When I first started working with you last May as a teaching assistant in your fifth and six grade class, I was scared out of my mind. I didn't know the kids, I had never been a tutor, and I had never been to Newark, NJ unless it was for a concert at the Prudential Center. I was nervous enough before our boss told me not to wear blue or red of any kind because there was a gang related shooting just a block over last Tuesday and it wasn't safe. How could a school not be safe?
That first day I just spent in the "observing phase" to get a feel for the classroom, what it looks like to teach and how to work with thirty five kids at once. You were like the conductor of an orchestra, leading the loud kids, the shy kids, the rebellious kids, the kids that were two reading levels behind and the kids the kids that couldn't read at all into a place of learning, experiments and fun. You engaged them in a way I still don't fully understand. You loved them, you nurtured them and you supported them and I was completely blown away.
I worked with three other teachers as a teaching assistant in Newark and all of them were great, professional educators. They had masters degrees, they were firm with the kids, and they got work done. But working with those other great teachers showed me that in order to be an amazing teacher, you have to be more than an educator. You have to love the kids.
You have a box of food in your room because a lot of the kids take an hour long bus just to get to this school and they're hungry and distracted when they arrive. It's full of oatmeal, fruit, raisins and Kashi cereal which you pay for yourself. You weren't able to get funding for a field trip to the Museum of Natural History and the parents of the kids couldn't pay so you got a second job at a gym, working nights so the kids could see "the real dinosaurs and those tiger lions with the big scary teeth". And no one knows about that, no one but me. You never wore your devotion to those kids like a badge of honor, "look at me I care about poor urban kids" because that wasn't what it was about for you. It was about inspiring curiosity and pouring love into kids who wouldn't get it anywhere else.
One day in class, Beethoven was playing while the kids worked and Justin raised his hand and asked you, "where was Beethoven from?" which of course had nothing to do with the science work sheet in front of him. But it was a question, and you always had an answer. So forty minutes later the kids had a crash course on Ludwig van Beethoven and every Wednesday after that you read a biography about some famous European composer and played one of their songs, much to the delight of the kids. The science worksheets would get done, you knew that. But instead of shutting down Justin and his question, you rewarded that curiosity with exploration and with an answer.
A second grade teacher at the school was retiring after that school year and I asked her how she liked working in the school. She said that it broke her heart because for so many of these kids, all they hear from teachers is "sit down, shut up, do your work and keep your nose clean". These teachers are exasperated because they have to teach sixth graders six grade material but also help them with the basic math and reading comprehension that they were supposed to have learned three years prior.
"There isn't time to teach kids how to love learning," the second grade teacher said, "we just have to get them through it."
Jane, you too the time to teach kids to love to learn. You taught me the most important lesson about education and inspired me to be a teacher myself. From you I learned that to be a teacher, is to be more than just a facilitator of knowledge. It's to be an explorer, a friend, a coach. It requires strictness and silliness alike, and most importantly it requires love. You loved your kids and you showed them that they were worth loving, that they were smart, that they were capable and that their questions were worth answering. Thank you for your service, thank you for the lesson you've left me, and I wish you the best.