Saturday, April 5, 2014

E: The Gift of Encouragement

We are all human. We all appreciate being told, once and awhile, that we are doing a good job, that we are a nice person or that we are important.  In today's frenetic, multi-tasking society, it is easy to lose sight of the right path as we struggle to maintain our sanity, let alone, live a life of character and integrity. So, hearing words of encouragement is important. They not only nourish our souls but, they act as an affirmation that maybe, just maybe, we are actually on that correct path in Life.

In Ontario, Canada, where I taught, we are no more immune from Life's pressures and stresses than anyone else in any other walk of life.  Most teachers care deeply about their profession and try their best to do right by the students entrusted into their care each day.  Most parents seem to understand this. My experience working in partnership with parents has, almost completely and totally, been positive and respectful. Being a parent has helped me appreciate the hard work that goes on in the homes of my students. Watching their children grow more knowledgable and skilled, while enjoying their school experience, has caused parents to respect who I am and how I conduct myself classroom affairs.

Ordinarily, a heartfelt hand shake at the end of the school year between parent and teacher should be sufficient to recognize the contribution both have made to the life of the child in question. However, in Ontario,  a seemingly unnecessary tradition has taken root; a tradition that sees the parent bestowing upon the teacher a gift during the final day of school.  I am not terribly comfortable with this tradition but the shower of coffee mugs, boxes of chocolates, painted macaroni noodle festooned photo frames , etc., continues unabated.  Having said that, I do appreciate the gesture being made with these tokens of appreciation. Thankfully, for the sake of this post, I have mined my "Teacher gift" collection to give to you the story that inspired this post.

So, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I present the story of the one "teacher gift" moment that completely caught me off guard and makes me smile to this day.  After this story, I'll let you in on the secret of the gift that teachers appreciate the most.   But first, here is the story of The Best Teacher Gift Ever!!!

The Best Teacher Gift Ever!!!

