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Archive for the month “January, 2017”

“That” Teacher

Or… The Path to My 40-Year Career in Education


Mrs. Gillespie & Me – 1967

In the thank you speech I gave at my retirement party, I made reference to my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Gillespie. Hopefully, you had one teacher who didn’t just teach you something but made a real difference in your life. Mrs. Gillespie was that teacher for me.

In my case, 6th grade was the last year of elementary school. Mrs. Gillespie was the ideal warm, caring teacher who set high standards for her students and I looked forward to going to school every day to meet the challenge.

For English, we used a very thick literature anthology. This is where I first remember reading Poe’s “Raven”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” among other classics. For some reason, I wanted to have a copy of that book at home. Somehow Mrs. Gillespie arranged for me to purchase one because back then, no parent could just order a school textbook. I remember the day it arrived in the mail and how much I cherished having that book which, I think, may have even been a teacher’s edition.

Mrs. Gillespie might have been one of the original project-based teachers without ever knowing it. She was very innovative with her assignments which not only benefited her students but herself as well. At the beginning of the year, she announced that we would all be writing a major research paper called a “specialty”. We could choose any topic, but it should be one that we were especially interested in as we would be doing extensive research about it. I don’t know how I came up with this topic, but I remember it didn’t take me too long to decide on “The Beginning and Development of Writing”. What?! Are you kidding… this is the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations. But did Mrs. Gillespie stop me? Not for a second! She knew how to let me be the studious school girl I loved to be and tackle the whole darn thing. When she offered up dates for our presentations to the class, I picked January because, of course, that would allow me all of Christmas break to finish working on it. Needless to say, I never made that strategical mistake again. I spent just about every day during vacation that year in the local library.

Aside from writing the paper, there were several other tasks involved. There was a long counter at the back of the room — the kind with a sink in it and a bulletin board above it that we are all familiar with. After all, schools haven’t changed that much in the last 50 years. You were responsible for setting up a complete display on the counter and decorating the bulletin board to enhance your project. My bulletin board had examples of cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and many other symbols and types of writing and communication. My display included dioramas of cavemen. This was the era of those cute little troll dolls with all that long hair and I owned several. I grew up watching the Flintstones so I had endless inspiration for their costumes. This is actually where my sewing skills began. My trolls had fabulous felt wardrobes replete with hats and other accessories. It was a pretty impressive display though not historically accurate as the cavemen were surrounded by clay dinosaurs I created — a detail I don’t believe was ever addressed. Probably a savvy move on Mrs. Gillespie’s part.

Every Friday afternoon, it was one student’s turn to give his/her presentation. The desks were pushed aside and the chairs were lined up in rows to form an audience in front of the back counter. The principal showed up every week to listen to the entire presentation as did a photographer from the local newspaper. You read your paper which was expected to be fairly well memorized and used chart paper to explain various aspects of your report. In addition, you had to create a test for the class which you passed out and collected at the end. Then, of course, you had to grade it. This was truly the first lesson I ever taught. As you can see, Mrs. Gillespie had her Friday’s nailed. Smart woman!

I never considered becoming a teacher until I was 16 and planning for college, but I think the seed was certainly planted with this experience. The fact that I can so clearly remember it 50 years later speaks volumes about the value of the project and the teacher who assigned it.

Toward the end of our 6th grade year, we visited the junior high for orientation. Upon returning, we had to choose an elective for 7th grade. I had only two options — Home Ec or Spanish. I asked Mrs. Gillespie about this and she said, “You can learn that Home Ec stuff later on your own. You should take Spanish.” So I did and eventually discovered my passion for languages. Little did she know that she set the course of my life with that small but sage piece of advice.

Mrs. Gillespie also helped me write a graduation speech that year. It was called, “Spring is a New Beginning” inspired by a small book of the same title written and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund that was very popular at the time. Being the shy introvert that I was, I didn’t really want to give this speech in front of a whole auditorium of parents and relatives, but she insisted I was the one for the job. She had me practice my speech (which I still have on a set of index cards) over and over with her and gave me the confidence and courage to get through it. Once I get past my medical treatments and on a path to stabilizing my health, spring will definitely be a new beginning for me this year and I will probably be thinking about Mrs. Gillespie and that little inspirational book.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see Mrs. Gillespie again and tell her how much she had contributed to my outcome or to thank her for being “that” teacher who made all the difference. Though I did find a thank you card she wrote to me for a gift (silver sugar tongs… must have been a thing then) my mom and I gave her at the end of the school year so obviously we made an effort to express our appreciation for all her work at that time. She wrote some very kind words about me that still touch me all these years later. It reminds me that someone important thought I was special even at the age of 11.

I had the privilege of having a few students who came back to visit throughout the years and tell me that I made a significant difference in their lives in some way. It was usually not the student I would have expected nor for the reason I would have imagined. As a teacher, unbeknownst to you, you may say or do the smallest thing that could inspire the path of a student’s entire life. That’s really powerful. It’s not so much about the subject you teach or even how you teach it, but the person you see, accept, and help grow. So when your technology doesn’t work or you just can’t get on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest educational trend, that’s not really important — how you interact with your students is what counts. You never know where it may lead them. Look where it led me!


Retirement Day!

I have actually thought about this day many times during my career. When I first started teaching outside of Seattle at the age of 21, there was an older teacher at my school who obviously had been teaching for a long time. Katherine Kreft taught 4th grade. She was stern but loving and always seemed to me like someone’s grandma in the classroom. It’s funny because I’m probably close to the age she was then, but I don’t feel that old at all! Reality check!! Anyway, a couple of years later she retired. At her retirement party, someone mentioned in a tribute to her that she had been teaching for 40 years. I remember thinking… 40 years! How could someone ever do that?! Well… here I am — 40 years later. I did that! It’s kind of amazing.

