Teacher Friends: Kate & Marissa

by Kate Currie

Kate & MArissa
Ethical ELA Guest Blogger Kate Currie and teacher-friend Marissa DePumpo

Marissa and I have known each other for a few years. We met while we were both completing our BA in English and continued together in the TEACH Program at DePaul. We are both pre-service high school English teachers who will student teach this spring. We have been friends since the very first class we had together. We have relied on each other so much already and plan to continue supporting each other when we are teachers!

If you could talk with someone alive or passed that is not famous who would it be?

Kate: Can I pretend to be related to Eleanor Roosevelt? If not, I would talk to my grandparents. They all passed away before I reached adulthood, and I have so many questions for them. My mother’s mother was a teacher, and I have heard stories from her former students about how amazing she was. These stories make me miss her and feel immensely proud to be her granddaughter. I wish she were still here to see me begin my career as a teacher. My mom tells me constantly that I remind her of my grandmother, so it is fitting that we share a middle name! I think that as people embark on new journeys they want to know about their past. I know very little about my lineage and history, and I would love to talk to my grandparents again.

Marissa: I recently took at trip home to Colorado to visit my maternal grandparents. Louise and Stan Malnati were public school teachers in Denver and Golden counties throughout their respective careers, and getting their insight to my approaching year was invaluable. They both found success as teachers, but for very different reasons. For their differences and for their polar opposite advice, I relished the opportunity to be able to speak with them. My grandmother, an incredibly kind and patient woman, taught 1st grade until her and my grandfather had children of their own in 1960. My grandfather on the other hand, a quick witted and relentlessly sarcastic presence found success as a high school history teacher and tennis coach. While I was at home, my grandmother stressed the importance of structure, boundaries, and careful praise. She swears by time management and reinforcing good behavior with verbal praise (and even stickers). True to form, my grandfather insisted that humor is what saved his classroom. He told me about the many mishaps he had his first years of teaching, and he told me it was important to forgive myself for the mistakes I too would inevitably make.

K: I didn’t realize that we both came from teaching families– very cool! It is so interesting how much we have in common, but how different our experiences were.

If you weren’t going to be a teacher what would you be?

K: I think I would either go back to teaching horseback riding lessons, or I would have gone to vet school. I had to assist the vets at the farm all the time. I can give injections, remove stitches and know horse triage! I think this life experience would lend itself to vet school. I think it’s more likely that I would go back to teaching riding lessons. I am so passionate about the sport, and I love teaching people of all ages. Helping my students achieve their goals and come into their own is better than any personal victory I have ever had. My greatest memory of teaching riding lessons is watching one of my students that I had trained since she was very young win a regional championship. It was better than any ribbon I have ever won!

M: While I haven’t quite given up on the cowgirl astronaut dream, most other alternate careers seem far away now. There was a time when I truly believed that I was going to be an author. That quickly ended when I experienced the terror of not earning a steady paycheck. There was another time I was sure I would open my own cafe. This was of course before I realized that I was no good at interacting with surly customers, so I had to give that up too. I have played around with the idea of becoming a park ranger for a national park, and since I have yet to sustain a wild animal bite of any sort, I think this may still be on the table.

K: I am jealous of all of your alternate professions. They are so amazing! I think this shows both of our personalities. You are so creative and reach for the stars, I am practical almost to a fault. This is why I need you! You remind me to reach for the stars!

What is your first memory of me?

K: This is an easy one! We were both in Medieval lit and I knew that this was going to be the class that did me in! I was up to my eyes in literature I didn’t understand and you sat next to me that day. Our professor started reading in Old English, and I looked at you because I was completely lost. We had an entirely nonverbal conversation where we basically agreed we both had no idea what was happening, and that we would figure it out together. The second memory was walking into TCH 401 and seeing you there. I was so relieved that I knew and liked someone in the cohort!

M: I remember sitting in Renaissance lit and being SO THANKFUL that you were there to answer our professor’s terrifyingly long-winded and open ended questions. So many times I followed your lead with answers that were more meandering than her questions, and together, I think we did a fantastic job at filling the silence and confusion of that classroom. Same thing with Medieval lit. So many times I found myself lost and thinking about how many bathroom trips were appropriate during one class period. You acted as my translator for two classes that would’ve been unbearable otherwise. Of course when I saw that we were in the same cohort for TEACH, I was overjoyed. I was so glad knowing I would have someone with whom I could  laugh and debate literature.

K: Haha! You are giving me too much credit! That was a heck of a quarter– probably one of the most challenging I’ve had. Thankfully we had each other!

