Unlikely Teachers

My grandfather wrote wonderful poems.

Grandpa and me, Halloween 1977

Grandpa and me, Halloween 1977

He loved to play with rhythm and rhyme and write about people that he knew. To anyone who heard his poems and listened to him talk it would become quickly apparent that this man enjoyed playing with the English language. He was also a dairy farmer who dropped out of school in the 8th grade to work on his family farm and one person who inspired me to never stop learning.

From a very young age I was surrounded by family who always spoke highly of education and what “working hard at school” could “get” me. I never questioned whether learning was important or not; I knew that it was and the more I learned, the more I realized how right my family was and the harder I worked. They were my first unlikely teachers.

In retrospect I see the poignancy of being inspired to learn, read, and write more, by a family of people who did not receive the same influence themselves. In my family I was the first to go to college, and the fact that my parents sacrificed their own financial security to afford me this opportunity was never a light weight on my mind. As a child in elementary school I can remember my parents talking about college and how they wanted me to be able to go and study the things that I was interested in, develop my skills, and be able to share my gifts with others in a career that I loved and excelled in. How many parents do that? Through my experience as a teacher, I can see that it’s far fewer than it should be. Which is especially problematic given the impact that parent involvement can have on their children. In a study conducted in 2010 to study the impact of parent involvement on student achievement, researchers found that “…parent involvement was significantly related to academic performance above and beyond the impact of the child’s intelligence (IQ)” (Topor D., Keane, S., Sheldon, T. and Calkins, S., 2011)

In fourth grade who really knows what “college” is? All that I knew was that it was a goal, and that to get there I had to study hard, take advantage of every opportunity I could, (and hopefully make my parents proud along the way). Like any kid, I had my own share of difficulties while navigating my way through the public school system. Academically, I did well, but the social landscape was a much larger challenge for me. It wasn’t until 6th, 7th and 8th grade that I became aware of my family’s socioeconomic status and where that placed me on the social scale. I distinctly remember being very aware of the importance of the “right” sort of things at this age. Swatch watches were a “thing” as were Tretorn tennis shoes, and Benetton rugby shirts with huge green stripes across the front. I got my pair of Tretorn tennis shoes, but I spent weeks feeding calves to earn the money to pay for them. Conversely, I would listen to my once-best-friend talk about spending the day shopping with her grandmother who bought her a whole list of items I coveted…in one day…no bucket hauling required. I was jealous; and just starting to recognize an internal desire to be “good enough”.

Moving through my high school classes I began to grow increasingly aware of the need to do well academically to be able to earn some scholarships and grants that would allow me to attend college without graduating in debt that was miles above my head. Around the same time that I was graduating from high school, a study was being conducted which found that my situation was not an anomaly and “Contrary to continuing popular belief, knowledge of a student’s SES [socioeconomic status], or that of his or her peers, provides only modest assistance in accurately predicting his or her performance on standardized tests.” (White, S., Reynolds, P., Thomas, M., and Gitzlaff, N., 1993, p. 16) It felt odd to be one of the few students paying very close attention to tuition and fees and scholarship opportunities when looking at colleges. It felt like there were few students in my position who had the desire and support to go to college but also limited funds to do so. I often wonder now, how many of my classmates would have benefitted from attending college if they’d been supported and encouraged to do so, but at the time, I felt like the only one. In actuality, I was probably one of the lucky ones.

During my senior year of high school I had a life changing moment. At the time it was devastating. I had applied to my first choice school Skidmore, early decision with the hopes that 1. I would be accepted and 2. I could afford to go. My acceptance letter became my most prized possession and the financial aid packet ended the glow. My 2nd choice school, Plymouth State University, offered me acceptance along with a presidential scholarship that was renewable each year as long as I kept my grades on the dean’s list or above. To go to Skidmore I would have had to borrow $9000 a year more than if I went to Plymouth. My plan was to be a high school English teacher and I didn’t see a reasonable way to pay back that amount of additional debt short of working 1 – 2 additional part time jobs while I taught. It was unrealistic and I knew it, so I declined my admission to Skidmore.

