Support staff. Relentlessly cheerful students. Earnest young teachers. That’s been my experience over two decades in the classroom.
I quit. I’m outta here. Adios. Auf Wiedersehen. Yep, after 20 years of schooling and teaching in the K-12 educational system, I’m done. Well, OK, so it’s not as dramatic as it sounds. Next fall, I’m moving on to a teaching position in a university education department. Now I’ll be teaching teachers about teaching. It’s a big leap, and one I’m excited about, yet as I say my goodbyes to K-12 staff and students, I find myself reflecting on my career. As I prepare to “teach the teachers,” I think: Who were the teachers who affected me the most?
Now, we all know that at the helm of every school and district are the administrators: superintendents, principals, directors and the like. Don’t tell them, but they’re really not the true leaders. (Shhh! It may hurt their feelings if they knew.)
If you’ve never had the opportunity of working in a school, let me share a few insider secrets. First, the actual cogs that keep the educational wheels moving are the ones who’ve influenced me the most. And it may surprise you.
First, the people who set the tone for the school, the “face” of K-12 institutions, are the office staff members. They’re the first ones there in the morning and the first ones parents and students meet at the schools.
Let me tell you about one administrative assistant who has helped me with the thrill of both (educational) victory and the agony of defeat. It’s a woman named Pat.
Pat is a fixture at the school. She’s the one who kids talk to in the office as they sweat it out while they wait to talk to the principal (for certain unmentionable acts). She’s the one parents can count on to get little Johnny’s lunch and homework to him before the day is done. She’s the one who staff members count on to answer questions about routines and procedures when we’re too embarrassed to ask a colleague again.
But to me, she’s also the one who has taught me how to be a professional woman who can balance work and play, and spiritual and family life. Some people may have letters before and after their names: Dr., Prof., Ph.D., esquire. But this office worker has something that can’t be taught in schools. She has something that no letters can spell. She has wisdom. Wisdom to know when to laugh, when to keep working through a problem and when to gently step in to help someone in need. For knowing her, I’ve learned more than I could from getting any degree.
My next scholar is a student. Usually, we think that adults know it all — that we have all of the answers. I know I thought that. But there’s one little guy who schooled me in the art of joy. He’s what some may term “special needs,” yet of all the kids I’ve worked with over the years, he has surpassed any exam I could give. I ask him every day: “So how are you? How is your day going?” Invariably, he answers: “Great! Beautiful! Good!” Some may only see his disabilities and life challenges, but he has what many teens, teachers and most members of society lack. He has wisdom. Wisdom to look only at the positives in life, wisdom to see splendor when all around him are cynics. For knowing him, I’ve become a better person who looks at the flower in the vase, not the dust on the table.
Finally, I am indebted to a fresh young teacher — a colleague who started working across the hall from me a few years back. He peppered (what seemed like) my every free moment with questions, some having to do with teaching; some not: “If I left this sandwich out all night, can I still eat it? How do I enter these grades again? How do I ask the principal for a day off?” Over the years, our relationship emerged to a level playing field, each of us asking the other for advice. It’s been a bit like seeing a child grow and blossom into adulthood. (Or, as I tell him: You are no longer an apprentice, but a Jedi knight. Of course that still makes me the Jedi master — I’m not giving that up.) He has wisdom, too. It’s an inquisitive type of wisdom in which he sought out a mentor to better himself professionally. And for this opportunity, this wisdom he asked of me — to be a mentor — has made me realize that the greatest part of being an educator is not teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. No, it is to reach into a life and to help them see their own potential. Potential that was there all along. It just needed to have a light shone on it.
For these, my greatest teachers, I wish for you — and for all of those who make the educational world a little brighter, a little better and a whole lot happier — the best dreams a teacher can bestow: May your pencils all have erasers, may your gradebook always be up to date, and may your wisdom multiply and help the next generation to shine that much brighter.
Dawn Quigley will start this fall as an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University. She lives in Forest Lake.
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