Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Never Miss a Chance to Say Thank You

I loved school when I was young. I had some really inspiring teachers at every level but I can't think of anyone more impactful than my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Blicharz. Seeing as that was 31 years ago and through the eyes and memories of an 11 year old, some details may not be quite accurate, but this is how I remember it....

Sometime in early elementary school I was identified as, "Gifted and Talented." To this day I can't imagine what I was "gifted and talented" in. It sure wasn't math (more on that to come) and I doubt it was reading but nevertheless I, along with eight others, were pulled out of grade level classrooms and met twice (but I think some years it was three times) a week for 45 minutes to do stuff. And, by stuff I mean we put on plays, learned how to play chess, and played Oregon Trail. When we played Oregon Trail, we experienced it through a booklet. After all, this was the mid 80's and my school had four computers on carts. We must have done more but those were the activities that really left an impression. When we, "went to GT" it was the same time; like 10:30 every Monday and Wednesday. While we were gone, class continued. As a result of this routine, I ended up missing the same content instruction twice a week and every year it seemed like I missed math. There were some gaps by the time I reached 5th grade that my "giftedness" was not able to compensate for.

Enter Mrs. Blicharz, my 5th grade teacher. Mrs. Blicharz was not the warm and fuzzy teacher who  wore apple sweaters. She meant business and every student in the lower grades knew that.

She was perfect for me.

Up until that time, I was really good at, "playing" school. I was compliant and put a lot of effort into what I did. I was a people pleaser and I must have been a decent test taker during elementary school because I kept getting sent to "GT" every year. She, however, saw my gaps in math early in the school year and addressed them in a nurturing way. I remember staying in from recess to get a little more help with long division, fractions and early algebra concepts. I don't remember feeling like it was a punishment. As a teacher myself now, I know she really cared. She probably had two opportunities to use the bathroom a day and she was blowing one of them on me and my math gaps that were creating insecurities.

One day, I remember her saying to me, "You don't have to go down to GT if you don't want to." Maybe my parents were involved behind the scenes or maybe she and the GT person spoke about my lack of math giftedness but the way I remember it is that I had a choice and had just been given responsibility. I didn't always go to GT after that. That empowerment to take control of my own learning was an important lesson in self-advocacy for me. I was in control of my own learning and could make decisions about it.

Mrs. Blicharz was one of the first teacher who I remember seeing as a real person. She talked about her children and her life outside of school. One day, she showed her vulnerable side and it's something that has always stuck with me. As a class, we were getting ready to correct a math assignment and she was notified that she had an important, personal, phone call. A look a worry came over her face and as she was walking out the room she said, "Andi, please correct the homework with the class." Dumbfounded with my new and unexpected responsibility during MATH class, I walked to the front of the room and modeled the behavior I had watched teachers do before with perceived  confidence. We went over answers and did examples on the board. After that, she still wasn't back so I led the class in a game of Around the World...a favorite of our class. I kept that class going until recess at which time we all left. Upon returning from recess it was evident that she had been crying. I updated her on what we did while she was out and learned that there had been a death in her family, I think it was a beloved aunt. That day I saw a strong woman who was my teacher, vulnerable. She was no longer just a super hero in my daily life but a super hero who was hurting. I just loved her even more that day.

It's been 31 years since I walked through the doors of Mrs. Blicharz's classroom. I can't tell you one learning target I mastered in 5th grade however, I did leave that classroom in June with some bigger life lessons. I found a sense of ownership for my own learning and education. I discovered that I had confidence in front of others and began to think I wanted to be a teacher too. I also began to see teachers differently. They were real people with lives and loved ones outside of work. As a parent now, I realize that children this age are incredibly ego-centric and that's developmentally normal. That's why we teach perspective taking and empathy to young children. I think 5th grade was a time my brain really started to develop and I began seeing the world bigger than just what happened in my day.

I've been thinking about this post for a few years and only this week really put some effort into tracking down my beloved 5th grade teacher. With the help of Facebook, I was able to locate one of her sons who is going to share this with her.

My current principal sends the students and staff off at the end of the day with announcements and this saying:  Always search the world for the positive and never miss a chance to say thank you. Yesterday, he challenged the entire school to take 10 minutes and send an email of gratitude to someone. It felt like the time had come to finally get this post written and shared. Thank you Mrs. Blicharz for your years of service to public education. If there was ever a question about a life you touched, know you touched mine.

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