Teaching is one of those rare occupations that transcends the workday. By any definition, it is more than a job. We may only actually work 10 months a year, but the hours spent each day either directly involved with the planning or execution of a lesson cannot be measured. A simple drive to the store offers time for silent evaluation of the previous day’s lesson and even preparation time for the events of tomorrow. No matter how we are occupied, a part of our mind is always centered on the children of tomorrow.
As I look back on my 45 years in the classroom spent in 11 different schools while working in four countries, I cannot imagine another way I could have lived my life. Adding to this joy is about ten years as Senor Adjunct Instructor at the local community college. Taking out my trusted TI-84 calculator, I compute that about 6,000 young people have entered my classrooms over the years. Thanks to Facebook, I am “friends” with almost 1,000 of them. The joy in seeing their posts of weddings, births, and even their own children’s graduations can not be measured.
The above collage is one of my first summer projects. In the early days of my career, which was prior to the digital camera, senior portraits were a staple for graduation. Students would exchange them and even give them to their teachers. The above collection represents only a small part of what I have accumulated, and it is hanging on a wall adjacent to my desk. Whenever I need a little motivation, I simply look right.
Back in early days of teaching, I was co-sponsor of the National Honor Society and Student Government at Lake Clifton High School in Baltimore City. To say I have fond memories of the Lake would be a gross understatement. These fine “young students” are now successful adults with children and even grandchildren of their own. From my body of Lakers, I have a principal of an inner-city school, a bishop, teachers, engineers, and even a hospital chaplain.
As a young student myself, I attended St. John DeMatha High School outside Washing D.C. While there I was not part of the regular student body. I was a prep! The preps were a small group of young boys who lived in the monastery adjacent to the school. We were studying to be priests, and we led a cloistered live. This meant days filled with study and prayers. Also, girls were not to be seen anywhere, so none of us ever attended a prom. While at Lake Clifton, I had the opportunity to attend my first prom as a chaperone. I decided to go all out!
The classes at the Lake were rather large, but filled with many fine young people.
After eleven years in Baltimore, I transferred to Howard County, which is located between Baltimore and Washington. Over my time there I taught in several schools, and the students in each were incredible. The beauty of the diversity there was that it was not simply limited to just how kids looked. It also related to their home economics. We had students coming from well-off families as well as kids from Section 8 housing. The beautiful thing is that these young students got along. We have so much to learn from the young.
While in Howard County, two groups I loved to work with were the Math Team and S.H.O.P. (Students Helping Other People). For the students who were into math, the math team presented an opportunity to push their problem-solving abilities far beyond the norm. We had monthly competitions held across the county, and in the spring, we took a team to Penn State University for a weekend long nation-wide competition. One year we even placed in the top ten regions in the country. Note, there are several of the above students now with PhD’s in Mathematics and other fields.
S.H.O. P. had a purpose on a different plane. This was for students who simply enjoyed being together and talking about the issues that faced young people then. Every quarter we would have a “lock-in” at the local community center. It would consist of pizza, a movie, and then we would all sit on the floor in a circle. At this point the students would just begin talking about anything that concerned them. My roll was easy – to just be silent. The students never ceased to amaze me. They were so supportive and caring of each other, and the group developed into what can be only be described as a school family. Oh, the two leaders of the group one year were dating, and they are now married and proud parents of four beautiful teenage boys.
Kanagawa, Japan is a sister-state of Maryland, and they had a program where they would select one teacher a year from Maryland for a work-study program. In the late 80’s I was selected to venture off to Yokohama for a year to teach English at various high schools and to study math education in Japanese high schools. One of the schools where I taught was a special education school with children dealing with severe cognitive issues. It was a great experience.
While on this work-study program, a Japanese English teacher and I organized a small “Juku,” which are very common in Japan. These are small private mini-schools designed to increase proficiency in either English or mathematics. The Japanese teacher and I would meet with the children for a couple hours after school each week. She would take half the group for an hour going over rules of grammar, and I would then take them for the remaining hour giving them time to practice their conversation skills. They were so cute, and the afternoons were always filled with laughter and fun.
