The teaching instinct must run very deep in my family, since both my mother and father were originally teachers. My mother was a teacher before she became a full-time homemaker. My father left teaching to be a pharmaceutical salesman because there were six children in our family and he needed to earn more money. If things had been different, he might have remained a teacher all his life.
With National Teacher Appreciation Day this week, it seems like the right time to reflect on the important role teachers play in our society.
When I think back on my early years as a student, I feel tremendously grateful for the quality and caliber of the women and men into whose care I was entrusted by my parents, day after day.
I completed my entire pre-college education in the wonderful public school system in Nutley, New Jersey, the little town where I grew up. From my very first day in kindergarten, I knew I would love learning and being taught. I remember the names and faces of every one of my teachers, from Miss Parks and Miss Mitchell, my first- and second-grade teachers, to Mrs. Harth, my fifth-grade science teacher whose inspiring lessons in biology and botany still help me identify sea life and garden plants and trees.
But the one who made the deepest impression on me was my third-grade teacher, Miss Irene Weyer. It was Miss Weyer who showed me what made a great teacher and why. Smart, poised, and beautifully groomed, she was not even five feet tall, and several of her young students towered over her. Nevertheless she did not allow any of the twenty or so 8 and 9 year olds in her charge to intimidate her. She was loving, but also firm and determined. She kept rowdiness to a minimum with a sweet smile and an iron will.
Among the many subjects she taught, Miss Weyer had the difficult assignment of teaching penmanship, a required class in those days. It was not an easy task. She taught us according to the fairly strict Palmer method. With our Number Two pencils, we were required to make well-formed letters – round where they should be round, oval where they should be oval, and straight where they should be straight. It was very conformist but it produced legible handwriting.
Hour after hour I practiced the required shape and slant of the letters in my blue-covered notebook printed with thin guidelines for upper- and lower-case letters. I was striving so hard to make my letters perfect, but what I really wanted was Miss Weyer’s approval. I respected her, and I wanted her respect in return.
I believe kids really want to learn, but their curiosity must be nurtured. They need to learn something new every day, they crave interesting projects, they desire assignments, they need instruction, and above all they want to have fun.
When I became a mother, I started taking my daughter Alexis to school in New York City, but by then I was taken aback by the changes that had taken place. I realized that the social value given to teachers had diminished dramatically. Teaching had become a business, not a revered profession. The respect and viability of the teaching profession has eroded so much. Today so many amazing teachers struggle to move mountains with few resources.
Now I am a grandmother, and I have the chance to experience those early learning experiences with my grandchildren. I see my granddaughter Jude and how much she already loves going to school at age two, which makes me happy. I will do my best to encourage her to like and appreciate her teachers and form close bonds with them, just as my parents did with us. As a society we must continue to support our teachers and help them inspire the creativity, expressiveness and leadership of future generations.
Unfortunately these days my handwriting has deteriorated to a scrawling, almost illegible script. Try as I might, I cannot seem to improve it or make it as elegant as I would like it to be. Today so many people rely on their computers for correspondence and papers, and penmanship is not taught much anymore. But I often think of Miss Weyer and the invaluable lessons I learned from her.