During this annual season of teacher mugs and homemade fudge, I got and gave my possibly best Christmas teacher present ever. A couple of Sunday evenings ago I was busy multi-tasking (cooking supper and grading papers) when the phone rang. Mine was probably a less than completely gracious “Hello?”
“Is this my little Susie?” said the voice on the other end of the line.
I may be 58 years old, but I recognized that voice immediately. It was Mrs. Burnett, my sixth grade teacher.
It has been four decades since I graduated from John Tyler High School. We formed a reunion committee this year, and Jake, a classmate who is a retired teacher, set us up a webpage with personal profiles, a message board, a chat forum, and all sorts of social networking features. We’ve had a great time catching up on each others’ present lives and remembering our shared past.
Inevitably, the topic of teachers came up, and I was not surprised to discover that Mrs. Burnett, that sixth grade teacher who made such a difference to me, mattered to a great many of us. Much to our delight, we managed to locate her. She had remarried after Mr. Burnett’s death and been widowed a second time, but was still living independently at age 98. Since she had given up driving at 93, it was agreed that our classmate Reeves would escort her as a Guest of Honor to the reunion last month.
Since I live in Virginia, taking time off from school and going home to East Texas for two days just wasn’t feasible. While I was sorry to miss seeing my classmates, not being there to see Mrs. Burnett was the greatest disappointment. So I wrote her a long letter recalling her 100 prefixes and 100 suffixes and two vocabulary words for each -- and the poems she had us memorize, and the history notebook that provided us with both historical knowledge and geographical perspective, but also introduced us to culture. I wanted her to know how significant her teaching had been in my life and how it had influenced my own professional practice. I hoped she would be proud of me.
Reeves emailed, reporting that Mrs. B. was as sharp as ever, firmly in control of the evening, and had a grand time. She, like all the guests, went home with a class directory. And now, here she was on the phone, saying:
“Your class was one of those special ones where you see so much potential. You all challenged me as a teacher, but you were special. I still remember when I gave you the Paul Revere’s Ride assignment. Most of you learned more than I expected, but you, Susie -- you just kept going on through verse after verse after verse right through to the last line. I couldn’t believe you learned the whole thing.”
The assignment was to memorize as much of Longfellow’s poem as we could. The assessment was a group recitation. Mrs. Burnett, demonstrating her amazing recall, told me that it was sort of a spur of the moment decision to teach it this way. We talked about lesson design and student motivation. She thought the competition would challenge us and that starting out the recitation together would help those who were less confident. She knew about differentiation before differentiation was cool. She also believed memorization helped us expand our intellectual capacity and that the imagery and rhythm and rhyme of poetry would help us in recall. She understood something about the brain’s learning processes before any researcher put it down on paper.
Then she said:
“I always tried to treat all my students the same, but you’re a teacher, too, so you know that you don’t feel the same about all of them. Some students really are teacher’s pets. You always loved words for their own sake, and you had so much intellectual curiosity. I always had great expectations for you, and I’m so proud that you chose to use your gifts in the classroom. You were one of my all-time favorites.”
Mrs. Burnett was my favorite teacher, and I was my favorite teacher’s favorite! This phone call may have been one of the best teacher/student gift exchanges of all time.
Merry Christmas, Mrs. Burnett.
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