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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

June Reflection: My Favorite Teaching Memory

It's June.

If I were at work (which I'm not currently for 2 reasons: A. I'm on maternity leave, and B. I've been suspended and continue to await a decision by the district as to whether I'll return next year), I would be excitedly--and frantically--bringing the semester to a close. Papers and final projects would be done (or nearly done). I'd be directing my students to check the online system for final exam preparation materials. Administration would be pressuring teachers to pass their borderline students, while students who had slacked all semester would be approaching me at the 11th hour trying to seek out non-existent extra-credit assignments. You know, standard June behavior.

Next week would be finals. Next Friday, graduation.

But I'm not there to deal with that stuff right now. I'm home with my family.

But June is June. To me, it's the 'end of the year.' And time for reflection.

This year, I have more to reflect upon than normal.

In an obvious sense, I can reflect upon the fact that I started this year super excited and happy and flexible and hopeful. Then I got a particularly malicious group of students (again, no, not ALL of them, but evidently enough to strip the lustre from the positive feelings above) who decided to make it their business to try to ruin me. But that's not what I feel like reflecting on right now. (Some people have charged me with being too negative, but they are wrong.)

Instead, I'd like to reflect on my absolute favorite teaching memory. Why is it in my head now, you ask? Because the student involved is graduating next Friday and will be heading to his first choice college in the fall (for which I wrote him a stellar recommendation letter sharing this very memory!)

In order to appreciate this story, though, it's important to have a little context, so I'm going to provide it first.

Paper-writing time is always one of the worst parts of teaching (and taking) English class. In a general sense, students don't like to write--especially on academic subjects--and feel overwhelmed by the process even before it begins. They sort of psych themselves out right up front, which is a shame. I'd attempted to make the process as painless as possible by pairing the paper with the short story unit (which students tend to enjoy more than other units, probably because the stories are more modern), and by making the essay prompts directly follow the topics we'd specifically discussed in class. Further, I had broken down the essay into several parts (after painstakingly reviewing all of the writing process and a sample essay with them): thesis statements, outlines, quote selection, rough draft, final copy. I offered conferences for their thesis statements, their outlines, and their quote selection.

How this typically ended up playing out, then, was that students would sit down with me for their thesis conference and would have something vague ready to go, and would expect me to fill in the blanks for them. I'd turn this tactic around and ask them leading questions to get to the basis of what they wanted to express, and then they would, in fact, end up writing their own statements. Sometimes they resented this, but a lot of times it worked well. The outlines and quote checks were a little more sketchy. Some students did exactly what they should've done, and had questions ready for me when we conferenced (which is the idea of the conference), and things went well. But more often, there would be parts that were good and parts that were off base, or parts that were not even completed because they'd saved the task for the last minute and run out of time. I'd point out the issues that needed work, and would offer suggestions or ask questions of them so they could realize how they could fix the problems, but, more often than not, between the early drafting process and the final copy, the papers didn't undergo much change. It was so frustrating because it seemed an issue of laziness much more than inability, especially as the review time was there.

Now, with this particular favorite memory, the paper process was, in large part, progressing in a similar fashion as I've just described. We were in the outline stage. The way I had them outline, though, was in complete sentences AND with textual evidence, so, in large part, they would sort of already have their paper written if they completed this stage correctly. If completed properly, they would have put a good deal of time into their outlines.

One of my male honors students came up in turn for his conference. He was a relatively quiet but creative kid, and one who would only participate sporadically in class discussions. He had his entire outline completed as assigned, and it was substantial. He said something like, "I've been working on this and it's pretty decent, I think, but you mentioned something in class recently about the potential supernatural element in the story. I've been thinking about it -- can you tell me a little more about that?"

I was shocked. In a good way. I was so excited. Someone was listening! Someone was interested in something I'd said! Yahoo!!! So I happily explained the supernatural element as he'd requested, and he excitedly interjected a few things as they were occurring to him as I talked.

Then he said, "Wow. This is cool. Would it be ok if I changed the direction of my paper to this, and went home tonight and made a new outline to show you tomorrow?"

Would it be ok for a student to willingly scrap his entire 1st effort in favor of one that he was interested and excited enough to want to explore instead???!!! Hells yeah! I was blown away.

And what's more, he DID it. He went home that night, reworked an entirely new outline with textual evidence, and brought it to me the next day for review. We conferenced again, and he turned the outline into a fully-realized paper for the final deadline. Was his paper the best I'd ever read? No. But it was good. And it was the result of genuine interest and effort, and one of the truest displays of learning and enthusiasm I'd ever seen to that point, and since then, in fact. It was an absolute treat to read.

It was a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to me as an instructor to be able to have shared an idea that sparked a student's interest and made him want to think about it some more. It was an example of why so many teachers do what they do each day. It was what school is supposed to be about. It was magnificent.

While I wish that these moments were far less rare, I'm still thrilled and touched to have been part of that incident, and will be forever grateful to that particular creative, funny, and enthusiastic young man for showing passion about ideas.

After this incident, he seemed a bit more outgoing in class, and would sometimes stay after for a moment to chat about something I'd said that day. He continued to stop by my room to chat the rest of last year, as well as this year before I left. Like I said, I even wrote him a letter of recommendation and shared his happiness at getting admitted to his first-choice college.

I wish there were more students like him, and I wish this memory wasn't as exceptional as it is. Regardless, though, I hold it close to my heart and, this June, I wish him and the other students who were kind and who tried and who were willing to work, all the best in the future. Congrats to the grads!