At the core of teaching lies humanity.
Teachers don’t manufacture widgets or track currency fluctuations on overseas markets as they go about their daily business. Teachers spend their day interacting with some of society’s most interesting, creative, adaptive, vulnerable, courageous citizens. Children are capable of doing almost anything at any time. That’s one of the reasons that teaching is such a fascinating profession. You can have the same teacher in the same classroom with the same group of children and never experience the same school day twice!
To the teacher who views his/her students as human beings, rather than names on a class list, the complexity of the young hearts and minds that assemble in their classroom each day is what makes the job so attractive and interesting. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be a tiring day if one of the students is angry or emotionally upset. Sometimes, an “interesting” day can be hilarious and memorable. The story of the Best Teacher Gift I ever received is one of those moments that come completely out of left field and, once you regain your wits, makes you smile for the rest of your life. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when it happened.
I was teaching in a Grade 2 classroom in Courtice, Ontario. I had no gifted students in this class but, no hardcore, troubled behavioural children, either. On the whole, the class was comprised of nice, friendly, average kids. They were a good group. I liked coming to school each day and so did they. I got along well with all of their parents. In short, it was a good year in the wonderful world of Grade 2.
This story takes place on the last week before our Christmas holidays. If you have ever been in a primary-aged classroom the week before Christmas, you know that there is a higher than normal buzzing of energy to be found (and, I don’t mean from the overhead lights, either). If teachers were being honest, they would admit that that last week of school is not the most academically-intensive week to be had during the school year. But, just the same, maintaining some semblance of routine is important so, in between concert rehearsals and craft making, we still did some simple bits of regular work. One of the things that helped make up my “Holiday” unit was, of course, a set of spelling/vocabulary activities. We brainstormed chart paper lists filled with words that had to do with Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas. The kids searched for words in word search puzzles, they unscrambled mixed up spellings, they filled in the blanks, they typed stories on the computer and on and on it went. Well, since it was the last week of school and, because I had a group of kids that could go along with a joke, I created a worksheet of questions and answers that had, as the final question, the following: “If you were a millionaire and could buy Mr. MacInnes any three gifts in the world, what would your three gifts be?” I was hoping for answers like, “A rocket ship to go to the moon in”, or “A fancy sports car” or, “A trip around the world” but, instead, what I got back from this bunch of well-meaning but, average-joes was more along the lines of shirts, sweaters and pants. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of imagination that they had shown until I got to the worksheet handed in by a little girl named Megan.
Megan was a nice little girl with freckles across her nose that spilled onto her cheeks. She wore her blonde hair in a "bob" style. Her blue eyes sparkled whenever she smiled, which was fairly often. All in all, Megan was a good kid so, as I read over her answers, I was not prepared for what I saw when I got to the last question. She wrote, “I would give Mr. MacInnes a new sweater, a new pair of shoes and a         g- string.”
I read the first two parts of her answer with my brain in neutral but, her last answer snapped me to attention! I re-read her answer just to confirm that I had actually read what I had thought I had read. It turns out that I had! G-string! Wow! Where did that come from? I decided to check to see if she could have meant something else like “guitar” or “gerbil” because kids at that age can still be prone to phonetic and/or inventive spelling but, the spelling was clearly a “g” and a space and “string” spelled correctly. Needless to say, I felt the need to check into this so, as the rest of the class crafted or did whatever Holiday activity they were engaged in, I called Megan over.
“Megan”, I said. “I was checking over everyone’s worksheet and there are a couple of answers I’d like to read for me, if you would.”
She said, “Sure, Mr. MacInnes.”
“Would you read #5,  please?”
“Ok….. I said that I would give you a new sweater……….because you have a hole in your brown one. Did you know that?” I grunted a smile and motioned for her to continue. “I would give you a new pair of shoes…….because you have scuff marks on yours………and a g string.” She turned to me and smiled.
So I said, “Megan, I understand what a sweater is and the part about the shoes but, I’m not sure what you mean by a g string”.
She smiled and put her hand on my arm and sweetly said, “Oh, Mr. MacInnes, everyone knows that a     g string is underwear.”
“Ok”, I said. “Then answer this for me, please. I understand why you would buy a new sweater to replace my holey one and new shoes to replace the scuffed ones but, why do you want to buy me underwear?”
She looked around to be sure that no one could hear and then she leaned in, “In my home, whenever Daddy or Mommy wear their g strings, they run around the house, laughing and tickling each other. It makes them so happy. I want you to be happy in your home, too.”
Well, what do you say to that? I smiled and gave her a quick hug and thanked her for thinking of me and my state of personal happiness. The story would have ended there except for a fluke of timing. During the month of December, report cards are prepared and sent home and parent-teacher interviews are conducted. Depending on everyone’s schedules, it sometimes takes a couple of weeks to get everyone to come in to the school to meet with me. As luck would have it, Megan’s parents were one of two interviews I had left to conduct!
So, the very next day, after school, Megan’s mother and father walked into the classroom and sat down. I had Megan’s work folder out and showed them some of her Math work, a painting she had done, some pictures she had drawn and, lo and behold, her spelling work that included word search puzzles, mixed up spelling words, fill in the blank sheets and, yes, a certain question and answer sheet that she had completed just the day before! I sat there and let them look at each sheet and then, the final Q & A sheet. I watched as they scanned down through the answers, finally arriving at the last question. I saw Megan’s Mom mouth the words, “sweater” and “shoes” and then, her mouth just opened and she began blushing furiously. Dad broke out laughing and looked down at the floor. I just sat there quietly for a few seconds, thoroughly enjoying the moment.
Then I said to them, “Don’t worry. Teachers hear far more about what goes on at home than most parents realize. The important thing to take from this is that in Megan’s eyes, she feels that she comes from a home that is filled with love and happiness. She feels that you both love each other. Not every child can say that about their parents. You should feel proud that your daughter views you that way and that she feels so happy herself.” They both smiled and thanked me for my kind words.
I have gotten many, many gifts from families over the course of my career but, nothing comes close to the imaginary g string I received that year from little Megan. I wonder if widgets ever give gifts to the people who make them? I doubt it. Thank goodness I have had the pleasure of spending my career in the daily company of children. They are the essence of humanity and our society’s most precious gift.

Thanks Heavens she didn't actually give me a g-string!   That would have sent tongues wagging and, probably not in a good way, either. :)

However, there is one gift that I have gotten many times over the years and, in my eyes, it is the most important gift any parent could give to their child's is the gift of encouragement that comes in the form of a simple card or letter.  Having a parent take a few moments to write that they appreciate the time I have spent with their child and that they believe it has made a positive differemce, is like gold to me.

In my bedroom, on a shelf in my closet, I have a photo box.  In that photo box, I have EVERY card, letter and note of encouragement I have ever received throughout the entire course of my 30 year career.  Each letter is precious to me and each serves to remind me that, yes, I do, indeed, have a purpose in life that is worthy and that, indeed, I am making a positive difference in the lives of children.  I can't ask for more than that.  Whenever I find myself feeling down, for whatever reason, I haul out that photo box and bask in the warm glow of the affirmations it contains. 

In most cases, regardless of the state of education in the public school your child attends, you can count on them being cared for by a teacher who is working harder than you may realize to help their students be the best people they can be.  However, there are times, in the course of their busy days, when teachers can become just as frustrated and discouraged as the students that they teach.  If you ever want to make your child's teacher's day, I humbly suggest that you write a simple note.  Your words of encouragement and appreciation will turn out to be the best part of that teacher's day....guaranteed!
And, maybe, just maybe, your words will help fill that teacher's photo box of memories, too.  :)

We all appreciate hearing a kind word from someone else.  Have you ever written a card of thanks to your child's teacher?  Have you ever received such a note or card from someone else, telling you that who you are or, what you do, matters?  If so, I'd love to hear about it in the comment section below.  Thanks for reading. :)

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