Friday, November 12, 2010

Honoring My Best Teachers

Yesterday we had the day off from school to honor Veteran's day.

Alright, actually it was the end of 1st quarter and we got the day off for grading.

But I was thinking about Veteran's day and about honoring people who have served our country and I thought about how teachers, arguably of course, have given a large amount of the same blood, sweat and tears for the goodwill and successful upbringing of our country. It's a corny stretch, I know, but I have been thinking about writing a blog post honoring my past memorable teachers for awhile, and this seemed like the convenient time to do so. It's a good opportunity to reflect on the people in my life who have truly made an impact on me and perhaps (whether or not I'll acknowledge it) have made an influence on my choice to become a teacher. Richfield Alumni, you will most likely appreciate this blog post the most of all my readers.

. . .

My Most Memorable Teachers

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Mr. Vrtikapa - 8th Grade Social Studies
Anyone else out there remember this man? His career was shortlived at RMS, lasted one year, my 8th grade year, and then he was never heard from again. I recently looked up his teaching license on the MN department of education website, but it looks like he hasn't taught anywhere since 2005. (I'm a stalker, I acknowledge that).

What made him so great? I can't put my finger on it. It wasn't one moment. It was who he was as a person that made me, well, really everyone, respect him as a teacher. He was young and full of energy. He listened to us but he shot us down when we needed to be. He joked with us, he spoke "our language", and he lectured and wrote frantic notes on the board that we scrambled to decode and record in our own notebooks.

I have 2 specific memories of him:
One was when, in our homeroom class, he asked us to bring lyrics to music to discuss as a class. I brought in Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. He started crying during the song. He explained to us what the song was really about. I'd never seen a teacher, typically such education dispensing robots, be so human.

The second one is a little bit more muddled. I believe someone found out that he was not going to be coming back the next year. I don't remember why. We understood, as 8th graders, that it was the decision of the administration. As a class we organized a protest after lunch, and marched to the principal's office. We got into a lot of trouble, not for protesting but mostly for skipping class.

We thought we'd be heroes to Mr. Vrtikapa, a bunch of kids showing administration how much we appreciated a good teacher. We thought we would make a difference. But when he found out what we'd done he lectured us for a whole hour about how it was wrong. It was wrong to organize an unruly protest. It was wrong to skip class. It was wrong to storm the hallways unsupervised. We were crushed. And we knew he had been defeated by the administrations decisions, and there was nothing we or he could do about it.

What I learned from him, when reflecting on it now from the perspective of a teacher, was that you can find the fine line between the "cool" teacher and the effective teacher. He was both. I'm glad I was there for the one year he had to leave an imprint on Richfield middle school.

Mr. Weibe - 12th Grade Creative Writing
I had Mr. Weibe only as an elective teacher in high school and for a brief period of time. He had a reputation at Richfield for being the "cool" teacher. When I had him, spring semester of my senior year, he was a little burnt out. He had suffered some family deaths and it had not been an easy year for him. The creative writing class was dangling by a thread waiting to be snipped by the Budget Preserving Scissors of RHS, and only about 12 kids were enrolled in the class. I vaguely remember the curriculum. It was sparse and unfocused, but I didn't care. I just needed an excuse to write.

What Mr. Weibe did for me is something that has stuck with me for a long time. After class one day, he pulled me aside and said, "You know, Maddie, your stuff really reminds me of Hemingway."

Hemingway? I thought. That guy who wrote that fish story? And that dreadful war story, A Farewell to Arms, I read in 11th grade?

"Really?" I asked, a little offended...perhaps confused.

"Yeah. But mostly just his short stories. You pay the same attention to detail. Your climaxes are subtle but important. I think you'll like this."

Wow, I'd never had my stories analyzed like this before.

He handed me a very rough, beat-up copy of a collection of Hemingway stories and told me to keep it.

