Superhero Teachers


by | May 8, 2020

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When I was 7, my mother moved me and my younger brother and sister from New York to a very small town in South Carolina. It was a difficult time and move for us and felt more like we were moving to a different country than another state. I can remember meeting Ms. Newby on my first day of first grade in my new school. She was not very tall and walked with metal crutches. I learned later that she had survived polio as a child. She wasn’t overly friendly but introduced me to everyone and smiled.

At first, I felt like I didn’t belong in my new school. I was different from everyone else. I was that “Yankee girl,” who talked funny and didn’t have a dad. I didn’t know anyone in my class and felt very sad and very alone. So much had changed for me, and I certainly couldn’t make sense of it all at that age. But, Ms. Newby must have made some sense of what was happening for me because as the days and months went on, I learned that she cared deeply for me. She noticed me, called on me, complimented me, and even started giving me “special” things to do. I loved when she let me be the one to write our first grade class news stories. She told me that my handwriting and spelling were so good that I could be her helper. I loved it, too, when she would let me take our “Class News” up to the front office to be copied on the mimeograph machine. I couldn’t wait to smell the freshly printed pages, as I carried them confidently back to class. Ms. Newby made sure that I belonged in that class and that I felt cared for and valued. From Ms. Newby and that first grade class, I learned to love school. That never changed for me.

I started studying to be a teacher at Georgia State University in 1991, and I remember someone teaching us way back then about what really matters to students in schools. Our professor asked us to write a reflection on our teachers and about our school experiences. When we read them aloud, we recognized that what we remembered most was how we felt in school, how being in school made us feel. We didn’t remember much about the daily lessons, textbooks, or our teachers’ specific methods, but we remembered the relationships, the people, and how they treated us–good and bad. I started to understand then how important my role as a teacher was in the classroom. I had the power to create the kind of learning community and classroom space in which students could feel accepted, valued, capable and cared for, or alternatively, feel ignored, incapable, and insignificant. Later in my life, I came upon the Maya Angelou quote that summed up what we learned in our education class that day. She said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This week is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I still wish that I had truly thanked each of my teachers for the difference they made in my life. I wish they could know what their kindness and care meant to me and how they influenced my future. I know that I would not be an educator today if not for the tremendous teachers that I met along the way. Those very good teachers saw me and looked for my strengths. Their aim was not to “fill me with knowledge” so that I passed my end of year exams. They wanted me to know that I was cared for and that I had value and potential. Muriel Spark said, “The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.” Reading this quote reminds me of Paulo Freire and his powerful “banking model” metaphor for education. He said that people too often view education as a banking model. In this model, the students are empty receptacles to be filled with knowledge by the teacher, and good students are quiet and receptive. In this model, only one kind of knowledge is valuable–teacher or textbook knowledge. The students’ strengths, skills, resources, identities, and funds of knowledge are unimportant and ignored.

Ms. Newby did not practice the banking model; she recognized my strengths and helped me build on those. Today, I love writing in part because Ms. Newby encouraged me early on. At GVP, our teachers look for students’ strengths and use these and all that students bring with them to build new knowledge and skills. Ours is not a banking model and it is not a subtractive model of education. We are not looking to only make knowledge deposits or to erase or ignore what students already possess. We take up a strengths-based and additive model of education wherein students’ strengths become resources for learning and growth and students are always adding to their repertoires of knowledge. They know many things and come with many resources and our teachers help them mine these resources and add to their collection.

Thanking and appreciating our teachers is something we try to practice regularly at GVP, as appreciation is one of our Core Values. But, this year is so different and somehow I feel we need to do more. We have asked teachers to do so much—to learn new technologies, take up new methods, create a new learning model, support students and families socially and emotionally, and do all this while also managing their own families, stress, and trauma related to the pandemic. GVP teachers are exceptional and extraordinary. They go above and beyond to be sure that students are cared for and that they feel connected. They don’t just care about students learning new material and mastery for tests. They model and teach lifelong learning, respect, responsibility, appreciation, and kindness–all of our Core Values. I am thankful for our teachers’ courage in this time; for their continued dedication to their students and our school; and most of all for the care they so generously give.

I saw a quote this week as I searched for words and ways to thank our teachers. The author was unknown, but the quote said, “Not all superheroes wear capes, some have teaching degrees.” The quote made me smile, as I often refer to our teachers and staff at school as superheroes. I really like the Cambridge Dictionary definition of a superhero; it is broad in scope and allows us to include humans in the superhero category. It says that a superhero is “a character who has special strength and uses it to do good things and help other people.” I also love what Superman once said, “I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Ms. Newby certainly had to overcome obstacles in her life, and she was a superhero to me. I know that our teachers at GVP are also superheroes. They have many diverse strengths and they use them each and every day to do good for our students, our school, and our world. They persevere during this pandemic and continue to transform lives and change futures.