Monday, August 16, 2010

Reviving my enthusiasm for teaching

(The following is my column for this week's Newton County News.)

Amid the spectacle of the district-wide meeting held the first day back for Joplin teachers today came a quieter, more meaningful moment that will stick with me long after the orchestrated hoopla has vanished into history.

More than 1,000 Joplin School District employees gathered at the Hammons Center for a meeting designed to fire up all employees, whether they teach in the classroom as I do, make the big decisions in the central administration office, or are in charge of making sure that the students are fed and have a clean, safe environment.

Our Teacher of the Year, superintendent, assistant superintendent, and community members delivered motivational speeches designed to build the enthusiasm of staff members who might still be longingly looking at vacations that slipped away.

A central focus of those messages was the Joplin School District’s new Bright Futures program, an innovative coupling of education and community, which has grown so much since its inception only a few months ago that each of the schools in our district now has at least three business partners to help take care of our needs.

All of that was interesting, even when spread out over nearly three and a half hours, but what I will take away from the meeting occurred even before it started.

One brief encounter brought back memories of my first year in the teaching profession, 1999, in half of a small trailer at Diamond Middle School.

Because of scheduling problems that year, I had two classes which mixed seventh and eighth graders, something which should be avoided if at all possible. One of them was the last class of the day. The kids were great, but at times the combination was slightly volatile. About halfway through the school year, I decided to try something different. Instead of sitting the troublemaking students in the front row, I put four students who never caused any trouble in those seats.

It did not do a thing to help the discipline, but it didn’t make things worse either and when I saw those four students, Josh Gill, Samantha Young, Sarah Simpson, and Kristen Hicks, in the front of the room each day, working hard and setting a good example for their classmates, I felt much better about the class. I doubt if I can remember where any other four kids sat that first year, but I can still see those four as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Josh Gill had a slow start in the class, but worked hard and came on strong at the end. Samantha Young was the writer who always had a unique perspective, no matter what the topic was, and who let her emotions bleed through into her writing. Sarah Simpson was the Student Council leader, vice president that year if memory serves correctly, and president the following year. Her papers were always neat, well-organized, and powerfully written.

The fourth student from that group, Kristen Hicks, was the first person I recognized after I entered the convention center today. Though she is obviously a far cry from the 13-year-old from that long ago creative writing class, I can guarantee that she will bring the same diligence, intelligence, and extra effort into her new job as a first-year special education teacher at Stapleton Elementary that she put into every assignment she did for me during my first and second years as a classroom teacher.

So thank you, powers that be at the Joplin School District for providing the staff with a high-powered lineup of motivational speakers, but I was ready to greet my new students before the first inspirational word was spoken. Talking to Kristen Hicks and hearing her enthusiasm over her first teaching job reinvigorated this old teacher.

I hope she is lucky enough to find students as memorable as the ones I have had, ones who will continue to stoke her enthusiasm for teaching long after the excitement of her first year fades into memory.

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