Memoirs teaching

Out of the blue. . .

I’m minding my own business, doing my weekly grocery, etc. shopping at our hometown big box discount store.  I pass the sporting goods department where my husband is perusing hunting supplies when I meet a nice-looking man who nods and says hello.  Thinking he is more friendly than most, I nod and say hello and give my shopping cart–buggy, in these parts–a little push when he says, “You’re Mrs. Coker, aren’t you?  You don’t recognize me.”

At that moment I realize–the “Mrs. Coker” is always a dead giveaway–that he must be a former student.  I ask him his name and he proceeds to tell me how he had me as his science teacher over 30 years ago, and I was and still am one of his favorite teachers.  Wow.

My first year teaching high school yearbook.

Another affirmation of the career I left three and a half years ago, and somehow can’t seem to speak positively about.  How in the world can I not believe in my career choice when I have been so blessed to have so many former students who still insist that I was one of their favorite teachers?  And still others who chose to become teachers because of the example I set as their teacher?  What a privilege and honor it is to realize what an influential part I have played in so many lives!

I always felt I learned more from my students than they learned from me.  This day, the day I met Steve again after 30 years, I learned something else.  I learned that the career I chose is nothing to complain about, to be ashamed of, to denigrate, or to discourage young people from pursuing.  I learned again what a holy calling it was and still is.  God keeps showing me, even in retirement, how His purpose was fulfilled through my obedience to His calling to become a teacher.

Me as a tender young first-year teacher back in 1983.

So I am proud that I spent my working years as a public school teacher.  I am proud of each life I touched, and not only the ones who are easy to remember because they misbehaved or were very outspoken, but the quiet ones like Steve, who I didn’t even realize was watching me so very closely as a young teacher just starting out.  

Message left on my eraser board by my fun and crazy seniors the year I retired.

I am so grateful that he saw me and spoke to me.  What a blessing I would have missed if he hadn’t!  

How about you?  Do you remember a favorite teacher?  Waste no time in letting them know what they mean to you.



Teacher Tuesday: Admitting you’re wrong

What?  Wrong?  Me?  But I’m the teacher!
Laughable, isn’t it?
But sometimes we teachers are afraid to admit when we have made a mistake.  After all, we are people, too, and people generally have a hard time admitting when they are wrong.
But, and this is a biggie, it is even more important for a teacher to admit mistakes.
Because kids can spot a phony a mile away.
I have found that it is better to ‘fess up when you make a mistake than it is to try and cover it up.  If the outspoken students of today don’t call you on it in front of everyone, they will at the very least become distrustful of you as a disseminator of information and possibly as a person.
Case in point:  you misspell a word on your Powerpoint slide and a student questions you about it.  Instead of covering up with a little white lie such as “I must have been in a hurry,” it is better to just go ahead and admit that you misspelled the word.  The reason isn’t important to the kid.  What is important is that they see that you are human, you make mistakes, and you own them and learn from them. 
“Thanks for the catch, Joey!”
That kind of response will not hurt your credibility at all, and it will raise your esteem in your students’ eyes as well as giving the student who caught it a little boost.
Yes, I know that was a minor example.  What about this situation?
You advise a whole class to take Chemistry the year after Biology only to have several of the students come back to you and tell you the counselors signed them up for another science course such as Physics instead of Chemistry.
Do you save face and give them an excuse or just go ahead and admit that you didn’t know what you were talking about?
Telling them the truth–that you were mistaken–will help them see you as a human being who sometimes makes mistakes.
Of course, it’s not a good idea to constantly make mistakes in the classroom.  After all, you are supposed to be the educated authority.  Make sure you know your subject matter but don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer to a specific question.  
“But you’re the teacher!” is a response I heard a lot over my career.
My answer?  “Yes, but teachers can’t possibly know or remember everything.  Let’s find out together and we will both learn.”
So. . .go ahead and admit when you are wrong.  It’s okay.  They already know you aren’t perfect.  But now they will know they can trust you, and you will earn their respect.

