Teachers became teachers because they had inspirational teachers. It’s part of how this world works. Same thing applies to auto mechanics, clothing design, professional skating–someone kept them interested and intrigued them so much about the job/lifestyle that the subject just had to do it too. It’s like that feeling you get when you watch a movie like The Paper and think, sure! I should become a New York journalist! That job sounds awesome!
You don’t have to believe me, but I pretty much decided to become a teacher in the third grade. Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Brady, and while I can’t pinpoint a single event that altered the course of my life, I do recall admiring her from my cold, metallic desk a dozen feet away as she read to us.
The teachers under whose tutelage I’d been the previous three years were outstanding in their own right, but Mrs. Brady put me over the edge. I was lucky enough to have several amazing and inspirational teachers–mostly women, mind you–but it started for me at my last single digit year of life.
The first item to address about Mrs. Brady was her wide smile. A toothy, perhaps cheesy smile that greeted us each morning. Even now, I cannot believe it was fake or forced. Genuine. Mrs. Brady was a school favorite. My small elementary school had an average of two groups of students per grade level, but my class was significantly smaller and we generally were all together each year. She was a favorite partially because of her outward enthusiasm exemplified in that initial greeting. Our school was organized in a way where the hallway afforded places to keep our coats, backpacks, etc. Upon finishing launching my jacket or winter coat toward one of the top hooks, I would turn toward the door, only to be greeted by my third grade teacher’s welcoming smile.
A year later, our teacher wanted us to conduct an interview. The only stipulation I can recall was that the person had to be someone other than our immediate family members. Many members of the class wanted to interview Mrs. Brady, but only one could. So as not to keep you in suspense any longer, I’ll now reveal that I won the “Brady Lottery.” I have often thought about that assignment. The nature of it, I’m sure, was to teach us how to prepare appropriate interview questions and report back what we learned. I, however, remember having great difficulty coming up with the required number of questions. I distinctly recall sitting at my childhood home’s dining table and constructing inquiries. The obvious questions about family, hobbies, favorites, came pouring out. Unfortunately, my ideas were exhausted with room to spare. Thus, I looked up from my paper and gazed around my house…for inspiration.
Me: Mrs. Brady, how many windows do you have in your house?
And there was that smile again. Understandably so, though, wouldn’t you say? Imagine fielding a sequence of questions about why you love teaching, what you like to do in the summers, what your favorite book was…only to be followed by a bizarre immediate concern for an accurate count of your residence’s storm windows.
Needless to say, my imagination was still in its developmental stage when I was ten.
I had begun playing piano and chess at around the same age. I had separated myself with this skill set, but it also became a bit of a hindrance. Any success I had at tournaments or if the school somehow caught wind of a new piece I’d been preparing with my teacher or at home, I was put on mini-display. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I would wager Mrs. Brady was behind promoting my abilities above the other teachers I had in those days.
Mr. Morris, our principal, was the kind of guy who…well, here’s what he did once. With absolutely zero preparation or any warning whatsoever, he knocked on our classroom door and wheeled in a TV/VCR set up. He pushed the cart to a place where all the children could see the screen. He popped a tape in and found one of those tiny elementary school classroom chairs on which to sit. The man was fairly fit, but he also had a proclivity to become very red-faced if he was angry or excited about something. The video began, and some of us immediately recognized the prepared scene as the final fight from the original The Karate Kid. As Ralph Macchio appeared to be on the brink of complete and utter failure in the coliseum, Mr. Miagi takes him back to conduct some impromptu healing. It was at this moment that Mr. Morris slapped his own hands together and began rubbing them violently. This, of course, is what Pat Morita does on screen as well. Mr. Morris’s face, blood-red, also expresses his anticipation for the climactic payback kick-to-the-face element that all of us practiced in- and out of doors for the next several years.
A bit of a tangent, but Mr. Morris and Mrs. Brady were behind the idea of sending me to multiple classrooms throughout the year to play the piano. I look back at those moments with some pride now, but at the time I was rather embarrassed. I didn’t want to mess up–especially in front of younger students–but I also relished the small applause I received upon finishing.
In short, Mrs. Brady did what extraordinary teachers do. They overlook the immediate effects or outcomes an idea she has for the students may be and focuses on the long-term impact. I would have started her class thirty years ago. Three full decades. And I can still remember what she did for me. That’s true teaching, gang. That’s having an impact on a young person’s life. Unfortunately, all of the people who go into teaching with that same level of enthusiasm and desiring to be a part of the solution simply get tired. Or perhaps bored. Or frustrated. Frustrated with students from time to time. Frustrated with parents a little less infrequently. Frustrated with education trends and politics. It wears them down. Oozes out of them that passion for learning and teaching that was once such a huge part of their lives. I’m not here to offer answers to the problems in education. In my youth, I was lucky to have several teachers who did not let the pressures of the job interfere with their love for children. As a veteran teacher now, I’m starting to really see why so many teachers leave the profession after such a short stint. It may have to do with the pay, but I think it also has to do with the stress. Again, nothing good comes easy. No book you read, blog you scan, seminar you visit will have the magic formula.
But I would like to remind the readers of the power of a simple smile.