Remembering Miss Stevens

I’ve never been a fan of the dismissive comment, “Those who CAN, do; those who CAN’T teach.”

I was trained as a teacher; I respect teachers.

Actually, even that comment is weak.

A good teacher is a life-changer. A good teacher is a purveyor of not only knowledge, but self-confidence, self-respect. Our children spend the majority of their day with their teacher. His or her professionalism, empathy, and abilities shape a large part of our children’s minds and psyches. How he or she views the world will seep into him; even more importantly, how he or she views HIM will seep into him.

I did my student teaching in a grimy school in a low socio-economic area. My supervising teacher was Miss Stevens…a woman in her fifties who had never married. Her reputation preceded her. She had actually unceremoniously booted the last student teacher my college had sent her… out of her classroom. This unhappy refugee had to finish up with another supervisor.

My hand (and probably lip) had trembled when I learned I was her next assignment.

The first morning, as we walked down the hall, an eighth grade boy…prompted by his posse…jumped out in front of me (and her)..and shouted at me…”Blondie, let’s dance”

This was not good.

I wondered if The Banished One had been a “Blondie” too. I could already see her eyeing me suspiciously. She told me she did not care what I did in my free time but I would never see her in any faculty lounge: she was there to teach not socialize.

My eye located the nearest girls room to her class room and decided that was as far afield as I would ever go.

So began, strangely,one of the high points of my life.

She was an incredible teacher. We were teaching literature, poetry, and Greek mythology to kids who had not a book in their home….whose parents were concerned with the basics of survival…not the classics of Shakespeare. Her mantra to me was “make it relevant.” When teaching grammar, she would ay…convey somehow to your class that it’s a shield against discrimination. Tell them…it’s your trump card in applying for a job..it’s YOU not letting others use words, phrases and dialects to limit, ridicule, or define you. It’s YOU…in control.

She showed me how Greek mythology could draw our classes in… presented as the Soap Opera it often was…the cheating husbands, the treacherous wives. We let our students bring in their favorite rock music and examined the lyrics…finding metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, in the words that already moved them…before we began our Poetry unit. She loved that I stayed after school to read Edna St Vincent Millay to lovesick teenage girls (no one does unrequited love like Edna.)

But most of all, she taught me empathy. Kids don’t learn through humiliation, fear, or low self-esteem. As she drove me to school every morning..(yes, she started picking me up so I could avoid the buses)…we worked on her pet project…finding ONE SINCERE PRAISE-WORTHY ATTRIBUTE about every child we encountered.

Then say it. Over and over. When kids feel safe and LIKED…when they feel someone sees something special about them…there are fewer discipline problems. Moreover, as they relax, they learn.

When the head of the English Department came to evaluate me at the end of my Student Teaching…his final grade for my effort was “B.” One of his critiques was that I had missed an opportunity to introduce the word “anthropomorphic” into the eight grade vocabularies of my classes. Miss Stevens seethed through our session with him that day, as he held forth in the faux British accent that was often cruelly imitated back on campus. As he often did in his college lectures, he mentioned his Oxford graduate experience at least twice that afternoon. Somewhere before his last Angolphilic reminiscences ended…Miss Stevens stood up and angrily left the room. He appeared startled.

Eyebrows raised, he gave me some faint praise for surviving through the entire semester of placement. I said in return …I loved every minute.

“B” is was.

But “B’ it wasn’t.

My final teaching grade mysteriously morphed into an “A.” I heard later that Miss Stevens (“Hera help us!) wielded that “anthropomorphic” asinine comment like the Sword of Damocles…until I received the grade she wanted for me.

I’d like Miss Stevens to know…in everything I do…I remember what this amazing teacher of Life and Lesson plans..taught me.

“Blondie” has danced , but she has never forgotten.

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7 Responses

  1. Very nice, sounds like a teacher we all wish we were fortunate enough to have had… I remember some great teachers as well. I can’t say the same for many of my kids’ teachers, some were very good and some were terrible and did some damage to some student’s learning and self-esteem. To be truthful, not as many seem to really care anymore, it’s more of just a job today. The world has changed, the students have changed and the teaching has changed…..too bad.

  2. Parent, I have not forgotten the tragedy of Phoebe Prince and awful apathy of that faculty and administration. I imagine we’ll be hearing more in months ahead….and it’s not going to pleasant.

  3. If only there were more Ms. Stevens in this world…..I fear that students will find fewer and fewer in the coming years. The trend now is to computer based education (my school is rolling in computers for each student beginning with the freshmen this fall). Students will be chained to their computers – teachers will teach from the computer – all eyes on the screen with little clickers to indicate by constant polling whether the student “understands”. The teacher will monitor screens to make certain that students stay on task – not flit to computer games, email, or God knows what else. We will be paperless as well (save the environment is the added bonus) as students will send all their work to the teacher via computer for the teacher to then grade on computer and send back. Why, even show up in the classroom? Why not stay at home, in one’s jammies with teeth unbrushed and bed head? Better yet, why even get out of bed, just pull the laptop to one’s pillow and work from the enveloping comfort of quilts and sheets?

