Teaching from the Heart

Students stream into Central High School during "Opening Week," 2012

Students stream into Central High School during “Opening Week,” 2012

As with most love affairs, it happened by chance and caught me by surprise. After our first few dates, I realized that my life had led me to this moment, that I was right where I belonged: in front of 150 students every day at Central High School. Unlike many of my colleagues, who had begun their professional lives as teachers, my love affair with teaching is an autumn romance. I had spent twenty years doing other things. First, I was an aide to a senator and then a newspaper reporter. When I looked at the next chapter of my life, still on a mission to make the world a better place, I thought of teaching as an opportunity to cultivate thinkers.

Little did I know then how little I knew. I was an adept learner in the master’s program at the University of St. Thomas and quickly found my own philosophy of education (constructivist, which means I believe in setting up situations where students construct their own meaning). I got straight As and a student teaching placement at Central, where my eldest daughter was a junior and where I wanted to be.

I rocked at student teaching (so said my supervising professor) and was immediately hired in January 1998 by Mary Mackbee to teach two sections of regular senior English and one section of ninth grade honors. Then my real education began. My students were my teachers—every day. The gangly, towheaded boy whose family kicked him out on the day he turned eighteen, the kid to whom everyone looked for direction as to whether we were going to study Macbeth or pretend to be on The Jerry Springer Show, the two boys who fought each other in the middle of class over a grudge from the streets, the waif-like girl who preferred sitting under the table rather than at it and refused to do homework. I learned quickly to never get into a power struggle, to speak with respect outside the door to any student who needed calming or correcting.

“I really respect you,” a math teacher told me midway through my second year.
“You never send anyone to the office.”
“You can do that?” I responded.

My third year, I began teaching the junior International Baccalaureate class and faced another whole set of challenges. These kids were far smarter and better educated than I had been in high school, but there were a fair number of math and science types who were uncomfortable with the ambiguity of literature. They wanted me to give them an answer—the answer—to what a metaphor meant, or the significance of the goldfish in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. When I turned the question back to them, asking them what they thought, I got excruciating evaluations that said I didn’t know my content. I learned to stand firm, be confident in what I believed was good teaching, and refused to cave in with an “answer.” I still have the little note one of them brought me the next year, thanking me for “being the kind of teacher I needed.”

I also learned how to let go and have fun with students who were willing to risk looking foolish on the chance that they might learn something. I learned that in surrendering power, I gained authority. I learned to trust my students, just as they needed to trust me. Sometimes it looked like chaos, with plastic swords and arms waving, but those were the moments when I could see their faces come alive and I knew they were learning. I learned to let them be themselves.

Somewhere along the way, I fell in love. Whether talking with a student after class about Agamemnon or coaxing a sweet but reluctant ninth grader to make his paragraph longer than one sentence, I felt more myself than in any of my previous careers. On a good day, it was like weaving a tapestry with the students, full of rich threads of thought. On a bad day . . . I had my colleagues and “book clubs,” where we would worry about the kids who were struggling and laugh at ourselves.

When people ask what makes Central so special to me and my colleagues, I tell them that our principal, Ms. Mackbee, treats us like professionals. My response never fails to draw a blank stare. You see, most people don’t realize how belittled and disrespected we teachers feel in a district, state, and country that act like we need fixing. In this “education reform” age, it is unusual to have a principal who treats us with respect and like we know what we are doing. Just like our students, we rise to her expectations. Central is a mosaic of color and culture that reflects a cross section of my adopted city. Graduates who return to it tell of a world far less rich than the one inside our cinderblock walls. It is a school where there is a place for everyone—and all are welcomed. Ms. Mackbee, refusing to “place children,” says every child has a right to fail or to succeed, to follow his or her own dreams.

In recent years, as the reform movement has increasingly tried to reduce teaching to statistics, I have become heavily involved with my union, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, because when you love something, you fight for it. Through my union and the leadership of our president, Mary Cathryn Ricker, I have a voice and a seat at the table to discuss education policy. I have been part of creating a strong support program for new teachers and tenured teachers, and feel I have the right to speak up on behalf of my students. Their learning conditions are my working conditions. We have a common interest in this age of testing and data. I owe them my humanity and my voice.

The clean, white lines of Central turn rosy in the early morning light, my favorite time of the school day. All things are possible. In the fall of 2013, a new ninth grade class climbed the steps to become learners in that morning light. For the first time in fifteen years, I was not there to greet them. I am starting fresh with a new group of students in New Delhi, half a world away, where my classes will average eighteen students and I will have a smart board and a
computer for every child. But Central will be in my thoughts and my heart. This is my love letter to the school that embraced my children and me—and to the students and educators who taught me how to open my heart.

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