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On a Teacher’s Life

By Kimberly Berndt, Science Department Head

I have taught in East and Central LA, rural North Carolina, a small Catholic day school in Massachusetts, in Newton, at Choate, the cross town high school highlighted in Friday Night Lights, a K-12 private school in Midland, Texas, and at St. Mark’s. I have worked with students struggling to understand physics in suburban Cleveland and watched students cling to their one spiral-ring notebook on the top of a mountain in Haiti.   What I have gleaned from this experience in a diversity of settings is that kids are kids wherever you go.   However, this is not an essay about the unity within diversity. I have worked with kids who had great privilege in all senses of the word, and with children who didn’t know that privilege existed. But this is not an essay about privilege. I have worked with students who had the self-control to set high goals for themselves and systematically attain those goals and worked with students who were scared to set goals. But this is not an essay about goals.   You, the collective you, who includes scores of students whom I have taught over my 21 years of teaching, are bright, curious, mischievous, clever, contrary, conflicted, funny, and most importantly inspiring. This is an essay about how you, both collectively and as individuals, have inspired me.

My 25th high school reunion is this summer. This event doesn’t make sense to me because in my mind I am still 20-something, maybe early 30s. So when I do the math, it just doesn’t add up. Nevertheless, the 25th is upon me. I was trying to remember who were my friends from high school with whom I’d really like to reconnect. I was a 4-year senior at Northfield Mount Hermon, which at the time was the largest boarding school in the country, so one would think it would be easy for me to recall my friends. I can remember the main ones – the ones that I was the closest to for those 4 years – about 4 or 5. But then my mind gets rolling, and I start to think about people I really want to see. And as each individual rolls into my mind I realize, “No, that was a student.” The problem with having taught high school since college ended is that I have theoretically been in high school for the past 21 years. What I realized, though, is that my students had the same, if not more, of a significant impact on me as have my friends and teachers from high school – and I had great friends and teachers.

Zoe M is my daughter’s namesake. I taught Zoe.  She was also my advisee, a prefect in my dorm, and she played on my hockey team all four years. I knew this girl well. She was an incredible slacker getting by with as little work as possible – goal setting wasn’t really her style. I’d find her often doing the most unexpected things such as pouring drinks into the dorm floor to demonstrate the absorptive properties of this strangely synthetic surface. Yes, I named my daughter after someone like this!   But, Zoe was filled with more life than anyone I had ever known, and she lived in the present. And for me at a time when I was a mom with two young children and counting, running a dorm, coaching two seasons, in charge of the prefect program, and running all-school events, my life was moving in way too many directions. Just being present in the moment was a luxury that I seldom afforded myself, but Zoe forced me to do this often. A recent Facebook post by Zoe read, “I’m not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it.” This post epitomizes her.  Zoe wasn’t about getting ahead or excluding anyone – she was about finding the joy and wonder in any one weird moment with whomever was around.   My student, Zoe, showed me how to just be and her spirit is carried on in my daughter who often reminds me to slow down.

To inspire is defined as to make someone want to do something, to give someone an idea about what to do or create. This definition implies that one’s actions may be changed and, as actions change, the person is likely to change as a result. These changes can be incremental or they can be sudden.   The influential role that teachers play in the lives of students is often discussed – but usually described in a linear directional manner. Last weekend at Barnes and Nobles, I picked up Taylor Mali’s book, What Teachers Make, on a whim – I thought it would inspire me through the last sprint of our academic year. However, as I have been reading it, I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated – there was something missing – where was the reciprocity between student and teacher?  Mali’s book primarily addresses what the teacher does – but living systems, which include communities, such as schools and classrooms, are complex and dynamic and certainly not unidirectional. These systems, whether ecological or sociological, involve interactions, and each component affects the other. Relationships and growth in life are not linear – they are a series of spiraling, dynamic interactions. These exchanges and the effect of these exchanges are not predictable. In the moment, we seldom know who will have the greatest impact and whose impact will continue. And in this way, Taylor Mali got it right – “The pebble never knows how far the ripple’s reach is.”

I taught a student in Texas named Ingrid. At a young age, Ingrid had lost her father tragically and then endured multiple failed attempts at suicide by her mother during the course of Ingrid’s high school career. During these exceptional times of struggle, this young woman came to school each day and focused deliberately on her studies. I remember being struck by Ingrid’s resilience especially during her challenging 9th grade year. Despite knowing that Ingrid had triumphed through such adversity, I found myself hesitant to encourage her to take AP Biology her senior year. Ultimately, I allowed it, but with much doubt about her potential.  Over the course of the next year, Ingrid worked harder in AP Biology than anyone. Digesting the material, systematically improving her test grades from 30s to 90s, challenging me to go to Zumba if she scored at a certain level on assessments. Never stopping. Never giving up. Never expecting anything from herself except her best. And regardless of where I raised the bar, Ingrid reached for it. Ingrid scored a 5 on the AP Biology exam – a score I had thought impossible 10 months prior.  Ingrid inspired me by her resilience, but more importantly she secured an idea in my head – Never underestimate a student. To this day when someone asks me, “Can I take AP Biology”? I can’t say, “No.” When I am in conversations about education with faculty or other adults, Ingrid is in the room with me, arms folded, staring directly at me ensuring that I stand up for the potential of my students.  I am a better advocate for students and a better teacher today because of Ingrid.

