Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Thank You to All of My Teachers

Teacher Turnaround Day was my first chance to be a teacher (that's me from that day in 1999). It was senior year, and Mr. Bialkin thankfully gave me the opportunity to teach his current events class.  Although that was my first experience teaching, setting the stage for what I would do later, there are a lot of other teachers I have to thank for everything they did for me.

I was lucky to have nothing but supportive teachers in elementary school. It bothers me when I hear from adults (including many teachers) who had been told they were dumb or would never amount to anything at this crucial time. I had quite the opposite experience, despite the fact that I was the most talkative child ever. I was the kid who always had his desk moved to the corner, separate from everyone else because I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

In second grade, I was so annoying that my teacher once threw her shoe at me (yes, this was a very different time). She missed, and I picked up the shoe and made it into a funny hat. Despite that episode, she and many others always encouraged me, made me feel smart, and pushed me to do better. It set me up for all the success I had in the future.

I love to tell my students that my algebra teacher in eighth grade was horrible, to the point where a mob of my classmates famously stormed the principal's office to demand a new teacher. She was the kind of teacher that put a half dozen pages of pre-printed transparencies on the overhead for us to copy, didn't explain anything, and then gave us a bunch of textbook problems to do almost completely by ourselves. We got by because we were good at math and we helped each other. When I started teaching math, I vowed I would never, ever be that kind of teacher, so in a weird way, I appreciate her as well.

Mr. Tully taught all sorts of technology classes—I actually got to learn Photoshop, Illustrator, and web design in high school. I didn't realize how unique these opportunities were until I taught in a place where they were lucky to have working computers. But what I remember most is how encouraging he was, and how hilarious. I think the way I use humor with students has a lot to do with the way Tully used it with us.

Mrs. Valentine taught me English senior year and was our NHS advisor. I drove her crazy because I loved to talk and joke around endlessly, and despite both of us knowing I could read and write quite well, I didn't do a very good job of either. I mostly faked my way through the essays and reports I did, because I had little to no interest in the subject matter. I was not good at sitting still and reading entire books at that point in my educational career.

After dealing with a lot of kids who were infinitely tougher to handle than me in my first few years in the classroom, I regretted ever causing any teacher I had ever had the least bit of grief. Thus when I returned to visit after a few years of teaching, I had tears in my eyes as I apologized for being such a pain in the ass. She said that it was okay, because she understood that I was just an immature high school kid, and that's what they sometimes do. She never took it personally. I learned a lot that day. For the record, I did go back and read one of the books we had been assigned that year (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and loved it—albeit quite a few years late.

Mr. Cosgrove, my 10th grade US History teacher, is probably the biggest reason I became a teacher. “Cos” certainly had a lot to do with my interest in history, because he absolutely loved it and you couldn't help but get caught up in the excitement. He was an amazing storyteller, both in terms of bringing the subject matter to life and the unbelievable tales from his personal life. It was his speech during my National Honor Society induction, however, that is the one that stayed with me the most. He said that people would always ask him why he hadn't yet written a definitive history tome, since we all knew he had the interest and ability. He said that there was a simple reason: his students were his life's work, his masterpiece. I hope I've lived up to the spirit of that idea with my own life's work.

In college, I was lucky enough to not only have great teachers in the classroom but also learned from the professors I worked with through my time in student government. Everyone I worked with made me feel like I could do anything I wanted with my life. With no disrespect to anyone else, I want to mention Norman Markowitz (history prof at Rutgers). He was just such a character, and like Cos, his enthusiasm for not only his subject, but what he believed in inspires me to this day.

I could go on and on, but I won't. Every teacher I've ever had--good and bad, in and out of class, and the colleagues I've taught with—has inspired me. I've learned something from each of them.

You are all appreciated. Thank you.

P.S. I still have the tie, but not the wicked awesome sideburns.