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Why I Teach…A Blog Motivated by a Tweet

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This Twitter conversation caused me to rethink my blogging practice.

This Twitter conversation caused me to rethink my blogging practice.

One week ago, I was tweeting with Maureen Devlin (@lookforsun) who blogs at Teach Children Well and Renee Coates-Smith (@coatessmithr). In our conversation, Maureen asked about women who had influenced our own womanhood, our lives as educators–and she asked if I blogged. Our brief conversation caused me to reflect on how and why I blog. Although I am a experienced female educator whose gender has both advanced and challenged professional growth, I have never blogged about that journey. My blogs are typically genderless and focused on best practice. But why? The depth of who I am as a woman educator is foundational to the public view of who I am as a teacher, a leader, a researcher, and a writer. With that in mind, I plan to spend more time using my blog as a narrative reflection with a hope that my stories inspire reflection and growth among my readers.

Why I Teach…

Children are born teachers and learners. As infants, we come to parents more often than not unskilled at their impending roles. Together, parents and children, we stretch and move through our roles, learning and teaching. As such, I have always been a teacher. My mother credits me with teaching my older sister Sue how to talk. Sue was nearly two when I was born, but she only began to put words together when I began to chatter away. Mom says I gave Sue the learning model she needed. You see, my sister Sue is cognitively challenged…or whatever the currently PC term is today. Back then, she was mentally retarded. Mom and Dad didn’t realize that until after she started school because in the 60s there were no preschool screening programs or Federal mandates to identify and support struggling kids. No, I was Sue’s teacher and her remediation coach.

Back then, we lived in a lumbering farmhouse with ten-foot ceilings, a wide front porch, five large bedrooms, and a walk-in attic.  When I was little, I shared a bedroom with my sisters–first with Sue and then with Lisa, too. Our bedroom was upstairs at the far end of a long L-shaped hallway that began at the top of the steep stairs and ended at our door. Our room was the biggest room in the house and papered with a tiny repeating flower and butterfly motif against a light blue  background. We each had a dedicated space in the over-sized room: Lisa was at the north end, Sue had the middle, and my little bed was on the south end. In the middle of the room was a cast iron floor register that allowed warm air from the living room to rise up and heat our space. When my parents had the Wirth family over, I would bring the kids up to my room and open register–we’d all lie on our tummies and spy on the adults below. We were learning.

My family attended church every Sunday, and there I first learned about letters and sounds and words. Some letters and sounds and words, I couldn’t figure out. Our shared bedroom had a large walk-in closet with a four-paneled, grey-painted door. I used the door like a blackboard printing in red crayon over and over again these letters: b  i  b   l   e   b   i   b   l   e.  Over the years, I had forgotten etching those letters onto the closet door as well as across the flower and butterfly motif paper where my bed abutted. I was reminded of my scribbling on a visit back to my long deserted homeplace, realizing only then that when I had sung the still remembered lyric so many years ago, I didn’t understand the meaning behind the string of letters: “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” I had memorized the words, but the preschooler, ME, was searching for meaning. Always the learner. Always the teacher. I was instructing myself.

One Christmas, Santa left Suzy Smart for my sisters and me to share.

One Christmas, Santa left Suzy Smart for my sisters and me to share.

Santa came each Christmas to the big farmhouse. He would leave a large unwrapped gift under the tree, a gift that we were to share among the now four of us–a brother had joined the fold. One Christmas the big gift was a train, mostly for Dad, I think. One Christmas it was a race-car track; Dad again makes out like a bandit. But one year it was a Suzie Smart Doll, desk, and blackboard. We were also each presented with authentic school desks. Suzie Smart moved into the girls’ blue papered bedroom at the end of the hall where we set up a resident school. I was the teacher. Suzie, my sisters, and my brother became the students.

My sister Sue had started school when she was 5; six weeks of kindergarten and then to the first grade. But school proved as challenging as learning to talk. She repeated the first grade and when I went to first grade, Sue moved onto the second grade. I fell in love with my teachers. I wanted to be just like them. Sue struggled. When I went to the second grade, Sue was moved to third grade. But my mom and the school realized school as it was wasn’t working for Sue. To move her through the system wasn’t right. So, as I entered third grade, it was decided that Sue would be retained and thereafter, Sue progressed through school with me. By now, we each had our own bedroom. We had moved from the back corner of the house to the top of the stairs. My much smaller pink room was just off the stairway landing and Sue’s was next door, a large room just over Mom and Dad’s room that overlooked the front yard. At night, I would do my homework and then, after lights out, I would do Sue’s homework. Sometimes tucked under my blanket with a bare light bulb providing illumination, I would see to it that Sue had her homework done.

My mom became a “bell-ringer” for the Mental Health Association of Illinois. She would pack us up in the car and we would drive the neighborhood talking and sharing about the needs of people like my sister Sue and the many others who suffer in silence the loneliness of mental and emotional disorders. I remember my mom stacking boxes of literature in corners and stuffing packets for distribution, door-to-door or through mailings. In her own way, my mom was a teacher and without doubt, an early advocate for evolution of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). I remember the first special education teacher at our school, Joy Todd. She was a life-saver for my sister Sue and really, our entire family. I admired the kindness and persistence that Mrs. Todd brought to teaching and learning. She, like I, knew that Sue could learn–she merely needed more time and a personalized approach. No doubt, all of these women have influenced my position on the needs of special needs kids, a concern I have shared in my blog: What is the Fairness in Forcing Standardized Assessment on All Students?

I have fond memories of the old house, my early school years, and my mom’s dedication to service, but until I wrote this blog, I didn’t realize that my motivation for teaching was born out of a desire to serve. Why do I teach? I teach to help others stretch beyond the role they currently play. I teach because I see limitless possibilities for the futures of people I have yet to meet.

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