'Teaching is about joy'

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'Teaching is about joy'
Teacher in the classroom

By Sheila Lavey

Why do I teach? Well, then…that is an excellent question indeed. Even as I earned my teaching credentials, I thought that I would end up in law school. Then I did my student teaching at Battle Creek Central High School; juniors no less. It became very clear that I wasn’t much older than they were—so I had to hold a firm line. I did…and I grew not only in my novice teaching skills but also in my appreciation for the really hard work teachers did each and every single day. I also fell for the students—their quirks and their realities—including a single mother who did her level best to get to school every single day with the end goal of going to nursing school. That’s grit!

I was teaching in the spring and as it neared the end of the year, I was being observed by my coordinator (a very scary moment) on a day that the seniors were running amuck. One of my students turned to the coordinator and explained that none of what was going on had anything to do with me and that I was a good teacher. Later, the coordinator told me that the student’s willingness to speak up for me spoke volumes. As part of my student teaching, I also observed middle school classes. I was in total dismay. The students were noisy, goofing off, and, well, a bit smelly. I thought I would never teach at that level.

Years later, I took a middle school teaching position at an independent school in central Connecticut and fell in love. It was hard and exhausting, but it also brought great joy. Independent schools, with their small class sizes, taught me that teaching is a profoundly human endeavor, and the relationship between teacher and student is vitally important. It taught me that I have more to learn from my students than I could ever have foreseen. Middle school students are young enough to still love their teachers and yet old enough to have really serious conversations. That said, five minutes later they are making up songs about the royal family. They are the perfect blend of curious, serious and silly.

I also learned to coach field hockey, softball and (badly) basketball. I later became the school’s athletic director and learned a whole new set of skills: the art of coping calmly with a variety of coaches, parents and athletic directors; and more importantly the art of handing out yet another pair of socks at the very moment the van was leaving for an away game. After many years there, I decided I wanted a change, so I taught for a year in the Farmington Public Schools before my second child was born. I learned a tremendous amount about teaching from my colleagues there, but what was missing were those close relationships with the students.

When I arrived at Foote in 2002, it was like coming home. Independent schools allow for, celebrate and put those very human relationships first. They are not about bricks and mortar. They are about teaching, learning, interacting, communicating with students and families.  Foote gave that sense of family and community that I had really missed.

My time at Foote has been about building enduring, lifelong relationships. What does that look like? For me, it’s sending a happy birthday video to a former student when she turns 18. Celebrating the doctoral thesis defense of a student I have known since her 7th grade year—whose first question to me in 7th grade was to ask me if I was aware my shirt was inside out. Foote allowed me to form a relationship with an alumna as she navigated ECA, UConn and her MSW from Penn—the first in her family to do so. It’s about the joy of watching students take risks, from the small to the Herculean, like stepping up while traveling in China as a 9th grader, half a world away, in ways that none thought possible.

Teaching also means helping students learn that failure is part of the human experience and dusting them off after they fall. It’s about those moments when you know that a student finally understands a concept after much struggle and determination, or deciphers a primary document written in Colonial English—in cursive and in 1748. It’s about teaching the big ideas and the small ones, about watching a student-led ceremony as they place a Witness Stone, the first in New Haven, at the Pardee-Morris House with the name of the woman, Pink, who was enslaved there. It’s about the fruition of their very hard work being celebrated. It’s about the idea that there is never, ever a dull moment in middle school grades. And yes, it’s about explaining why we all need to use deodorant every day. That is why I teach.

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    Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.