TEACHER TUESDAY: Sometimes they become famous. . .

I am proud to say that many, if not most, of my students have grown into successful adults with good jobs and nice families.  I love seeing them on Facebook showing off pictures of their own children (whom I call my grand-students) and sounding like responsible adults. After all, isn’t every teacher and parent’s goal to raise their children into responsible, contributing adults?  Even the ones I or other teachers may have despaired over have grown up into surprisingly well-adjusted and responsible people!  
Imagine that!
Not only do students grow up into responsible adults, some of our students become famous.  I have had several of those in my career, but the one I met in my supervisory teacher’s classroom during my student teaching 
was my first.
Have you ever watched “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders:  Making the Team”?  This reality program chronicles the tryouts of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders under the direction of Kelli McGonagill Finglass, who happens to be that student.  Beautiful, tough as nails, and a former Cowboys cheerleader herself, she has brought the cheerleaders to international recognition and status. 
I’m not going to pretend and say that I knew Kelli well or was a favorite teacher.  In fact, when I met her at a Distinguished Alumni reception we had at Lindale High School a few months ago, I was surprised when she said that she remembered me.  It may have just been her being polite.  I could instantly see how she has become such a successful professional and even a national icon.  Her poise and charm made everyone feel at ease and important after they waited in line to speak to her.  
I am proud of all my students, not just Kelli, and I am not more proud of her than my others.  It’s just kind of cool when one of them becomes famous and you can say that you were one of their teachers.

TEACHER TUESDAY: Meet the Parents

One of the most difficult things I had to do as a teacher was contacting parents.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t mind sending notes and letters home, or stamping classwork with “Parent, please sign,” or even asking students to get their parents to call me.  That was easy.  The hardest part for me was actually picking up the phone and making that call home.
When I was a young teacher the thought of calling a parent who was probably older than I was, was intimidating in itself.  After all, the reason I needed to call was usually NOT to sing the praises of their offspring.  
As I grew older, though, especially as most parents of my students became young enough to be my former students, it grew easier.  I was less of a peer with the student and more of a peer of the parent.  And after I had my own children, I was definitely more sympathetic.
Over the years I learned a few things about contacting parents, which made phone calls easier and more pleasant.  Maybe these tips will help you as well.
1.  Make your first contact early in the school year.  With the new school year just beginning, now is a perfect time to touch base with parents.  It can be a daunting task if you have as many students as I did last year.  I believe I began the school year with almost 200 high school students!  What’s a teacher to do?
My principal urged us to contact all of our parents, but with all the meetings, paperwork, new schedules, new students, and other issues teachers face before settling down into a routine, that was an almost impossible task, one that I, unfortunately, had to put on the back burner since I was new to the campus.
I made plans to make just two parent contacts a day during my conference period, but the demands on my time soon squashed that resolution.  However, calling just two parents a day is an attainable goal.  If two isn’t feasible, try one parent a day, or even one a week until you get more organized as the year progresses.
2.  Be sensitive about calling parents at work.  A phone call from the school in the middle of a stressful workday may not be the best way to win a parent over to your point of view.  It may mean waiting until after school to make that call, but it may also mean catching that parent in a better frame of mind, especially if you need to discuss a problem.  You might even ask parents in a note home when is the best time to contact them.
3.  Start and end your conversation with something positive about the student.  It’s sort of like wrapping the news in a big gift with a bow on top.  Parents will be much more receptive if you show some appreciation for a good trait in their student.  It can be anything from a bright smile to a good rapport with his peers.  If you can’t find something positive in each of your students, you are not looking hard enough!
I hope these tips will help you make those all-important parent contacts.  Remember to keep your cool, that you are the professional, and if a parent gets upset, hear them out before defending your own case.  Above all else, be a professional advocate for what is best for the student.  Good luck!