Each year, Thornton-Donovan School hosts its holiday luncheon. Besides the place having the best chicken fingers this side of the Hudson, it also gives the T-D faculty the opportunity to interact with parents in a social setting as opposed to when they’re being excoriated by said parents at a morning meeting.
Sitting in the Larchmont Yacht Club last week, I fondly reflected on my time as the middle school English teacher at T-D. As I watched families find their seats and students run up to me to make sure I got my fried food fix, I was reminded why I have such a strong affinity for the school that brought me in, in November 2010.
I had been working at a medical malpractice defense law firm in Eastern Long Island pretending I was an author but with really no material or writing credits to my name. I had a degree in English from Fairfield University and was certified to teach grades 7-12 in Connecticut. However, after teaching in a Bridgeport public high school months before, I had become disenchanted with the state of inner city, public education. In short, kids are set up to fail from the moment they begin elementary school and everyone, including the administration, passes the buck.
Anyway, as I sat there in my cubicle with no idea what I wanted to do with my life hating every second of my low-level, monotonous job and the fact that I had moved back in with my parents and even worse was questioning why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place, my phone rang. It was a lady named Sandy, and she wanted to know if I was interested in an immediate opening at a private school in Westchester. A headhunter, she set up a meeting with the headmaster of Thornton-Donovan School. His title seemed ominous. I wasn’t even sure where Westchester was or why I was going on a job interview if I didn’t intend to take the job.
From my first trip to the campus in New Rochelle, I knew there was something special about the place and I’m not saying that because I am now employed there. It was a campus that housed multiple school buildings, cultural art pieces, decadent statues, and the foliage, even in November, was so rich. I honestly felt like I was on Wayne Manor in a Batman comic book.
Headmaster Doug Fleming and I hit it off immediately; we both valued strict classroom management. Teachers were not friends for students, and they never could be. We also were both progressive educators, supporting the incorporation of multiple and diverse learning opportunities in the classroom.
Could I start tomorrow, he asked. I’d need a week to get myself together, I said. You got it.
And that’s where it started.
Now, five years later, some of those spent feeling wildly underappreciated and frankly sour about the school I had fallen in love with initially, I was again reminded what endears this “little red school house” to me so much. It’s the community it engenders, from the connection students share across grades and cultures and sexes to the unique relationships faculty members can forge with families.
Last week at the yacht club, reminiscing with the head of the Parent-Teacher-Partnership and her husband about their son who was one of my first students, I couldn’t help from marveling how far we’ve all come since then. The boy is a T-D lifer, having attended the school since kindergarten. Now a young man, he will graduate from high school this year.
Holding court with them made me think that, too often nowadays, the dynamic in education is not parents and teachers working together to assist students. Instead, it’s parents and students against teachers, and this toxic dichotomy only makes everyone’s job that much harder. Worse, it hampers the student who is unable to interact with adults or be accountable for his/her work as a result.
This is not an academic revelation; it certainly was what I encountered my first year at T-D and what I still encounter to this day. However, what my conversation revealed to me was that any of the few personal affronts to my teaching methods and grading practices I’ve encountered are the outliers, not the standards. There still are good parents who understand the intrinsic and mutually beneficial relationship between teachers and parents, an implicit covenant that yields positive results.
Good parents and good kids, go figure. That explains the development of that boy who I first met in my seventh grade grammar class when the kid probably knew more about the subject than I did. What I remember thinking my first day teaching there was that never in my life had I seen a place where the kids could literally grow right before your eyes. I’ve had the privilege to see a core group of my original students – the same ones I wrote about in “The College Essay Drive” – move from middle to high school and children to young adults.
And I couldn’t be any prouder of them. And I couldn’t be any more thankful to their parents for accepting me and supporting me. Without their wholehearted support, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today.
Copyright ã 2015 Andrew Chapin