At my high school where you were going to college was a huge thing. In retrospect I realize that I was pretty blind to all of those students who didn’t even have the chance to apply to college: Kids who didn’t have anyone at home or school saying “Hey – what if?”. I just remember feeling excited when I finally accepted that I would be attending Plymouth State. I felt that way until I told my guidance counselor. His only response was “oh”. There was no “congratulations!” or even a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed in my teachers as I was at this point in my academic career when I reenacted this experience with teacher, after teacher. To this day that reaction shapes my view of people who put more emphasis on a name of a school than the education that occurs within it. It also created a filter through which I view interactions between students and teachers/staff. I don’t ever want to be as blind to the power and impact of my words and actions as that counselor was in his response. All my hard work, my high class standing, difficult course load, and none of it was good enough without that name. If only I knew then what Angela Lee Duckworth (and my life experience) have proven to me — “…grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.” (Perkins-Gough, D., 2013) What appeared as a failure, was actually one of the best opportunities for me.

When I got to Plymouth I realized that I was among peers. The backgrounds of the students that I studied with were much similar to my own. More people were concerned about tuition, paying for books, and scholarships than I ever remember hearing about at my high school. At Plymouth I also discovered my interest in the field of education and my strengths as a writer. I think I experienced a bit of the “big fish in a small pond” phenomena as I found my papers being highlighted as exemplars in class. The support of faculty and peers helped me to realize my potential and abilities and gain confidence in my skills in a way that had not happened before. I was being academically challenged more than I had ever been in the past, and I was able to rise to and exceed what was expected. It was a truly transformative experience for me.

As I began student teaching I started to take more notice of those students who did not fit the mold of a “good” student; students who many teachers write off as not worth the trouble. They were a bit more combative and difficult at times, but they had good things to say and were bright in an unpolished way. I liked these kids (even when they gave me a hard time), and wanted to reach them and show them what I had found in learning in the hopes that they would also experience that spark that would lead them to want to learn more. One of my cooperating teachers was particularly strong at using humor to connect with his students. It was really humbling to watch him work, as he was an expert at redirecting students towards his goals for the lesson. The energy in the classroom was always humming and the students worked for him. They tried new things, took risks, were creative, funny, and accomplished great things. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, watching Tom teach allowed me to recognize the significance of showing students that you care about them as individuals as well as students in your class. Studies have proven the building of these relationship between teachers and students to be crucial to outcomes of a class. It is also becoming increasingly complex to do. “The Classroom life now consists of a great variety of students: ESL, gifted, special education and behaviorally challenging, in addition to the regular education students. Each population requires different kinds of instruction. Likewise, each individual student in any given population requires different kinds of relational interactions. Attending to both the range of academic and emotional needs of students is a great challenge for teachers.” (Newberry, M., 2010).

Tom’s students worked hard because they trusted him to be fair, create a safe place to fail, and encourage them to try new things. Through my experiences teaching in my own classroom as well as student teaching I’ve come to recognize the hallmarks of a good teacher. As one of the faculty members at my current institution states “Teachers that begin with love are easy to find in schools. They are the most exhausted.” (Vila 2014) They are also the ones to seek out. They teach without judgment and establish high expectations for all.

As both a student teacher and a new teacher it can be intimidating to acclimate to the frequent observations and feedback that occur as a part of the teacher evaluation process. It took me a while to recognize these as opportunities rather than threats. In each instance, I was being offered priceless tips and tricks from veterans in the field of education. Learning about how making small changes to my lessons could have huge impacts on student outcomes was eye opening! For example, my impulse was to fill the quiet space in class with words. It felt awkward to allow silence. But one of the teachers on my team suggested that I needed to give students time to think and respond to my prompts, and that allowing a few moments of silence would redirect the pressure to respond, onto the students. These experiences have caused me to seek out, observe and listen carefully to individuals who are excelling in an area that I want to learn more about. Being able to solicit their feedback and insight on my practice, is often my goal, but I find that observing and listening also allow me to identify unique pieces of their teaching practice that I want to learn more about.

