It is my first eulogy. I stand here with my guitar in the packed room at the Tasker Funeral Home in Dover, New Hampshire. To my left lies a wooden coffin. In it lies Miss Carolyn Foley, my fourth grade teacher, the great teacher who changed my life, the teacher you remember forever. I have spent a career working with teachers, and I have been eulogizing the woman in this coffin in my talks and books. I have written a song about Miss Foley, and I will sing that song to her for the last time today. But before I do, I will tell these people what she meant to me. I will remember the time she made me MC of the talent show, the time she asked me to make a dreidel when all the other children were making Josephs and Marys. (Back then the Christian religion was practiced openly in public school.) Miss Foley would not let me hide my differentness. On the contrary, she required I celebrate it. She was the first person to tell me it’s okay to be who you are; you don’t have to squeeze yourself into a little box to survive. She made school a safe place to grow and to learn.
That’s what I say when I try to describe Miss Foley’s effect on me to teachers today. I say it because today teachers are under so much pressure to fit themselves into ever smaller boxes. With the insatiable corporate need to turn the art of teaching into efficiency skill acquisition and data management, something has been lost – and it only can be rediscovered when we think of the teachers who made a permanent mark on our lives.
Close your eyes and think of your greatest teachers right now. Do you say to yourself, “She was so wonderful. She followed the curriculum so thoroughly. She kept the 4-inch binder of expectations on her desk. It inspired us so!”
- They feel connected with everyone they meet. They don’t see themselves as separate or above others.
- They are hopelessly and endlessly naive. They never give up on anybody.
- They realize that at the end of the day, it’s is not about what they are teaching. It is about something larger than themselves. They are not teaching algebra. They are teaching children, teenagers, world citizens. They keep their eyes on the prize.
- It’s all about relationships. Great teachers create a comfortable place to learn. It’s always about people and never about things.
As I read these four qualities, I see at least two or three in every teacher who has made a lasting impression on my life. Many of these teachers, I’m sure, are not even aware of their effect on me. I think of my first and only modern dance class and how hopeless I am. There is a never ending critical voice in my head chiding me for each failed attempt at a plié. Then, every so often I do something almost half right and I hear my teacher Patti say just 2 words, “Go Barry.” She sees the success and ignores the rest.
I think of Mrs. Schram, my 10th grade English teacher who lets us bring in lyrics to our favorite songs and analyze the words for the April poetry unit. I bring in “A Working Class Hero” by John Lennon, a song with the F-bomb in it. She seems unfazed when the song plays. It is not about the shock of that one bad word; it is about what Lennon is trying to say. The last words of the song are, “If you want to be a hero well just follow me.” Mrs. Schram asks me, what Lennon means by that. I think, Gee, I never thought about that before. I come up with a few ideas. Marry Yoko, leave the Beatles. Do drugs? Not as deep a song as I had originally thought once it was under the microscope.
Back in fourth grade, Miss Foley asks us to do projects that take all year long in a school where most assignments are done before the mimeograph fluid dries. Mine is on Egypt, and I work on it with Julianna Hill. Miss Foley lets us stay in at recess to consult with her, our valued colleague, about our project. This is important stuff, far more important than school. We are archeologists uncovering past civilizations. We drink cocoa.
I give my eulogy for Miss Foley. I am surprised by the lump that rises up in my throat and makes me unable to finish a thought without heaving a few sobs. Later, I realize my sadness is not just grief for Miss Foley. I grieve for all the teachers who are not Miss Foley, for all the boring classes, all the vocabulary lists, all the senseless reprimands, all the rules we followed just because they were rules. I visit some schools today where all teachers are following some prescribed, scripted, program for standardized teaching. The lessons are precise, scientific, and efficient, worked out by well-credentialed researchers. Administrators love to know everyone is on the same page, but they rarely talk about the need for teacher agency, teacher creativity, teacher and student passion. On the contrary, compliance and fidelity are the words applied to successful teachers using these programs.
Miss Foley was teaching something much bigger than that, something you could not put your finger on. You could call it life, but it was more like freedom, or joy or love. Like the four qualities in Mark Wasicsko’s research, they cannot easily be assessed because they can never be automated. Proficiency-based education requires we see schools as skill factories where teachers must gear their lessons to these tested skills. If we adopt this view of school, teachers like Miss Foley will not not be needed. Teaching can be turned into a computer skill acquisition game, and what we call teachers today will become like cooks at McDonald’s and not skilled chefs in their own dynamic bistros. Many rich, powerful and smart people are advocating for this limited kind of learning. Many brilliant teachers are leaving the profession because they don’t see a place for the kind of teaching that changes lives forever. Too much of their time is taken up with busy work, test prep, and pointless data collection.
In the Army they have a word for all the crap you have to do just because someone orders you to do it. They call it “chicken shit,” a term that ironically also refers to a lack of courage.
At the reception after the funeral, I reach for another chicken product: a chicken salad sandwich in a finger bun. A voice comes from behind me.
She is an older woman with well quaffed head of gray hair.
“I loved what you said about Cal,” she says.
“Thank you,” I reply, but can tell there is something more behind her eyes. I pause, drop the sandwich on my paper plate, and wait.
“Your song was beautiful.”
“You know, I also taught in Dover for 30 years,” she says.
She tells me which school and we discuss dates.
Light streams in through the stained glass window and falls over the basket of potato chips.
Then, almost like an after thought, she turns, looks me straight in the eye, and says.“No student ever wrote a song about me.”
I look down at my plate. I nod, not quite knowing what to say.
Inside, I vow to tell this story to every group of teachers I meet.
Life passes so quickly. Blink and your children are grown. Blink again and your career is over. Blink again and you are lying in a coffin in a room full of former students. All we have is the memories we make.
Can we make big memories?
Can we teach in such a way that our students will write songs about those memories?
Can we live our own song each day?
Can we vow to know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad?