Jun 8, 2011

Meet The Staff: Kaitlin Murphy thanks teachers after school school system honored

Kaitlin Murphy worked as a middle, high school and college teacher for 10 years before joining Michelle Rhee’s education reform team at D.C. public schools as a writer in 2007. She is a freelance writer and continues to provide communications support to StudentsFirst. She blogs on www.kaitlinmurphy.org.
Last week I learned that my hometown school system in Barrington, Rhode Island was rated in the Forbes Top 10 "Best Schools for your Real Estate Buck".
I attended public school in Barrington, ranked fourth in the nation by Forbes, from the second grade through high school. In the decades that followed I learned a lot about education -- from my students, other teachers, research, and from the experience of working for Michelle Rhee and her education reform team at the DC Public Schools.
But when I thought about why Barrington, Rhode Island would have made this tiny list, all the research, best practices and controversy over education reform slipped away.
All I could remember were my teachers.
As someone who chose to make a living as a teacher and writer, I could focus on the powerful influence of strong reading and writing teachers.
For example, my sixth-grade language arts teacher, Mrs. Rahmne, paired up with a colleague and had both clusters not only read Katherine Paterson's "Bridge to Terabithia," but also co-write a play based on the novel and perform it for the school. Somehow they created a space for 60 imaginations to run wild while simultaneously imposing the structure that the writing process needed.
But if my family is right, I loved reading from the point my older sister helped teach me to read my first words from a faded blue Dick and Jane reading primer. By middle school, I don’t think my parents' summer reading incentives were necessary to get me flying through the classics, uh, -- Sweet Valley High series -- during summer vacations.
The teachers I remember the most taught subjects I wanted to ignore.
Mrs. Boisvert relentlessly sought to find connections between biology and our daily lives. One day she wrote on the board, "Why the Person Sitting Next to You Just Breathed in Your Spaghetti Dinner from Last Night." She easily transitioned our disgust into rapt interest in the process of cellular respiration.
For her, giving us authority over our fruit fly jars that year was worth every accidental mass fruit-fly escape -- if it meant we might catch her enthusiasm for the benefits of the genotype and phenotype discovery to medicine.
I did not care about biology before her. After one year with her, I signed up for AP Biology, still unsure if I could handle it but knowing she would be the teacher.
Mr. Eddins taught history and political science, and he loved to provoke us into debate. He would force us to take a stand based on the facts, and he never let us get away with an easy or convenient answer. He came into class nearly aflame when the Berlin Wall came down, firing questions at us and pulling us out of our apathy to think about the event's impact on the future of democracy, freedom and the world.
Mr. Telford put popular songs to math terms in middle school to make sure we would remember them. He once had us almost convinced that Prince’s hit "Raspberry Beret" was actually "Red Spherical Thing." I still sing Mr. Telford's version when I hear the song today.
Mr. Tobiasz, my pre-calculus and calculus teacher in high school, knew long before "The Case Against Homework" that homework was only as good as the teacher who assigned it. He used homework as a launch-pad for his lessons, having students volunteer to write out the problems on the board, then teach the path to our answers to the class. These lessons lifted a huge block for me in math once I saw how many different ways there were to a right answer. The subject never became easy, but I signed on for calculus the next year because I knew Mr. Tobiasz would be the teacher.
Finally, I wish coaches could be included more often in our discussions about teachers. Annmarie Marino is still the track and cross-country coach in Barrington, and the lessons she taught are still ripening now -- lessons about pacing in running and life, cultivating grace in competition and navigating the challenge of pushing and besting myself.
My teachers were not cool. They wore dorky ties in flagrant disregard for our strict, peer-enforced social mores borne of self-consciousness. The best of them showed us how to take the content seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. They oozed with crazy-passion for their subject areas. They paced electric across their classrooms, fueled by questions and sheer joy in the behaviors of protons, fruit flies and DNA; protagonists and melodies; formulas and functions; governments and rebellions.
Eventually they sent us on our way, with their lessons and love for learning following us out the door.
No school system is perfect, and as I imagine is true for everyone, there were some classrooms I wish I could have dodged. But when I remember my teachers in Barrington, Rhode Island, one thing is clear. If my hometown has one of the Top 10 public school systems for the real estate dollar, the teachers made it so.

No comments:

Post a Comment