My Leader

My last post on prewriting was about writing the following piece. I requested Candy's permission, which she gave enthusiastically and also sent many compliments. I was overwhelmed and flattered all over again. She's incredible like that. I'd like to share her blog (mrstannous.blogspot.com) and the picture she sent along with her approval. The picture is unremarkable, featuring the English team at the time (only two grades and that many teachers!!). However, I happen to be right up front in the middle (it was during the six months or so I attempted being brunette) flanked on each side by my two closest teacher friends, with whom I am still in contact. At the top right corner is Candy. Never one to stand up front and center (as I obviously had chosen), she chose to highlight her team. Just one more example of Candy's great strength in leadership.

CANDY

If she interviewed me today, I wonder if we’d have the same experience we had then. I’m older now, wiser hopefully. I’ve gone from confident to discouraged, questioning to ambivalent. I’ve lost, as most people do when they enter their thirties, the idealistic passion I had at 22. To be sure, I’m still interested in teaching and being a teacher, but I have other goals and ideas, as well. I hope she’d be happy with me today the way she was the day she interviewed me for my first teaching job.

As I remember it, I walked into the building with excitement and confidence. Who wouldn’t want to hire me? I’m great! However, I’m sure there was a hint of bile at the back of my throat as I pulled into the parking lot, nervous about where to park in the huge, almost empty lot. I imagine I thought about my gait as I walked in thinking about who might be watching me through the many large windows. It’s likely I checked the address and printed map (much before my phone could tell me where to go) to make sure I was in the right place. A thought probably went through my head as I went to enter the school that it was all just a trick with doors locked and no one really wanted me anyway.

I was in the right place. The doors opened expectantly. The windows only let in light instead of revealing judgmental gazes. I made it up to Candy’s room where she was busily packing her things in boxes and getting ready to move to the new high school where she would be the English Department Chair and where I hoped to be her newest team member. She seemed entirely unperturbed by my presence as if some new friend had stopped in, not at all like she was interviewing a brand new, nervous, and untested teacher.

At first, I felt confused. This was it? Just talking to another teacher in her classroom? That’s not so bad. Knowing what I know of Candy today, I feel I would have entered the room with more reverence – maybe even kneeling as I walked in and bowing my head slightly to show respect. She would have had none of it, though. Candy welcomed me literally with open arms and invited me to sit down at a student desk across from her. She’d take a break from her work and talk to me now and when we were done, she’d get back to the other task. Neither one interrupting the other, just tasks that happened when they happened and weren’t any more or less important in her day.

She asked me questions about myself mostly: my philosophies (on teaching and everything else); where I grew up and my life; how my life’s journey had plopped me into this desk in front of her. Like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, she pulled stories and memories from my brain I hadn’t fully put together or told in a long time. Among the stories I told was one about learning to read in my kindergarten class.

I was however old kindergarteners are when they’re in kindergarten and an excited learner. Apparently, I liked to participate – loudly – in whatever was going on, whether or not it was a part of the lesson. Consequently, I got sent to time out quite a bit, which was located in a little corner with bookshelves. I began to occupy my time by looking through the books and their beautiful pictures. Over many time-out sessions, I began to recognize the letters and their sounds and put together how to make the words. One day, strapped into the car seat in the back of my mother’s minivan, I pulled out a book and began to read, which my mother thought was just adorable. How cute that I’d been able to memorize the words on the page and read to her. When we got home she asked me to read some other things, which made her realize that I was reading and not reciting. The child for whom she’d read many notes home about questionable behavior had accomplished something admirable, too. She was thrilled!

Candy was, too. When I finished the story, she was laughing without abandon and looked at me with a great smile. She had already decided at that point that she wanted me to work with her.

Unlike interviews where the last question is asked and time is up, our conversation came to a natural conclusion. Candy decided to walk me out the building, hoping to stop along the way to introduce me to some people who would also be joining her and (cross my fingers!) me at the new high school. She effusively told my story to these people. Instead of feeling embarrassed by being presented like a debutante, I felt comfortable and confident. If Candy thinks I am impressive, then I must be.

My first year as a teacher, I felt mighty and strong. I learned that Candy was generous of spirit with all the teachers on her team. She consistently pointed out the accomplishments and strengths of others while leading us with a common purpose and excitement. She shared ideas, set goals, and lit fires under us while making us all feel assuredly capable of the important work we were doing. She never let us forget our importance or the importance of the students we taught.

At the end of this school year, Candy retired. I was only fortunate to work with her for one year because life and love took me to Chicago. I have kept up with her on Facebook and through other friends, but I have missed her more and more as I discover that not all teachers and leaders work the way Candy does. Candy was a one in a million person, mentor, and friend. I couldn’t have appreciated her back then the way I do now, but I deeply wish I could go back to those moments and soak up more of Candy’s effervescence.

On my last day, I said my goodbyes to the great friends I had made. I was sad to leave the collaborative and supportive environment of which I had been a part, but particularly sad to leave Candy who had genuinely cared about my future as a teacher and guided me when I was in need. When I walked into her room for the last time, she greeted me with a similar smile to the one I witnessed in our first meeting. This smile, though, came with familiarity, trust, and support. While there may have been a part of Candy that was frustrated to have a first year teacher out the door, she exuded a sense of pride. She seemed to understand my reasons for leaving and excited for my next adventure. Even though I felt like I was letting her down, she never betrayed her positivity. She asked to use some of my personal writing as examples in her class and she asked for updates now and again, which, of course, I provided. Candy rarely asked for anything, so it was a favor I was happy to fulfill.

It makes me wonder if Candy had the right idea: that good teaching has much to do with experience, work, and ability, but the best teaching is done through stories. By hiring people with stories, she was hiring an unstoppable teaching team. Those who could innovate, create, learn, grow, and give to their students. I’m humbled I was a part of Candy’s great vision.

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