They say opposites attract. In what ways do you think we are similar and different?  British lit versus American lit, of course. I know who to go to with my American lit questions when I am a teacher! Our writing and reading styles are quite different, which is why I love talking about literature with you! Mostly you laugh easily and help me to keep things in perspective. I tend to take life too seriously, and you make sure I am not getting carried away. It’s like my own personal reality check! I think we are similar in the respect that we are passionate about literature and learning. We both want to learn things that are worthwhile and meaningful, which I hope will make us good teachers.

K: British lit versus American lit, of course. I know who to go to with my American lit questions when I am a teacher! Our writing and reading styles are quite different, which is why I love talking about literature with you! Mostly you laugh easily and help me to keep things in perspective. I tend to take life too seriously, and you make sure I am not getting carried away. It’s like my own personal reality check! I think we are similar in the respect that we are passionate about literature and learning. We both want to learn things that are worthwhile and meaningful, which I hope will make us good teachers.

M: Blake versus Whitman, of course, of course. Career in horses versus career in dogs. This stuff matters. Our list of differences is as long as that of our similarities. We write, speak, and analyze differently. We have different personal tastes in many things, and we have very different histories as students and people. But this is what makes our collaboration, in both a personal and professional sense, so worthwhile! Working on projects with you is fascinating because we each bring such a wonderful style to the table. I truly hope that we will be able to work together in a professional setting, because we are great at compromising and coming up with compelling and challenging material. But I have yet to ask– Backstreet or ‘N Sync? This could change things.

K: What if I said 98 Degrees? Seriously though it has to be ‘N Sync. Have you heard their Christmas Album? Quality music right there. However, I love myself some Backstreet Boys. In all seriousness– Boys II Men will always be the best!

What are you most looking forward to and most nervous about heading into student teaching?

 K: I am looking forward to sharing what I have learned about literature with others. Also, I am looking forward to meeting new people and expanding my network of teachers and people. I think I am most scared of being average. The fear of being average is more of a life fear that applies to teaching. The last thing I want to be is an ok teacher, the teacher none of the kids remember, or want to try for. I think everyone has had that average teacher that wasn’t interesting or engaging, but wasn’t terrible either. If I’m terrible at it at least I know I need to make a change. Being average and living a life where I am mediocre is not something I am not interested in, at all!

M: I am excited to see what I’m made of. I want to know the kind of grit and strength that I have inside of me. I’m excited to see my future colleagues at work. I’m excited to become part of a community of people that can effect real, positive change. I’m excited to have an excuse to wear my Dansko clogs everyday (What? I have to. They’re comfy AND professional). I am afraid of many things as well. I’m afraid of failing. I’m afraid of not getting through to anyone. I’m afraid, as Kate said, of being average and doing average work. I am afraid of becoming consumed by this work and forgetting about my other life responsibilities.

K: Ah, yes. The clogs, of course! It’s a requirement. All I know for sure is that I am so lucky to be heading into this profession with such a wonderful friend!

 

Teacher-Friends: Diane & Sarah

Two Teachers Talk
Diane DuBois and Sarah Donovan

Teaching can feel so lonely at times, but when we open our classroom doors and peer around the corner, we see that we are not alone.

Do you have a teacher-friend — a colleague who is your BFF at school, who pulls you out from under your desk to make you laugh, who hands you a tissue when you just need to cry, who reminds you why you’re a teacher,  who just inspires?

Diane and I taught junior high ELA together for over a decade, and last week, over a week of email exchanges, we talked about the power of stories, the changes in the profession, and the friendship that made teaching a little less lonely.

Sarah: Question number one, my dear: If you could interview anyone from your life living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?

Diane: This took some time to think about, but I would have to say I would love to interview my parents.  I really don’t know my “story,” and I now so wish I did; age has made me very curious about it all.  I know snippets, but that’s it.  My mother and I would talk about what it was like when she was growing up and some of the silly things she did as a teen and young adult, and while she did talk about some of our family history, I evidently was not listening or not terribly interested at the time to remember much of it.  As a consequence, I know very little about her side of the family, and as she died twenty-five years ago (and the rest of her family is also gone), I will now never hear my maternal history. I know even less about my father and his family.  My parents were divorced when I was five-years-old.  I saw my father only a few times between the time I was five until I was ten-years-old and those visits were brief.  It wasn’t until thirty years later when I went to visit a friend in Philadelphia that my mother told me my father also lived there.  At the urging of my friend, I called him, and to my surprise, we arranged a meeting ~ the first in thirty years.  We were together for an evening and a day, which was very interesting as I met his wife, three of my four stepbrothers and sisters and their children.  While there was lots of conversation, there just wasn’t the occasion to talk about all gaps in what memories I had or to fill in all the missing blanks.  I thought that after that visit there might be other opportunities to talk and to visit, but there never was.  While he sent Christmas cards each year after our visit, he never called or asked to meet again.  He died about ten years after our meeting.  As I have gotten older, I feel this emptiness in the blank pages of my book; chapters are missing.  And while I know those pages will never be written, I wish I had a “do over” with my parents (with pen and notebook in hand) to patiently and intently listen to their stories…my ancestral stories…my lost stories…stories that I could now pass on to my children and grandchildren if I only had them to share.

