“Miss Jackson”

Every summer, the week before school started, my friends and I would ride our bikes out to our local school to look at the class lists taped to the front door that told us what room we’d be in the next year. I was so excited when I learned I was going to get the “new teacher,” Peravena Jackson, for my fifth grade teacher.

Miss Jackson was fresh out of college, and I still remember her clearly – she loved to laugh and explore, and help her students find their super powers, and she had a beautiful smile. When Miss Jackson learned my dad was a well-known mountaineer she asked him if he would help chaperone a ski trip for her class – I still remember her enthusiasm and energy as she went skiing for the first time, and I remember she wore that beautiful smile the entire day. I remember snow flakes in her hair.

Miss Jackson nurtured the good in her students. She gave us opportunities for success. She was the first person to call me a writer – she told the entire class that I was a good writer. That meant something to me. And she knew how to tap into my desire to be the best I could be – she had daily timed quizzes on the multiplication tables and I made it my goal to be quicker each day than I was the day before. By the end of the year I was crowned the “Multiplication Queen” and could do those multiplication sheets in less than a minute. Learning those multiplication tables is something that has helped me my entire life. Miss Jackson built me up and never failed to acknowledge when I did well at something. She was my biggest advocate.

But it wasn’t just ME she nurtured. Miss Jackson – like every great teacher – brought out the best in ALL of her students. She found every student’s gifts and set about helping her students develop those gifts. All the students in her first class – each and every one of them – were blessed to have Miss Jackson for their teacher.

In sixth grade my family moved to a new home two hours away and I lost touch with my old friends and with Miss Jackson for a while. But I never forgot her. And the confidence she’d helped nurture in me stayed with me and got me through some challenging times in my new community. She’d taught me I could trust myself and my own abilities – one of the most valuable gifts anybody can give to another.

I got married when I was 27. It had been 17 years since I’d had Miss Jackson as my teacher – so when she suddenly appeared at the door to the room where I was getting put together for my wedding ceremony, it felt like magic! She gave me a big hug and I could feel her positive, joyful energy wrapping me all up in love on my special day.

For another thirty years we chiefly kept in touch with Christmas cards, but then – fifty years after I’d had “Miss Jackson” for my fifth grade teacher – I found her and two of my old elementary school classmates on Facebook. We messaged each other back and forth and in 2018 my old classmates and Peravena and I were all able to come together and be in the same room for the first time in more than five decades! It was kind of surreal, actually, and very cool!

And now here we are 55 years later. These days I find myself in an age group labeled “elderly” by some folks (which I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around – I still FEEL like I’m a “kid,” you know?). How blessed am I that my “elderly” self still has her fifth grade teacher mentoring her through the ups and downs of life? Peravena Jackson Wilson continues to inspire me and nurture the good in me. She has this uncanny ability to know just when I need an encouraging word – just when I’m starting to doubt myself and what I’m doing here, she’ll pop onto my FB wall and leave a comment that lifts me back up. Yesterday “Miss Jackson” popped onto my wall to leave me this message: “I think of you and your written thoughts when I need a positive outlook on a negative situation. Thanks again for your thoughtful written words!!” And see? Right there. My fifth grade teacher can STILL make me feel like my life has meaning and purpose, and that I matter to her. That is what great teachers do.

Great teachers never stop teaching and nurturing the good in their students – and “Miss Jackson” is one of the world’s great teachers. I’m so grateful I got to be in her fifth grade class all those years ago. And I’m so grateful I’m still connected to her today.

(The author is second from the left and “Miss Jackson” is second from the right.)

I’ll Never Forget You

I retire from teaching this week. I’ve been clearing out my space at school and came upon some notes and messages from my days as a teacher at Allen and Edison and West View that have brought tears to my eyes – I’m getting all choked up here. I have been blessed with such wonderful students in my career – kind and courageous and dear. I want to share some of what I’ve found this week – I want my students to know that their notes and kind words and art have stayed with me and meant a lot to me. I’ll never forget you. 


The “Lasts”

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
– Dr. Seuss

This week I’ve found myself being conscious of all the “lasts” – the last time I’ll ever do an algebra problem with a student; the last time I’ll do symmetrical art with a student; the last time I’ll teach a student how to recognize when a paragraph can be split into two; the last time I’ll talk about trench warfare, and the drummer boys in the Civil War, and why civilizations start around rivers; the last time I’ll say good-bye to my students at the end of a school year…


Suspended in Time Between Teacher and Student

So here’s a cool thing: I’m sitting at my table at school, working with one of my favorite students, when my cellphone rings. It is my fifth grade teacher, Peravena! Last night I’d found her phone number and called her and left a message – and now she’s calling me back!

