23 August 2008

In Praise of a Teacher

Last year I missed the first game of the high school football season. I resolved not to miss another.

In ten years of teaching at public high schools, I have never been to a Friday-night game. I keep busy with religious groups, and my Adventist background makes me quite defensive of my Friday nights. Last year, however, when I realized how late sundown was that first Friday night, I resolved not to miss another one.

That's how Ellie and I came to be outside the ticket booth last night at Hendersonville High School (a cross-town rival). Ellie had invited one of her middle-schools friends. As we bought our tickets and looked for a seat in the visitors' stands, a remarkable community emerged before my eyes.

I saw co-workers and students (some in school spirit colors, some shirtless with big letters painted on their chests, and some attractively dressed in outfits not approved by our dress code), I even saw alumni who had passed through my classes and moved on. "You won't believe this, Mr. Dittes," said Jacob, 2008 graduate now attending a local college on a football scholarship, "My first class is Comp 101."

"Just remember the five-paragraph essay," I replied. "It won't let you down."

"I know," he said.

Ellie and Andrea spotted friends from middle school. Their was a burst of excitement when the spotted Ms. Stark, their 5th-grade teacher last year at Jack Anderson Elementary.

I'm returning a favor for the job she did last year by teaching her son, Roger, in my English 11 class. "I feel like I owe a lot to you," I told him the first day of class. "Your mom did a great job teaching my daughter, Ellie, last year."

"Go ahead and give me an A," he said.

I laughed. "I'll just do the best job of teaching that I can."

When I think about the teaching his mom did, even now, three months after Ellie left her classroom, never to return, I am so grateful. Tears well in my eyes, just thinking about the remarkable turnaround she engineered in my daughter.

As of last March, Ellie hated school. "I'm dumb," she would say. "I'm not one of the smart kids." It was the nadir of a school-related slide that had gone on for two years, through two different teachers at her old school. You can read more about that difficult time on a prior blot post, here.

Fifth grade shouldn't be the point where kids begin hating school. It is the greatest grade of the eight in elementary school--the point at which I began to see excellence in school as a pathway to excellence in life, when I began to love learning. I withdrew her from her old school and enrolled her in Ms. Stark's class.

I well remember the first time I met Ms. Stark. I had take the morning off to get Ellie to her new school. The attendance officer walked us down a long hall to the 5th-grade wing. She opened a door, and Ms. Stark appeared. After a short introduction, Ms. Stark opened her arms and wrapped Ellie in a big hug.

That was the first of many steps that would restore Ellie's love for school. As I reviewed Ellie's progress during our long rides home from school, I saw a consummate professional at work. Accountability in homework had Ellie hopping to get assignments done on time and logged in her assignment book. School spirit and room-level enthusiasm bonded Ellie to new friends in the class. A challenging curriculum revealed to Ellie that the world was a place worth learning about.

A close friend, Andrea, came along and helped Ellie to integrate with a key group of classmates.

When we met Ms. Stark again last night, Ellie had just finished her 2nd week of middle school. She has her own locker--and she's proud to know how to open the combination. She has seven different classes, including an advanced English class and a math enrichment class. She is in band and cross-country, and now she wants to add chorus to that busy schedule (mainly because the chorus teacher is someone she really, really likes). She seems to know the name of every 6th-grader at her school of 840.

I wish I could tell you everything Ellie has told me about her new school in the past two weeks. I'll mention her new friend, Courtney, a fellow Portlander whose mother teaches next door at Owen and Jo-Jo's school. I know all about her lunch table, and the hilarious things that go on there. She has blossomed. She loves learning. She has the air of confidence that daddies like me dream of seeing in their daughters.

A friend at work was asking me about Ellie's transition recently. Although this woman is a Catholic, her kids had attended Greater Nashville Junior Academy for a time, so she knew about our educational backgroud. "It's a much bigger pond than the one Ellie was swimming in before," I said, then I smiled. "And Ellie has become a much bigger fish."

Perhaps this helps you to understand how I get so choked up at the sight of Ms. Stark.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

People like that can make SUCH adifference, can't they? I hope Scarlett is as lucky with her teachers.