What Sustains Us: A Celebration of Teaching and Teachers
I must tell the story of Lawrence. He has occupied a special place in my heart and mind throughout my entire career. I met Lawrence when he entered my classroom on the first day of school and exclaimed, “My uncle got shot!” with the same excitement as if he had just found $5 on the sidewalk. This was my second year of teaching and I thought ‘we ain’t in Kansas anymore.’ Lawrence was almost seven years old, having failed Kindergarten twice. He and his younger brother lived in a four-room house with their grandmother, father (who was in and out of jail), and an ever-rotating cadre of family members. I am not sure that anyone in Lawrence’s house could read and neither could Lawrence.
So I proceeded on with my planned lessons for that first week, only to notice that Lawrence was so tired in the mornings that he could not keep his eyes open. He had a great breakfast at school, but struggled to stay awake most of the day. I was inexperienced, but I could see that my best-laid plans were not going to work. After inquiring with others in the school, I learned that this was nothing new. Lawrence just didn’t have a very good home situation. I felt like I was being told ‘you win some, you lose some.’
What now? I did not really know what to do, but I would not continue to act like I was teaching Lawrence and he just couldn’t ‘get it’ – I was not going to buy into that. I talked to him every day at lunch – he was quite a storyteller. And tell me stories he did! Many were conjured and quite exciting, later becoming the basis of most of his writing and reading instruction. I must admit, I had trouble figuring out when Lawrence was telling me a true story, simply because his life experiences of seven years were so completely different from my own. But one compelling, and sadly, true personal story made me decide to take some risks with him. He and his little brother frequently slept in their grandmother’s car. Later, I learned that this was her way of shielding them from the noise and whatever assorted things were happening in that house. During those times, Lawrence did not sleep and came to school exhausted – he was a tough little guy, but he was just seven years old. My routines with Lawrence changed – based on little I had learned in my teacher preparation. I found a cot, brought in soft blankets and pillow and created a bed for Lawrence. If he had been in the car the night before, he got a hot breakfast at school and slept for a few hours in the morning. While I was lucky to have administrators with common sense and the will to do the right thing for this child – the intriguing thing for me was that the other students in the class did not bat an eye. For them, it was the right thing to be doing. No one wondered why Lawrence was napping and they were not. Lawrence learned to read that year and also gained enough headway in math to be included in the 2nd grade math class. Maybe my students and I were learning other important lessons that year as well – lessons about caring and humanity.
I used to joke that I had ‘magic dust’ when my colleagues asked how I was able to teach these failing students to read. I really just gave them a safe place to read and write things that had meaning to them. I believed they would be successful. I think of special teachers who inspired me and I don’t say ‘well, Mrs. Smith was so knowledgeable in math’ but rather I say ‘you know, Mrs. Smith was the first math teacher that ever made me believe I was good at math.’
Like Lawrence and my students then, students I teach now have come to know that our class will always be their safe haven, the place where they, and I, will take risks and learn. I have learned that there are few ‘truths’ and there is no ‘silver bullet’ in education. I must constantly be open to the possibilities. What sustains me in this profession is both the challenge and excitement that being part of a learning community brings to my heart and soul. Even the sad stories, the children and adults for whom my best efforts just didn’t seem to be enough, have shaped me. It may be cliché, but those connections with learners are powerful. I look back on my career as an educator and I really cannot imagine doing anything else.
Karen Kellison began her career as a teacher of students with Learning Disabilities in a rural school division west of Richmond, Virginia. This reality check included teaching and loving children living below poverty in homes without electricity, running water, and with dirt floors. Her interest in educational technology began with a computer shared among 20 teachers (and their students) and has grown into a professional career. She has 19 years as a teacher and administrator in public K12 schools and over 7 years of full time work in higher education. She served as Director of the M.Ed in Educational Technology at James Madison University from 2008-2012 and was awarded the 2012 Madison Distinguished Teacher Award for the College of Education. She is currently Associate Dean of Instructional Technology at Lord Fairfax Community College, directing instructional technology and distance learning initiatives for the
college. Dr. Kellison holds a doctorate in Educational Psychology, Instructional Technology from the University of Virginia.