And now it’s over and it’s time to move on. I am SO ready. I enjoyed every last day with my students, but I will not miss all the bureaucracy and politics that now accompany teaching. It was such a fun job when I first began and continued that way for many years but not any more. I doubt very much it will be possible for many of the younger teaching crowd to stick with it for decades like I did. It wears you down, tires you out, and generally sucks all the life out of you. The personal rewards of working with students, teaching children, and nurturing a love for learning are great, but the expectations put upon the teacher are ridiculous. In addition, the financial rewards and benefits are shrinking and no one can survive that too long this day in age. Thankfully, I feel like I lived and worked the best of this career.

I experienced a wonderful send-off that started with students and parents and ended with friends, family, and colleagues punctuated by thank you notes, incredibly generous gifts, a bevy of ongoing toasts, and a Mexican fiesta complete with Mariachi Trio. My husband produced a fabulous video of my life that I will cherish forever. We had drinks with our son at the Top of the Mark located on the 19th floor of the historic Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and enjoyed a room with a view for the weekend in the City. It seemed the celebration lasted for weeks. After so many years, one day was just not enough time to acknowledge the end of an era.

Some people are worried about what they will do with all their time when they retire. I have never had that concern. At a young age, my mom made sure I developed many interests and hobbies. Needless to say, with a busy life of raising children and teaching full-time non-stop, I haven’t had much time to pursue them seriously as an adult. So, it’s back to all the things I love — reading, sewing, crafting, knitting, needlepoint, embroidery, and, best of all, photography with my husband, my teacher and mentor. I will be busy! When I need a break from the hobbies, I will just organize something — there’s always something that needs organizing and I guess, for me, that’s a bit of a hobby too. I do love to organize!!

But first… speaking of organizing, it’s time to get organized for the next big move. Time to make lists, plan, sort, and pack. Not to worry. As a “construction brat”, I have had a ton of moving experience. If I counted correctly, I have moved at least 19 times throughout California and 7 other states*. Believe me, I know how to pack a box. Better get started!

*Moves in chronological order beginning with the place I was born — the first 13 before I went off to college… Oroville, CA – Murray, UT – Salina, KS – Fredericktown, MO – Madras, OR – Pollock Pines, CA – Grass Valley, CA – Livermore, CA – Albany, OR – Page, AZ – Newhall, CA – La Habra, CA – Annandale, VA – Riverside, CA – Seattle, WA – Kirkland, WA – Palm Desert, CA – Cathedral City, CA – San Jose, CA

P.S. As of today, I have been officially retired for two weeks. Life is good!!

The Long and Winding Road

long-roadIt has been a while since I have had the energy, motivation, and time to set foot on this blog. If you have followed along so far, you know that I have been presented with some major medical challenges. Ironically, this made my mission this year almost impossible (see previous post). Trying to teach middle school while battling severe anemia which caused incredible fatigue and shortness of breath was no small feat. I gave it my all and tried to keep up my enthusiasm and standards both for myself and my students. Thanks to my husband who drove me to and from work every day and did everything else for us, I managed to pull it off but not without running into a lot of bumps, potholes, and detours along the way. Eventually, there came a point where I realized that trying to make it all the way to June 2017 which was always the original plan for retirement was just not going to be a reality. So, much to the disappointment of my students, their parents, and myself, I planned to end my mission this month. It has turned out to be the best decision ever.

The road to January and retirement has been long with many twists and turns in the form of test after test and procedure after procedure producing few results and no answers. It has been incredibly frustrating to say the least. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I ended up in the emergency room due to severe pain in my left side. The doctors checked for all the major traumas and found no indication of any. By this time they had been leaning toward some type of autoimmune disease as the cause of all my ailments as they had (thankfully) ruled out everything else. So, even though they could still not specifically identify the disease, they decided I was sick enough to finally prescribe a steroid (Prednisone) to contradict my symptoms. It worked like magic and overnight I began to regain some of my energy and feel a little more like myself again constantly improving every day.

While in emergency, the doctors noticed some inflammation in my lungs. Time for one more procedure — a bronchoscopy where they use a scope to look into your lungs and take a small biopsy. Finally, they found a clue! There was evidence of previous arterial hemorrhaging. After a careful study of the results and a few more blood tests, we finally received a diagnosis two days before Christmas — a strange but welcome gift. I have Microscopic Polyangiitis, a rare autoimmune disease and form of vasculitis which causes inflammation of the blood vessels. It can affect various organs — in my case, my lungs. It can be fatal if ignored. However, there is a reasonable treatment plan which involves four weeks of lengthy infusions, one per week, of a drug that will zap the heck out of my apparently overactive immune system. Of course, the drug (Rituxan) has numerous side effects though many patients report they experience none and the doctors do their best to mediate the potential for any throughout the process. Fortunately, this drug which has only been available for the past couple of years is much less taxing on your body than the one that has previously been used for so long.

Now I am completely and officially retired. While I was not able to complete my mission in its entirety, I know that this alone will contribute to guiding me on my road to recovery. I am scheduled to begin my treatment next week. Assuming all goes well and I don’t have any adverse reactions, I will continue afterwards by tapering off the Prednisone and moving on with a maintenance medication lasting for quite some time. Lifetime management is part of the big picture with remission as a goal.

This may not be the happiest post (though I am happy to finally have some answers), but I felt I needed to wrap up this chapter before beginning the next — Retirement and Plan B which I will talk about in my following posts — all fun and exciting stuff!!

Thanks to so many of you for your care, concern, and support along this rough road. Time to get on to the next! Let’s get moving…

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