Up until that point I'd never had a teacher put a book into my hands that had been specifically chosen for me. It gave me a sense of power. I felt I had something to live up to and something to study, not for the benefit of a good grade, but to improve my writing. I felt I had the responsibility not only to read the book, but to absorb the author.

And he was right...not that I am a young 21st century Hemingway replicate, but that I would like his stuff. I read every single story in that book and I often reread my favorites every summer. I think about the impact that small event had on my life as a writer and reader and it helps me remember now, as a teacher, how I have the opportunity to give kids that same power just by putting a book in their hands.

Mr. Motes - 12th Grade Honors English
Here was a typical week in Mr. Motes class: Lecture for four days a week, assign an in class writing prompt one day a week. A recipe for student resentment and boredom. He was the only teacher I ever knew who could successfully pull that off.

What Mr. Motes did for me was the exact opposite of what every other english teacher had done for me at RHS. He knocked me down a peg or two. I was cocky for a lot of reasons in 12th grade. I'd been doted on as a talented writer by every other teacher. I'd gotten the best grade in my class on a "Les Miserable" essay I had written without reading more than 10 pages of the book. I was walking on air as far as I was concerned.

--Until, of course, I got back the first in-class writing prompt essay. It was out of six. Six measly points. I had gotten a three. 50%. Failure. He announced, not to shame us but to perhaps comfort our fears of failing isolation, that only one student had even obtained a five. I cowered behind my paper. Unlike every other time, that student was not me.

Rather than smack the grade atop the paper and be done with it, Mr. Motes had inked up the margins with endless comments and critiques, suggestions for improvement and grammar correction. Like any other adolescent, I first assumed he hated me, he had something against girls or thought I was some dance team ditz. I rolled my eyes, huffed and puffed about it over lunch with my fellow writing buddy, Danny (who also, uncharacteristically for him as well, had not scored the only five in the class) and made my best "I don't even care" speech in my head.

I quickly got over that when my desire to succeed in his class overcame my self-centered teenager thoughts and the next in class writing day arrived. I was determined to do better.

Slowly, but surely, my grades improved, and with that, my writing improved and matured to more college-level skill.

The other day I came across the folder I had saved for his class. It was loaded with the curly, frayed notebook papered essays he had assigned. The one that lay on top was titled "A Critical Analysis of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"." It was the first essay I had received a 6/6 on in his class. Reading it, my brain went right back to the place it had been 5 years ago when I got that score. I was just as proud of myself, but perhaps even more impressed. I realized where I had gotten many of the current writing traits I have now, and that was 5 years ago.

. . .

Brief teacher shouts outs:
Ms. Rydell: 4th-6th grade Basic Writing teacher, taught me to stop using the word "thing" when writing. Sent me to a "Creativity Convention" in 6th grade.

Ms. Picket (yes, that teacher was supposedly completely off her rocker and retired a year later): 9th grade honors english teacher, brought me 4 brochures to colleges that specialized in creative writing programs and pushed me to join an adult writing class in uptown.

Professor Neuhaus: Cooky as he is, I will never used a cliche in anything I ever attempt to publish.

My student teaching teachers, Mrs. Benson and Mrs. Anderson: They showed me that you can keep inspiring kids to read as long as you put the right books in their hands and take the time out of your day to do it.

I guess what all these teachers have in common is that they really took the time to be good teachers. It sounds brainless, but the job is crazy and hectic, and it's easy to skim papers and slap a B+ at the top of them. They decided they were going to put in the 5 minutes more it takes to pick out a book for a kid, or to write an individualized comment on a paper. These memories make me stop, breathe for a minute, and realize that I can do something small but sincere to impact a student's life by just taking the time.

Thanks, teachers.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Hi Maddie!

Great blog - I tune in now and then! :)

Of your list above, I only had Mr. Weibe and Mr. Motes, but I have to agree whole-heartedly about them both!

While you may thing it's a corny stretch at best, I think you're right about honoring teachers like they are Veterans. They give a lot of themselves for the good of America.

I wish you the best in your teaching career - your students are lucky to have you!


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