Untitled. abarndwellerCC-BY

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, in “To A Louse: On seeing one on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”:  O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us…

I have often pondered that idea, people needing to see themselves as others see them. To see myself as others see me. What a frightening prospect. Certainly the power to see ourselves as others see us would free us from many a blunder … one would hope.

The lines spark a question I pose to myself and teacher colleagues: What signals are we unwittingly sending to students?

Years ago, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. I thought I would try it, almost reluctantly, as I needed a job and my own children were still in school. I wasn’t thinking of teaching as a calling or whether or not I was cut out for it. I took a temporary position, fifth grade remediation in reading and math, with some trepidation.

“I am not sure what to do,” I confessed to the hiring principal. “I don’t know if I can really help the kids.”

She smiled. “Just love them. The rest will come.”

Here goes, I thought on Day One, as I stepped into a classroom where kids milled about, working collaboratively on math. It’s sink or swim.

From across the room, a boy saw me standing in the doorway. He didn’t know me, didn’t know why I was there, but he shot across the room through the throng of his classmates to throw his arms around me.

That was my induction to being a public educator.

A child, sinking fast, clung to me like I was a life preserver. Perhaps he perceived, instantly, that we were in – or out – of the same boat. It was sink or swim for both of us.

In this classroom, I watched the boy try his hardest to swim. He struggled academically. He struggled with controlling his impulses. He struggled socioeconomically – he wore the same heavy black ski jacket every day, even when the weather was hot. He was chastised by his teacher for every infraction, great or small. The teacher – widely respected by colleagues – was clearly suffering from burnout,  undoubtedly tired of swimming herself. Whether or not she intended it, she sent a signal: Do not approach me or question me.

Do we, as teachers, send a signal – with  or without words – that we are safe harbors or treacherous ground?

I remembered a teacher of my own. She stayed in a constant state of frustration with our geometry class, once giving me detention for leaving paper in my desk despite my impassioned protest that I hadn’t done it. Math wasn’t my strong suit and I sank to the point of dropping the course, as I had all the math credits I needed to graduate. Later that year I landed a role in the school play and this teacher came to watch it. As people congratulated me backstage after the performance, this teacher stepped forward:

“Well,” she said, “I never would have believed you had it in you.”

You decide: Would I have ever been successful in her class?

One last note on my little friend back in the fifth grade: He went on to graduate.

On his behalf, I thank all those teachers who were, along the way, safe harbors for him.

Reflect: What messages do you send to others, verbally and non-verbally, about their value? Think of the teachers you had: Were they repellents to the learning in their classrooms, or were they encouragers? Were they the treacherous ground or the safe harbors? Write. Find a viable preserver when you need to. Rest a for bit. Then keep on swimming, mindful of those who are swimming so hard, so close by. 

Open a book and dance


During a recent study of Who’s Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More (Burkins and Yaris, 2016), the facilitator encouraged participants to jot notes or sketch on blank bookmarks as reflections of our learning.

Throughout the book, the authors use dance lessons as a metaphor for how learning to read works. As aspiring dancers watch proficient ones with a desire to emulate them, to navigating increasingly challenging choreography, so young readers develop skills along with a desire to read for the sake of it. My chapter was “Independent Reading: Learning to Love to Read,” in which independent reading is compared to a dance recital. Students have practiced and the teacher watches from the wings, not interfering when there are missteps, but “noting ways to fine-tune the their next performance.” The line that struck me most: “Most important, teachers let students read, allowing them the glorious luxury of falling in love with books.”

That got me thinking about my early reading life and the hand that teachers played in it.

In fourth grade, my teacher began the year by reading Charlotte’s Web to the class. Naturally we wept at the death of Charlotte (don’t we all, still?). I was so captivated by the story that I bought a copy at the book fair, to reread it to my heart’s content. This teacher knew what she was doing: she ended the year by reading Old Yeller aloud to outright sobbing from the class. I had to read the book again on my own, to grapple further with Travis’s extraordinary courage and the horror of the decision he had to make after that old yellow dog had saved his life. Old Yeller was outdone only by my own discovery of Where the Red Fern Grows in the school library – I cried every day for weeks after that one. I remain eternally grateful to Mrs. Cooley for hooking me with the power of story.

My fifth-grade teacher suggested that I read the Little House series. I loved Laura so much that I sometimes wore my long brown hair in braids and had my mother make sunbonnets for me (to wear at home, not to school). Laura was real. She wasn’t perfect and she knew it; I admired her backbone and the way she faced challenges. I also loved going back in time, reveling in Laura’s descriptions of the natural world and everyday life long ago. There’s such poignancy in the line “Now is now. It can never be a long time ago” (Little House in the Big Woods). As a child I pondered that line, knowing the story took place over a hundred years in the past – then realized that, in the pages of a book, time is preserved, all that happened is still unfolding, those who are gone still live. In the pages of an engrossing book, at least, now is now. How wise my teacher was, guiding me to books that would make reading part of my everyday life.

