Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, friends and neighbors!
Today’s Google Doodle was lovely: https://g.co/doodle/hjchhys. Fingers crossed they have one of these every day this week!
My Teacher Appreciation tonight goes out to Michael, an extraordinary adult education teacher. I met him at one of my first adult ed jobs. We didn’t work together then, but I had the chance to observe his class once and had several opportunities to get some impromptu professional development training when I found myself lucky enough to be in the teachers’ office doing prep at the some time he was there.
Years later, we ran into each other in the hallway at grad school, and he mentioned that the program where he was currently working was looking for a new instructor. I got the job and then began seven excellent years of teaching with and learning from Michael.
I arrived at that job with some teaching experience, but a lot of that had been teaching high school students, and adult education — especially adult literacy — is entirely different from teaching high school English. I had taught both literacy classes and high school equivalency classes before I started working with Michael, and I’d learned a lot in those jobs, but I wouldn’t say I was a good teacher then. I was good-hearted, and that maybe counted for something. I wanted to be a good teacher for my students, and that surely counted for something, too. But I really needed to just simply be a good adult ed teacher, not just dream about being one.
Working with Michael was the bright, dividing line for me. Before that job I was well-meaning and okay. That job helped me become well-meaning and good. I learned to calm down and trust myself more. I learned new ways to imagine what a classroom could be. I learned that I could fully lean into my creativity and bring my whole self to the classroom. I learned to create different environments and experiences for the students to offer opportunities for them to experience and exhibit mastery even while reading and writing remained steep hills to climb. I learned to ask questions and more questions. I learned how to study my own learning. I learned how to be wrong without shame, drama, planetary implosion or other catastrophes.
I was learning pretty much all the time. For all of those years. The entire team of our program were pivotal in my teaching and development. I wasn’t only working with Michael, after all, but my significant collaboration was with Michael. In our last year of teaching together, he and I received the New York City Literacy Recognition Award, the first (and I think still the only) teacher team to receive the award. Working with Michael was one of the best gifts of my career.
And one of the hidden gifts of that experience? Teaching with Michael brought me back to writing poetry. I had stopped writing poems after a horrible experience in a poetry workshop my freshman year in college. The wall between me and poetry was erected then, my firm belief not only that I couldn’t write poetry but that I absolutely shouldn’t. Poetry was for other people, for talented people, for POETS. And I was most definitely not one of those.
Michael is a poet. And we brought a lot of poetry into our adult ed program. And we encouraged learners to write poetry. And Michael pushed me to not be afraid to write poetry, too. That was when I saw that I couldn’t very well push my students to try things that were challenging and daunting for them if I wasn’t brave enough to try them myself. After 12 years of not writing a single poem, I wrote my first poems in that program, in class with my students. They weren’t spectacular, but they were poems and I had written them.
The wall between me an poetry is still high in places, but it’s also cracked and crumbled in many other places. I mean, I write at least 30 poems a year these days because of National Poetry Month, so I can’t pretend that I don’t write poetry. I still feel some of the damage from that ugly workshop so many years ago, but I also remember the fun I had in class with Michael and our fabulous students, playing games and finding rhythms and getting words on the page.
Michael. Thank you for everything you taught me in all the ways you taught me. I cannot imagine what I’d be doing with my life if I hadn’t worked with you at SINC. Those years are the foundation that has made the rest of my career in adult ed possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you. ❤