A letter from Sara…

“How can you fully understand someone when you put a limit on creativity?”
Sara Martin

I taught in my first school for ten years.  When I changed schools I experienced an incredible culture shock.  I went from the depths of the inner city, to the classic suburb.  I felt like I had to learn how to teach all over again.  I started by asking the kids about their past teachers…who would they recommend that I go and observe.  In every class, over and over again, one name was mentioned…Mr. Filipek.  It was amazing how students spoke about Mr. Filipek as though he was a teaching deity.  Their whole body changed as they reflected upon their experience with him.  It was easy to choose Mr. Filipek as the man I had to go and observe.

5 mins in his class…that is all it took to make me realize what was different between his class and mine.  I taught social studies, he taught kids.  He somehow created an atmosphere magically with just his presence.  The way he looked at them, answered their questions, and put his hand on their shoulders made magic happen.  Other staff members knocked him not producing kids that knew things like every single step to the scientific method, but you know what, he produced kids who wanted to learn more about science.  He placed no limits on what they could do, his room was full of their creative energy.  I am teaching the last of his 6th graders this year in my 8th grade classes.  I can almost pick out which kids were his at the beginning of each year.  They are confident, they smile, they are creative, they have passion…and they are kind.

Nothing in my entire teaching career had such an impact as those first five minutes.  It was that five minutes that taught me that my gaping hole in my teaching repertoire was my lack of connection with the students.  A real connection, the kind that really can’t be explained with words in a blog post. I realized that connecting was more than just talking with them, but allowing them into my heart the way my daughters are born into it.   That was hard.   Really, really, hard…and with some, nearly impossible.

But I tried…and tried.  And tried.   And I started to experience some of that same magic that he had.

I am still trying, and this year it has been a mighty struggle.  Classes are shorter, data is king, and the pressure to move move move is making me feel like I am in a constant state of rushing from one thing to another.  I am figuring out how to use my time to fit in social studies, but I think I am forgetting to fit in the kids.  Mr. Filipek retired a couple of years ago, and walking by his class everyday no longer provides me with the reminder I need.  Last year he retired and in some weird way I saw it as my last shot as being as good as he was.  It placed a fire under me and I had one of the most fantastic years teaching.  This year I have felt myself really, really needing a reminder.

Yesterday the reminder came.  I received an email from a student who wrote about me in her college essay (she got in!).  I would like to share it with you.  It is a letter to me, but also a letter to you.  A reminder to all of us that when we slow down, when we connect, when we allow kids to grow without limits, we can then start to fully understand them.

Spirit Lights

Classroom lights off, colored Christmas tree lights on, guitar propped against a stool and a Shel Silverstein book on the table. I knew this would be no ordinary history class. Normally, the first day of school is a bore. You hear the same rules and outlines repeated by every teacher, except Mr. Bogush. He likes to do things differently from all the others, such as reading Dr. Seuss and playing guitar to teach us. Most teachers stick to books, but I’ve learned things from Mr. Bogush that you can’t learn by reading a textbook.

“Once there was a tree…and she loved a little boy. And everyday the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest”-The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein. Instead of ‘turn to page 7’, those were the first words my 8th grade teacher said.  He reads this book to teach his students something they don’t notice as children. Every child’s book he read to us gave me a different lesson to learn. I then realized that he wasn’t just a teacher, he was a teaching us about life. To be creative and different is the one thing he wanted us learn. Everything I do today is based on this teaching style, never wanting to make a boring PowerPoint presentation; but to make a movie or write a skit or song to get my message across. He taught me to be original when no one else is.

Green, blue, red, yellow, pink: the ‘Sprit Lights; colored lights that decorate his classroom and bring it to life. When they were on, you knew it wasn’t a history lesson but a life lesson. Not many teachers give up a part of his or her lesson plans to have a ‘real talk’ with their students. These lights changed the aura of the classroom. We learned lessons that can’t be written. I was able to forget where I was for a moment and learn something worthwhile. The talks inspired me to think differently and look at the world in a different point of view.  These lights were more than just that, they allowed me to figure out who I was. It was during one of these days that I discovered I wanted to pursue theater. These lights made me who I am today. Without them, I’d still be figuring that out.

“It is weird, but that’s all right…weird is good and someday will hopefully be the new normal.” That’s the answer I received when I asked if writing my college essay about him was weird. Without him, I don’t think I’d be the same person. I would still be the ‘normal’ shy girl making boring PowerPoint Presentations. Everyone should read a children’s book again in order to understand its true meaning. If all teachers took time to teach students outside of a textbook, lives could be changed forever. I know mine is.

Sara’s mom works in the system.  I decided to give her a call before posting to see who Sara’s teacher was in 6th grade…it was Mr. Filipek.

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