  1.'s so obvious you're a great teacher. I'm fuming at what an outrageously ignorant decision it was to suspend you... I wish you all the best.

  2. "Administration would be pressuring teachers to pass their borderline students..."

    That rang so true.

    But on a lighter note, I also teach research to 8th grade students, and one of our activities is coming up with a research title, which is really a pain on the neck. Not only because of how bad their titles are, but also because of me rejecting and rejecting the said titles. But like you, I also feel thrilled and happy for them whenever I see their titles improving because they considered my suggestions. Shows really that students can really think given that they act on their potentials.


    Anyway, thanks for this post. Hope to hear again from you soon!

  3. You sound like such a great teacher! I had so many bad ones over the years...I wish some of them could have had the same views and interest that you do!

  4. Dear Natalie,
    Is it possible for me to contact you via email? Thank you very much.

  5. @Contchr- send me your email (I won't publish it), and I'll get in touch.

    Everyone else--thanks for the kind words! I think one of the most difficult parts of this whole affair is that so many people are so quick to assume I hate students and hate my job when that isn't the case at all. I went in every day and gave the best I could give and just hoped and prayed that students would connect with the material and with me. I've never been a slacker, and my students' successes were my successes, while I took their failures personally. Probably like most teachers.


  6. Natalie,

    I think that a lot of people are being judged unfairly against their freedom of speech, your story is one among many I have even had my own personal exp with this sort of thing as well, you hear stories of ins companies canceling people for posting things on Facebook or students getting to mock their teachers, but yet a teacher can get in trouble for posting her feeling I do not agree with how they are treating you and the way they did it. Even the military has cracked down about Facebook and well the government in general, and work places are firing over professional mis-conduct because of this, personally i think we should be protected against this , so i thought of this a friend passed it to me after I got put in a situation like yours. its a paragraph that protects everyone from it::
    ***PRIVACY NOTICE****:

    Warning--any person and/or institution and/or Agent and/or Agency of any governmental structure including but not limited to the United States Federal Government also using or monitoring/using this website or any of its associated websites, you do NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content contained herein including, but not limited to my photos, and/ or the comments made about my photo's or any other "picture" art posted on my profile. You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this profile and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee(s), agent(s), student(s) or any personnel under your direction or control. The contents of this profile are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law.

    i hope this may help you use it if you wish if not that's cool to but hopefully it helps you.

    good luck with your case.


  7. When you started college, what was strongest force which drew you to teach primary school?
    A chance to make a difference?
    Summers off?
    Be a mentor and positive role model?
    Simpler college undergrad classes to graduate?

    I feel it is well within your right to voice your personal opinion of the students themselves, but are are you able, do you have the capability, to address the problem from whence it begins? Have you ever considered a blog dedicated to other people in your profession as a sort of "how to" guide? The blame falls 100% on no one's shoulders.

    I think that if you have any scruples, you could be more proactive and make a difference in a more positive light than "Bucks County School Board vs. You".

  8. I have always wanted to become a teacher, but I'm waiting for the right time in my life when I can afford to go back to school to become a teacher.

    I know why I wanted to become a teacher, but this paragraph from your blog, further strengthens my will.

    "It was a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to me as an instructor to be able to have shared an idea that sparked a student's interest and made him want to think about it some more. It was an example of why so many teachers do what they do each day. It was what school is supposed to be about. It was magnificent."

    This is exactly the kind of experience I want to have and the kind of feeling I look forward to when I become a teacher. I know that this situation is really rare, but I have high hopes for them to come by.

    Despite the Bloggate scandal, I am deeply grateful to be able to learn from your experiences and your thoughts as a teacher through this blog. Thank you for sharing!

  9. I saw you are getting to teach again. The article I read on MSN has your superiors stating that you "lost control" with your students because of your "bad" posts, which I can only see as honest. I've only taught dance, but I'm sure that you have actually gained control by being honest. They'll know you can see through their games. I'm proud that you stood by what you said and that you won. Just wanted to show my support!

  10. Interesting post. Love the story about the good memory! I teach college classes--and the battle to get students to engage and think about assignments in meaningful ways is still there. My favorite memories.... things like the young man from a rural area who said he'd never gotten above a C+ in English writing an A research paper--'cause he wrote about motorcycle helmet laws--a topic he cared about!.... A computer science student writing a program for his classmates to use to help them solve an encryption problem I'd given them.... If we can get the students to care about communicating about something they care about, suddenly their prose (or other skills) sharpens (sharpen) up!

  11. Hi Natalie;

    You seem to be one who actually wants to make a difference in the lives of our kids. Hope you can survive this witch hunt. We owe it to our kids and our country.

  12. As the parent of 6th and 9th grade boys, I would be requesting you as their teacher, not brushing them off to other teachers. As the child of teachers, I can listen to your critique of our educational system and the children who now pass through. Your comments are understandable. You ask hard questions of our system and don't hide your disappointment and honest complaints about students (and parents) who only occupy a seat instead of participate (in class and in life). I want my children to be confronted and challenged and pushed to explore the limits of their thoughts and activities. You sound like many of the great coaches I've had (how would you like to coach our English team?). Keep inviting, and when necessary pushing our children to learn and grow. Our future depends on it.


Please feel free to comment. However, please note that not all comments will be posted, and that it does take time to read through them, so your comments may not be read the day you write them.

Thanks to all for your thoughts.