    As a teacher of many years, I know that it can be the most rewarding, frustrating, exhilarating profession – all in the space of ten minutes – yet, even when given the opportunities to do something with higher pay, greater job security (I have almost my entire life taught in private schools for little money, fewer benefits, and as an at will employee no job security) I have siad thank you for the opportunity but have remained as a teacher. Why? For all the same reasons that your Ms. Stevens remained in the classroom. The ability to give students “the keys to the kingdom” is daunting but rewarding. When you see that spark – the students who begin to understand the importance of what they are learning and how it is relevant to their lives. The joy that occurs when a student comes in and announces – “at dinner last night I told my family why 732 AD is a crucial date in history and they were amazed – and I amazed myself at how much I really knew” – this is what makes teaching so rewarding. To see a student slowly develop thinking, writing, and speaking skills – as I write this now I think of the students I had this year and how far they had progressed – it is satisfying in a way that no other job can replicate – no matter how high the pay, the benefits, or job security.
    It is rewarding as well when students come back to see me once they have graduated (or I encounter them in my daily activities outside the classroom). They are pleased to tell me what they are doing – how despite the grades that they may have earned – they DID learn an enormous amount (sometimes to their surprise) that has stood them well. More important, they felt that they mattered in class – that they were individuals – I always made it a point to notice new haircuts (or dye jobs), when their braces were removed, or talked to them about their court dates (speeding tickets) and the judges’ verdicts. A student once said to me “You are like a mother – I do not want to disappoint you” – my response was – “you do not want to disappoint yourself” – and that, I think, is what teachers need to inspire in their students – a confidence that each matters as an individual and that with that confidence, each one can succeed in whatever she (or he) sets out to do – maybe not immediately, maybe not next year, but….if a goal is set, and encouragement abounds (not platitudinous, feel good words), then anything is possible. That is something that the computer cannot do. A teacher like a Ms. Stevens is one who makes that difference because she cares about each student and about the importance of what she/he needs to learn

  4. Anyone who has never bowed to a formidable (if not crusty) teacher of English or Latin has missed one of life’s great ka-chings.

    That register still rings for me whenever I think of Mary D, like Miss Stevens a spinster, who almost fifty years ago taught us tenth-graders how to read the King’s English and even how to speak it on occasion. As her reputation for rigor was longstanding (in his day my father had also sat before her) and her devotion to “the canon” almost religious, we sensed on the first day of class that anyone caught with “Mad Magazine” in her classroom risked far worse than a dressing-down, though we couldn’t yet say just what that bogey might be.

    My first glimpse of the dark dread came soon enough. Every two or three weeks we were to pick a book from Mary’s approved list and then write a report about it. After I had sailed through the first few of these assignments, I decided I deserved a weekend pass. So for my next report I selected Jack London’s “White Fang,” the virtues of which included its most modest length. Well, Mary refused to cooperate. She dismissed that “bound short story” as beneath my capabilities. And to my protest that SHE had, after all, put London’s book on the list, she shot me a look of profound disappointment, a look that let me understand that in lowering my own bar I had sinned against her–and against her resolve to bring out the best that was in each of her students. For some weeks thereafter I considered myself an unclean interloper in her class.

    From Miss D, then, I learned that a not unworthy motive for working hard is fear of embarrassing oneself before someone whose knowledge of a subject and dedication to imparting it command respect. To this day, I remember Mary D with gratitude—though I’ll likely never forgive her for assigning me in lieu of London’s adventure Hawthorne’s lugubrious “House of the Seven Gables.”

  5. “I learned that a not unworthy motive for working hard is fear of embarrassing oneself before someone whose knowledge of a subject and dedication to imparting it command respect.”

    Good point, Benny.

    Along those lines, I sometimes think I am most motivated to work hard or “behave well”…because I fear to disappoint someone I very much respect.

    Maybe it;s a combination of the decline of real knowledge and the decline of true respect, that has created our current troubles.

  6. “Among those lines, I sometimes think I am most motivated to work hard or ‘behave well’…because I fear to disappoint someone I very much respect.”

    That is the point at which responsibility, discipline, and self-respect begin. Teachers like Mary D and Ms. Stevens model responsibility, discipline, and self respect in such a manner that their students want that for themselves as well.

    The other day, I received notice that a teacher from my high school had died at the age of 97. I had not had her (she was the journalism teacher) but several of my siblings had – I sent them word of her death. My brother, who had been editor of the school newspaper, commented about what a tremendous woman she had been – convinced him that he could in fact write and write well. This led to a discussion about the cast of characters who had labored in the public high school that four of my six siblings and I had attended. We consider ourselves fortunate that we had so many teachers who set high standards for themselves and for their students. They were teachers who had command of their subject matter and who radiated a love of their subject. They were also teachers who viewed their students as individuals, not a collection of bodies that they had to contain within four walls for the fifty-five minute period. We would never have thought to have called them by their first names, not then, not now.

    One good teacher can make a difference – to be fortunate enough to have had a plethora is indeed to be truly blessed.

  7. I so agree, cks.

    Youngest Daughter was not the academic star that her older brother and sister were. She had a high school Art Teacher that helped her find her unique gift…who gave her confidence and that special “identity” (I’m good at THIS!) that I think all adolescents need. It’s a bit of confidence, a bit of protective armor at a pretty chaotic time in their development.

    Great teachers wield those special powers. My daughter has a fabulous job in London these days…one of those dream jobs…and her first step toward it began with a intuitive caring teacher.

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