Summers are never an idle time for teachers. For a few of these breaks I taught at Georgetown University in D.C. for a special international program they offered. This was a month long stay for high school students from around the world, and the purpose was to present college level coursework without the college level stress. I taught precalculus and calculus to a group of young people from all over Europe, Asia and even Puerto Rico. I hope the students learned as much as I did.
My first teaching assignment for DoDDS (Department of Defense Dependent Schools) was Daegu American School in South Korea. We were on a small army base about three hours below Seoul. Daegu was situated in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. The joy of Korea was only matched by my students. Looking at the ones above it is hard to believe that I see a married couple with two young beautiful children, a few army officers, a nurse, and even a couple of teachers.
When I left Korea, I returned to a home of my past on Okinawa. Many years prior as a young army specialist, I was stationed at Torii Station on the west side of the island. My teaching assignment now was Kubasaki High School on the Marine base, Camp Foster. The interesting part is that it was at Kubasaki where I took my first three college courses in the evening while at Torii Station. The University of Maryland used Kubasaki as their campus in the evening for their undergrad program.
The young sons and daughters of the Marines were a great group of students. The football coach would sometimes use the Marines to take his team out for a vigorous run. The interesting part is that the combat Marines were only a couple of years older than the players. I should also mention that the weather on the island was beautiful, and my apartment was on the ocean looking out over the East China Sea.
My years at Camp Foster were often filled with the realities of the day. During my early tenure there, I remember one young student who suddenly stopped working. Previously he was an active participant in class, but suddenly he just lost all motivation. After a few talks he confessed he was worried because his Marine dad was now in Afghanistan, School was simply not a priority in his life now. He did eventually get back into his schoolwork, but as I later discovered this turned out not to be a rare scenario.
My first assignment on mainland Japan was Kinnick High School in Yokosuka, which is located just outside Yokohama on the Tokyo Bay. Yokosuka is the home of the largest naval base in the pacific, and the sailors and the marines there were fantastic. One aspect of the lives of the students that teachers had to understand is that the active-duty parents of the students were basically away from home half of each year. The mood of the students often reflected this change. One of my young algebra students above is now getting her PhD in neuropsychology.
My last school in Japan was Zama American School which was about an hour west of Tokyo. Camp Zama is the army headquarters for Japan, and the students there were indeed amazing. There is something to be said for the children of the military. They move about constantly during their young lives seeing more of the world than most adults in the states. When a new student arrives in school, by the third day, that student has a new group of BFF’s. Military kids are by their nature inclusive.
I remember this one girl who was new to military life as she just transferred directly from a rough inner-city school in the states. For the first couple of weeks she did not smile. From her previous experiences, she felt she had to act tough in her new environment. But then something beautiful began to happen. She produced this open and inviting smile. She knew she was safe.
My last school was in Rota, Spain where I taught a mixture of middle and high school math. While only being there a year before I left DoDDS, it could not have been a more beautiful location. My apartment was above a bar and restaurant overlooking the Atlantic. We were only about 30 minutes west of Gibraltar, and each night presented a beautiful sunset across the Atlantic.
Presently I have continued my adjunct role at Howard Community College in Maryland, yet my teaching presently exists totally on Zoom. Teaching math across fiber is far from optimum, but my students are giving it their best. I am proud of them all. I am actually Facebook friends with two of them, but the ironic part is that we have never actually met in the real world.
Looking back over these past decades in the classroom has filled my mind with a flood of warm memories. I cannot imagine my life without the students who have helped shape it. Facebook has allowed me to follow their growth into adulthood. Many of them are now even older than I was when I was their teacher. I have even taught children of past students.
However, there is a sad side to this also. Several of my students have left this world way too early. One fine young man died of AIDS not long after graduation. Another bright and athletic young woman died of cancer following her college graduation and wedding. Recently a committed young student and sailor died while serving on a ship that was involved in a collision off the coast of Japan.
Let me end by saying I have also been fortunate to work with an outstanding group of teachers and administrators. Whenever I had a question or a problem, there was always someone to help. To all the people that have entered the doors of my classroom, I wish you well. I owe so much to each of you.