Sarah: I did not know this about your father, Diane. You know, for us, stories have been part of our days for so many years — reading and writing with students, reading or listening to books every waking moment so that we had that right book to share with a student when he or she needed it. And yet, sometimes the stories closest to us linger unheard. I would interview my Aunt Adele. She is the oldest member of our family. My aunt has cancer. She was diagnosed a year ago but is still with us. I don’t want her stories to go unheard, so I asked her to grant me an interview about my grandparents and her life as a teacher. I am waiting to hear her response.

I think we taught together for just under a decade.  What is your first memory of me?
Diane: I am sorry to hear about your aunt; I hope you get the chance to interview her. I absolutely did not think about the connection between the stories that have been so much a part of our teaching lives and the missing one in my life. In the daily reading of books and searching for the right book to share with students and in helping them write their stories, I became more aware of my unheard story (my “right” story) and its importance to me.  An “aha” moment!
My first memory of you is meeting you in the conference room when you interviewed for the job at Winston.  I was on the interview team.
H103, the classroom
H103

Sarah: I remember meeting you there, too. However, there were many people in the room that day. I did not know that the interview was going to be a group interview, but my vivid memory of meeting you was in H103 for my first department meeting. You had brownies for all of us — and test scores. Your beauty stood out to me, but also that you were serious about making sure our department was doing all that it could to help our students.

How would you describe me?

Diane: You are a beautiful person inside and out.  On the outside, you are a tall, willowy woman who is obviously focused on health and fitness (Who gets up before school to take a spin class?  Always amazed me!) and are certainly a good athlete.  But despite all the rigors of physical training and fitness and academics, you also are mindful of the importance in taking care of the inner you and your personal relationships.  It appears you strive to find balance in your life. You have a beautiful smile and a warm, quiet, and inviting demeanor that seems to draw people in.  During conversation, you have a unique gift to listen intently and deeply to hear what the speaker is saying and to respond in a thoughtful, intelligent, and kind way.  Your gentleness with others, even in the face of a myriad of obstacles, opens doors for those who most need your support and guidance.  You are extremely supportive of your family, friends, colleagues, and students; never have I witnessed a time when you weren’t “there” for those who needed a helping hand and/or words of encouragement.  You take risks to connect with those around you, especially your students.  You are a master educator, and it was my good fortune to have worked with you. You had a huge influence on my practice during the years we worked together…always gently nudging me to be brave and branch out of my comfort zone…making me a better teacher and world citizen.  You are an inspiration to those with whom you work, and what I see as one of your many gifts is the ability to suggest ideas, new ways of thinking and practicing the craft of teaching (and thinking and living) in a way that says, “Try this…it may work…let’s travel this road together to see where it goes.”  The listener can then decide whether or not to pack his/her bags without recrimination.  You are humble in acceptance and rejection.  I have seen firsthand the success your students achieve (from at-risk to academically talented) under your tutelage, and you gain their love and respect in the process.  One must not take your quietness as a lack of will, for you have a determination and fearlessness that seems to propel you to climb to greater heights, to explore new ideas and practices in your profession and personally. You are authentic and grounded.  You are intelligent, insightful, and an innovator.  You are an amazing woman; someone I am proud to call “sista”.

Sarah: Gosh, Diane, my heart is swelling (as are my eyes). Your generous words capture all that I really strive to do and be and am still becoming. Most of the time, I feel like I am failing, which is why I keep trying — desperately most days. What keeps me coming back to the classroom is the belief that the today I will do better because I have to do better. These kids deserve it. But after hearing my career from your perspective, I guess I can just stop now.  I  think I will just stop now, go out on a high note — so thank you, and good night.

