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A Great Day to be a Teacher
From John Dewey to her own students, Michele Forman G’83 counts the blessings of the teaching life

With summer vacation days away, the collective energy level of students at Middlebury Union High School rivals any other ordinary force of nature. In the midst of the swirl captured on the cover of this issue stands National Teacher of the Year Michele Forman G ’83.

Forman’s patience and grace are on display as the photographer snaps frame after frame. And as she listens, talks, and laughs with student after student greeting her in the hallway, a portrait of Forman emerges — intelligent, warm, humorous, vibrant, and keenly interested in the minds and lives of the students she feels privileged to teach. 2001 National Teacher of the Year, yes, but long before and long after — a beloved history teacher in a Vermont high school.

“This is their room,” Forman says, entering her class. They are the students, of course, and their presence is inescapable from the artwork and writing that covers the walls to the photographs of every current student pinned to the bulletin board. School’s out for the day, but a fair number are still in the class to bounce ideas about final projects, use the computer, or just hang out on the well-used couch and eat a popsicle.
It can’t rank with a seat on that couch or a semester in the front row of her class, but we’re grateful that Forman agreed to re-tool her address to the UVM College of Education and Social Services Class of 2001 into an essay for this issue. We invite you to read on for the perspective of one of UVM’s finest alumni and one of our country’s finest teachers.

i must confess possessing a character flaw endemic to historians. I often imagine and wish myself to be
in another era, another place. I call this my “Miniver Cheevey Syndrome,” after poet E.A. Robinson’s character. When I began my career as a teacher in the United States, I wished I were at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the early days of the Progressive education movement. As a new teacher I read, and loved, John Dewey, who taught us to place the student at the center of our teaching. I wished I had been alive and teaching then, in the days of Dewey and Jane Addams, to feel the sense of discovery, the brave and breathtaking trailblazing that marked the leading edge of social change.
I’ve always imagined that Dewey, a Vermonter and University of Vermont alumnus, spoke to all in our profession when he said:

“The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

Wonderful John Dewey taught us to always value, respect, and listen to those whom we seek to serve.
For years, I hadn’t thought about my “Miniver Cheevey Syndrome” as a teacher, but as I faced the UVM College of Education and Social Service graduates and thought back to my first days as a teacher and to my earlier envy of my professional ancestors, I realized that I don’t feel that way anymore. As a matter of fact, the more I think about it now, the more I realize that today, 2001, is a great day to be a teacher.
It’s a great day because we live and work in a time of rapid and transformative change in education. Not only is discipline knowledge changing and expanding, but the formulation and the very definition of the disciplines and how they are constructed are changing. It’s not enough anymore to confine our academic discussions to areas within narrow boundaries. When people ask me why I, a classically trained historian, teach Arabic language to my students, I explain that language is a door to culture, and history and culture are inseparable. The connections are everywhere.

Today is a great day to be a teacher because we know that every young person is more than just an intellect — each is a whole, unique person. Teaching and learning, in the fullest sense, demand that we recognize, appreciate, and celebrate that. If we accept that each student learns holistically and differently, then teaching, like learning, must be idiosyncratic. No two students bring the same experiences or knowledge to my classroom. No two learn in exactly the same way, a fact that became very clear to me as I worked this past year with identical twins, each of whom had a distinct learning style. As teachers, we know that no two students will emerge from one of our classes having learned exactly the same thing, and that is a very exciting prospect.

It’s a great day to be a teacher because, as never before, we realize the enormous potential that our students possess. I stand in awe of what our students can do. Not only some students, but every student. Each year, I’ve become increasingly convinced, until I know it in my teacher’s soul and heart and mind, of a simple, profound truth — every child, every young person can learn. This is not some trite saying, but a fundamental truth about education. Again and again, I’ve been taken aback by what our students can do. If we are willing to set high standards for all students, to invest in each student, to support each one to the degree to which he or she needs support, think of the potential. Think of what that means. How can we as a society not be willing to do that?

Recently, I had a dramatic lesson that reinforced these concepts of teaching and learning. We were exploring the European Renaissance in World History class, and I was working to help students understand the concept of a renaissance — looking to the past, rediscovering classical learning, and building on it. We were in Italy, in Florence, in Michelangelo’s studio, sometime back in the early sixteenth century. I was pushing for an understanding of the excitement and the newness of rediscovering the ancient and classical world. A voice from the back of the classroom, Colin, said, “Do you think there has been a renaissance in music in the past fifty years?” For about five seconds, nobody said anything. (We’re good on wait time; we historians have to be thoughtful.) Then the deluge hit us. One after another, the students spilled out theories, evidence, arguments, counter-arguments, displaying an astounding collective knowledge. I was amazed not only at what they knew about modern music, dwarfing my own knowledge to be sure, but at their excitement, and their deep understanding of what we mean by a renaissance. Though, incidentally, I did have a painful moment when a number of students cited The Beatles as an example of ancient or classical music.

Renaissance and music. They took control of the concept and constructed their learning. They owned it. It blew my lesson plan out of the water, but who needed it. As the discussion began to wind down, I complimented them as a class. “Do you realize how beautifully you built on each other’s ideas? That was wonderful! See what insights you had because you built on each other’s ideas.” Without missing a beat, a young woman, Katie, said, “That’s because you let us.”

That took me aback. In one light it was a bit flattering, but it was also very humbling. As a teacher, on a good day, when learning is happening, I’m a catalyst — something that allows a reaction to take place. The true power of learning is in the elements, the learners.

It’s a great day to be a teacher because we are needed. The idealism that leads good teachers to enter our profession is so evident in their infectious love of the work, their respect for the potential of people, and their hopes for creating a more humane and just society. Teachers know we make a difference.
I think of my student, Jasmin, who came to this country from Bosnia. As a nine-year-old, he was evacuated from his village, never to see it again. Separated from his family, he was loaded into the back of a truck with other men and boys. Periodically, the soldiers would stop the truck, choose a man from the back of the truck, have him step down, and shoot him in front of the others. These were random murders to demoralize and ensure compliance. Jasmin’s father was placed in a concentration camp, and he never saw him again. He and his mother made their way to Germany, and after a number of years there a Bosnian resettlement project brought them to Middlebury, Vermont.

Jasmin was like a gift to my classroom. He took up his studies like a starving man eats food, reminding all around him of how precious an education is. He spoke almost no English when he arrived in Vermont at age fourteen; what we thought was shyness was actually a lack of our language. Even so, it wasn’t enough for Jasmin to master English, on top of Bosnian and German; he enrolled in our Arabic class, delighted because of its importance for his religion. In Interdisciplinary Studies his junior year, Jasmin was fascinated by our historical and literary study of human rights. His exam project included an original painting and accompanying poem that told the story of his exile from his own homeland. Jasmin graduated with honors in June, and this fall he’s headed to an excellent college, thanks to a substantial scholarship. His future is bright.

Education and teachers do make a difference. Indeed, there is no more noble, important, or rewarding work than teaching. And, you know, I think John Dewey would love to be alive and among us today. VQ

 

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