I love a good meme, as any regular blog readers may have picked up. I scroll along social media and chuckle, chortle or awwww, at what I find; saving the good ones to my phone in case I want to laugh or be inspired all over again. This is one of those memes that made me think a little more.
Write a letter to someone who has made a difference in your life. Thank them and tell them why you are grateful.
Now we regularly see the old ‘write a letter to your younger self’ one, but this was different. Writing these letters could definitely be a positive experience, and my initial thoughts were certainly to thank important people in my past and present, for inspiring and supporting me in life’s journey etc, etc… But from there, I had an epiphany – how fabulous to reflect upon my own school days, writing to my own primary school teachers and thanking them for the difference they made in my life. Here’s my chance to tell them why I am grateful.
Dear Primary School Teachers,
Thank you for teaching me those lessons that were positive and powerful. And thank you for the ones that, well, quite honestly sucked!
I am forever grateful for having some primary school memories of kind, caring teachers, who made an effort to see me as Sharon, and not just another kid on their extra-long classlist. I am also grateful to those of you who taught mundane subjects without developing any genuine relationships with their kids, for it is you who taught me how not to be a teacher. I aspire to be the teacher who makes a difference in the lives of the beautiful souls I spend my days with, and for contributing to that ideal, I will be forever grateful to you all.
Allow me to set the scene, as my primary school days were forty odd years ago after all. (I know this because I added it up, three times, to be sure that I am actually that old. Ugh.)
I went to three primary schools back in the day. Two were in the very early stages of establishment, in a relatively new ‘satellite city’ of Melbourne, where my mum and dad had chosen to build. They moved out to the sticks in order to raise their little family and live the ‘Great Australian Dream’, building a three bedroom brick veneer in a little court, in a brand new estate, in an old but quickly growing town. Let’s call them PSA (Primary School A) and PSB (Primary School B). PSC was back in Melbourne; a totally different set up, where everything was old and worn. It was where my dad and uncle went to primary school in the 1940s, and I swear the same coat of paint was on the walls. More about that later.
PSA was brand new. Two modern buildings with lovely clean carpets that we could only walk on wearing slippers. I had my nice new uniform, including my shiny yellow raincoat with matching gumboots for outside play. I had a brand new schoolbag and my lunchbox was a little brown case, with metal clips that closed over. We had toilet bags, and in each one was a clean face washer, a bar of soap, tooth brush and tooth paste. And of course there was the spare knickers that every preppie needed, just in case. I was four years old and ready for the best years of my life.
Like lots of kids, I remember my Prep teacher as a young, beautiful princess who wore very short skirts and very high heels. Her hair was in a typical 1973 do, and her boobs were often in our faces as her cleavage burst out of her tight top.
Dear Mrs M,
Thank you for making a difference in my life; for teaching me how to keep a smiling public façade, while all the time it turns out that you were struggling with your own life issues. You were a young graduate teacher, thrust into a classroom with thirty-five fresh faced four and five year olds. Thirty. Five. Preps. Now I don’t know much about the curriculum in Victoria back in the day, but I remember how you sat me on a chair out the front, holding the flashcards for my little group of classmates to read. I remember having to read the grade prep reader three times before you sent for the grade one reader from across the corridor. I remember standing out the front of the class with a piece of chalk, poised to write the initials of the naughty boys who dared leave their seats whilst you went and grabbed a cup of coffee in your special gold cup. You told me that I was your very special helper and that I would be a teacher just like you; just wait and see.
With so many kids I guess you had to run a pretty tight ship Mrs M, so I also remember being scared to ask you to go to the toilet during class time one day, and how the pee ran down my legs and onto that lovely clean carpet as the kids in my group ran for their lives screaming, lest they were splashed by the river of yellow that was pouring, endlessly, their way. I remember the heat of my cheeks as they flushed with the shame of being the kid who ruined the carpet. You roared at me Mrs M, your very special helper who was going to be a teacher just like you. You certainly taught me never make a child so terrified to ask to use the bathroom if they genuinely need to.
I found out some time later that you had an incredibly busy working life while your husband, who I believe was the local mechanic, had a particularly busy ‘after hours’ life. It was a small town back then Mrs M, and you know how people talk, even years later. My mum worked in the chemist and she was able to fill me in on all the good goss years later.
How has reflecting on your contribution towards my life helped me as a teacher in this day and age? Well, I know that having a team of wonderful people, colleagues, friends and family along for the ride is invaluable. I know that talking through your concerns with your support people is essential. I know that a façade is just that; you just don’t know what is going on in another person’s world. They might look fabulous on the outside but be barely holding it together behind closed doors. I now find myself in awe of your ability to maintain your dignity during what must have been incredibly challenging times.
Thank you for helping me to reflect upon my own life as a teacher.
With warmest regards,
Sharon A, who still thinks you are a princess.
I was a part of the earliest days of Primary School A; I remember the day the canteen opened and I cried because I lost my five cents and couldn’t buy an icypole. I remember the new, cold metal monkey-bars being installed, and how a boy called Lee pushed me off and I was winded. (Lee was always on the naughty boy list on the board!) At PSA in grade 1 I had Mrs K, who was older and always a bit grumpy. She totally favoured her son who was also in our class. Then in grade two I had Miss C, who got married and became Mrs B. She was another princess; young and pretty, and I loved her. Primary school was my happy place and all was well in my world.
