“the teachers who cared more than i ever knew”

I love Butch Walker.  I’ve been reading his memoir lately, Drinking With Strangers, and it solidifies for me the fact that he is my second-favorite musical artist.  My husband, of course, is my all-time favorite. 

I didn’t catch the above lyric in Butch Walker’s song “Summer of ’89” the first time I listened, or even the second or third.  I was in a daze one afternoon while driving home from school when I caught the quick ode to his former educators.  It isn’t significant, except that it’s in the middle of a country/rap breakdown of his life story, and he obviously felt that his teachers were worth the shout out. 

It was a new and interesting perspective for me: no matter their experience, my students will remember me twenty years from now.  At first this was a source of much anxiety, as I am a naturally paranoid person.  “Do they like me?”  “Will they remember me at all?”  “Am I doing anything that will change their lives for the better?” 

Then I took comfort in this – my students will remember me.  I do something every day that will stay with students for years after they leave my classroom.  And I also get to teach them. 

When Butch Walker was in school, and when I was for that matter, there were no high stakes tests to monopolize the attention of our teachers.  Educators could afford to invest in their students without being afraid of being put on probation because of low test scores.  And when a student was asked how they like their 6th grade social studies class, their response was something more than, “I scored a 470 on the exam.”  Now even with the added responsibility of these assessments for both student and educator, teachers still find time to know the people we see and teach every day.  And we remember all of them. 

Today is the StoryCorps National Day of Listening.  Take a minute, or even a few, to tell your former teachers that you remember them.  It makes us feel good, and it helps us write the lesson plans, do the paperwork, and answer for the test scores. 

I’m posting and writing about the teachers who help me teach, and about the ones who taught me when I was a student.  Teachers like Mr. Raven, who taught me that mitigate = make less severe because you were driving in your car and you swerved to hit a gate (rhymes with mitigate) to avoid hitting another car.  And Madame Perney, who introduced me to Le Petit Prince, which is one of my favorite books to this day because of what it says and because of how she taught it.  And Mrs. Holland, who taught the geographic regions of South Carolina like it was her job…because it was.  And Mrs. Smoak, who taught me US History, and taught me how to love history, and inspired me to be a teacher.

Thank you.


“we have a test?”

This is the most frustrating question I ever get. 

“Yes, remember when I gave you the outline at the beginning of the unit and told you to write down the test date?  And remember when I wrote down the date of the test and left it on the homework board by the door?  And remember when I emailed your parents to remind them?”

Then comes the follow-up:

“But what have we done?”

“Well I guess we’ll find out, won’t we dear?”

“the legislative branch!”

If you’ve ever seen the movie version of Chicago, you might remember the scene where Richard Gere is defending Rene Zelweger in the courtroom.  He knows that he will have to do some verbal maneuvering, and he expresses this by announcing that he is about to do “a tap dance”.  Most days in the classroom, this is how I feel. 

My tap dance is the careful question-and-answer in each class session.  This is the pivotal moment where information is either solidified or forgotten for many of my students, so it’s important that I handle it well.  Part of Friday’s session went something like this:

me: when the president appoints a judge, who has to then approve the nomination?

(sequence of answers):

“the people!”

“the president!” (really?)

“the government!”

“congress!” (progress)

me: what part?

“the legislative branch!!”


me:  congress IS the legislative branch.

To be fair, there are far too many synonyms to keep up with.  It is also beyond me how anyone ever learns the difference between nation and state.  I still have students who think that Obama can decide what they eat for lunch, or that the governor can send troops to Afghanistan.  It’s a process.

Meanwhile in the administrative world, my assistant principal reminded us last week that it was time to change out the bulletin boards.  Each quarter every teacher has an assigned bulletin board that we have to decorate.  I hate this with every fiber in my being.  I decided to get mine finished the afternoon before our day off, so that I wouldn’t have to make the drive in to school.  Imagine my surprise when I received an email informing me that “background paper and borders must be changed out each quarter.  They often become faded over time, and it is necessary to put up fresh paper.”  After making the 30-minute drive, spending an hour undoing and re-doing my work, I received another email on Friday evening.  While the principal “love, love, loves my board”, she notice some “curling” around the edge of one of the posters.  I’ll need to fix it first thing Monday morning.

I’m glad we’re keeping the main thing the main thing.

“are you e-commuting?”

Why yes, yes I am. 

Today is our first teacher workday of the year, just in time for report card grades to be due.  Our superintendent announced last week that employees would be given the option to “e-commute” and work from home if they desired.  You can read this article  for more information.

This is one of many things that my school district has gotten right.  Our superintendent has made 21st Century learning a priority, and she makes a point to follow-up with programs and policies that reinforce the notion.  And imagine the money the district will save by not having to turn on every light and heater today.  For me, the benefits are a no-brainer.

At 9am, I have finished grades for 2 out of 6 classes.  I am nearly on my second cup of coffee, contemplating getting a shower, and optimistic about the grading and planning that I will be able to accomplish today…on my couch. 

Perhaps the school system did not weigh the potential consequences, as I have begun searching online for “virtual teaching positions”.

“mrs. russ, they said you was mean”

He looked genuinely dismayed.  I couldn’t tell what made him more upset – the thought of a group of students thinking something seemingly contradictory about me, or the smile that ran across my face as he told me.

“I know,” I replied.  “I have to be mean to their class.”

“Their class.”  We all have it.  The group of students who satan himself joined together to torment us for 180 school days.  Yesterday it came to blows for me and “their class.”  After sending one student to re-focus in another teacher’s classroom for the third time this week, I sent a second student to re-focus in a second teacher’s classroom.  As I walked back into my room, I heard a crash.  Somehow a third student’s desk ended up sideways on the floor.  My only comfort in the situation was that when they saw my face, everything got quiet.  Without saying a word I wrote their reading assignment on the board and used the last 20 minutes of class to organize my professional portfolio. 

As we prepared for dismissal I addressed the events of the day.  I told them how disappointed I was, and I apologized to the handful of students who come to class prepared each day and who respect my space, time, and plans.  I explained that I don’t believe in book work, but I’m more than capable of assigning it every day until they can show me what they’re capable of handling. 

They were quiet for the rest of the class, and that made me sad.  Sure, they completed the assignment, and it was aligned to our curriculum.  But isn’t it kind of creepy to walk into a room full of 12-and 13-year olds who are quiet and still?  It’s just not developmentally sound.  I get mean because they don’t let me follow my plans or be the teacher I want to be.

This morning one of them approached me in the hallway.  It took him a moment to remember what he was there to say, then he pushed his glasses up on his face:

“Mrs. Russ, I finished my paper.  You know, the one I wrote about you being my hero.  I’ll show it to you this afternoon if you want.”

“I would love to see it.”

I did not feel like much of a hero.