In Praise of Good English Teachers

dccd2232-06c5-4414-a4f3-2d80141530daThere’s a specific reason I’m doing this post today, although the idea took root in my mind some months ago. You see, my son came home Friday with an English assignment on which he got 100%. Nice, huh? Except that’s not what I’m celebrating.

It’s  the comment his teacher made at the end of his story:

 M, you are a funny storyteller. Good job on the editing. Well done! 🙂

What so special about that, you might ask? Well, M hasn’t had an easy time of school, despite being plenty intelligent. It took a while to understand why, but his brain doesn’t process sound the way an average person does. That’s impacted his ability to receive oral instructions, and to perform in reading, writing, and spelling. 

Before he was diagnosed with his auditory perception problem, and strategies put in place to compensate, we had a teacher or two who mistook his learning problems for wilfulness. In other words, they thought he was a brat. (And of course, in some instances they’d have been right. ;))

Also, he struggles with fine motor skills. His handwriting’s so bad we’ve joked he should have been the physician in the family.

But with diagnosis, some gentle coaching on our part for most teachers, some serious advocating for a few recalcitrant others, and use of a laptop, things came around. M hit the honor roll. He no longer sweated over ever written word.

Yet still, my son hated English.  

That wouldn’t be such a tragedy except you have to meet this kid. He’s wildly imaginative and wickedly funny if you appreciate British-type comedy. In fact I swear he understood irony by the age of eight, when most of his peers’ ideas of humor encompassed only fart jokes.  Yet every time M sat down to do a school assignment he’d reign in all that talent and voice.

I know this because he bounced ideas off me. And before he learned to keyboard well himself, I transcribed his English assignments. I’d chuckle as I typed, thrilled by his gifts, then he’d march right over and delete the good stuff.

“I can’t keep that, Mom,” he’d say over my protests. “They’ll get mad at me at school.” And maybe this is my failing as his mother, or maybe it was wisdom on both our parts, but I chose to believe him.

Enter Mrs. S.

I don’t know precisely what it was she said in four short weeks to make such an impact, but I saw M tackle this last assignment with uncharacteristic interest. He composed it himself, and when I read the rough draft, I thought it was fabulous. I just never imagined he’d leave it intact. Nor that she’d so thoroughly reward the risk.

So Mrs. S, I’ll say this is person to you as well, but from the bottom of my heart, thank you. If you knew how few times I’ve seen my son emerge from school with bedazzled eyes and a smile that stretched to Japan—about English, no less!—you’d get it. I have a brilliant/wise man-child who has muted himself. Until now.

Now he gets to know the magic of unfettered play with the written word. Now we all get to see what he’s capable of. And you know something?  I wouldn’t be a  jot surprised to see him write for the likes of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert one day. Or become an author who writes books for other fidgety boys. 

Lest you believe that I exaggerate, there are two English teachers I still honor in my heart for precisely these reasons. I doubt that M and I are alone. In fact, I’m positive we’re not.

To that end, I’m turning over the comments section to you folks. How about it? Is there an English teacher or professor who played a big role in your life? Someone who gave you a gentle push along the writing path you’d like to thank in public? ‘Cause if so, I’d love to hear your stories.

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16 thoughts on “In Praise of Good English Teachers

  1. In Grade 5, I had a Language Arts teacher named Mrs. Kratky. We called her Mrs. Crabby – because she was. Her assignments were tough, and ant above average marks were hard-earned.

    We were asked to write a short story, and as usual, I laboured over mine. Handed it in – just on time (always a deadline girl) and held my breath. A week later, we got them back.

    I watched each of my peers flip over their papers and cringe at their marks. And only after seeing my friends sweat it out did I check the back of my paper.

    There was no mark. Only the words that perhaps changed my life forever (and instilled the greatest measure of fear): Please see me after school. Your parents will be here.

    I don’t know how I made it through the rest of the day. I read and re-read the story. No, there was nothing inappropriate. My spelling seemed ok. I thought I’d followed grammar rules. It was handed in on time. Had she really called my Mom AND my Dad?

    My then-divorced parents arrived with scowls. Sat down opposite my teacher and, my mother later confessed, expected the worst.

    To our shock, Mrs. Crabby said: Your daughter is a writer.

    She enrolled me in creative writing classes at the school, and spend time with me after class. And when I left that elementary school, she gave me a notebook and a pen. On the inside of my notebook she wrote:

    Someday, you’ll be at this school again, signing autographs, and talking about why literacy is important. I believe in you. Keep writing. Always.

    My first book will be dedicated to her.

    Congrats to M – he’s lucky to have a teacher who believes in him, but also a brilliant writer for a Mom. xo

  2. Dawn, what a beautiful story! And what a huge vote of confidence in your talent. I can’t help but think that would push any parental objections to the side and given you some armor against your critics. Hopefully.

    Do you still have that story?

    Funny, but I’ve discarded 99% of my paperwork to do with medicine, but I think I have pretty much everything I ever wrote creatively.

  3. Yes!!! (As a former teacher turned mom, I love to hear stuff like this!)

    I’d like to thank Mr. B. (Although I don’t think he is alive anymore) The last month of my Soph. year in HS, I asked his advice on which class to take for the following year. He told me to skip the typical Jr. English class and take the Sr. one instead. I found myself in a class filled with Seniors, in a challenging environment, but it felt good to stretch my thinking muscles. In fact, I would like to also thank my British Lit. teacher Mrs. T AND the Advanced Comp. teacher Mr. M. Awesome job! *Blows kisses to them*

  4. Oddly enough, I never had a special English teacher. I had Mrs. Moon who pounded grammar and syntax into my head, which was certainly helpful, but she was deeply opposed to anything creative. So glad that your son is getting ahead of all those obstacles.