Then at the end of term one (there were only three terms back then) we moved to Primary School B and I left my friends and favourite teacher. It was horrible being the new kid; I did it twice and still remember the feeling of rejection that comes from putting yourself out there and introducing yourself to a group of kids, only to have them reject you with vile taunts about your appearance or just as bad, ignore you completely. PSB was just as new as PSA; it was the same town, we just moved across the highway from Town West to Town South. My new teacher seemed nice. Mr C tried hard to make me feel welcome, but the kids made no effort and I struggled because of this. The learning was easy enough, but I felt miserable, ever determined that my parents had ruined my life by changing me from one school to another. My younger sister was making friends easily, why wasn’t I? Woe is me… etc, etc It might have been forty-three years ago but I remember it because it was such a new and raw emotion at the time – resentment… rejection. I don’t know, but it sucked.
The words of the magnificent Maya Angelou come to mind…
People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how they made you feel.
From a teacher’s perspective, I learned the importance of caring and compassion from Mr C, and the following year from Mr W, in grade three.
Dear Mr C and Mr W,
You went out of your way to make me feel included in my new school. You made a point of including me in class discussions and encouraged me to extend my learning by doing extra work when I asked for challenges. I am now a teacher myself, and I make a point of ensuring that any kid seconded into my classroom during the mid-season draft, is made a due fuss of and celebrated as a member of the team. I check in with them regularly, and make an extra effort to welcome their parents to the fold.
I am thankful to you both, for making the effort with me when I was new to your grade, and for contributing to who I am as a teacher today.
By the time I was in term three of grade three, I was once again feeling good about school. Then we moved, again. I was eight years old and excited to be moving in with our wonderful Nan and Pa (my most favourite humans in the world ever ever ever), even if it meant there would be seven of us squeezing into a small house. But the school this time was an older, bigger one, and I was cut off from my younger sister by the gutter which posed as the boundary between the big kids and the little kids. I don’t remember much positivity about my teachers at Primary School C. I finished grade three with Mr T, who humiliated me in front of the whole class in my first week when, after telling everyone to do their tables, I started clearing off my desk, unsure what on earth he was talking about. He shouted at me for being stupid, and told me that they obviously taught me nothing at my old school. We certainly hadn’t learnt times tables, that’s for sure.
I went home in tears, and my beautiful Nan made it her mission to teach me every damn times table until I was saying them in my sleep. Every night, we sat together and I wrote them all down, 2s through to 12s, with Nan testing me. By grade four I was beating all of my cohort in tables races, by grade five I was beating all of the sixes as well. Which was great until they threatened to bash me up and shave off my eyebrows if I didn’t lose after play. Fun times!
My grade four teacher was sport mad, and if you were good at sport you were ok. I had her again in grade 5 (and as my P.E teacher in grade 6, ugh) and it was my first experience in a composite class. Now in those days, the blackboard was divided into two halves. The grade fives started with the handwriting, then worked their way across their half of the board. Spelling, grammar exercises, maths exercises, SRA task cards for reading. The grade sixes did the same thing on their side of the board. I finished my side by lunch time and had to do the grade six board – cue more joyous taunting at recess. Now I was the fat girl who thought she was it and a bit because she did grade six work…blah, blah, blah. My teacher gave seemingly zero fucks, and sent me out to deal with it on my own.
Dear Miss J,
Ummm, thanks for, well, two years of not much more than pure curriculum really. I guess you taught me the importance of building relationships and showing compassion towards my students. You were a fine example of how I won’t teach.
Thanks! I guess.
Now finally we come to Mr J, and I have to say that it was my grade 6 teacher who taught me more than anyone, ultimately guiding me to become the teacher I am today. He was, in retrospect, a tyrant. He had the respect of the students alright; we were too terrified to put a foot wrong. He was an out and out bully, and the memories of how he would relentlessly bully the students in his class, mentally and physically, will be etched in my mind forever.
Dear Mr J,
The purpose of this letter is to reflect upon your input towards my own role as a teacher. Let me thank you for playing the role you did – I know exactly how NOT to engage with my students.
I will not:
-place the desks in rows, dividing the class into two clear sections and then spend the entire year referring to each one as either The Brains or The Klutzes.
-sit students in order of intelligence, labelling them as the brightest to the stupidest.
-speak only to the brightest in the front row, virtually ignoring all others.
-yell at a volume so loud that my students cry, particularly when getting right in their faces.
-bang the desktop on my student’s hands if they forget to get a pen out the first time they were asked.
-make a young girl go to the vice principal’s top draw, move his cigarettes out of the way to get the strap, then make the class watch as you thrash a boy so severely that he wets himself in a sobbing mess on the floor.
And above all Mr J, I will never make a student come out the front after winning the times tables race, and have them lean against me uncomfortably as I tickle them to get a reaction. Not ok. Ever.
If there was one saving grace, it was having a group of friends who made my remaining primary school years ok. And certainly going into high school, my friendship group meant the world to me. I also played team sports and developed a love of music that got me right through to the end of my school years. And many of my secondary teachers were fabulous.
Which brings me to my final meme for this blog: I can only imagine the uproarious laughter if this little beauty was placed up on the smoke filled*, staff room wall in the 1970s. And yet it’s a real mantra for most of us in this day and age, thank goodness. I can honestly recommend writing letters like this to your teachers; it’s been quite the cathartic experience! I could honestly fill a memoir with a detailed letter to every one of them, and maybe I will one day. Each teacher taught me a little more about myself (resilience in particular comes to mind) and contributed towards moulding the teacher I am today. And for that I am grateful.
*Yes, smoke filled. Right up until my first year as a pre service teacher in 1989, there was smoking allowed in the staff room. At PSC, it was the job of the grade 6 girls to go in straight after lunch and do the staff room dishes. That included emptying and washing the ashtrays. Unbelievable, but sadly true.