A student from my first ever fourth grade class — now in his 20s — contacted me on Facebook today. He was glad that I remembered him. “u and mrs jones were my favorite teachers ever!”
Mrs. Jones! Doris!
Doris taught down the hall from me in my first few years teaching. She was inching towards retirement, but still stayed in the building late, long past dismissal and often well after sun down. It was just me, Doris, and the night janitor, so we struck up a bit of a friendship.
Me: the early 20something white girl, wielding my diploma from the progressive liberal arts university like it were my weapon against big, systematic problems. Ha ha ha.
Her: the only black teacher in a majority-white school. There were only a handful of black students.
I knew even then that her race mattered — a lot. (It’s not clear I understand the magnitude now, years later!) Our students did not get to have a lot of interaction with people of color, and here, in Room 7, they got to see a woman of color in a position of authority, working hard at something she loves. That really matters.
Doris spent much of her day at her desk, grading, while her second graders worked their way through packets in silence.
I did not so much as visit my desk during school hours. It was mostly a storage space; I would drop off a stack of papers as I circled back to work with a small group on the rug.
She spent hours with her red pen after school, carefully annotating her students’ work.
I kept spreadsheets full of notes from student reading and math conferences, rubrics, and standards based grading. I printed them out to help students analyze their own progress.
She spoke to students in a very direct manner, with a volume and tenor unlike anything I heard in my cozy, white, upper middle class home as a child.
I used phrases like “remember, we use friendly words,” and tried to exude patience even when I was so sick of Tyler losing his pencil. Again. I had an anchor chart with our class’ social problem solving protocol hanging by the door. It involved a lot of listening.
While our teaching styles seemed diametrically opposed, there were certainly things we had in common. Both of our desk habits resulted in enormous stacks of paper that caused each and every colleague to offer a sympathetic sigh. We both believed in feedback, and knowing our students inside and out. We both believed in holding our students to high expectations, although we may not have agreed on what those expectations were. We both loved our jobs.
Doris, while firm, built strong relationships with students. Some of the second graders seemed intimidated by her, but most fell hard and fast in love. It was hard not to.
And so the teacher with the thick packets that broke the copy machine’s stapler, and the teacher who spent entire weekends crafting elaborate project-based learning experiences, became friends.
“I see you have some of my old jokers in your class. I’m sorry,” Doris would say while scanning my class list, without a trace of irony. “I swear I told them not to do whatever horrible things they are doing to you.”
“Oh, I love them! Jack really makes me laugh,” I would respond with the broad smile of someone new to the game.
“Oh, honey, you don’t have to say that.”
“I really do!”
And she would roll her eyes. And flash a quick grin.
It helped that Doris is an absolutely, without question, hilarious woman. She could conjure up that classic “teacher face,” only to burst out in contagious belly laughter a minute later. She offered deadpan commentary on local politics, and avoided school drama. She offered me advice, and listened patiently while I explained my new, brilliant idea. (Some of these ideas are ones I developed into my current practice, and many were… not at all as brilliant as I thought they were at 6pm on a Friday night.)
“GO HOME!” Doris would shout down the hallway at me. “GO. HOME.”
“YOU, TOO!” I would holler back.
“MAYBE. WHEN I FEEL LIKE IT.” Laughter.
A few years after I left, I heard that Doris planned to retire. I knew I had to make the drive back up Route 3 to say goodbye. She gave me a hug — a hug! — when I showed up in the doorway of Room 7. We hadn’t kept in touch, and I haven’t seen her since that day, either. I wish I told her how much I admired her, but I think it would have only made her laugh uncomfortably. She wouldn’t have believed me.
We approached our jobs in such different ways, but we are both that kid’s favorite teachers, more than a decade later. There are infinite pathways to building strong relationships with students. Being “fun” does not automatically win their love. Being strict doesn’t automatically lose it.
And you know what? Doris’ former second graders arrived in my fourth grade classroom ready to learn. They had decent spelling, and often knew where to place a comma — a lost art. They had so much respect for teachers.
These kids knew what hard work looked like, both from doing it and from watching their brilliant 2nd grade teacher model it.
I think she taught them things I was not equipped to teach. I think I wasn’t fully equipped to learn everything I could from her yet, either. It was too easy to dance around conversations so that we wouldn’t have to discuss our warring pedagogies. It was too easy for me to think I knew anything about the black experience because I had dated a few black guys.
“What are you doing still talking to this old lady?” Doris would ask me during our dinner hour chats. “GO. HOME.”
Glad I stayed.