Through observing, working and collaborating with the special educator in my department I was introduced to the ways in which technology can have a transformative effect on educational practices and outcomes for students. Ironically, the special educator was not a technophile, however obstacles that we ran into with a legally blind student forced us to look for unique solutions. The student was very conscious of being treated differently than others and would often shut down when he felt accommodations were too apparent to other students. He just wanted to blend in. At the time I was not aware of the practice of inclusive education, and I backed into an educational practice that I’ve now learned might be titled “user-sensitive inclusive design” whereby “…designers need to develop a real empathy with their user

groups.” rather than “rely[ing] on standards and guidelines.” (Newell, A, Gregor, P., Morgan, M., Pullin, G., Macaulay, C., 2011, p. 1) Through trying to empathize with the student, we began doing more work online as a class because this enabled the student to read the materials using a piece of software called ZoomText that would increase the size of the font on the screen so that he could read it. Since all students were reading online, he did not stand out. This enabled us to explore online group annotation tools like Diigo, which added another layer of information processing. From there we began using Google docs to collaboratively peer review each other’s work, and respond to comments on our writing. Once I removed the trigger point for this student his exemplary academic talent was apparent. His talent as a writer was unmistakable; finally his work became the focus instead of his behavior. At this point I realized that I wanted my career to focus on figuring out the best way to utilize these tools and methods for helping teachers to implement the tools and practices into their classrooms to achieve their classes’ goals.

I had also become a mom by this point, which added another dimension to my understanding of educational practices. I found myself repeating the cycle my parents began with me when I was young, by reading and talking to my daughters ALL THE TIME. Through reading numerous books while I was pregnant I learned that “Communication with caregivers to accomplish everyday goals is the groundwork for children’s early learning of the language and other cognitive tools of their community.” (Bransford, J. Brown, A., Cocking, R., 2000, p. 104). So we explored the library and our neighborhood. We played in the yard, cooked, completed arts and crafts projects and excitedly awaited the arrival of the first day of preschool, kindergarten and now 4th grade and middle school. Every year my daughters’ teachers would ask “what is your hope for your child this year at school?” Every year I answered, “That she will continue to love learning.” Every year, I hope it will hold true.

As both a parent and a teacher I recognize the students in schools who are struggling, and don’t have someone cheering them on at home. Remembering and experiencing the amount of time and effort that it takes to be a good student, and love learning even when it’s hard, I wonder what paths lay ahead for those students that had never had someone talking to them about the importance of learning. To them, my work as a teacher seemed worthless. I was torturing them by making them read, write, and think. I was just another obstacle in the way – one more person ink-happy with the red pen. In my head I was screaming “WHAT IS YOUR PLAN???” And of course I was! I had plan-makers on my side from the time I was born. Plan-makers who somehow recognized that advancing my education beyond their own was important, and worthy of sacrifice. Most of my students were not that lucky. No one was telling them they were good enough, and research demonstrates evidence that parental support provides a valuable advantage to students. In a study titled “Perceived parental social support and academic achievement: An attachment theory perspective” researchers demonstrated that parental support can provide many benefits to students in their academic achievement. Two of these benefits are “stress buffering” meaning that “…interactions with parents during times of stress (e.g., during exam week) facilitate adaptive coping and positive adjustment. The second, based on attachment theory, is that a lifetime of parental support allows the individual to develop adaptive attitudes toward other people that facilitate active exploration and skill development, without inhibitory anxiety or self-doubt. In this view, current interactions with parents are less important than the accumulated influence of growing up in a supportive environment.” (Cutrona, C., Cole, V., Colangelo, N., Assouline, S., Russell, D., 1994) It’s heartbreaking to see the lack of support for many students and be fully aware of the dramatic impact that it could have.

Inequity in educational opportunities is probably one of the most troubling items to me, but it’s also one of the reasons why I am so excited about technological innovations in the field. In many ways technology can break down barriers and level the playing field. Experts and field trips can suddenly become “virtually” available when they were previously impossible. Students can re-vision information in new ways that make better sense to them, and take control of their learning using constructivist principles in project based units of study. This new potential was recognized in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School for the capacity to “…create new opportunities for curriculum and instruction by bringing real-world problems into the classroom for students to explore and solve”. (Bransford, et. al., 2000, p. 207). Bringing these problems into the curriculum provides the relevance that students are actively seeking in the classroom which impacts both motivation and performance.

