May 8th, 2013
This time of the year is always full of transitions: students are getting ready to leave one classroom behind and start a new grade; some are graduating; and teaching colleagues might be moving on to new jobs. Maureen Barbieri is going through some transitions too as she goes from teaching and mentoring future educators at the University of New Hampshire, to becoming an editor here at Stenhouse. She’s been spending time with her interns at Woodman Park Elementary School in Dover and in this post Maureen shares how she prepares her students for the “real world” and how she is preparing herself for the changes in her life.
Leaving Woodman Park
The year at Woodman Park is winding down, and the interns are feeling stressed, anxious, and melancholy. They don’t want to leave. They love their students and their cooperating teachers, and they don’t like the idea of having to say goodbye. So, they dive in even deeper, tweaking their curriculum units, spending countless hours creating new art projects and bulletin board displays, and poring over students’ writing pieces. At seminar, when we talk about job interviews, they get jittery. Several of them tear up as they realize that next year new interns will be in their classrooms. Where will they be?
Yesterday we had mock interviews, with Patrick, the princely principal, and several faculty members playing the roles of interviewers. The questions were gentle, and the interns fielded them easily enough. Afterward, the faculty gave them kudos for how well they had handled themselves. I thought of Patrick’s visits to their classrooms last week. He observed each of them and e-mailed me to say they had all done well, that he believes they have shown real growth. I realized then that, for all intents and purposes, they’re finished. The time for exploring theory, reflecting on practice, and shaping pedagogy has passed, at least for this year. At first I bristled, because there seems so much left to figure out, and I worry about their final projects, which will be posted online and assessed at the university. I am resisting this wrap-up phase as much as they are, but I’m coming to see that Patrick is right. These young teachers need love and support now, as they go out on their job hunts. The time for pushing them is over.
What I have felt most at Woodman is the sense of community the staff have created. In their united commitment to serving children, they have made a space here for joy as well as for academic success. These people take care of one another. There’s Mr. Charlie, who knows everyone’s back story and who always has time to stop and check in, whether he’s shoveling snow off the playground, giving directions to a delivery person, or sweeping the floor in the downstairs hallway. There’s Maria in the front office, savvy, patient, and eager to help. Without exception, people hold doors open for each other. Children smile and say “Good morning!” to visitors and to me. You can tell it’s their school. When a teacher needs help with lesson planning, coverage, or finding a solution to a problem, there is always someone to step up. No wonder the interns want to stay. It’s a safe haven, a place where people unabashedly show respect and affection, and this attitude is contagious. Will we be as gracious when we’re working elsewhere, I wonder?
I have loved the children at this school. Last week Matilde, a first grader, was writing a story, which she asked to share with the class. “This is my favorite unicorn,” she read. She held up her drawing of a unicorn and a girl in a fancy dress for the class to see. Hands went up immediately. “If that’s your favorite unicorn, how many others do you have?” asked Ben.
“It’s not a real unicorn,” she explained. “It’s in my imagination.”
“What is the name of the princess?” asked Logan.
“I don’t know yet,” she said, a bit pensive.
So, the next day, when I went to Matilde’s room, she asked if I would like to see the latest additions to her story. “The unicorn is not real,” the words read. “He is in my ‘imgenashon’.” On the next page, “This is another unicorn. He is also in my ‘imganashon’. The princess’s name is Rosabelle.”
I marveled at the way she had paid such attention to her classmates’ questions, revising her writing so deliberately. It’s the kind of move that makes a teacher’s heart pound. Then she asked me, “Do you know where I got the idea for the princess’s name?” I did not. “Teddy Rosabelle,” she said. “Do you know who he was?” Who wouldn’t love being in this classroom?
This and the time I get to spend with Patrick, hearing his take on educational issues, local and national, make it a privilege to be part of this team. Patrick values every single person on the staff, understands the challenges each one faces, and dedicates himself to helping teachers and interns—as well as students—learn. Patrick, father of three, former high school history teacher, current farmer and volunteer firefighter, is the most accessible, considerate, and insightful administrator I’ve known outside of New York City, and I have savored every minute in his company.
The poet Tess Gallagher says, “When you hug someone, you want it to be a masterpiece of connection.” At Woodman the hugs are mostly metaphorical. I think of the morning, several weeks ago, when I was preoccupied with worrying. I watched Patrick raise the flag outside the school, the wind blowing so ferociously he could hardly stand. We waved to each other, and I asked him how he was. “I’m worried about you,” he said. “Are you okay?” The last thing I ever expected, when I took on this role as a supervisor, was to find solace and support at work.
When you have felt connected to a place and to the people in that place, it is not easy to move on. As much as we want to keep our “masterpieces of connection,” we all have to deal with the inevitability of impermanence. Yet surely our lives are changed by every single person we meet in this life, for better or for worse. There have been lots of Matildes for me, as there will be for these interns. Maybe there will be other Patricks too; who knows? Still, I am feeling wrenched at the thought of leaving Woodman Park. Like these young women, I want to hang on, to freeze time, and to live over and over again the hundredth day of school, the Valentine’s Day serenade, Pete the Cat’s visit, the quiet hush in the room when a teacher reads a new picture book, the daily celebration of children’s writing, their candor and their resilience. What is it we will carry away with us when we leave? What is it that will last? Warmth? Loyalty? Consideration for others?
I tell the interns, again and again, that they are on the verge of a grand adventure, that their lives as teachers will be hard and challenging but also rich and filled with surprise and deep satisfaction. I tell them that they will have the chance to learn and grow and help countless children discover joy and beauty in this world, even as they cope with its heartaches. I tell them this in different ways, together and separately, week after week. Yesterday, as they spoke about why they want to be teachers, I could imagine their future classrooms, the children they will love, the learning they will inspire. Perhaps this, in the end, is the real solace, the enduring connection. Perhaps Woodman Park is just a beginning.
Entry Filed under: Leadership & Mentoring