Monday was back-to-school day for me in a manner of speaking.
That afternoon I attended the Beginning Teacher of Excellence Award ceremony. That night, I listened in as the Person County Teacher of the Year was named following a dinner at Country Club Steakhouse.
At both events, I heard people sing the praises of those who were being recognized and I found myself thinking about what made good teachers when I was in school – you know, back in the pre-historic days.
I thought about three teachers, each of whom were about as different as they could be in the way they taught their students, but who each managed to make a connection.
As I was listening to the recommendations for the teachers honored on Monday, I realized they had many of the same traits those strong teachers of my own youth.
Mrs. Knott was my fourth-grade teacher. She was stern when she needed to be, but she also knew when to let us go just a little bit. She made us recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at the beginning of school. She was the only teacher who ever did that for us. To this day, every time I recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I see Mrs. Knott standing ram-rod straight at the front of the class leading us in our morning ritual. She modeled consistency for us.
I also remember Ms. Shannon, my sixth-grade teacher. That was my first year of middle school and it came at a time when middle schools were still an experiment. My parents had warned me that sixth grade was the point at which school got real.
Most of the students in middle school changed classes each period, but somehow, I was assigned to Ms. Shannon for every class but P.E. and band. Like Mrs. Knott, Ms. Shannon was stern, but I got the sense that her sternness came not from meanness, but from a business-like sense that we were there to get some work done and that, no matter what, we were going to learn something while we were in her class.
That structure was crucial.
Ms. Shannon, though, knew she was working with students fresh out of elementary school. She read the Fred Gipson novel Old Yeller to us. If you want to know how hard it is to cry and avoid the other kids in your class seeing you cry, just ask me one day.
As time passed by and the school year got closer to an end, Ms. Shannon became more of a friend than a teacher. She laughed with us. She listened to our stories. She connected with us on a personal level. I heard similar comments several times on Monday at the events I attended.
The third teacher I remembered was my 12th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Tyson. A preacher’s wife, she was a joker and a prankster from the word go. She told jokes and she laughed her raspy, smoker’s laugh heartily when she listened to our jokes. Mrs. Tyson was also our yearbook adviser so I had her for two classes my last year of high school. Though that English class was a serious academic endeavor and the yearbook class was a much more laid-back environment, Mrs. Tyson approached them both the same way. She was serious when it came time to talk about Beowulf. You could tell she enjoyed that stuff. She was serious when our yearbook staff was approaching a deadline with the printer.
But she knew when to lay off and let the students run the class – both the yearbook class and the English class. I recall one day in English when one student made a joke at another student’s expense and it drew laughter from everyone. The student who was the butt of the joke ran to the chalkboard and wrote the other student’s name on the board and marked a line under it. Before you know it, everyone was cracking jokes and the student was keeping score. Bad jokes drew negative points. Really good jokes earned extra credit. At the end of class, I had a negative score. Mrs. Tyson won the contest going away. I never found anyone who didn’t love Mrs. Tyson. And, yes, we learned some English along the way.
Like Mrs. Knott, Ms. Shannon and Mrs. Tyson, Person County has its share of really good teachers who know how to connect with their young charges. And, in doing so, they shape lives.