My Eternal Mental Movie
I’ll never forget my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Roth. Although I was only 9 years old, I can still remember thinking that she was one of the most innovative and inspiring teachers I’ve ever had. She had this unbelievable ability to make you feel special and valued. She celebrated your strengths and would ask you to share them with peers, she made learning incredibly fun, and continuously tried to implement new and better teaching and learning practices every single day. The overhead projector (remember those?) was a staple in her practice when most other teachers had them pushed into a corner in the back of the room (perhaps because it was a new and unfamiliar technological tool). I didn’t realize it then, but she used it to model her own writing life, make her invisible thinking visible, and showed us “the learning process” across various content areas. I often recreate the mind movie of me lovingly staring at her with my elbows locked on my desk and the palms of my hands cupping my chin as she gracefully carried around a book that was practically stuck to her hands like glue. This book looked important because it had that “lived-in” look about it. It was worn out at the edges like it had been thumbed through frequently, had colored tabs strategically placed throughout, and was covered with intentional highlighting, underlined words, phrases, and sentences from top to bottom. It was a book that reminded me of my favorite “go-to” 80s movies; you know, the ones I watched over and over again because I connected with the plot lines and hidden gems of life-lessons, or the humorous parts that made me laugh or the serious parts that got me to reflect on my own life and all of the “what if this happened to me?” moments!
My Lucky Day
I contemplated asking Mrs. Roth what the name of the book was, but I was a painfully shy young girl; so shy that I only spoke in class when I was invited to do so. Also, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for an elementary student to be interested in a grown-up book for teachers! And then the moment arrived…it was my lucky day. I noticed that the mysterious, treasured book was left by itself on the kidney-shaped table Mrs. Roth used for small group instruction. I spontaneously grabbed my notebook and pencil, briskly walked up to the table, and furiously scribbled down the title and author of the book. This was all while Mrs. Roth wrote the schedule for the day on the chalkboard in different colored chalk (remember chalkboards?). I hurried back to my desk and immediately opened my notebook to read the title…In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents by Nancie Atwell. So, this was the book that Mrs. Roth kept close to her teaching heart. I had to have it. I had to because I felt compelled to emulate the qualities I saw in Mrs. Roth, someone who valued their students, someone who created exciting learning experiences, someone who made you feel like your contributions mattered and kept you running back to school every day. And, if I was going to be a teacher one day, I wanted to be the teacher that felt empowered to create innovative experiences for students and colleagues. I wanted to be the teacher who was collegial, but also not afraid of success or the idea of positively impacting others in dynamic, influential ways. I wanted to be that teacher who embraced every student and tapped into their passions and interests. I wanted to be the teacher who was aware of the learning goals, but did not necessarily get there by using the same pathways as everyone else. I wanted to value people, creativity, and motivate others to share their gifts. So, at the age of 9 years old, I asked my parents if they would purchase the book for me, and they did.
Moving Beyond the Status Quo
Do you ever find yourself continuously reflecting on the impact your mentors have had on your growth and development both personally and professionally? I believe it’s a wonderful way to reconnect with your “why”. Just imagine if every child had their very own Mrs. Roth from a young age to touch their hearts and minds? How would having these positive role models impact their personal journeys, encourage them to create their own opportunities, and then share those gifts with the world? Recently, I listened to a new #InnovatorsMindset podcast by George Couros titled “Hopes for School”. He asked the questions, “Who has empowered you to create and be a leader?” and “Are we empowering people to create their own opportunities?” Later, he went onto share that his best mentors have pushed and challenged him to grow. These are also the same people who have his back and truly value him as a person and an educator. These ideas resonated with me because the trusted people I would consider to be my mentors have pushed me to grow in ways I never could have expected; they never held me back from success and perpetually pushed me to move beyond the status quo. Perhaps these were the people who saw qualities in me that I wasn’t able to name or see in myself because I was so consumed with employing daily practices and routines naturally. Don’t we have the same hopes for our own children, and for that matter, every student who enters our classroom door? All learners deserve to meet trusted people who will be their champion. All learners deserve to be welcomed into an environment that values their stories. All learners deserve to have a voice and choice in how they learn. All learners could use an invitation to share their thinking in safe spaces. Throughout my educational journey, I have crossed paths with a multitude of people who have modeled practices that were destined to become a part of who I am as a person and educator. I consider myself a very observant person. Studying people, their actions, and reactions to various events are important when intentionally exploring the ins and outs of life. Why is that? Every time I get the opportunity to observe the habits of others…styles of communication, teaching and learning practices, approaches to management, and the types of leadership qualities they embody, I am more inclined to open doors to new experiences with an empathetic heart and open mind. It is difficult to navigate the world without having the ability to understand others. There are things I observe that I hold onto so tightly because I look at those ideas as vital to my present and future successes.
When the Past Meets the Present
About 10 years ago, my supervisor had sent an email inviting a group of literacy teachers to attend a Nancie Atwell conference. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to meet the literacy guru who had a profound impact on my favorite teacher, and me. Before leaving for the early morning New York City conference, I tucked my “lived-in”, worn at the edges, highlighted, underlined, tab filled 21-year-old In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents book in my bag. As I listened to Atwell speak about her passion for literacy and what it means to her to empower learners to have meaningful literacy lives, I couldn’t help but think about what got me to that moment. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Roth, her love for learning, and empowering her learners to grow…would I be sitting at the table with other educators who traveled near and far for a Saturday morning of professional learning? During the lunch break, I patiently waited for my turn to speak with Nancie Atwell holding my adored book in hand. I got to share the story about why and how I have a 21-year-old copy of the book. She smiled, laughed and appeared to have connected with my experience. Then, she graciously and willingly signed my precious copy of the book, a cherished book that symbolized eternal memories of hope for the future.