The First Day of School

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see,” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something.”

The fifteen years I spent as a teacher were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

Alexandra K. Trenfor

It’s that time of year again. Fall, football, cooler days, and all kids’ favorite time of the year, it’s back to school. This year students are returning to a world much different than the one they knew prior to Hurricane Michael.

Many have lost friends to relocation following the storm. Others will be attending a different school than the one they would have otherwise. Teachers are making do with less, though the demands placed on them never lessens. Resources are scarce. Loss is still so very evident. But with a firm determination, the day dawns with sunlight and promise.

Image by Cindy K. Sickle and the cover of In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle available now on Amazon with proceeds benefiting Hurricane Michael Relief.

For me, today marks the 11th year since I left the teaching profession to enter the private sector. For the past decade I have worked in the contracting industry as a developer of training and educational products for the Department of Defense. Still a form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

My students are now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them, thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness the moments in which they truly blossom.

My last year of teaching was 2008. These young people are now adults contributing to society and making a difference in the world.

For a year or two, I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go on to the next chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for all the lessons they taught me.

For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education?

Knowing that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a lifelong desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge. A lesson that has stayed with me since the time it was first learned.

I’d describe my classroom, on most days, as controlled chaos. There were no neat rows of desks, no hierarchy, with myself perched at a podium and my students seated below me, eagerly soaking up my words. Not that at times, that very formula wasn’t the most effective, but for the most part, I discovered that hands-on activities were more effective, especially when asking students to delve into the dusty pages of history.

When we were embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I thought, what better way for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still hold relevance today, that were at the heart of the lesson.

I think one of the most important lessons my students learned was that history should not be judged by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?

Above all, I hoped my students walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research and seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.

Marcus Garvey

Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of our future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless. I can only hope and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career, aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.

There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the real world, finally.

So, as this new school year begins, I offer my sincere gratitude and prayers to the many teachers returning to their classrooms, to the students embarking on another leg of their educational journeys, and to the many parents at once thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed, as school resumes. Despite all the changes wrought by Michael, may God bless and keep you and may the year unfold with wonder, curiosity and infinite success.

~ Jennifer N. Fenwick, former teacher, author, and lifelong learner