A few years back, I received the sad news that my 8th grade Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Fahey, had passed away. Her former students were invited to write notes or letters to honor her life and the many years she had given in service to others. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what difference a single teacher can make in the face of all the challenges in public education and in our society at large, and in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought I’d share what I wrote here. It is a nice little reminder to myself and all my fellow teachers out there (especially during these last LONG weeks of May), that our impact may be more than we realize. 🙂
Real Teachers Never Die
When I was younger I used to think my teachers were invincible. They knew everything about anything, were always on time, and were never, ever uncertain about the answer to a question. They ate salads and other healthy, grown-up foods for lunch, which must have given them x-ray vision, because they always knew when you were up to no good. Their desks were always organized, their clothes were always neat and tidy, and their handwriting was impossibly perfect. Even their spouses probably called them “Mr.” or “Mrs.” So-and-So. They literally lived at school.
After years of watching these perfect people – I became one…and now I know the truth. Teachers are not invincible. They don’t know everything, are almost always running late, and are very often uncertain of the answers. They eat healthy foods at lunch to make up for the 32 oz. soda they drank last night to get through all those papers they had to grade. They don’t have x-ray vision, but are frequently known to have blurred vision after a long day, tunnel vision when they are trying to get through to that one certain student, and peripheral vision – that’s how they catch those trouble-making students. Their desks are only organized compared to their students’ lockers, their clothes are worn for comfort, and their handwriting looks a lot less perfect on the hundreds of post-it notes they write than it does on the board. They have families who matter more to them than any class or assignment…and school is their job – not their life.
As a teacher I’ve found that I do have some powers that I didn’t expect. I have super-human patience; I can answer the same question at least 5 times in a row before I start to roll my eyes. I can put my own problems aside and smile or even laugh with my students – because they deserve the best me I can muster. I can improvise and create lessons that engage and excite my students with nothing more than some loose leaf and a few markers. I can get the undivided attention of over 300 students within 5 seconds – and hold it for at least 10. I can push through a lesson plan while battling a killer cold, (which I probably caught from a student), because it would be even more work to get a sub.
Where did I get these abilities? Was I born with them? Is it some kind of strange cosmic coincidence that the people who choose to be teachers are endowed with these mystical talents?
No. I was taught them.
How does an accountant learn math? A reporter learn to write? A scientist learn to experiment? Teachers teach them. My teachers didn’t just teach me to add and subtract; to spell and read. Each one of them, whether I knew it or not at the time, was teaching me to be a teacher. I learned kindness and the value of humor from Mrs. Trost in 1st grade. I learned the value of music in the classroom from Sr. Joan. Mrs. Costello taught me the importance of making learning fun. Mrs. Barbeau showed me how to be patient. Mr. Osman taught me the power of keeping the expectations high…and holding students to them.
And Mrs. Fahey?
Mrs. Fahey taught me the importance of grammar, and spelling, and how to write a power paragraph! But she also taught me that sometimes tough love is what’s needed to get a student to truly shine. She taught me that a personal note left in a desk with a little “angel dust” can be more motivating than candy bars or bonus points. And most of all she taught me to believe in myself, but trust in God.
Mrs. Fahey isn’t gone. She’s still teaching – not just in my classroom, but in the classrooms of countless other teachers who were once her students. And in the daily lives of everyone else who was blessed to have her for a teacher.
“Reach for the stars in goodness, service, character, and humility. Nothing is better than your best! Class of 1997!”
(It’s been 14 years, and I didn’t even have to look up that class motto! Mrs. Fahey would be proud!)
Chelsea Tornetto (Grohmann)
SJB Class of 1997
Currently teaching at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, MO