 

Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen 2005, Harper Teen ISBN:0060090065
Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen
2005, Harper Teen
ISBN:0060090065

Really, you had a huge influence on my practice. You got me out from behind (under) my desk. You showed me that  “my classroom” was a myth. At the beginning, I felt safe “doing what I do” in the classroom and didn’t collaborate much at all, mostly out of fear that I’d be judged or rejected. I know, it sounds like middle school, but I think teaching is really personal, and it can be hard to share what we do and be open to revising it. You were the one who nudged me to be brave and branch out of my comfort zone. Our collaboration made me a better teacher, and, more importantly, benefited our students’ learning. I loved how our classes read Tree Girl and that we could be teary eyed together after class. With books in every corner of your room, you taught me the value of a classroom library and how important it is for teachers to be readers — it seems obvious, but oftentimes our own reading and writing suffers as we try to balance school and home life. And you nudged me to start (and finish) my Ph.D. Because you believed in me, I felt like I could do it, and your feedback on my writing was so helpful.

I’ll never forget that look on your face when I said I was coming back full time; I think it was during one of our last book clubs  and after my part-time year. I had taken a part-time assignment that year so that I could finish my coursework, and I announced that I was coming back. The look on your face was of shock. You didn’t think I should come back to the classroom but focus on teaching teachers, right? I’ll still do that part-time, but I wanted to come back so that I could teach with you, so that I could continue to collaborate with and learn from my colleagues, side-by-side. I just didn’t feel like my work in middle school was done.

How did you decide to retire? What do you miss and not miss about teaching?

Diane: You touch my heart, Sarah.  It’s a good thing that I did stop before someone found me out!  I hear you, though.  I often had those same feelings of failing…that I really didn’t know what I was doing…just doing a good job at faking it and that someone would surely notice one day.  And, like you, each new year and each day I would start with that same belief that today (this year) I would do better because my kids needed me to do better; they depended on it.  Every new professional book I picked up from those respected in the field and every workshop that I could attend was a constant effort to keep learning and refining my practice to do better. I am touched to think that I influenced your practice. Thank you for that.  I enjoyed working with and alongside my colleagues, and there was much to learn from them, but I didn’t often feel that I was having any impact. I often felt, especially after team and/or department meetings, that I was politely listened to and then the door closed on the way back into individual rooms.  Maybe it is because teaching is a personal experience; we pour so much of ourselves into what we do that some of us feel threatened or challenged by being asked to rethink and rework our practice or even to consider it.  However, with you, I felt a collaborative spirit and willingness to venture out; I knew that our conversations were frank, open, thoughtful, and sometimes quite adventurous!   I always felt I got more than I ever gave…really!  And I do remember our Tree Girl discussions; I still get teary-eyed.

Yes, you are right.  My initial reaction to your coming back may have registered shock…more surprise perhaps.  I know you had said in our conversations that you might.  However, I just knew the kind of impact you were having on new teachers and that the influence on new teachers would have an indirect impact on students, so I had hoped you would continue in that role.  However, after listening to your thoughts and knowing what I know now, I was wrong.  You are far wiser.  Your wanting to stay connected to students benefits and strengthens your instruction with new teachers.  And I can’t imagine those junior high students missing this time with you.  Indeed, your work is not done with them.  You needed to come back not to be me (sweet comment – thanks) but to be an even better you.

Deciding to retire was not entirely a hard decision to make.  I had “retired” early in my career to raise the boys and returned sixteen years later to substitute teach and then four years after that to full-time teaching, so I knew I would never get to the thirty-five plus year mark.  The “when” would be based on other factors.  As teaching and the environment in which teachers were having to work changed yet again, I knew it was time.  Teaching is an ever-changing profession, and while I don’t mind change and certainly had been through many paradigm shifts since I had returned to the classroom full-time in 1990, I didn’t think I had the energy to do it again.  I knew that I was at a point where I could no longer do what I had been doing the way I had been doing it…that there was just too much evidence pointing me new directions…that it was time to throw out the old and not-so-old and begin anew.   I simply didn’t feel I had the get-up-and-go to reinvent myself again.  Like many teachers, I had been working long hours and most weekends and a lot of my summers on school for such a long time (was not real good at balance), and as the last four to six years were probably the most stressful of my career, I also felt I needed a change to regain and maintain my health and re-balance my life.  My friends had long retired and were enjoying their lives, traveling, spending time with friends and family, and generally having a good time.  I wanted to do that!  My youngest son and daughter-in-law were starting their family, and an opportunity to spend time with their girls was offered which I couldn’t pass up.  Because I had been working while my other grandchildren were young, I missed a lot of that precious time to spend with them before they reached school-age; I resolved not to miss that time with these two girls.  Thus, LIFE entered into the decision.  And since one does not know how many candles on one’s cake there will be, I decided to turn in my lesson plans and gradebook to do the things that are important to me while I still can.  Happily, I have been doing those fun things with the girls, visiting old friends and making new ones in my new location, traveling, reading, going to concerts and the ballet, and generally just living life on my own schedule. And loving it!