I hadn’t heard from Peravena, nor seen her, for probably 30 years – it was amazing to hear her voice again! As I’m telling her what having her as a teacher meant to me – and the impact she had on my life – I’m looking at my student’s face and I find myself tearing up. I feel suspended in time between my teacher and my student.

It was cosmic.

That is all. Carry on then..

“Academics of the right sort…”

When I read last year that a group of politicians in Texas had built into their platform their opposition to the teaching of critical thinking skills in the public schools of Texas, I assumed, at first, this was something The Onion, a satirical magazine, had cooked up. But nope. These words were actually written into the 2012 platform for the Republican party of Texas: “Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” http://www.texasgop.org/about-the-party

Yeah. I know. I was a little appalled, too, when I first saw that.  I mean, what the…?! I tried to imagine how I, as a teacher, could possibly AVOID teaching critical thinking skills – I think I would have to work really hard to try not to teach while I was teaching.

About the same time, another interesting tidbit of news crossed my path: “Students in New York City’s public schools cramming for tests can delete words like birthdays, junk food, Halloween, dinosaur and even dancing from study lists. References to such words have been banned from city-issued tests in an edict issued by the city’s Department of Education for fear the words could “appear biased” or “evoke unpleasant emotions” in students.” (reported by Katie Kindelan on http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/lifestyle/2012/03/nyc-bans-halloween-birthdays-aliens-and-more-on-school-tests/

Okay. So. Yeah. Let’s not make reference to dinosaurs because…? Maybe children will start actually asking questions about dinosaurs? And this could lead to (gasp) the study of evolution? And maybe make students think. And ponder. And ask more questions. And stuff. Holy shamoley.  We should not be afraid of our students searching for answers. We should not be afraid of our students FINDING the answers, either. This is a good thing. A deeper understanding of the world should be something we, as a society, celebrate, not try to stunt.

To be honest, it’s hard to be surprised by much that’s going on in education anymore.

When I was told by a school administrator that I could no longer do (and I quote) “all those great, fun things you do in the classroom – inviting in Holocaust survivors to share their experiences, having the students research and dress up as famous characters in history, all those special projects and things you do” – I guess that was the moment when I realized I no longer belonged in a public school classroom.  I’ve actually written a book about my own, individual experiences in public educatonhttp://www.amazon.com/Leaving-Teaching-Rambling-Schoolmarm-ebook/dp/B006NKNEAY –  (written under a pen name). And, after sharing my book with others, I’ve discovered that the tale in my book is a common one, and the theme universal.

Public education in America is in a terrible crisis right now. Most of the people making decisions about education policy are not classroom teachers themselves, and seem to know little or nothing about how to actually teach. Many of these policy-makers seem to view education as a business – a corporation – and students as “products.” There seems to be a desire by these policy-makers to squeeze all the healthy, nutrient-rich juices out of education, and compress and quantify learning into some kind of data sheet with a check list for objectives met, and a detailed script for teachers to follow in their teaching.

But the thing is… well, the thing is that teaching is as much an “art” as a “science.”  Good teachers are not automatons. Good teachers know how to adapt and adjust quickly to the needs of their students. They recognize, intuitively, that there are times when they need to throw out the checklists, pacing guides, and scripts, and follow where their students are leading them – to a place of learning that’s meaningful for them. Good teachers know that meaningful lessons are lessons students actually remember because it touches who they are as human beings and individuals.  Meaningful learning is learning that will serve students beyond their years of school – beyond the standardized tests and checklists and bureaucratic balance sheets – and help them their entire lives.

In the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy writes: “Whatever furnishes the semblance of an idea governed by its Principle, furnishes food for thought. Through astronomy, natural history, chemistry, music, mathematics, thought passes naturally from effect back to cause. Academics of the right sort are requisite. Observation, invention, study, and original thought are expansive and should promote the growth of mortal mind out of itself, out of all that is mortal.”

Teaching children HOW to think, not WHAT to think – giving them “food for thought” – nourishing their young minds with learning that is meaningful to them, and will serve them throughout their lives – this, I think, is what teaching should be about. Teaching students to ask “why?” and to separate fact from opinion – teaching them to be critical thinkers – this, I believe, is essential to being a valuable citizen of a democracy. And “observation, invention, study, and original thought” are necessary skills for our citizens to have if mankind is going to move forward and survive the challenges ahead.

“The normal education system takes precisely twelve years to graduate a normal student from public school. Normal education is built around a standard curriculum, one size must fit all. Get too far ahead and you stress us out – cut it out, kid. Get too far behind and we fail you, reprocess you, give you another chance to get with the program…And so the factory-for-the-production-of-normal works overtime to sanitize and corporatize and discipline our kids into normalcy.” – from We’re All Weird, by Seth Godin.