I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.
Mrs. Nesbitt used to throw gum at me during class, her lips curling up in a wide smile that erupted with laughter that sounded half-crazy. I was always the third child in my family to sit under my teachers’ tutelage, and Mrs. Nesbitt always called me by my last name. I wasn’t certain if she just wasn’t sure how to pronounce Elysa or just did it out of respect for my family, because one thing I knew without doubt: she loved me and believed in my potential.
Mrs. Fitzgerald, whom we affectionately called Mrs. Fitz, taught me to write, to think deeply about literature, to have the confidence to learn from constructive criticism. The first day I walked in her classroom, her brassy blonde hair was pulled in a tight bun on the back of her head, and she sat on a stool up front, watching us critically from behind the square-framed glasses perched on her nose. “I am mean,” she said when we’d all settled into our chairs. “I expect a lot and I don’t put up with any crap. And if you mess up, you’ll be writing a 10-page paper entitled, “Why I am a Jerk,” which will be posted.” She extended an arm toward the wall on her right side, from which we could see several essays tacked to a cork board. She was by far my favorite teacher. Sometimes we’d walk into her classroom and she’d just start reading to us from her desk, some personal essay she’d been working on, a passage from a novel, or a bit of literary criticism she intended for us to consider. She loved to remind us, “No symbol-stalking. Every single insignificant detail does not a symbol make.” When my brother Tommy was in her class, she’d let him sleep during class discussions, but only after she’d tried to embarrass him by waking him up with pointed, specific questions. He’d meet her angry gaze and answer respectfully, accurately, and intelligently. Three or four rounds of that, and she said, out of respect for his acumen, that he had a right to sleep through class if he could pay attention that well and still take a nap. Not only that, I think the effort was beginning to be a bit embarrassing for Mrs. Fitz. The summer I attended governor’s school, Mrs. Fitz was invited to an honorary banquet because every single one of the students attending from my high school, including me, nominated her and submitted essays about the influence she’d had on our lives. Her classroom became a place where I learned, laughed, and felt stretched by her belief in me. I remember riding to debate tournaments in her little VW bug, a vehicle she consistently accused of being pre-programmed to drive anywhere via school and nowhere else. “If we’re not going to school first, it sort of loses its mind,” she’d say.
In college, I had the privilege of studying writing under A.Manette Ansay, who taught me to sculpt words carefully and to clear out all the clutter. Her patient and skilled instruction turned my love for writing into a passion. She took me with her one evening when she spoke to a book club who had read one of her novels, talking to me all the way there and back about the underpinnings of her writing life. She was the first teacher who took my writing so seriously that I began to take it seriously myself, and she taught me what the word revision really means.
In my life, teachers have been such a blessing. I remember details about nearly every teacher I’ve ever had, and not just school teachers, but Bible class teachers, coaches, friends and mentors, and my parents, who have been the greatest teachers of my life. I still consider myself a student, having been taught well by all these gifted people the truth of the proverb, “Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life (Proverbs 4:13).” Having known the blessing of teachers and mentors, I try hard to teach my own children that only “fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).”
Every day this week, my kids have left home in a flurry, ribboned gifts for their teachers dangling from their fingers. We love teacher appreciation week. And without a doubt, we count our teachers as one of our greatest blessings. When autism entered our lives years ago, the first book I read was Temple Grandin‘s amazing Thinking in Pictures, in which she describes her life with autism in captivating detail. One entire chapter of that book is dedicated to her teachers. She notes that without them, her life would have been much different, writing of one very special teacher,
“other teachers and professionals at the school wanted to discourage my weird interests and make me more normal, but Mr. Carlock took my interests and used them as motivators for doing school work….Mr. Carlock did more than teach me science. He spent hours giving me encouragement when I became dejected by all the teasing by classmates. Mr. Carlock’s science lab was a refuge from a world I did not understand (Thinking in Pictures, 99 and 101).”
I remember laying the book aside and jotting this on a notebook next to me,
Pray for good teachers.
