Friday, January 3, 2014

Subjects or Moments?

"Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques." -- Sidney Hook

When I think about my twelve years in Catholic school, there are some years that completely escape my memories and others that I can still relive in my head. With few exceptions, my memories are about people, not what I learned.

First and second grades were a complete blur probably because there were 96 in grade 1 and 84 in grade 2. Obviously my teachers could not have gotten to know us, and my mother taught me how to read and do math. I probably would have learned more if I had been schooled at home. But that wasn’t popular then.

I remember crying my eyes out when I discovered I was going to have Sister Carmencita for grade 3. She was known throughout the school, from 1st to 8th grade, as the meanest teacher ever. When we entered her classroom, we all sat quietly with hands folded because we were scared to death. But this little old nun, who made tall 8th graders cry when they came down for discipline, was one of the kindest teachers I ever had. We sold candy at recess time to raise funds for parties and supplies not given by the school district. She taught us about profit and loss and good salesmanship. She was fun, fair, and made us promise we’d never tell anyone else in the school that she could be nice. We kept that secret well.  Unfortunately, she died in January and we ended up with the meanest nun ever. I’d rather not discuss third grade from then on, because I spent the rest of the year in tears and frustration.

My grade 4 teacher, Miss Brophy, was the person who awakened my love of reading. She introduced us to good literature and will always be remembered for that. Grade 5, on the other hand, was a total waste of a year. The nun we had would fall asleep every day after lunch and we could spend an hour or more playing cards, drawing or whatever. We never woke her up, knowing a good thing when it presented itself. I think that was the year when I realized that some teachers didn’t need to be in that profession. That year would haunt me all through school because I never really learned to master fractions until high school. I should have been taught them in grade 5, but Sister was sleeping at Math time.

Grades 6 and 7 were the golden years as far as teachers were concerned. Both years I had nuns, but these two were the funniest, fairest, most creative teachers of them all. Sister Christine Marie, and Sister Frances Bernardone always treated us as though we mattered, as though we had sense, as though we could be trusted. They instilled in us the desire to learn art and music and how it could be combined with math, reading, and geography to make us more well-rounded people. They were my best two years in school, period. I learned everything about how to be a teacher who showed respect, who could admit mistakes, and who went through life with humor. They are the reasons I am the teacher I am.

Eighth grade was spent in a class where our main goal was to frustrate the teacher. We pulled every trick in the book and even got away with some. Our Social Studies nun was partly deaf and wore a hearing aid. We’d whisper our answers and questions, wait for her to turn up her hearing aid, and then yell our questions and answers. We threw a superball around the room all year and never got caught. We made tiny paper airplanes, which we sailed onto the nuns’ veil, which had an indentation at the top.

High School and much of college were years I spent going to school only because I HAD to. The things that interested me in teenage years were not academic, although I did graduate 10th in my class of 600. I realized (I was told) I could sing well and joined the glee club, and participated in our school musicals, got started working with kids as a tutor in the Community Service Corps, where I met my husband of almost 42 years. I participated in the protests of the 60’s against the Vietnam War and in solidarity with the United Farm Workers. These high school activities still interest me today, but I can’t really get excited about any of my high school teachers, because they ruled by intimidation and bullying. If anything, they did teach me how NOT to teach.

Three professors stand out in college for their unique ways of instructing their subjects. Dr. Reginald Brill ignited a fire in me about History that had been extinguished way back in grade 3. I took 3 course with him and eagerly attended them all. Dr. Bette Landman, who would later become the President of the College, taught anthropology and made me delve deeper into a subject I just took to get it over with. Dr. Haslett, my Anatomy and Physiology professor taught me how everything is connected and how to explain the circulatory system in 50 words or less. She taught me to mean what I say and say what I mean. I carried that over to my teaching years and it worked well for me.

So did you notice the theme here? For the most part, I remember teachers and not content or specific ways of teaching. And that will be the same, hopefully for today’s students if we can get off the “teach to the test” kick. Remember HOW a person acted, hopefully with respect, fairness and humor.

And if you’d like to read more about how I used those qualities to make a difference, please read my book, It Wasn’t in the Lesson Plan. You can listen to an audio chapter, read my bio and order an Ebook or the paperback version at

Still learning!

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