The first morning back following summer break, the floors still slippery with wax, the smell of cleaning agent clinging to everything, is the morning that we jokingly dread. As soon as it turns August first, we commiserate with our teacher friends that it’s almost time to go back, that we’re not ready, and the summer went too fast. But we’ve all been anticipating this day, the day when the teachers first come back. We’re like our students on this day. We file into the auditorium slowly, more interested in catching up with the colleagues and friends that we haven’t seen during the summer months than with the comments of the morning’s speaker. High school teachers in particular are just like those students that linger, the last to go into the assembly, jockeying for a seat near the rear of the room so they can whisper to friends.
This morning was no different. I stood outside the doors to the high school auditorium with teachers from all the district’s schools gathered to hear the superintendent kick off our year and introduce the morning’s guest speaker, Tony Rotondo, author of Scratch Where it Itches: Confessions of a Public School Teacher. I must admit, I was a little skeptical. Oh no, another speaker. I hope he doesn’t have a PowerPoint presentation about the district’s goals and expectations, our annual yearly progress, and aligning the curriculum with state standards. He didn’t. Instead, Tony infused his message with humor all teachers could relate to – the absurdity of educational acronoyms, shushing strangers in movie theaters, and the everyday irony spilled from the mouths of students. Ultimately, his message of reaching out to the staff and students in our lives was a wonderful start to the new school year. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when he started to read from my entry titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” to the entire teaching staff in my district.
At the point in his speech where Tony was talking about Alfie Kohn’s work, I was nodding along. I have read a great deal on Kohn’s work – from the power and pitfalls of the letter grade to the myth of homework. So imagine my surprise when shortly after talking about Kohn, the morning’s speaker segues into discussing creativity and standards in the classroom and from his mouth booms my name through the microphone. Suddenly, I was a student again. Hey, that’s me he’s taking about! I was being singled out for something I wrote. My words have power. That feeling soon turned to panic as I realized – hey, that’s me he’s talking about. I felt my spine curve as I attempted to sink into the green fabric of the auditorium seat when he started to read part of my blog for the staff of the entire district. Called to the front of the auditorium, I don’t think my eyes left the carpet. Don’t trip. I was a student again. The speaker presented me with a gift (thanks for the portfolio, Mr. Rotondo!) and whispered, “Good luck with Etcetera.” And just like my students, I didn’t really hear what he had to say immediately following the recognition. I was that awkward student all over again, giddy from the recognition and anxious all at once.
The moment reinforced something for me. I need to make sure that my students have this experience, that their words, written or spoken, are recognized and honored for their power. I write today in part because a high school teacher took notice of something I had written and entered me in a local poetry competition (thanks Mr. Dik!). Would I have continued writing essays, poetry, taking creative writing classes had that teacher not recognized my interest in writing? Probably. But without that one teacher’s recognition, I might not have found my confidence or courage to take risks in my writing until much later. Moments like these have meaning and power for students - for everyone. When we are recognized for what we think, what we say, what we write or create, our world changes. We realize a new world of possibilities and understand that what we have created has power. Every student should have that moment. Every student should feel that world of possibility.