A Back-to-School Tribute

learning by going

Before each school year begins, I try to center myself. I organize supplies, I write lesson plans, I memorize my schedule. These sort of tasks, however, aren’t enough and I always find myself reflecting on teaching itself, in the broadest possible sense. I came to teaching late. My first foray into a classroom in a role other than student was when I began my graduate program the summer I turned twenty-five. I felt old, and compared to many of my fellow students, I was old. One of the first things we were asked as we began our studies was to think about the teachers who had impacted us and why that was.

It’s a simple question, nearing cliché. For me, it was easy to answer. My high school Latin teacher, Miss Ede Ashworth, made me crave her praise. I was not the sort of student who yearned for a close relationship with a teacher, or to be pushed to my limits, or to be made to cry by a profound lesson a la Dead Poets Society. I was jaded in high school, arrogant about my self-perceived intelligence, and wary of adults, particularly teachers. Miss Ashworth’s skill and style penetrated my overconfidence and my (probably highly-irritating) cynicism. Her brilliance came from being able to do this without my ever feeling as though she was trying to do exactly that.

I should point out here that Miss Ashworth is a highly-lauded teacher, winning awards that have acknowledged and rewarded her preternatural skill in the classroom.  She managed to bring out the best in so many students, and she did it without seeming to modify her approach or system for any individual learners in the room.  This is nearly unheard of in conversations about good teaching where the norm is to consider the diversity of learners in a classroom and differentiate instruction as needed to reach as many students of possible. This was not necessary for Miss Ashworth---like an elite athlete, she was unfazed by changes in routine, student behavior, or fire drills, and managed to execute well every single class period.

She was teaching Latin, a language so regimented that it can turn off even the most academically-minded student. She required us to make flashcards for every single vocabulary word we learned – a requirement I hated because I didn’t feel as though I needed them.  However, other students made great use of flashcards, and I learned later that while I may not have needed to use the flashcards myself, she had cagily instilled in me the discipline of careful review and preparation. This discipline was key to my perseverance while studying Latin in college.

She told us little about herself, leaving an aura of mystery around her that my classmates and I attempted to shatter through the sort of speculation (“do you think Miss Ashworth ever watches television?) usually reserved for elementary school students. She was always impeccably prepared for class, never seemed to be absent, and could be found before and after school for extra help or to answer questions.

When I did my student teaching, my cooperating teacher told me that he believed there were two core qualities that every teacher must have: she should love the subject matter and appreciate the joys and challenges of working with young people. Miss Ashworth’s love for Latin was palpable---she drove us all over the state to participate in the Junior Classical League, and she ran a yearly Foreign Language Week at school that was driven primarily by her sheer enthusiasm. She had us do art projects about the Romans, she had us travel all over the tri-state area to museums to see relevant exhibits, and she made sure that her students took opportunities to share their knowledge of the language with others. And, even more importantly, while she had very high standards for both academic work on behavior, I remember not one moment when she seemed disdainful when we were rowdy, unfocused, or both.

When I was a senior, I was the only student that year to enroll in Advanced Placement Latin. Before the year began, I wondered what it would be like to be in a one-on-one setting. Would it be odd? I was nervous, because part of what Miss Ashworth did so well was treat all of us remarkably warmly, without ever creating too much familiarity. It ended up (unsurprisingly) being the best learning experience of my high school years. Her gentle guidance as I tried to decide which college attend (never saying what I should or should not do) helped steady me. The intensity of the AP curriculum and how desperately I wanted to please her led me to work incredibly hard and reap the rewards.

Thus, as I begin each new school year, I think back to what it was like to be in Miss Ashworth’s classes. I am not yet a fraction of the teacher that she is, and likely never will be, but her example often inspires me to think more critically about how I am approaching both my students and the subject matter. I ask myself what she might do in a particular situation, and I realize now how much work, dedication, and attention to detail went into all of those seemingly effortless lessons. Each time I sneak in explaining a Latin root into one of my classes, I feel the same old excitement that I used to feel in the windowless classroom that she made crackle with language. Although I had no idea at the time that I would ever be a high school teacher, I am forever grateful that I was able to spend forty-eight minutes every day for four years watching her work.