The harder part of that decision was that I knew I would miss my friends and colleagues and the work we did together and the fun we also had.  I also knew I would probably lose contact with most of them as I moved out-of-state.  There was also an administrative change the first year I was gone, and as I had known the new administrator when he was in our building several years before and knew what a wonderful person he was with whom to work, I was disappointed to miss the opportunity to be a part of his staff.  Additionally, you were coming back full-time, and while you took my position (I think), I was sad that I would not have the chance to work with you again.  If there had been room for both of us in the department, I would have gladly spent a few more years; it would have been so invigorating to explore new horizons together.  I may have found some of that get-up-and-go again!  There was a moment when I left my room the last day of school that I turned to have one last look and felt a great twinge of sadness that I would never stand before a group of “my kids” again and introduce them to the excitement of reading and writing, that when I closed the door it would truly be for the last time, a moment of nostalgia and finality.  I had defined myself for so long as a teacher, and my identity was so wrapped around that that I felt almost a sense of loss and wondered who the new me would be…if I would find myself without my lesson plans and journals.  However, the fact that you are in my old room and that I was able to give you most of my library is a gift that gives me great pleasure.  I also know where “one door closes another door opens” (cliche, I know), and I think that’s happening.

Sarah:  Of course, I would have liked a few more years of teaching alongside you, but I also worry about the day when I can no longer do what I do. Remember that one year I was told I had to follow a scripted curriculum? I was so close to resigning, but Dan was out of work, and we needed my income. Teachers make these tough choices every day, and I think you were brave for making the choice to be with your precious girls.

You talk of balance and identity. Like me (and so many other teachers), you have your identity “so wrapped around” being a teacher, and it was a comfort to me to know you understood my passion (sometimes obsession) — and I understood yours. We were never good at balance, were we? Teaching is hard, but there are all these beautiful moments that make imprints on our hearts.  I think most teachers get that what we do is a privilege — to be entrusted with other people’s children, to read their innermost thoughts, to hear their ideas about the world. So when we stop, and I will have to stop if I can’t figure out this balance thing, I know I will carry all the stories with me.

As an adult, It is not easy for me to make friends, but I call you my friend, my sista. Is there anything else you want to say or add, a question I didn’t ask?

Diane: I also worry about what’s in store for teachers and students and what someone who doesn’t understand what we do will conceive as the next new “best” thing.  Yes, I remember your scripted curriculum; what a nightmare.  But what would have happened if a new teacher would have been handed that packet and was told she had to do it?  She/he might have felt too much pressure to do what she/he had been told to keep the job and not what she/he was right for kids.  Luckily, you were experienced and knew what you needed to do for your students and could do it.  I believe you will be a voice that offers alternatives…a change agent…who is bold and committed to “righting the ship” for kids.  As you are planning several new directions for your teaching and for kids this year, I will be very interested to hear how these changes are received by parents, students, and other teachers.  It could be life-changing for everyone.

I had to smile when I read “there are all these beautiful moments that make imprints on our hearts…will carry all the stories with me.”  You are so right! I just got a note from a former student who is starting her first teaching job today and a FB note from another a couple of months ago who is beginning a two-year commitment teaching math to under-served kids.  I am also in regular contact with a former student who is working towards citizenship and has now received her papers so she can get a better paying job and begin college!   I am reminded of those “beautiful moments” with each of them (and others) and recall the stories we wrote together.  Replaying the “movie” is a wonderful aspect of retirement.  One can stand back, away from the frenzy of everyday schedules, plans, grading, etc. and leisurely reflect on the years with kids.  I’ve even had time now to read over the notes and letters I’d received over the years from parents and students.  The memories that we share together always make me smile.  And I still wonder about those kids who struggled and the ones I worried about, academically and/or personally, I can only hope their life paths have led them wherever they needed to go.  I guess you can take the teacher out of the school but not the school out of the teacher!

Thank you for being a part of this journey.  I hope to continue to ride along with you, dear sista, as you continue to create all those “beautiful moments…stories” that you will carry in your heart when you someday close the door

Do you have a teacher-friend that you’d like to interview for Ethical ELA? See our Teacher-Friends Interview guide for how to set up the interview and then send it to us for publication.