  5. My boy is 15, smart as a whip, double-promoted so he’s now a Junior in high school. He’d love your son with the whole ironic British humor thing they’ve got going. And he’s always been one of those you either love him or hate him in class. The calls I’ve had from teachers are… well, usually about the same. The talking, the fidgeting, the weird questions. I always try to back the teachers on their points, but there have been some who actively tried to squelch him and some who actively supported his special brand of madness. To all of those teachers, I’m eternally grateful. It was they who taught my boy that someone other than his parents thought he was amazing and funny and creative. He’s not so much a writer, but a gifted music man who has only just begun to see that his talent might take him places.

    There’s NOTHING like watching your child figure out he’s awesome the way he is. Nothing.

  6. Yay, JLC! I was kind of hoping this would turn into a “Chicken Soup for the English Teacher’s Soul” post. 🙂

    What kind of teacher were you, if you don’t mind me asking?

    Bryn, regrettably, I believe you. Some people are threatened by anyone who marches to a different drum; even educators. It’s a credit to your tenacity that you powered through anyway.

    And as for my son, thank you. I know this moment was a pivotal one for him because he was thrilled when I proposed this blog post. In fact, I’m to tell him how many hits it received when I pick him up after school.

  7. Beki, I love this bit of what you wrote:
    “…who actively supported his special brand of madness.”

    And this: “There’s NOTHING like watching your child figure out he’s awesome the way he is. Nothing.”

    You know, loving my son as I do, and having to get clear about what was worth fighting within the system for him, the desire for self-respect became my fondest wish for him.

    Congratulations to your son! Sounds like he’s achieved that and had the precise mother he needed to get there.

  8. Ooh, what a great story – yay for your son! My story sounds kind of similar, although I wasn’t fortunate enough to have that experience at such a young age.

    I hated English class, and was never any good at it and never had a positive word from my teachers. Until 11th grade. My teacher that year focused heavily on writing and encouraged creativity in all our assignments. He was the first teacher to ever tell me I was a good writer; in fact, more accurately, he piled on the praise – something my confidence really needed. I also wrote my first ever short story because of one of his assignments, something I might never have done otherwise. He finally showed me it was okay to write how I wanted to write, and that when I did that I would do well. If I’m ever published, he’s totally getting a mention.

  9. This is an awesome blog, Hope. And the posts here, are equally awesome. Someday, I hope to dedicate a novel to a small but important list of teachers who encouraged my reading abilities, and later my writing. Miss Nora McNeil, if you’re out there, thanks for teaching me to read. 🙂

  10. Tracey, I’m so glad you got a dose of encouragement, even if it did come at the eleventh hour! And what do you mean “if” you get published? You’re already agented, girl, and I’ve seen some of your work. IMO it’s just a matter of when.

    Donna, thank you! And you’re absolutely right about the importance of honoring those who put us on the path to reading as well. I have a huge bunch of those I should thank. For myself, as well as for M. 🙂

  11. First let me say you’re a great Mom!

    In high school I had this one English teacher, you know the type, she introduced us to Shakespeare, and all the rest. The only thing I can remember her saying is “Never, ever say the reason is because!”. Everything else is a blur.

    Thanks for the memories.
    @ileane

  12. The first English teacher who made a difference in my life was my mom, who taught me proper punctuation.

    She also told me when I was in second grade that I should be forever grateful to my teacher, Miss Michelle McShane–and she was right.

    I’d hated first grade, hated school, but Miss McShane turned it around. She made the classroom safe and fun; she treated us like we mattered; and she recognized me as a writer.

    She also tried to get me to read more than mysteries, warning me I’d end up “in a literary rut.” Being 7 years old, I pictured myself in a ditch, sitting in a rocking chair, surrounded by mystery books–and thought that sounded pretty good.

    I still read mysteries more than anything. But I still thank my lucky stars for Miss McShane.

  13. @ileane, ha! Did she have a mole?

    Thank you for the compliment. I’d have to say whatever skills I have as a parent really grew when M came along. Because he’s had his challenges, I’ve had to figure out what was worth fighting for and then do it. In turn, that made me clearer about where I needed to be my own advocate.

    MJ, seriously? Grade 2? The earliest I can recall wanting to write is grade 5. And I love the ditch story. Isn’t that exactly what a seven-year-old would think?

    And now I have to laugh because I’m picuring your grade one self correcting my punctuation errors in the future, and being right, dammit! 😉

  14. Hey there. I followed your blog over from AW (purgatory). This is a great post. I had a third and fourth grade teacher (lucky enough to have her two years in a row), that made all the difference for me. I still keep in touch with her and she was integral to my lifetime passion of reading and writing. If I ever publish that novel, she’s on my short list of people to thank.

    Kudos to your little guy and to his teacher too, for fostering learning and storyteling in him. And kudos to mama for raising a smart little boy.

    1. Hi, Jenn! Wow, how neat that you’re still in touch with her after all this time. She must be so touched to know she played such a pivotal role in your life. And from what I hear, I doubt it’s a question of “if” you publish, but “when”.

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