I want to tell you how much your words mean to me. How much they meant to me when I was a brand new teacher, in the spring semester of my first real year. Untested and new I was thrown into six full classes packed with seniors, looking at me with pity sometimes, with respect at others, and sometimes even with extreme dislike. But I was lucky because I met you. You came to our school and spent the whole day with us. As a young idealistic teacher who was striving to create a safe space in the school I once attended myself, I felt isolated sometimes.
I felt isolated by the voices of my weary peers who had been at this much longer than I, I felt defeated at times when my approaches were dismissed as being too optimistic, and some days I felt like I was one of those eager young flames that would soon be extinguished by the reality of the very heavy burden we educators carry. The burden of the future; of carrying 100s of children’s fears and worries and crushing realities. Of carrying their struggles that manifest as anger, as apathy, as a depression so deep it seems like you can’t possibly be a ray of light.
I was a green leaf and I felt so heavy, I felt like I was wading up stream, and I was sure I would never learn how to handle a classroom filled with 30 different kids with different interests and different problems. I was starting to believe that I was young and naive.
Dear Rita thank you. Thank you for being someone many years my senior. Thank you for having the brightest flame i’ve ever seen in an educator. Thank you for reinforcing what I knew in my heart to be true and telling me that it’s okay to teach and manage the way I do. Thank you for coaching first understanding, then mentoring, and THEN teaching. Thank you.
It’s only my third year teaching, you left this earth when I was only in my second. I cried when I heard the news of your passing because I was suddenly bowled over by just how lucky I was to have been touched by your light. How lucky I was to have an administration that felt that you were someone we needed to spend an entire day with, all of us, every teacher in my school. I’m so grateful that our administration believed in you, because it told me they believed in me. It showed me that the weariness I was reading in others wasn’t their dismissal of my methods rather it was the weight of all the years of pain their kids had shared with them. It showed me that it was okay to be young and enthusiastic but you’ve got to do it right or you’ll burn out. It showed me that renewal is always possible.
It’s hard for a young teacher. It’s still so very hard for me. I think i’ve gotten it mostly down but somedays it’s so hard and I try to remember your words. You stood there telling us very clearly that good teaching could not be boiled down to “you’ve got to love the children” but rather, “you’ve got to understand them.” And Dear Rita, I find myself failing every day. I find myself failing so frequently to understand. My expectations so high my hopes for them soaring, I find myself failing to recognize their struggles that manifest themselves as problems, as attitudes, as apathy. But because of you, at the end of each day, I try to check myself. I promise that tomorrow I will be a better actor, that tomorrow each child will be the best one, each class the best i’ve ever had, each day will be my best because I can be the ray of light. I can be the one that understands first.
Dear Rita today I had some students journal about their lives. I had them write about who they are and what they’re doing. I had them tell me where they were going, how they were going to get there, and who they had to be to make it happen. Dear Rita I can’t help but cry when reality so suddenly forces you to remember the fragility of these kids. The toughness of their lives, all the layers they must overcome, all the scars that lay hidden beneath the surface.
Dear Rita i’m trying. I’m trying every day to be the same teacher that nodded so fervently at every point you made. I’m trying so hard to remember to never let the kids or class know they’re the rowdy ones. I’m trying so hard to be my best every day. To understand before I teach. To mentor before I lecture. To listen before I speak.
Dear Rita I think of you often, especially on the tough days. The days three weeks into school when the honeymoon is wearing off and boundaries are being tested. The days when you push and push and nothing is pushing you back but a broken heart that doesn’t see a future. I think of you in times when I need strength most of all, I repeat your words like a prayer because the religion of teaching compassion and expectations and respect is all i’ve got to turn to.
Dear Rita sometimes I don’t do as well as i’d like, but I try. I write every day about all the things i’m going to do better tomorrow and all the ways I can be better; all the ways I can be a source of security rather than a source of disappointment. Rita i’m trying and I know you would be proud.
Dear Rita, thank you.