Now’s a great time to thank a teacher

I got a wonderful gift over the winter holiday. A former student, Amanda Davis Closs, wrote me about how a course I taught, and especially a project she worked on in the class–over a decade ago, long before I came to my current job at TCU–has remained important to her. She described how the community studies project she worked on–one linked up to an NEH-funded program I was directing at the time–left a lasting impression on her while building skills and commitments she still draws on today. She attached her write-up for the project, entitled “A Bridge to the Past: The Euharlee Covered Bridge.”

Photo by Amanda Davis Closs

In re-reading her story, which indeed begins with a retracing of her drive across the covered bridge itself, I was also able to reconnect to the fun of teaching that class and directing the Keeping and Creating Communities initiative for over three years.

Logo designed by Traci Blanchard

Amanda and I have exchanged several emails since she first wrote to me back in December. I’ve tried to convey how much receiving her update has meant to me, a teacher truly honored to find that I played a role in nurturing the exciting work she is doing today.

Let me return the favor by paying it forward, while asking any of you who happen to read this blog posting to do the same. After all, teachers have had an unusually demanding academic year so far. The COVID-related challenges started all the way back in the spring, then spread across the summer as–in a messy time of uncertainty–they (we) struggled to prepare for a complicated and uncertain and ever-shifting environment for fall teaching. Every educator I know (and I know quite a few) was exhausted by the time winter break finally arrived. And many started back January 4, the date when I originally composed this blog post, while wondering when vaccines will become available beyond the lucky few so far able to secure a dose. They had to be worrying about what kinds of exposures their students had over break (if they were going back to in-person teaching) or how they could sustain focused-and-energized learning for students plugged in from a distance, if some or all of their class members were learning remotely. All this on their minds BEFORE January 6–the events which have led me to update this posting on January 9. Imagine the challenge of helping students “process” the images that have become unavoidable since the assault on the Houses of Congress.

So this is a moment when we all need to follow Amanda’s lead. Thank the teachers who have made a difference in our lives. Here are some for me.

Thank you to the dear nuns of St. Pius School in Greensboro, NC, especially the loving Sister Philomena who made third grade downright fun. Thank you to Monsignor Dolan, who modeled civic commitment and democratic vision in his support of Civil Rights initiatives just beginning to take hold.

Thank you to Mrs. Hazelman at Kiser Junior High, who welcomed me back to her classroom soon after my dad’s sudden fatal heart attack by asking me to read a piece of my writing aloud, praising it even when emotion made me stumble over words, then picking up the text for me when I couldn’t finish and announcing to the whole class: “Sarah is a brave writer. I am proud to read her work.”

Thank you to the one math teacher I had in high school who made me believe I could excel in something beyond the more comfortable-for-me English, history and foreign language classes: Ida B. Moore. Thank you, also, to Peggy Joyner, whose English courses pushed me as a writer and reader for my last two years of high school. Her intellectual intensity could be intimidating, but she also found ways to slip the most encouraging comments possible into her margin notes on papers, and she modeled how to make every minute of class time count.

Photo credit: Sarah R. Robbins

Thank you to Claire Hubert at Agnes Scott College, whose French courses emphasized precision in writing while also affirming that we needed to speak with joy and confidence in our oral work, even when we made mistakes. Thank you–as so many from ASC have said before and after me–to Margaret Pepperdine, who made medieval literature come alive, provided opportunities for doing primary research on authors’ personal writings, and showed me that it was possible to be an intellectually engaged administrator, ever-inquiring into institutional culture’s complexities for the benefit of students.

At UNC, thank you to the incomparable Aldo Scaglione, for enabling my long-held dream of reading Dante in Italian with confidence and joy; to the English Department advisor of majors who, meeting only once with me as a transfer student aiming only to complete my B.A., insisted I accelerate my progress and enter the M.A. program through a transition plan he envisioned on the spot; and most of all to Donald Kennedy, who shepherded me through that speedy M.A. and a thesis capitalizing on my love of language via comparative study of two different medieval versions of the Arthurian legend, one in French and one in Middle English.

In Savannah: thank you to the hard-working student journalists of the award-winning school newspaper we built at Benedictine School. In Flint: thank you to inspiring students at Flushing Junior High, Mott Community College, and the Valley School; by pushing me to be a better educator, you were great teachers. Thank you to colleague-mentors at all those places, especially Nancy Brandt at Valley. You showed me how to blend rigor and love in the classroom.

Thank you to the amazing faculty working in the doctoral program in English and English Education at the University of Michigan when I shifted in the 1990s from high school teaching back to graduate study–after many years away. Mentors like June Howard, Julie Ellison, Marlon Ross, and (of course) Anne Ruggles Gere smoothed my way through the program in a rapid three years that was nonetheless rich in intellectual energy and empowering in the access to multiple professional opportunities always made available to graduate students in the JPEE cohort. Thank you to teacher-colleagues among my fellow program students, who’ve stayed connected as we’ve assisted each other in career progress over the years.

At Kennesaw State back “home” in Georgia, thank you to energetic faculty colleagues from across the university, to President Dan Papp for unique opportunities to learn about higher education administration, and, from beyond KSU, to Janet Edwards of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Elyse Eidman Aadahl of the National Writing Project for teaching me to embrace what’s now often called “public-facing” humanities, well before others were extolling its virtues. Most especially, thank you to the amazing teachers of the National Writing Project, local and around the country, and to the area school administrators who supported our good work together for over a decade.

My students and faculty colleagues at TCU have been powerful teachers too, none more so than the determined learners enrolled in my classes in fall 2020. Thank you for the positive enthusiasm you brought to every Zoom session; for the thoughtfulness evident in your class discussions, group work, and projects; and for your shared efforts to make our course communities supportive of everyone in a time when so much of our nation suffers from division.

I’m excited about the coming new semester.

And I want to send a grateful shout-out, in that context, to Amanda, with all good wishes for her own next steps. May your research and writing continue to bring you success. You have certainly, already, brought renewed joy in teaching, and learning, to me.

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