This past weekend I experienced something as a teacher that has been extremely difficult to put into words. It kind of needs to start with a flashback to bring readers up to speed on what I mean…
The school year was 2006. I, having been extended an offer to teach in the district I student taught in (Chambersburg, PA), decided I would make the wiser choice, having lived near Philadelphia my entire life, to teach in Culpeper, Virginia for the school year. If you look at a map, you’ll notice that Culpeper is about 3 times further away than Chambersburg. When I tell that to people they look at me funny and ask, “Why would you go further away?” Well, when I interviewed, they called me the same day and offered me a fifth grade position while I was walking around the local Wal-Mart. Friends of mine from college also taught in Culpeper. Jill taught fifth grade and Dave taught kindergarten. They offered me a place to stay that year, as it was pretty much going to be a stepping stone year to gain experience for the following year back home. I was sure I’d find a job easier as long as I had a year experience. The deal was a sweet one. I was extremely lucky to live with Dave and Jill, not just because the rent was cheap and the food was delicious, but because they offered me an opportunity to make things work that year financially. My future-wife was staying back home, so I’d be away from her for a year. The bottom line was that I took a chance in teaching somewhere else to try and gain footing back home. What that year did for me set me on a career trajectory of unimagined experiences.
A.G. Richardson Elementary School. Fifth grade. The school had had a high turnover rate for teachers because the district was the stepping stone that I was using it for. You don’t realize it at the time what a bad idea that is. I actually thought that depending on how the year went that I would stay another year. I had a fantastic group of kids. I still remember it as if it was yesterday, which is the crazy part. Something has to be said for the memories that a teacher’s first class make. I remember the guided reading lessons, the making globes out of balloons, hooking up my surround sound to make a better experience for videos, playing football with the kids at recess, the talent show. At one point I offered as an incentive to students at the end of the marking period the chance to come in and either play Madden on Guitar Hero on my PS2 after school. Without realizing it, I was building connections that would last with me long after I left.
This was also the time my interest in technology really took off. I wanted to learn how to create a website, so our technology integration teacher showed me how to write basic HTML. I wanted my students to do a newscast, so he set up a green screen and showed me a program that would put pictures on it behind the students. Jack Glick was the one who really opened my eyes that anything is possible with the help of technology. And this was 7 years ago! I feel like this is the year I’ve come full circle, but I’ll touch on that later.
Fast forward to now. Once I moved back to Philly, I kept in touch with a few of my students through Facebook. They reached out to me, I never talked to them, but was able to keep tabs; make sure they were doing ok. At one point, I really thought one of my students was heading down a bad path. I lost track of her, but come to find out that she really turned her life around, graduated early, and is going to college. It was neat to kind of keep up with their lives, their lacrosse victories and even broken hearts. They were living their lives. One of the reasons I became a teacher was that I wanted my students to remember me and to come back and visit me. That wasn’t possible once I moved home. The one thing I knew for certain was that when my kids graduated, I would go see them graduate. I didn’t care where I was or what I was doing, that class of kids meant the world to me.
I’ve had a bunch of long-term assignments since then, doing many things while learning even more about technology. This year, I finally received a contract to teach elementary technology. I’ve brought green screen technology into teacher lessons. I’ve started a Master’s program where I’m re-learning HTML. And my kids graduate. Full circle, I think.
This past weekend was graduation. I found myself a sponge, absorbing everything and just trying to live in the moment. I had touched base with one of my students, Erin, and her mom (she had also worked at A.G. when I was there). Erin actually sent me an invitation to come down and watch her graduate. There are two high schools in Culpeper, so I was going to try and see both. First up was hers on Friday night. First off, the nerves of driving 5 hours to see kids and other teachers you haven’t seen in 7 years is incredible. Would they remember me? Would I recognize them? Do I swing my my old elementary school first? I fought these nerves with the old “When in Rome” approach. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, let’s try and do it all. My first stop was A.G. Richardson where I met up with my former grade level partner Christin Funderburk. Her first year of teaching was also mine, so we explored things together. She taught our classes science, I taught them social studies. She ended up being a Virginia Teacher of the Year just recently!
It was great to catch up with her and start what would almost be a weekend of selfies, a term which I don’t believe was invented when I taught down there…
Graduation. Eastern View High School. Whoever designed the stadium layout must have been crazy, because the home stands were facing the setting sun. That made for some awesome sunset pictures, but also the start to my nice tan I got this weekend.
I saw Erin when I first walked in. The one thing I never realized, or thought about my kids is that they grow up. I still remember them in fifth grade; what they looked like, how they sounded, how they acted. To see them grown up is just crazy. There were a few kids at that high school who I taught. The choir sang an arrangement of the “Friends” theme song, while the speeches were motivating and inspiring. Afterwards, I was able to meet up with Erin and Edgar, another student for pictures. With the post-graduation chaoticness, I really didn’t expect to see anybody, even though I wanted to see them all. The fact that I was there was really what was worth it to me. I decided to put together pictures of my students then and now:
Edgar & Erin
Edgar is going to be an automotive technician, while Erin is going to be a nurse. The feelings of pride as I gave each of my students an “atta boy” or “atta girl” as they crossed the stage to get their diploma was just overwhelming. Teachers come into students’ lives for a year, rarely more. They usually don’t get to see the final product. I talked to another teacher when I stopped by A.G. who said she had never been to graduation. Why? This was such a refreshing experience for me and the next day’s graduation was just as emotional.
Culpeper County High School. Again, the sun is beating against the home stands. I hadn’t been here since I participated in Relay For Life (also participating this year at home!). There were again a few students that I taught (overall, I only think that between the two classes there were less than 10 I actually taught still around). I saw Bailey and Justin today. Justin was a Green Bay Packers fan back in 5th grade and will be going to school for business and computer sciences. Bailey has been my only student who had Tourettes. My favorite moment, and I still laugh about this, was when he fell asleep taking a test. I got down real close to him to wake him up, which scared the bejeezus out of him and we all had a good laugh. He was and is a great kid. This past January he actually suffered through some life-threatening and life-altering health issues. Luckily and thankfully, he survived and sang at his graduation. He spoke about courage. His dream is to become a singer and he’s headed on that path.
Justin & Bailey
While Justin didn’t recognize me at first (as I didn’t expect), I think Bailey did a double-take, ran up and gave me a great big hug. The feeling of realizing you almost lost a student is probably what prompted him to tell me that I was squeezing him too hard. Every one of my students look like they have fantastic personalities and the future is theirs to own. It was a refreshing experience, reinforcing why I teach. I only hope that someday they will understand why this was such a big deal for me.
I can’t thank Erin and her mom enough, because without them, I wouldn’t have probably seen anyone. I am eternally grateful for my time spent in Virginia. This has been a hard post to put together because there is just too much for me to think about, but hopefully it does the weekend justice and provides an account of my thoughts and feelings. Every teacher should experience watching their students graduate. We come into their lives for only a fraction of theirs. Who affects who more? Are we a bigger part of their life or are they a bigger part of ours? Make the time with your students as memorable as you can and those memories will be as valuable to you as they are to your students.