Are you part of a great teacher's student family?
[This is my Local Living section column for April 1, 2010.]
I usually skip Frazier O’Leary’s annual Advanced Placement reunion. It’s always a Friday evening in December at the old Sumner School in downtown Washington on M Street, where parking is tough. But O’Leary, a veteran English teacher at Cardozo High School in the District, is a persuasive man. I had no good excuse last year, so there I was, reminded again of something about great teachers I rarely mention when I write about schools.
We know they can be dynamos in the classroom. They turn lessons into conversations. They know each student’s strengths and weaknesses. They care about results. They step in when weak students are being harassed by the strong. They create an oasis of calm and safety in schools that often have little of either.
All those traits are important. But at the O’Leary reunion, I remembered that great teachers also create a sense of family with their students that lasts for years, sometimes well beyond their deaths.
At the M Street party were several of O’Leary’s current and former students, eating at tables, listening to speakers, mostly just catching up with themselves. Shermaine Mitchell, 30, a doctoral candidate in cancer biology at Wayne State University, said that “attending the reunion allows me to unwind and reconnect with former classmates that I have lost contact with, complain about my course load with my peers and encourage those who are embarking on the same journey.”
O’Leary, a tall man who also coaches the Cardozo baseball team, was everywhere. He greeted students and the collection of teachers, lawyers, school administrators, writers, college officials and the occasional journalist who have become part of the O’Leary AP English family. They mostly talked about students, those who had succeeded, those who were struggling, those they had not seen in a while.
Teacher-inspired families in this area are numerous, too many for me to count. But I think it would be a good idea to try to collect as complete a list of them as I can, for my blog and maybe some future reporting on how such groups evolve and continue to affect students as adults. So if you know of one, place a comment below, or email me at email@example.com.
The only other teacher-family of which I am a member is the Escalante AP Calculus group. It began forming at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles in 1974, long before its leader, Jaime A. Escalante, became the subject of a film, “Stand and Deliver,” and the most famous teacher in the country. It is a tough time for us Escalantists. He died Tuesday at age 79 from cancer.
Escalante’s Garfield family survives him, just as the extended Cardozo family of O’Leary (in good health at 65) will be around for many more decades. Some teachers change so many lives that they cannot escape the bonds that result. Some are happy with that. Some are resigned to it. Some try to avoid it altogether.
It doesn’t matter. There is no way to get them out of our heads. As Mitchell said of O’Leary, “On many occasions he has served as a counselor, a mentor, a confidant, a friend and even today a parental figure for me. He has left an indelible imprint on my journey. I can say with great certainty, that if I had never encountered his wisdom, incessant encouragement and dedication, my life would have taken a much different turn.”
Do you know a teacher like that? Tell me about it.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| March 31, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories: Local Living | Tags: Cardozo High School D.C., Frazier O'Leary, Jaime Escalante, teacher-inspired families, tell me about a great teacher
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