Talent, Compassion and Wit

27857957_10216399335842193_7355374117100203653_nThree teachers stand out as my favorites when I was a school girl. I simply adored my first grade teacher, Sister Camilla, because she was kind and understanding of my needs both academic and psychological. I’ve always had a tiny bit of dyslexia and she created a number of visual tools to help me to distinguish between the letters of the alphabet, as well as encouraging me to use multiple modes of learning to decipher. Given that I was only five and feeling overwhelmed when I was her pupil, she somehow managed to use her skills to help me to enjoy the process of learning.

The next educator who had a lasting impact on me was Mrs. Loisey, my sixth grade teacher. The key to her greatness was an ability to explain virtually any topic in ways that were easy to master. Additionally she was perhaps the most wise and just instructor that I ever had. I think that I was more relaxed in her classroom than at any other time in my life, which speaks to her talent because the first year of middle school is usually filled with angst.

It was in high school that I met my muse, my English teacher Father Shane. He opened my eyes to the world of artistic expression and firmly instilled a love of literature and poetry in me. He introduced me to authors and playwrights, writing and self expression. I loved him and his class so much that I dreamed of becoming an author and teaching English just as he had.

These three individuals became my gold standard for excellence in educating the young. I modeled myself after what I had witnessed from them and measured the teachers that I would ultimately mentor by comparing their abilities to my masterful exemplars. I carried a mental rubric of what I considered to be exceptional teaching and it included the very best traits of my favorite teachers. My yardstick was exacting, but along the way I was gratified to learn that many of the educators with whom I worked were as dedicated and inspiring as those who had so influenced me.

The last years of my career as an educator were mostly spent recruiting, interviewing, observing, coaching and supporting teachers in my role as Dean of Faculty. My constant goal was to provide our students with the same quality of teaching that I had enjoyed when I was a student. I was proud to note that most of the individuals with whom I worked were indeed the best of the best, but even among such an elite group there were always shining stars such as Jenny Brunsell.

Jenny literally combined all of the traits that I most valued in an educator. Like Sister Camilla, Jenny was perennially patient and pleasant with her students. She spoke in a quiet and soothing tone making her pupils feel safe and respected. At the same time she was wise and fair like Mrs. Loisey and had a knack for explaining key concepts in a manner that made them attainable for everyone. Best of all, Jenny’s classroom was a fun place to be just as it was with Father Shane. She spent a great deal of effort searching for ideas that would make the time spent with her enjoyable and entertaining. She taught with grace and enthusiasm and I always sensed that her students loved her just as much as I had adored my own favorite teachers.

I eventually retired and Jenny went to another school where she continued to ply her magic. In addition to teaching English she became an Academic Decathlon coach with her husband. In a very short span of time her teams became perennial winners and the students in her classroom fell under the spell of her enchanting ways. It did not surprise me at all that she was so successful and that she was named the Katy Taylor High School Teacher of the Year earlier this week. My only question was why it had taken so long for someone to honor her with the recognition that she had earned long ago.

I believe that the key to our future lies in a three pronged effort from our children, their parents and their teachers. When all three of those groups work successfully together we produce a healthy productive society and all of the rest that we need follows. We do not often enough identify the finest traits of each of those three important contributors to human development. Sometimes due to uncontrollable conditions one or more of the triad is weak or even broken. A very strong effort by any of the remaining elements has the power of overcoming such difficulties. In particular a truly great teacher may literally change the course of another person’s life. This is the essence and the power of someone of the caliber of Jenny Brunsell. I have little doubt that many of her former students treasure the moments that they shared with her, and understand just how significant she has been in helping them to learn and grow.

We spend untold amounts of money on education each year. We do research and struggle to find ways of making our schools more uniformly excellent. The truth is that we need only begin to list the traits of the teachers that we love best to discover the elements needed to create thriving classrooms. The trick is in helping those who do not organically possess the qualities to learn how to incorporate them nonetheless. Therein is our challenge.   

Even in retirement there are parents and students and teachers who consult me. I hear horror stories of educators who are the antithesis of Jenny Brunsell. They seem uncaring and harsh to their pupils. They appear to lack justice, instead wielding power over their charges. They are unwilling to walk that extra mile for their students or to just be that one person determined to stay the course until everybody learns. They often even appear to dislike the very youngsters whom they are supposed to guide. Luckily that are the exception rather than the rule but even one of them is too many.

To know the greatest teachers is to be in the company of talent, compassion and wit. To have such a teacher is a never ending gift. I have been fortunate to learn from Sister Camilla, Mrs. Loisey and Father Shane. I have been encouraged by understanding that there are still teachers like them toiling away, often unsung. It’s good to know that now again someone takes the time to acknowledge the most remarkable of them like Jenny Brunsell.