Reflections of a Southern Yankee: Educational Musings

I’m not a huge fan of Hollywood, so it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to movies. One that I’ve always loved is, “School of Rock.” To quickly sum it up, Jack Black plays an aspiring rock band musician who just can’t seem to catch a break. After being booted from his band, he poses as his roommate and accepts a substitute teacher position at a prestigious private school. At first, he is far more interested in just collecting a paycheck and couldn’t care less about actually teaching his students. After accidentally overhearing his students playing instruments in music class, he crafts a plan to enter them and himself into the “Battle of the Bands.” Despite the fact that he was dishonest to begin with, he goes on to learn more and more about each of his students and starts to build relationships with them – as a good teacher would do. He guides them toward their strengths and teaches them to overcome their weaknesses. He uses real world scenarios and situations to teach the students in ways that are not only fun, but are applicable in life, as well. The students in his class truly learned through doing and experiencing – the ways teaching should be done. The culminating performance of the entire class is the end result of a teacher who allowed his students to take control of their own educations while they were carefully guided along the way.

Education has played an integral role in my life. More than 33 of my 49 years were involved in education; both as a student and as a teacher. After being adopted, I rode the bus in the afternoon from my elementary school to the high school where my adoptive mother was a teacher. I completed my homework in her classroom while she finished up her own schoolwork. Now retired, my mother spent more than 40 years in the classroom as a Spanish teacher. Her influence on thousands of lives was undoubtedly far reaching and great.

Almost every teacher I ever had left an indelible mark on me – in good ways. My first grade teacher helped me get out of an abusive situation at home. My second grade teacher not only impacted my life, but became a coworker when I became a teacher in the same school, as well. To teach alongside a former teacher was truly a privilege. My 4th grade teacher lived next door to the school. She had a pool in her backyard, and we all walked over for a pool party at the end of the school year. Yet another elementary teacher was from Latvia. Her love for this country was not only memorable but inspiring, as well. There was something in particular that she taught us that I’ve never forgotten. She used WAJMaMo to help us remember the first five presidents of the United states: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. It’s funny how something stays with you forever. In middle school and high school, it was my Latin, biology and chemistry teachers who made the greatest impacts. My Latin teacher was a cool young man who had been a roadie for a band. We had so much fun in four years of that class, and we actually learned Latin. In biology, I will always remember dissecting various organisms including the ultimate specimen – the fetal pig. My chemistry teacher was brilliant and could easily have had a job making tons of money, but his passion was teaching, and we learned so much from him. Making our own peanut brittle as an experiment wasn’t bad either!

Looking back now, I know I was extremely fortunate to have had the high quality educators that I did. There is no doubt that their influences on me helped prompt me to become a teacher myself – which I did in 1998. Before I became a teacher, two of my cousins had already entered the field in Atlanta. One of them is still teaching there to this day. With my own mother and two of my cousins being educators, as well as my own positive experiences with my teachers, I knew being a teacher was for me.

Although I no longer teach and haven’t done so for six years, I did spend 16 years in the classroom. As with any career, there were good days and bad days. Some of my most treasured memories are from teaching 5th grade science (and having my oldest son as a student was the icing on the cake). Several of my son’s close friends were also my students. I’ve watched them all grow into incredible young men. Right before Christmas, I utilized one of my old VMI uniforms and dressed up as the conductor from “The Polar Express.” The eyes of young children lighting up as I yelled, “Aaaaallll Aabbooaarrdd!” is something I will never forget. In the past few years, I’ve had several former students reach out to me on social media. To hear from students that I had an impact on is an incredible feeling.

When I left teaching six years ago, I never looked back. The education system has changed a great deal since I was a child, and even more so in the past decade. Despite that, I’m extremely blessed to have been molded by wonderful teachers in my life. And, hopefully, my former students have the same sentiments toward me.

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