05 May 2012

Appreciating a certain teacher

I had a pretty miserable time in "K-12" education. Hell, I've had a pretty miserable time in all my time as a "student." It's not that I'm not good at learning. I love learning. I think most of us do, but "school" is not traditionally about learning, but rather about arbitrary rules and arbitrary rankings - and I do not like either.

Yet, within a range of horrors that "school" has been for me, there are amazing bright spots... and those bright spots are almost all related to great teachers. A third grade teacher, Mrs. Janowitz, who let me show what I could do with music and architecture and made school a little bit safe. A sixth grade teacher, Martin McNeil, who understood an 11 - 12-year-old boy's needs for certain forms of space. Alan Shapiro, who I spent four years with (formally) as teacher, mentor, advisor, friend, and who showed me what education could be. Joe Kuszai, at Michigan State University, who gave me space as an artist to grow and learn and even lead. Antonio Diaz, police sergeant and lawyer in the New York City Police Academy who focused on what I could do, not on what I could not. Y.S. Lee at Pratt Institute, a master teacher who understand the purpose of education. Jonathan White and Kathy Bailey, life changing educators in Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University, and Alexandra Gottardo and Elizabeth Schaughency, not just great teachers and colleagues, but the "special educators" who truly transformed my life.

below: Alan Shapiro on education, unionization, life...
I can bring myself all the way to the present and Punya Mishra, Lynn Fendler, and Susan Peters at MSU's College of Education.

And I sincerely thank everyone of these brilliant people... but, and in part inspired by Charles Blow, as "Teacher Appreciation Week" begins - and as people like Barack Obama and Arne Duncan begin their faux statements after years of teacher bashing - I want to speak about one teacher in particular.

Her name is Ruth Socol, and she's my mom.

I can remember when she began teaching - I can remember when she graduated from Hunter College - probably mostly focused on adding a touch of income stability to the family. She began teaching in a pre-union time, earned almost nothing and had any chance at free time taken up supervising playgrounds and cafeterias. I remember her up till all hours of the night at this little desk which sat by the front door working on lessons, working on grading. I remember her taking all sorts of summer jobs to help make ends meet.

But that's not what I want to write about.

Not her teacher pic... (obviously)... but my Ma as a young bride was
"movie star" beautiful... and this is an incredible photograph
I want to write about the fighter. My mom never accepted the status quo. She sure could have done all her work and gone home. There sure was plenty to do at home, and honestly, for the time, the schools she taught in were pretty good. But she wasn't satisfied, at any level.

She fought really hard for unionization and the AFT - few elementary teachers pushed very hard for this, it was mostly a secondary thing - but she battled for it. It not only meant decent pay, it meant having a real voice. And when it came down to a big strike over teacher power in the schools - as much as it hurt her to do so - she was part of a small picket line outside of a huge elementary school.

My mom taught third grade, which
featured Dick and Jane in
Streets and Roads
when she began

But even more critically, she fought for kids, every day. She pushed for "open classrooms," literally knocking down walls between rooms in order to build a multiage space with no desks, and almost no chairs, where kids could move and get comfortable and progress at their own rate. She pushed her administrators on this, moving them forward, embracing a newly diverse student body and making it work. She spent summers helping to create new - and multimedia - learning materials, leading the push to kick "Dick and Jane" out of the schools. Leading the push to bring manipulatives into maths. (I clearly remember a few summers, around age ten, when I had piles of Cuisinaire Rods to play with...)

She visited her students' homes. She talked to them in the supermarket. She individualized her lessons and fought against homework. And she observed and observed and observed.

"If I could do one thing," she told me when I was maybe 16, "it would be to never push any kid to read before third grade. Most aren't ready for it, and every year my room is filled with eight-year-olds who hate reading and never want to see a book again."

She was among the earliest teachers I knew to toss classroom furniture and replace those desks and chairs with carpet and pillows because, as she said, "kids hate those chairs." Now, her students were no different than any other students, and what she was seeing was no different than what anyone else was seeing, but she simply wouldn't accept what she knew didn't work.

She fought and she worked and she fought for everything that was right for kids, for her community. And she made a real difference. Hardly a month goes by in which I don't get a message in Facebook from one of her ex-students. "Am I her son?" "How is she?" "Please tell her that she changed my life." All this about a woman kids met at age eight.

Anyway, I am her son, and I am the continuation of her life work. She is doing great, she's healthy and active and living well. And thank you, because she changed the lives of many, in really important ways, as so many great teachers do.

From childhood, from my mom, I learned that there is no profession more important to society than teaching. And for all these years, I've wished our culture recognized that.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to my Ma, to every teacher. And Happy Mother's Day too.

- Ira Socol


Kelli said...

Beautiful. Thank you so much for this.

Karen Janowski said...

A beautiful tribute. She knew what kids needed and fought for it. Kids still need the same things and we still need fighters.