Every Fall

First Day of School a few years ago when my granddaughter and family friends set out for school. Everybody’s taller now!

It’s that unmistakable time of year when school has started. After a miserably hot, humid summer in Baltimore, we suddenly had a few crisp days in late August. Now that September is over, leaves are turning. Mornings have that cool, approaching autumn feel to them. I love this time of year.

I remember my Grandma saying, “There is never an autumn that I don’t feel like I should be going back to school.”It’s like that for me, too. I had a larger dose of school than she did, though I doubt I’m any better educated. I have spent most of my life in school as a student as a teacher, and as a professor working to prepare teachers. It is a great place to spend your life.

Every fall begins a new cycle. Now as I see my granddaughter off to school, I wonder what the day holds for her. I think of so many children like her who shared a school year with me when I taught in elementary school. I wonder about them, where they are, if life has been kind to them. I wonder if they, too, feel the call of school when the leaves begin to turn.  I wonder if any of them are spending their lives as teachers.

When Favorite Characters Die

After one of my friends finished reading The Black Alabaster Box, she e-mailed me.“I loved it. . . I must say that you are very brave, because I couldn’t kill off some of my favorite characters.”

It’s true. Some of my favorite characters experience the harsh reality of life on the Santa Fe Trail. Two die of small pox and four are murdered. (I won’t say which ones–you’ll have to read the book to find out!) I was terribly sorry to see them go. But I was determined to be true to a history in which few people traveled the trails without being witness to or experiencing its grim realities. And, while an author is in control of what happens, sometimes it feels as if the characters and context are calling the moves.

I don’t recommend the Trilogy to youngsters under about ten-years-old. It can be a great read-aloud for a nine-year-old, within the safety of family or schoolroom.

Disease was arguably the greatest killer on the trails, although many people were shot by accident. People drowned in dangerous river crossings as well. Traveling west was not a six week-long camping holiday.  And the greatest threat to wagon trains was not American Indians, though there were instances of violent clashes between wagon trains and native tribes.

Youngsters are exposed to an enormous amount of violence on their devices, in movies and on television. But it is one thing to see Batman and Robin going “Bif!” “Pow!” “Shezam!” as they kill off the bad guys and quite another to think about what you’d do if someone in your own family died.  

A good story can raise important and difficult issues in ways that can be discussed thoughtfully and with sensitivity at school or at home. It can become a cataylist for “What would you do if…?”

 A wise teacher will suggest that if her students have not talked through the “What would you do if?  question with their parents, they should do so. It is psychologically important for children and young people to know that should the worst happen, their parents or caretakers have made a plan for how to deal with it. Of course, disaster is not predictable. Plans can be disrupted. It isn’t possible to forsee the future. Hence, discussions are all the more important. Children should know “go-to” people they can rely on, how reach them, and if circumstances prevent them from reaching their “go-to” people, safe contacts.

It is hard for author and readers to accept death of favorite characters in a story. It is even harder to face the certainties of death in the midst of life. But we do it as part of living and learning how to go on.  A good story can help us along the way–especially if a caring adult is there to share the experience when favorite characters die.

A Purple Iris for Teachers

When I finished my Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education at George Peabody College for Teachers, now part of Vanderbilt University, I was given an iris along with my diploma. Campus had been a riot of iris blooms the weeks before graduation. As we gathered on campus in our caps and gowns, we stood by iris beds, freshly dug up. Hundreds of bare roots with a bit of green leaf were separated, waiting for us to take one. It is a beautiful tradition and the iris is an appropriate symbol for teachers.

In Victorian times, the purple iris was associated with wisdom and compliments. How appropriate for it to be the symbol of our thanks for teachers!

I can think of so many teachers who have made a difference in my life. It wasn’t always easy for me–and probably not for them. For example, there was that time in first grade when I couldn’t remember whether Frances was spelled F-R- A- N- C- E- S or F-A-R-N-C-E-S. Mrs. Mars was not pleased. She had a way of pulling your hair at the base of your neck when she was displeased. But she was the one who taught me how to make the numbers 1-10 walking over a rainbow bridge. How could I not forgive her?

Mrs. Mars was the first of many teachers in my school experience. There were also teachers in Sunday School, in my family, and in the community–the caring adults who helped me along the way. Perhaps that is why Lawrence Cremin talked about the ecology of schools as institutions that educate. Wherever they are–in or out of school–THANK YOU TEACHERS! A purple iris to you!

Thank You Teachers!

This is National Appreciation Week. May 8, 2018 is National Teacher Day. A day doesn’t quite do it. Nor can a week. We owe teachers so much more, not only for what they have done for us, but for what they do for our children every day. Days in school are only a piece of what they do for students. Teachers spends countless hours outside the classroom collecting information and artifacts, thinking through ideas, wondering “What if…” They dig in their pockets to buy supplies that fill in the gaps when resources get low, often when their own resources are running low!

I have had the privilege of working with teachers in several countries in the world. How remarkably alike they are. They may dress differently. Classrooms are more or less well equipped than those in the US. But how alike they are in their desire to share a subject they have fallen in love with, help young people along in the world, and make the world a better place.

Like the rest of us, teachers have their days. Not every teacher and every child are a good match. Sometimes the chemistry just doesn’t work. Teachers can get burned out. The day to day grind can wear them down. And seriously, you don’t know what tired is until you’ve spent a day in the classroom with six-year-olds or eleven-year-olds, or sixteen-year-olds.

A teacher’s best moments usually go unrecognized and often, unappreciated. They take the brunt of displaced anger that parents and community members feel when the political system doesn’t seem to be working for them—it isn’t so easy tell off the governor, but one can march over to the school.

Everybody is an expert on teaching. I remember going for a haircut once and the stylist spent the entire time telling me the best way to teach reading. He’d been to school. Gosh. He isn’t the only one telling teachers what to do. The profession is becoming so over-regulated that I wonder how imaginative, dedicated, and talented teachers can stick to the job.

The number of teachers who are ill suited to teaching is so infinitesimally small that we should never be guilty of painting all teachers with their brush. If we are going to paint, let’s paint with another brush. Let’s paint on the sky in rainbow colors: THANK YOU TEACHERS. May our gratitude be lived out in our interactions with you as you guide our youth, in the policies that we enact to undergird your work, and in the budgets we pass to provide resources for you to keep on keeping on.