This past week the first principal for whom I worked passed away. Since then I've spent some time reflecting on the many life lessons I learned from Mrs. M and wanted to pass a few on to you.
In the midst of my student teaching semester I learned that the dance/drama teacher at an area year-round school was leaving her position to stay home with her soon to be born child and that Mrs. M wanted to talk with me about possibly filling the position. Here I was, not quite 22 and not yet teaching a full load of courses, yet this woman wanted to meet me before she talked to anyone else. I put on my pant suit, drove out to the school, walked into the building and was quickly ushered back to the principal's office. They'd spent some time training those of us who were seniors in the education department on what to expect in an interview, so I was prepared to answer questions about my philosophy, teaching style, behavior management system, etc. I handed over my resume and waited, nervous but trying to exude confidence, for the first question. Mrs. M looked across her desk at me and asked, "Do you have any questions for me?" I was confused. This wasn't how this was supposed to start. So I replied, "I'm not sure. Don't you have questions for me?" She paused, took off her glasses, looked me in the eye and stated, "I've done my homework. I already know everything I need to know about you and am prepared to offer you this job. Now, have you done yours?" In that very first meeting I learned Life Lesson #1 - Always do your homework. Look for information online, talk to friends who may be able to tell you more, make phone calls - whatever it takes, but know everything you can when you're going into a new situation.
I was hired to finish out the last 2 weeks of one school year for the previous teacher, then take over the position when the new school year started. Remember, this was a multi-track year-round school, so one year ended on June 30 and workdays for the next began on July 1. Mrs. M had explained to me that I'd technically be a substitute teacher for the first several weeks while the previous teacher was out on maternity leave, but it wouldn't be long before I'd be a full time employee with benefits. Unbeknownst to either of us, the previous teacher had 9 years worth of sick and annual leave saved up and had decided to use EVERY SINGLE DAY. This meant it was the end of October before I finally received a full paycheck and started to accrue leave of my own. In the four months prior to that I prayed that I wouldn't get sick or in an accident since I didn't have any leave or insurance. However, just as I became I full time employee my grandmother began the two month health decline that, just before Christmas, ended with her passing away. Throughout that time period I drove to work each morning, taught a full day, drove to Duke Hospital to spend the afternoon/evening with my grandmother and various other family members, then drove back home, slept, and started it all over again the next day. It didn't take long for exhaustion to kick in. One day Mrs. M called me into her office and shared that she noticed something was going on and was concerned about my well-being. I briefly shared my story. She looked at me and asked, "Rachel, what are you doing here?" I explained that because I'd been a substitute for so long I had no sick days to take. Her answer - "That's my fault. You go home and take a nap, then go see your grandmother at the hospital. And if you need more days just let me know." And then she taught me Life Lesson #2 - As a teacher you have to take care of yourself. Worn out, exhausted teachers are no use in the classroom. They just become grumpy, ineffective teachers. If your focus is on something else (like an ongoing family situation) then it's not on your students AND THAT'S OK. When that happens notice it, then take time for yourself when you need it.
At the beginning of my 3rd year of teaching our school went from having 6 classes per grade level to having 8 classes per grade level. All of a sudden we found ourselves with 1300 students in grades K-5. As a result, we also found ourselves lacking the building space for all of those students. The school district's solution = bring on the trailers! They brought in 14 of them, in fact. My dance trailer wasn't the absolute furthest from the building, but it sure felt like it. There was a specific point in my daily schedule when a class would leave and I'd dart up to the main office to use the restroom and check my mailbox before darting back out the trailer to find my next class waiting for me outside my door. Occasionally that check of the mailbox would reveal a post-it note reading See me - JBM. I never had time in that moment to go find her, so while I taught the next two classes my mind was racing, trying to figure out what I'd done that caused her to want to see me. Was it a parent complaint? Had I forgotten to do some paperwork? Had I misspoken? The moment I had a chance to dart back up to the office I would wait, breathless, in front of her desk. It was never something that I'd done wrong. She always wanted my opinion on something or needed me to talk to one of my teammates on her behalf. Finally one day she asked, "Why are you always so panicked when you come to my office?" I answered, "Because when I pick up that See me note I immediately start wondering what I did wrong." She paused, chuckled, and explained, "Don't you see? If I'm calling you to me it means I need your help. If you did something wrong I'd go to you!" This taught me 2 things: Life Lesson #3 - Sometimes it's wise to be a person of few words (her See me notes merely let us know that she needed us) and Life Lesson #4 - Don't make people wait for bad news, go straight to them and work it out.
Mrs. M was a visually intimidating figure. The woman didn't mess around, especially when it came to how she dressed. Tailored dress and skirt suits, stockings, and dangerously tall pumps. You could hear her coming down the hall with a slow but deliberate beat and know who it was before she turned the corner. I never saw her wear a pair of jeans (not even on Field Day, when she managed the playground while wearing that year's Field Day t-shirt with a skirt suit and a pair of pumps). There wasn't a mean bone in her body, but she wanted anyone who stepped foot in that school, be they adult or child, to know she was the authority figure. One day we were chatting and I asked her about it. I'll never forget her saying, "Rachel, you're just a spring chicken. You grew up in a world where everyone was treated the same. I began my career in a world where I was judged by the color of my skin before I spoke a word and therefore needed to visually establish that I was the authority figure in my classroom." There are far deeper lessons that can be addressed by her experience, but the most basic was Life Lesson #5 - Dress for the part you want to play. Because of my job I'm typically dressed in yoga pants and t-shirts, but when I need to I dress professionally - pant suit, single strand of pearls, hair pulled back from my face and, though I rarely wear them, I always make sure I have a good pair of pumps.
Mrs. M, I'm forever grateful that you took a chance on the scared, inexperienced little college student that I was and turned me into a teacher. You taught me how important it is to feel that our leaders trust us to do our jobs while pushing us to get better and better with time. Even after you left our school and moved to central office you made sure I knew you were just an email or phone call away and were there any and every time I needed you. Thousands of children and teachers are all the better for having had you in our lives. Thank you.