When an outstanding teacher leaves: a professional eulogy

When I exited the building on the last day of school last week, I carried the pieces of my drawn and quartered heart. The joy of summer break was overshadowed when one of the best teachers I have ever known announced that she was leaving us for an opportunity to teach in a KIPP school. While I knew of this possibility, and even counseled her to follow her heart, when her decision became official, I was immediately haunted by the apparitions of the hundreds of students whose hearts will break when they return in the Fall, and of the hundreds more in our district who will never have an opportunity to learn with her.

Kat came to us three years ago fresh out of a Teach For America stint in Memphis. The district appointed me to mentor her until she obtained licensure.¬†Ironically, I spent most observations in open-mouthed awe, furiously jotting notes about techniques she was employing that I wanted to “borrow” for myself. Each 43- minute period was an expertly choreographed ballet of learning, interaction and engagement. Within the year, Kat became an unofficial mentor to many veteran teachers in our building.

Kat made it a point to know Every student. She could name siblings, parents, personal dreams revelaed in journals, athletic stats, roles in school plays, anything that was important in their lives. Her 6 ft college-basketball-star frame made for an imposing presence in the classroom,  and her infectious laugh  echoed through the halls like the familiar clip-clop her her heels. While often employing humor and positive reinforcement, she could freeze the blood of an off-task student by simply raising her left eyebrow (the menacing arch it formed defied the laws of physics!)

Disenchanted with the building’s grading system, she completely re-invented her own system, moving to standards-based assessment. She spent hours creating individualized assessment records for all 142 students, re-structuring a writing-rubric program and printing individualized, standards-based, analysis of all student writing samples. Students immediately bought in to these personalized documents and began tracking their own mastery of standards. It was truly inspiring to experience.

If I continued to point out the ways in which Kat influenced our students and staff, I would need to replace my keyboard. Instead, I want to focus on something for which I will be eternally grateful: the last week of school.

Normally, I close the library early in order to finish my  end-of-year obligations: inventory, cleaning and storing equipment, book repair, weeding, and completing orders for next year. This year, however, I spent the last five days working with Kat and our freshmen social studies teacher on a combined World History/Freshman English research project in the library. In fact, we had both classes in at the same time for  five out of our nine periods.

Had it been any other teacher, I would have balked, for fear of chaos, but these groups of 60 students actually worked, right up until the end. They  focused, asked good questions, brought their thesis statements and paragraphs for us to check, and met with Kat in small groups for focused workshopping. In short, they wanted to make both her and themselves proud.

The last day in the library (which was also the last day of school before exams) will go on record as one of my favorite days in education Ever.¬†For what ever reason, Kat and I arrived at school a bit punchy, and we fed off of each other all day. In what we came to call “Slap Happy Friday,” we laughed, danced (often without music) sang, high-fived, and greeted students as they arrived by shouting in WWF style – “Ladies and Gentlemen, BRANDON ¬†has arrived! Let’s hear it for Brandon! WOOT!”

It was definitely the most fun I have ever had with MLA style. We all had a blast that day, and despite our distracting behavior, the students finished their papers, and they were good. We were all fortunate to share a memory that we will turn to for solace when the doors open in August and the hallways no longer echo with that infectious laugh or  the familiar clip-clop of  heels.

May you find happiness and success in your new job, Kat. Heath High School will miss you.


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