COVID-19 imposed a culture of isolation on those of us paying close attention to staying healthy and alive. Being distanced from most of what we once took for granted slowly takes a toll. Friendships are different, contact with loved ones becomes a calculated risk, and business relationships are largely restricted to a cold computer screen – no handshakes involved. To make the COVID culture even more challenging, we're asked to sift through daily news about emerging variants – news that's sometimes contradictory from trusted sources who can't agree.
But much of America acknowledges the serious impact of Zoom-learning on school-age kids and, with an inconsistent patchwork of policies, they're back in classrooms. Unfortunately, the adaptations that kids of all ages have had to make over two formative school years could have long-term and unanticipated consequences.
I thought about this while slogging through my memories of high school – teenage years in which we unconsciously choose our own paths to follow. It's when social pressures and friendships are paramount. What happens in the halls of middle schools and high schools is outside the influence or protection of parents. Teens are on their own without a guidebook and, most likely, an uncertain sense of themselves. How they navigate this intense and important culture helps determine who they become after graduation day.
Teachers in this fraught environment accept a powerful role – both as educators and as guides for the hundreds of young students who pass through their classrooms each year. That schooling has been restricted to a computer screen severely limits the ability of good teachers to guide, influence, encourage talent, and inspire individuals. Both the teacher and the student lose.
Let me be personal. I wasn't one of the girls who fit in and, in the first years of middle to high school, served as the target for bullying by the 'cool' girls and their boyfriends. The halls were dangerous for me, and the girls' lavatory was a teen nightmare. My locker became the setting of theatrical pranks, and the clique of girls and guys was the jeering audience.
And that's where teachers appeared to map a safe route to my future self. It's not that I was ever a teacher’s favorite because I was an average and below student. Math, geography, history, and, God help me, Home Economics. All solid D's. So, along with feeling like gum on someone's shoe, I felt stupid. That was until I wrote an essay in an English Class taught by Mrs. Hunter (you always remember the names of the best and worst teachers). She wanted us (entrenched in a snowy Midwest winter) to write about a desert landscape. I went to the library, stared at a photo of the Sahara in a National Geographic, and wrote. Mrs. Hunter gave me an ‘A’ on my essay and asked when I'd visited that desert.
Mr. Korpela, the art teacher, gave me A's on my drawings and didn't once send me to the vice-principal despite my outrageous behavior in his class. Mr. Davenport, the music instructor, made me first chair in the viola section and didn't send me to the VP’s office when I dropped an upright bass down a flight of stairs (kindling). And, similarly, the speech coach and drama coach (Mr. Stoltman and Mr. Magnussen) endured hijinx worthy of detention and still awarded me starring roles.
These people balanced out Mr. Gregory who made me sit in front of his desk, pointed a ruler at me, and said, "You, Missy, are going to be a thorn in my side for the whole quarter. I am watching you."
Now, from the distance of decades, I look back at the debt I owe those high school teachers for letting me know who I was and what I could do. And their message reached beyond my affinity for the arts – to graduating from a university with highest honors in science-based disciplines, becoming a journalist, making music, becoming a bronze sculptor, and talking with you each week.
All that – from being in the physical presence of a few teachers during the most formative years of my life. Without their acute observation and compassion, I’m afraid to imagine where I’d be today - never having believed in my own worth. That kind of influence can't happen over a screen. The culture of education is far more than assignments, facts, memorization. Face-to-face talented educators intuit more about their individual students than the kids themselves know. The best teachers throw out a lifeline to rescue kids drowning in doubt and low self-esteem.
Dr. Robert Brooks, a noted expert on education, said it like this: "Teachers should never minimize the role they play in influencing students' lives. Hopefully, that role … not only touches students' minds but also their spirits -- the way they see and feel about themselves for the rest of their lives."
As a victim of 'bully years' (that are never forgotten no matter how old we are), I know the trajectory of my life was changed because of the thoughtful intervention of a few dedicated men and women. I'm excited that kids will once again be in the right place to receive the gifts of exceptional individuals who choose to teach.
Here’s a PS to my story – Years ago, I wrote a children's mystery book featuring four bullied and vulnerable kids. Together they solve the mystery of missing cats and defy the efforts of their school-yard tormentors. Take that, cool girls in my eighth-grade class! “Meow.org, The Catnapping Caper.” Thanks for sticking with me and meandering through my memory lane. And, please let me know about teachers who made a difference in your life! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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"Dotty Dishes the Dirt" by Diane Ezzard - A laugh-out-loud cozy mystery novella!
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