When my childhood home was put on the market, my brother and I went through the house to see what we would save, what would be donated, and was was destined for the landfill. This was a bittersweet and laborious process, both physically and mentally.
Under my parent’s bed was an oblong cardboard box. I pulled the box from underneath the bed and opened the lid, expecting to find sweaters from the late ’70s, early ’80s and other winter clothes. But instead I found much, much more!
In the box was a collection of report cards, drawings, writing samples, a battery of assessments about me, and other paperwork from the academic careers of the Perry brothers that my mother had collected and saved over our time in school and kept in the oblong box under the bed that had been accumulating a thick patina of dust.
I was seeing much of this for the first time and I was seeing my report cards and work samples and independent assessments through the eyes of an educator. As if this was someone else entirely. How would this boy do in my class? I wondered. I really looked like quite a student! (Insert irony here!)
The discovery revealed much about myself at the time I was in elementary school, which at the time was kindergarten through 6th grade.
One discovery that made a deep impact on me and my teaching was a single piece of paper that was neither a report card, assessment, or sample but a neatly handwritten note from my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Noether.
I had no memory of this note, which I received close to 30 years before. I was astonished by its openness and candor. It was a message to a student, from a teacher. One sentence had a deep resonance with me. Mrs. Noether writes, “It took me a while to get to know you this year but to know you is to appreciate you and your special talents.” I’m not sure what “special talents” she was alluding to, it certainly wasn’t math but I bet it was my artist talents.
Since I discovered that personal note, written by my sixth grade teacher, I decided to write a letter to each of my 30 students in my first year teaching fourth grade.
I bought note cards and began the daunting writing process. These notes were not report card comments or anything about their academic progress, they were notes from the heart; a message from a teacher to their student. On one card I did a quick sketch. I couldn’t help it. I paused. I just couldn’t leave it at that, I had to add some watercolor, even though the card stock was not the best paper for watercolor. Now here I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Do I stop and restart the card without an illustration or do I illustrate all 30 cards? The choice was clear, I illustrated all the cards with a unique illustration that was related to each individual student. That was five years ago and I have done it every year since.
I start the process in early May and I had trouble starting this year. It can be hard to start a large undertaking and this year I needed a kick start to put the process in motion.
That kickstart came in the form of a former student, now in 6th grade, who was volunteering in my room for her community service hours. Just when my motivation was down and I found it hard to take that first step forward, she mentioned that, not only had she saved the card that I have written and illustrated to her, the image was now framed and hanging in her room. This was all I needed to get me started!
Educators strive to make an impact, to reach all of our students, to connect. Most of the time you don’t know that you reached a student and made that impact. Sometimes teaching can be a thankless profession but there are those times when you are aware that you have make that connection and created that impression. This is what keeps you going, this is the fire that fuels an educator.
The feature image is a selection from the 28 cards I wrote and illustrated to my class this year. From roller derby to Winnie-The-Pooh, burrowing owl to keel-billed toucan, Shirley Temple to Cristiano Ronaldo. These images are as diverse as my students.
I can only hope that, 30 years from now, they too will find one of my cards and reflect and remember their time in my class as I did from finding a handwritten note, from a sixth grade teacher to her student.