I see so many opportunities for students to construct their knowledge using a combination of experiential education in combination with structured online components. Flip the classroom proponents are putting the pieces together, but I’d like to see a more cohesive high level assessment of educational assets and their most effective usage. For example, I’ve read many articles about how integrating real world scenarios in education through project-based learning can increase students’ understanding of content-area knowledge as well as 21st century “soft” skills including project management and interpersonal skills. What I don’t understand is why we do not recognize the tremendous opportunity available to us in our career and technical education (CTE) centers and combine the physical assets (hardware, infrastructure), with the content area experts (industry experts as CTE instructors and academic content experts in traditional high schools) to maximize the learning opportunities. Instead, we segment populations by often tracking students into CTE classes when they struggle with traditional academic subjects. What sense does this make when the reading level of an OSHA manual is well-above high school level? “Vocational” education is currently undergoing a transformation of sorts to align with career academies in response to “A Nation at Risk” (Lewis, T., Cheng, S., 2006). Numerous research studies are beginning to demonstrate positive results of this realignment and are finding that “…new vocationalism programs are making some difference with respect to student persistence in school, increased academic course taking, and improved chances of graduating. But the body of empirical work here is still small and in formative stages.” (Lewis, T., Cheng, S., 2006). This work provides some of the first pieces of evidence that there is room for all levels of students to learn practical application of academic knowledge and skills. One needs look no further than my current employer to see another example. Watching liberal arts students learn how to build an energy efficient house in order to compete in the national Solar Decathlon is a perfect example of how academics and work-based skills can be combined to enhance learning in a transformative way. Competition results further support this model, as Middlebury has placed within the top ten in several different categories in 2011 and 2013 competitions even as they competed as the only liberal arts college in the mix.

A project like building a house provides a wealth of opportunities to learn any number of subjects. What if every child learned to build a house, design a business plan, solve a community problem as a part of their education?

It is my hope that one day technology will be one tool that will help students to construct their education in a way that allows them to learn about areas of interest, experience their education in a hands-on manner, and apply their knowledge through project based assessments. I only see this being accomplished by:

  1. Removing judgment, bias and stigmas against different types of educational opportunities and experiences. (Case in point, my father, a rather dismal math student, could run circles around my high school geometry class when he’s designing furniture.)
  2. Recognizing and crediting students’ understanding through project based assessments, which identify skills learned, and their ability to apply those skills in a real world scenario.
  3. Developing a set of skilled support staff with varied expertise that can work with academic subject matter experts to combine these experiences with the pedagogy necessary to teach the series of skills needed to succeed at a task.
  4. Identifying and exemplifying those teachers that are successful at building connections with their students, and facilitating the sharing of their practice with less experienced educators.
  5. Identifying students who do not have a strong support system at home and connecting them with the most skilled and experienced educators to ensure that they have someone on their team who is pushing them forward, and making sure they know they are “good enough” to rise to the challenge.


We are all educators. My grandfather taught me that. The moment you care enough to take someone by the hand, attempt to show him or her the way to something more, and tell them that their work has value, is the moment you’ve become a teacher. I learned to love poetry from a 70-year-old man with an 8th grade education; and I couldn’t have had a better teacher.






Bransford, J., Brown, A., Cocking, R., (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.

Cutrona, C. E., Cole, V., Colangelo, N., Assouline, S. G., & Russell, D. W. (1994). Perceived parental social support and academic achievement: An attachment theory perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(2), 369–378. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.66.2.369

Lewis, T., & Cheng, S. (2006). Tracking, Expectations, and the Transformation of Vocational Education. American Journal of Education, 113(1), 67–99. doi:10.1086/aje.2006.113.issue-1

Newell, A. F., Gregor, P., Morgan, M., Pullin, G., & Macaulay, C. (2011). User-Sensitive Inclusive Design. Universal Access in the Information Society, 10(3), 235–243. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1007/s10209-010-0203-y

Newberry, M. (2010). Identified phases in the building and maintaining of positive teacher–student relationships. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(8), 1695–1703. doi:10.1016/j.tate.2010.06.022

Perkins-Gough, D. (2014, May 25). The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. ASCD.org. Organization Title. Retrieved May 25, 2014, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept13/vol71/num01/The-Significance-of-Grit@-A-Conversation-with-Angela-Lee-Duckworth.asp

Topor, D. R., Keane, S. P., Shelton, T. L., & Calkins, S. D. (2010). Parent involvement and student academic performance: A multiple mediational analysis. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 38(3), 183–197. doi:10.1080/10852352.2010.486297

Vila, Hector (2014). The Ecology of Teaching, Breaking Out of the Factory Model. Community

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White, S. B., Reynolds, P. D., Thomas, M. M., & Gitzlaff, N. J. (1993). Socioeconomic Status and Achievement Revisited. Urban Education, 28(3), 328–343. doi:10.1177/0042085993028003007