And from that day forth, I have prayed every year and every step for the right teachers and mentors for my children, and God has opened up the floodgates.
I’ll never forget the day I sat at a table with Riley’s first school teacher, a gifted young woman named Kerri Mackey. She shook my hand and jotted down some things I told her about Riley. In those days, I felt thirsty for hope. Kerri smiled, watching Riley playing nearby, her expression determined. “I think in this environment, she’ll start talking in three months,” she said, finally. I think my jaw hit the floor. “Wait. Really? With words?”
Kerri nodded, “With words. It doesn’t always happen that way…but in her case, three months.”
She was right. About three months later, one Saturday, Riley took my hand, led me to the back door and spoke her first full sentence–every word. “I want to go outside.” Before that, she’d spoken a word or two only, randomly and inconsistently. Kerri fought for language in her classroom and approached her expectations for her students with bull-headed resolve. She insisted on multi-disciplinary approaches and regarded the stereotypes about what autistic children could achieve with defiance, seeing past all that to the potential within each one of her students. Once, she told me that before her students came to school she was often asked to help out in mainstream kindergarten classes. “It’s really boring,” she said. “They’re so predictable and obedient. It really makes me miss my kids. I love all their puzzles. I keep thinking, ‘Come on, where’ s the challenge?'” What a blessing Kerri was to our family, ushering all of us into the world of autism with hope and never-say-die determination. My first three or four years living with the disability, through all the grief and adjusting and growing, Kerri offered me hope and wrote down paragraphs of progress for me every day.
Since then, all three of my children have been blessed with a succession of stellar influences. Before I met Ms. Jennifer (Adam’s second pre-K teacher), one of the staff members at what was then our new school said to me, “I haven’t met her yet, but I’ve heard that she’s amazing.” Yep, absolutely true. Adam loved Ms. Jennifer, as all of her students do. Once she visited our home and walked out in the yard, where Adam was playing. He stopped what he was doing and ran to her, laughing. It was a movie scene, a moment that made me smile and get a little teary. Adam has always been choosy about connecting with other people, but clearly Ms. Jennifer understood him, and he knew it. Whenever Adam transitioned out of Ms. Jennifer’s classroom, the teachers had to post a sign on the door to her classroom from the playground that said, “No Adam.” He spent weeks trying to figure out how to worm his way back in, even quietly going to line up with the rest of her students at the end of recess. I remember a thousand conversations with Ms. Jennifer in which she spoke matter-of-factly about Adam’s abilities, never willing to believe him incapable of a single step of progress.
Riley spent her kindergarten year in a cross-categorical classroom, with a wonderful teacher who did her best to engage twelve students with varying disabilities. Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t the right place for Riley. She needed an AU specialist, someone who knew precisely how to unlock her structured thinking and help her learn. One day at the beginning of that school year, after Riley had had several weeks to get used to her new school, her teacher called me in for a conference. “I can’t get her to speak at all,” she said uneasily. “I ask her questions, and she just won’t say anything. I don’t know if she just doesn’t understand me, or if the work is too hard, or what is going on.”
“What kind of questions are you asking her?”
“Well, even just simple things, like asking her to say the days of the week.”
I looked over at Riley, who was paging through a book, blonde curls falling over rounded cheeks. “Riley,”I called. She looked up at me. “Come here.” As she walked toward us, I said, “What are the days of the week?”
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…”
Her teacher’s eyes widened. “I promise you, she’s never spoken a single word to me. I am in complete shock.”
I smiled and asked Riley several more questions, including prompting her for the recitation of a memory verse. The words flowed freely for me. After that meeting, Riley spoke more often in class, as though she knew the ruse had ended. I had encouraged her teacher, “It’s okay to push. Insist. Really.” Still, her teacher, who worked hard at the nearly impossible task of teaching to multiple disabilities, struggled to get her to speak. In hindsight, I think the pace and the sensory distractions in that classroom were just too much for Riley and it terrified her into silence.