I was given lots of opportunity to explore books in the sixth grade. That year I was scouring the school library shelves for titles I hadn’t already read when I encountered an especially intriguing one: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  “Sounds interesting,” I thought, taking it from the shelf, never suspecting what a defining life moment this would be. When I opened the cover, the magic poured out and pulled me in; I devoured every one of the Narnia Chronicles with an insatiable hunger. I loved them for the beauty of the setting, for their Britishness, for the author’s gift of turning a phrase and his humor, and most of all, for the hope they contain. I was encouraged to reenact scenes from the book for my classmates: I roped a friend into portraying Jadis while I dressed up as Aslan, complete with mane and tail. It’s the old good vs. evil theme, resurfacing many times throughout one’s academic and life experiences.

The influence and insight of my  of my teachers, along with the freedoms they gave me, had much to do with the reader I am, with person I am, today. They provided me the “glorious luxury of falling in love with books” – as you can see in the bookmark above, my tribute to them. I was never much of a real dancer, but metaphorically speaking – as a reader – I dance each day with wild abandon and absolute joy.

Reflect: Who helped you fall in love with reading? Write about this experience – and if these people are still living, write to thank them for their great gift to you. If you teach: How can you better provide “the glorious luxury of falling in love with books” for your students?

My Patronus

As a headmistress and co-founder of my school’s Harry Potter Club, I was recently admonished to take the Pottermore Patronus quiz, as all other Patronus quizzes are essentially heresy. I approached the task with a bit of trepidation, having heard of people attaining aardvarks and the like.

For the non-Potterite: The Patronus charm produces a silvery animal guardian, usually representative of the individual casting it.

Being a fantasy fan since childhood, and considering my headmistress role, it was necessary: I plunged into the virtual dark forest to seek my symbolic protector. On the site, ghostly words appear in groups of three amongst the trees; the seeker chooses one and is moved onto the next set. At one point in this quest, when I paused too long, the words evaporated with a reprimand: “You are too slow. This game requires quick reflexes.” Silently chiding myself for overthinking simple word choices, certain that this blunder would land me with an armadillo or caterpillar, I picked up my pace. At last, in the ominous forest, a silvery shape materialized.

A white mare.

Beautiful and powerful, my white mare galloped through the forest, luminous against the darkness. Enchanting.

My next quest, naturally, was looking up the symbolism.

From various sites, the synthesis is that a white horse represents wisdom, power, loyalty, heroism, nobility, victory – encouraging, yes, but also inversely raising an intrinsic, lofty bar: am I worthy of the white mare? Do I deserve her? Never mind the fact that I gained her by playing a game with an end product based solely on word choices, not short answers or soul-searching responses. The writer in me delves deep into the metaphorical.

I already knew that white horses can symbolize death or the end of the world. They are considered psychopomps, creatures that guide human spirits on their journey from Earth to the afterlife.

As I pondered these connections, my Patronus suddenly conjured up road trips with my father and sister. Three hours is an eternity to young children cooped in a car, so to pass the time, Daddy taught us a game he played as a child:

“When we go by any horses, if they’re on your side of the street, you get a point for each horse. If you have a white horse on your side, it’s worth ten points, because you don’t see many of those.”

My sister and I instantly glued our faces to our respective windows, for we’d been by these random pastures before. We’d often seen horses grazing, strolling, sometimes galloping. I was sure – I just knew – I’d get a white horse. Maybe more than one!

“The thing is,” Daddy continued, “if we pass a graveyard, and it’s on your side of the street, you lose all your horses.”

So we played the game. My sister and I gained horses with glee, then lost them with loud groans, without realizing that one of us would win on the journey to the destination and the other would win on the return trip.

Daddy drove on in peace, smiling to himself.

How many horses I won and lost, I’m not sure, nor do I recall how many were white, only that they were there by the wayside on a long, tiresome journey. Those white horses are obscured by time now, very dim, but still real, ever more priceless, in my misty memory.

Enchanting, indeed, that one should reappear as my guardian after so many years, and that I should have gained it in a game venue that didn’t exist when I was a child.

Daddy, I think, would be pleased. Perhaps he is, from his place on the other side.

Reflect: What creature might symbolize you, and why? I’ve often played a game with students, challenging them to think of an animal that begins with the first letter of their first names (I’ve always chosen fawn in these scenarios – perhaps I should change it to foal?). No two can be the same, so each student ends up with a unique animal and has to think of ways the animal might represent them or their lives. Think – and write.