I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she ate the cake that made her grow. It had been 9 years since I had been in that school and I expected it to be much larger. It was so strange because I would expect this to happen if I were a child but, as an adult I was dumbfounded. How could I be bigger than I was? I can only guess that, at 24 years-old, I felt small when I first started teaching. Now, I am 45, and tomorrow I will walk out of the school again, perhaps for the last time. I feel like I am leaving home.
I have been meaning to write this post since August 2013 when I started teaching at the same school I did my student teaching at in 1996, Chimborazo Elementary. When I walked in the first day back at my old school in August of 2013 and I looked down the hall, I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she ate the cake that made her grow. It had been 9 years since I had been in that school and I expected it to be much larger. It was so strange because I would expect this to happen if I were a child but, as an adult I was dumbfounded. How could I be bigger than I was? I can only guess that, at 24 years-old, I felt small when I first started teaching. Now, I am 45, and tomorrow I will walk out of the school again, perhaps for the last time. I feel like I am leaving home.
I have been a preschool teacher for what will be 20 years next school year. When I was assigned to my school for the first time, in the fall of 1995, I cried. I had wanted to do my student teaching at another school. I had contacted teachers at the school, met with the principal, and even talked to specific teachers I wanted to do my placement under. Obviously, there was another plan. Perhaps it was because I was male or because I had some experience as a substitute but I was placed at a much tougher school than my first choice. 1996 was the height of a drug epidemic in our city. My first year I had to check the playground each day to be sure it was ok for students to play after one student walked up to me with a piece of crack cocaine and asked, “What’s this?”
My student teaching year was also the first year for principal Cheryl Burke, now retired, who is still leading her community. As a young teacher, Mrs. Burke, my principal knew how to tap into my optimism and passion for art to help lift up the school. Cheryl Burke and many of my colleagues demonstrated love for the students and community of Chimborazo in such a way that I considered myself blessed to work at the school until 2002. Mrs. Burke had a vision to create a school centered on a garden theme that integrated the arts into academics . She was vested in the success of her school, perhaps because she lived only a block away. In 1997, she asked me to paint large flowers that still hang in the school almost 20 years later. That project was the first step in a process that eventually grew into the garden cafe, an outdoor classroom, and the school’s becoming accredited as an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program school, the only one in our region. Chimborazo is not the school it was in 1996. It is not even the school it was in 2013. It has changed and watching that change has helped me to learn an important lesson about teaching and schools. I think I have figured out what made me feel little and then big in the same school.
It is love.
In 1996 when I became a teacher and joined the community of Chimborazo I joined a community of love. I walked up and down the hall with my 17 preschoolers singing songs, dancing, and learning just as I do now but I felt like the receiver of love. I was nurtured as an educator by great teachers like, Mrs. Franklin, Mrs. Quiller, Mrs. Coward, Mrs. Glasper-Thomas, and Mrs. Harrell. I felt the love that they pushed into the world through through their love of their students. It took time for me to learn how to make the love I had for my students tangible and felt just as it took time for Mrs. Burke to make Chimborazo a place where children could grow. Now, after having mastered my craft but also having grown as a person, I realize that I fill the space around me with love. I am “bigger” in my space because of love. I realized this after reading a book written by my colleague, Jon Eckert, The Novice Advantage, in which he suggests that novice teachers must learn to fill the space of their classroom with their presence. It occurred to me that it was the community of educators at Chimborazo that had made me feel so small and cared for. It was my own love occupying the space in my school that made me feel larger and more able to influence my surroundings.
When I leave Chimborazo tomorrow I will no longer be a preschool teacher. I will be an art teacher in my new school, J.B. Cary Elementary. It is a good opportunity for me to bring my passions closer together. What I am most excited about though, is the opportunity to fill my new school with love. I hope you enjoy reading along as my classroom becomes even more of a learning studio.
Image: Flower Painting by J.M. Holland