that old, gray mop drying leaks and spills and thereby reducing risks of injury. His performance of such a menial and thankless task sent a former minister's words awash through my mind -- "Who would lead must be first to serve."
Teachers do serve in the most unexpected, even peculiar capacities -- like the time I removed a tick embedded in a student's scalp. The dusty floor of my first classroom in a North Georgia school would never have been swept had I not done it myself and, of course, with my own broom. Not once did I consider complaining because I felt fortunate to have a classroom. After all, I had narrowly escaped being a "floating" teacher that year!
In the mid-seventies, a Cleveland Junior High teacher changed professions abruptly one summer. A colleague informed me that he had left to enter a service occupation. "Good grief!" I gasped. "Why did he leave teaching? That's what it's all about!" Teaching is a public service occupation; we not only teach knowledge and values but also cope with diverse types of physical, psychological, emotional, and social needs.
Service requires sacrifice. Like nurses who jeopardize health in caring for patients with communicable diseases, we, too, may have to risk our lives in potentially dangerous situations in order to serve those we love.
Two of my elementary school teachers personified the essential altruistic prerequisites of all teachers. These role models taught by example and dinned into our ears that the world was supposed to be a better place because we lived. We were expected to occupy ourselves with more than just making a living, but beyond that, with making the world a better place to live.
And, so it is with teaching: No task is beneath a teacher, nor student too low to reach. All can learn and be productive if soil and seed are made compatible.
Vividly, I recall my first day of school at six years of age simply because my teacher had to perform the most unthinkable task! Barren and having no step-children, she probably considered herself ill-prepared to do for any student what might repulse a compassionate mother. Nonetheless, there was no alternative. Redder than the proverbial beet, she removed both desk and child from the classroom, washed the child who was not yet fully potty-trained, and cleaned the desk. She sent the child home to stay and hurried back to the classroom -- flushed and out-of-breath.
Would she ever regain control of that giggling gaggle? Had she worked in a hosiery mill to pay college tuition for the likes of this? Much amazed, she returned to find a stillness so calm that only creaking wooden floors dared speak as she walked. By her unselfish and quiet deeds, Mrs. Edna Kennedy had won what words never could -- compassion and a reverence from the rest of us. The unpleasant, the unexpected, had forged bonds between children and teacher, bonds of empathy that would serve her well throughout that year.
And, so it is with teaching: The unforseen has a way of working out unexpectedly if we allow patience and compassion to dictate our deeds.
How fondly I recall Miss Elsie Taylor, my fifth and sixth grade teacher! She taught and made us recite exemplary literature such as Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" and Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." In so doing, she filled vacant souls with the stuff to stir them.
It was she who taught my father rhythm and rhyme enabling him to write poetry as he, a farm boy transformed into boatswain's mate, stood watch aboard ship, the LSM 54, in World War II. It was she, too, who helped to instill an enduring patriotism that inspired our sailors and soldiers to victory.
It was she who made an indelible impression on -- not only my father, my older sister, and me, all her former students -- but also the entire community in North Athens with her favorite word gumption. She wove into the fabric of our being that gumption equals success. And therein, lay her homespun philosophy. Little did I realize just how far-reaching, long-lasting, and permeating her mark would be!
Four years ago, a former student of mine surprised me by using the word gumption as comfortably as he wore his old tennis shoes. Hearing this rather old-fashioned word in the mouth of an eighth grader sent me reeling with happy confusion. To my joy, his permanent records revealed his transfer from North City Elementary School in Athens, Tennessee where he had attended only a few years, but where Miss Taylor had devoted her teaching career and her life. He never met Miss Taylor, who had been living in a local nursing home for years, and yet her legacy had spanned the generations, touched, and influenced him. For the first time, I realized how widely the waves of her influence had radiated.
Though she used innovative methods, individualized instruction, and varied teaching tools long before they were incorporated into educational jargon, her greatest gift was teaching us to believe in ourselves. She made us believe that with gumption, we, too, could attain a college education.
And, so it is with teaching: With gumption, success is in our grasp if we are determined to teach detemination.
Good teachers are neither "natural-born teachers" nor are they tailor-made in some prestigious education department; but, given time and opportunities, they will evolve like vessels on a potter's wheel. Teachers thrive in a strangely symbiotic world with students. They influence one another proportionally.
In signing annuals each year, I always allude to Tennyson's "Ulysses," i.e. "I am a part of all that I have met." My students, unwittingly or not, have influenced me as I inevitably made an impact on them. Somewhere between the battle cry, "But-I-don't-understand," and the victory sigh, "Oh-I-get-it-now," frowns have turned upside down. Together we have changed failures into successes and scowls into smiles. In so doing, my students give me the wherewithal to modify my methods. They teach me to adjust so that I may accommodate others tomorrow. Still, each tomorrow is packed with the possibility of an entirely different scenario of unexpected problems, unique as the individual.
To achieve that enduring impact like Miss Taylor, we must teach by example. To teach children to read more effectively, I read aloud with emphasis and dialect, when appropriate. To spark interest in literature, I tell them stories and sometimes don a costume to enhance credibility or set a mood. To promote appreciation for language and literature, I share my love for these forms. To teach children to write, I share with them examples of my own writing. They can profit from my mistakes and learn techniques for overcoming common difficulties.
Since I expect my students to be prepared, I must be fully prepared each day. Since I require my students to improve organizational skills, I must be organized in my lesson plans, assignments, activities, and classroom arrangements. Since I want my students to have neat notebooks and organized lockers, my classroom and desk cannot appear "junky." The best examples do as they say, for children quickly recognize and reject a sham.
And so, it is with teaching: The best teachers teach by example matching deeds to words. Thus, as Helen Keller both proclaimed and personified, "When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another."
And so, like the clerk in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I, too, "would gladly learn and would gladly teach!"
"It's Time to Retire When . . ." by Sandra Ratledge
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