Ms. Nancy, who taught Riley and Adam during kindergarten and first grade (and also taught Adam for second), met a Riley who still refused to speak. During the first year in her classroom, Riley learned to relax and regained her confidence. Ms. Nancy pushed gently and patiently gave Riley the space and time to conquer her anxieties. It was Ms. Nancy who figured out that Riley was hyperlexic. In those days, Riley screamed on the playground when she heard bees buzzing yards away, weeping and pressing her hands over her ears. She hadn’t yet progressed with language enough to be able to articulate her fear instead of reacting to it. I spent a lot of time holding Riley’s face in my hands, forcing her to make eye contact with me so that I could assure her, “You’re okay. You’re o-kay.” One day, Ms. Nancy called from school to tell me that when Riley started screaming, on a hunch, she’d tried a different approach. “I just grabbed a piece of paper and wrote, ‘Bee is finished. No screaming.’ It worked like a charm. She read the paper, took her hands from her ears, and she was okay.”
When Adam made it to Ms. Nancy, someone on our IEP team debated me about the merits of teaching Adam when and how to say “yes” and “no.” “I’ve pretty much given up on teaching autistic children those words,” she told me. I really don’t like the words “give up” or any derivative of them in the context of my children. Ms. Nancy immediately intervened, saying simply, “Let’s just try it,” out of respect for her colleague. Weeks later, Ms. Nancy’s entire class had learned how to understand and use “yes” and “no” appropriately, whether they could say it themselves or needed the help of a device or a picture to articulate. She’d spent every day sitting in a circle with them reading simple stories and asking questions, some true, some ridiculous. She’d deliberately choose the wrong song during group time, something she knew they all depended on by memory, and then ask them all if that song came next. In the end, every time the group said, “NO,” they’d done so with laughter and grins.
Ms. Heidi was the one who helped Riley move on from her dependence on the structure of a AU classroom to the wide-world of mainstreaming, something she’d begun to do in stages in Ms. Nancy’s class. Ms. Heidi’s classroom became a refuge for Riley, who always knew that Ms. Heidi would know how to help her navigate when things became overwhelming. In Adam’s first quarter with Ms. Heidi, he’s made immeasurable strides with independence and language. Some of you may remember my post about how Ms. Heidi helped us get Adam past his fear of different foods. Since he started in her classroom, Adam has even learned to test his own blood sugar, understand the meanings of glucose readings, and is beginning the process of learning to self-assess how he feels physically. This year he will learn to give himself shots. Ms. Heidi, who has an excellent view of her students’ potential, is always pushing them to function independently. When we sat down to write the IEP that would follow him into her classroom, it was her suggestion that we begin to teach him how to manage his diabetes himself.
I could write pages and pages about our teachers. I haven’t even begun to talk about Zoe’s teachers, who have taught her to love learning, to excel in creative writing, to study nature and respect it. She still hugs every one of her teachers, including former preschool teachers, when she sees them, her face lighting up with joy. So, you can see why we love teacher appreciation week at The Circus.
I’ve learned over the years that every human being needs someone to appreciate all the ways they pour out their energy, talents, and love. Our teachers, especially, need to know that we appreciate what they do. Teachers make a tremendous difference in the lives of our children. They need to know that we recognize that and see their influence and hours of hard work as a true and significant blessing. And honestly, I believe that teacher appreciation shouldn’t just happen in a week. It should happen every school day, in one way or another. It doesn’t take much, just a thank you written right above the spot where we have to sign our names every night, or an occasional note about all the positive things we see happening in the classroom. A friend of mine sends her children’s teachers homemade goodies from time to time, because baking is one of her passions, a way she expresses her creativity and her thoughts. It’s fun to say thank you during the week when I’m given a day by day list of what to do: flowers, something for the classroom, pens and sticky notes, thank you notes from the children; but it’s even more fun to do it when my children’s teachers least expect it.
In honor of our teachers, I wish you would tell me about a teacher who has blessed your life in some way, or share a creative way that you show appreciation to your children’s teachers. For those of you like me who are always looking for ideas, I found a neat website (just click on the image):