spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
Win some, lose some. Narbonne HS in the late '80s
I’ve heard it said that hindsight is 20-20. With this insight in mind, I have to re-examine my 31 years of secondary school educating with an eye to learning why I was never named Teacher of the Year.

Those first several years in the classroom as a youngster, I can easily see why no one nominated me.  Too many mistakes, warnings about unsuitable behavior, about being too close to the students or wearing clothing that gives the wrong impression. Heels too high, skirts too tight, necklines maybe a mite revealing.

Then those years fall behind. Shoes become sensible, pants that reveal no shape replace skirts, blouses droop over waistbands. Now immune from any interested eye, I invite no inappropriate attention. But still no nomination.

Apparently, there’s more to qualifying than transforming from vamp to frump. I have been too superficial in regard to what will garner the votes necessary to be elevated above the ordinary wielders of chalk and erasers who comprise my teacher peers.

One year, I identify the exact moment that any hope of being hailed the queen sails out the window. The committee has come to evaluate my fourth period eleventh grade English class, despite the fact that my real claim to acclaim is in the journalism program which meets sixth period.

Equipped with an impressive lesson plan I have divided the class into groups who have been instructed to discuss a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins with an eye to pooling insights.  Unfortunately, Nikita, despite instructions to look interested in the poem, decides to replenish her eye make up and redraw her lip shape before slathering on moist pinkish lip-gloss. Members of the committee note the aberrant behavior and can’t see how it relates to any part of the lesson plan. Later the report will come back informing me that I lack class control.

When I learn how harshly I’ve been judged, I tearfully face the offending class and blame them. “This year, because of you,” I say, pointing at the fifteen-year olds, “I will not be Teacher of the Year.”

During sixth period journalism class, I retell the story of failure to my sports editor, Danny. “They said I lacked control,” I sobbed.

“What’s the big deal” he said, not denying the fact, “you’re still a good teacher.”

Therefore, if excellence does not hinge on appearance and classroom control, which of my experiences in the classroom should have made me a shoo-in to win Teacher of the Year?

Hear some of my innovative techniques and you will understand why I always imagined myself Teacher of the Year.

I think my inclusion of blame placing in the journalism curriculum for beginning student reporters qualifies not just as a ground breaking approach to teaching self assertion and building confidence, but as a real world lesson for adulthood. The secret is to blame someone else for anything that might be traced to you.

The actual classroom practice for the art of placing blame can be fun and instructive to watch. The Teacher of the Year committee would see students eagerly pointing at each other while providing anecdotal evidence linking errors, misinterpretations and mistake with someone else, whom they must name. Quickly they pass the buck. The more inclusive the practice becomes, the fewer people remain to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong ever. This lesson can be taught in conjunction with the passive voice. One exception must be noted. The teacher is never to blame.

I would invite the Committee to view my student editors at work as they sit at their computers formatting pages and editing stories with one hand extended above their heads, fingers forming an “L” shape. This signal of “low self esteem” temporarily exempts them from brow beatings I frequently employ to reinforce heuristic concepts they may not have heeded earlier in classroom instruction. Unlike the previous lesson where the teacher is exempt from blame, the teacher can do a double handed arm lift and raise two “L’s” in the face of student protests. However, that information would not be shared with the Committee.

Finally, because there has to be a finally, despite a myriad of effective teaching techniques that should have qualified me to be Teacher of the Year or at least the recipient of a school-wide nomination, we come to a demonstration of consummate self control that would have clinched the award if anyone on any committee had seen it.

I invite you to imagine a sports writer arriving back to the classroom from covering a volleyball game. He has written the opening paragraph to the story, the “lede” as we call it in journalist lingo. He is a tall blonde young man who will later make his acting debut in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” but right now he is meeting a deadline and the sports editor has held a space on the page for his story. When I read what he has written I am dumbstruck. He has described the uniforms of the opposing team in the opening graf.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember the final score of the game and he thinks the Gauchos, who is our team won or maybe lost. What are we to do? Deadline is approaching. The print shop we use in a nearby town closes at 10p.m. and someone will have to drive the paper there, so I can pick it up the next morning for distribution that day. It isn’t as if he doesn’t know better. I have told him many times what constitutes a sports lede.

Enter the committee. They see me take the young man by the arm and guide him into a desk in the classroom. I sit at an adjoining desk and I whisper to him that this is the worst story I have ever seen and he is failing the class. He whispers back his chagrin that he has failed us all. He suggests we fill the column inches reserved for his volleyball coverage story with a picture of the team shot for the yearbook which he can get his hands on. In the quietest of voices he begs me not to fail him so he has the grade point average to get into the college of his choice.  Still in the lowest of whispers I tell him it is too late and he should have thought of that at the volleyball match. Because we are whispering, the committee will never see anything but a calm calamity handled with adult aplomb.

Have I ruined a young man’s life because he botched a volleyball story? Will the paper go to press on time? Will someone else pick it up in the morning and drive it back to school in time for morning distribution? Will the sports editor get on the phone and get all the details from his sister who plays on the team?  If the committee wants answers to these questions, it can reconsider my qualifications for Teacher of the Year.

Gregory J Rittger
11/1/2011 04:32:17 pm

You have always been "Teacher of the Year"

Cynthia Price
11/3/2011 05:13:30 am

You were always Teacher of the Year to us - who cares what anybody else thinks?

11/30/2011 08:44:05 am

This article has been on my mind for quite some time. The only reason my response was not immediate was that I didn't want to be offensive.

I do respect and admire anyone who's willing to put themselves out there sincerely and without pretense as you've done.

Granted, I know nothing about what the committee was looking for. However, if it were up to me - with the person I am now and looking back on my time as a student then - I wouldn't choose someone who was more interested in how they appeared and how brilliantly they presented themselves over a desire to inspire students. And if the goal is to be an inspiration, then awards wouldn't even matter.

I know I was not a good student back then. But I also didn't feel it was okay to ask questions. For instance, I never understood how to piece together one of those first paragraphs. I understood the concept. And I was capable of putting words together. But something about the way it was constructed eluded me. When I asked, you said nothing and simply pointed to the "Who, What, Where, When, Why" sign. While that may seem clever it clarified nothing for me and only made me feel stupid. After a couple more attempts, I didn't care whether I got it and resigned myself to being left behind.

As a person who does a little bit of teaching now, I take that past experience of feeling left behind and use it to shape what I do. I practice letting go of that need to take credit. I let the experiences of others raise up the group. And if I can't answer a question to someone's satisfaction, I look for at least two ways of explaining it the next time.

So, in that way you've taught and inspired me. And for that I'm grateful.

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