That “you” I mentioned, that “collective you,” I estimate to be in the range of 2000 individuals. This number consists of people to whom I have tried to explain the role of DNA in inheritance, dove on ice chasing down a puck, drove to school because they needed to get their child to daycare, designed scavenger hunts, and sat late on dorm floors discussing futures. This collective you includes those of you who weren’t initially connected, for whom “science wasn’t your thing”, who were too clever for the average classroom, who needed to move around the room to focus, who loved to communicate, who hated to speak in class, who needed an analogy for every complex idea studied and many, many more.

In my second year of teaching, I asked to teach a section of Physical Science that consisted mostly of students who had previously failed the course at least once. I knew that the teacher who had been assigned the class already expected each to fail again – she articulated that thought clearly to me. This woman was actually my mentor teacher. The realized role of her mentoring was as a model of whom I did not want to emulate. That year I entered into the classroom every day with a clear purpose. This class was not about Physical Science – this class was about demonstrating to a group of students who had been dismissed by society that (1) they can learn, (2) that they can love learning, and (3) that people should believe in them– not quite the AP-driven curricular goals at St. Mark’s. But for that year, I worked harder in my life than I ever have to meet the expectations of an AP curriculum. I worked diligently to learn how to reach each and every student no matter how many different approaches it required. These students let me know when my teaching wasn’t good enough, when I wasn’t reaching them. From my work with these students, I determined my non-negotiables as an educator. No matter what, my students must learn, I must make learning enjoyable, and they must know that I believe in them. If I am not delivering on these items then I am not doing my job. These students from 19 years ago in rural North Carolina inspired me to be better; in fact they demanded me to be better. To this day, they are a part of who I am as a teacher. They inspired me to be flexible to the learning of my students rather than ask my students to be flexible to my teaching.

You, the collective and individual you, are flawed. Greatly, immensely, enormously flawed. But no worries – we all are. I often hear people use the descriptor “perfect.” In the prep-school world, this means well-adjusted, smart, nice, athletic, talented, outgoing, and good-looking. It is an ideal that no one, let me repeat, no one, fulfills, but for some reason we continue to describe this ideal as though it is achievable – and desirable. We all have mutations (flaws in your DNA) – we just hope those mutations don’t mess anything up too badly. Sometimes those mutations actually give us something new and good, and sometimes they create challenging situations. Regardless, I think the flaws are the good stuff – the stuff that helps us grow, the stuff that forces us to grow, the stuff that gives us strength, that distinguishes each of us.   In our perfect world, we get all A’s, everyone likes us, we start every game, every college wants us, and everyone agrees with us every time we speak. But remember what I said about “perfect”?

Please make no mistake–me, the individual me, is also greatly flawed.   And many of you have gently reminded me. A few weeks ago, Mathilde Sauquet ‘14 came with me to my daughter’s soccer game. Zoe plays goalie most of the time.   As Mathilde and I stood watching the game and chatting about the world, the opposing team took a shot that Zoe essentially caught and then dropped. She ultimately recovered the ball and made the necessary save but in my mind the initial fumbling of the ball was not acceptable. Those in my immediate area heard me mumble, “Catch the ball, Zoe. That’s all you have to do – catch the ball.” With a reflex-like response, I then proceeded to march (at least I suspect that I was marching) down the length of the stadium seating towards the end of the field in which Zoe was in goal. I could sense Mathilde following close behind, but it was even more obvious that Mathilde wanted to say something to me. By the time I got to the other end of the field my competitive nature had reconciled with my teaching nature and I had decided to not say anything – granted I knew that my presence on that end of the field told Zoe to step her game up. It was unclear to Mathilde, however, where I was mentally. A few seconds later Mathilde turned tentatively to me and casually mentioned, “You know, the ball is a bit slippery today because of the rain.” I laughed. I then replied, “I’m not going to say anything.” Mathilde and I both knew that she was essentially telling me to “shut up and lay off of her.” I needed someone to tell me that – to raise my level. At that moment, and in many others, Mathilde inspired me to be better.

I have not been inspired because you, the collective and individual you, are the hope of the future, or the perfect student, or never fail. In fact I have been inspired by you because despite, and perhaps because of, your flaws, your imperfections, your challenges, your unique personality mutations you have each, at some moment, shown me a reason to be inspired.

In his poem “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” Taylor Mali describes a moment when his student allows her mind to open and be changed:

And I want to tell her …

(that) changing your mind is one of the best ways

of finding whether or not you still have one.

Or even that minds are like parachutes,

That it doesn’t matter what you pack

Them with so long as they open at the right time.

Thankfully my students have helped me to open and change my mind at the many moments throughout my career that I needed to.

Kimberley Berndt entered the teaching profession as a Teach For America Corps Member after graduating from Oberlin College in 1993. She is now completing her 21st year of teaching in total and her 4th year at St. Mark’s. When not working you will likely find Kim watching her children play soccer, cooking, or laughing at her lethargic cat, Olivia, or rambunctious miniature dachshund, Austin Powers. Kim plans on spending a good part of the summer of 2015 in Canada following the Women’s World Cup.

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