Since I retired from teaching more than three years ago, one of the most enjoyable things I’ve found is the opportunity to try new things. One of those new pursuits is writing, but lately, I haven’t felt compelled to write much of anything. I know from talking to other bloggers and writers that many others have experienced this same phenomenon. Here we’ve got all this time to write (a pandemic will do that to you), and yet the words or desire don’t come.
I do some of my best thinking either during or right after exercise. Since I haven’t been able to get to the gym, I’m only leaving the house once a day to get in a long walk. It isn’t nearly the intense workout that I like, but it will have to suffice for now. In the middle of my walk today, an idea suddenly struck. I was thinking about leadership and how leaders come in different forms. Leadership is not easy to define, and yet we recognize it when we see it.
Some leaders are quite vocal and possess a unique oratory ability to touch us through their words. In addition, some leaders inspire us through their actions. Such is the case with my friend and former colleague, Linda. She does not crave attention; it’s more accurate to describe her as a person who prefers to remain anonymous. The first time I nominated her for the Excellence in Teaching Award, she didn’t fill out the paperwork, mostly because she is one of those people who doesn’t like talking about herself. I have a feeling that she probably will view my attempt to recognize her here with mixed emotions. She will feel proud to know that she has inspired many, but she will be shy about any form of recognition. Sorry, my friend—I’m the one with the keyboard. The good news is you won’t have to give a speech.
Linda and I go way back—at one point, we lived on the same street. We both love kids (she is the best grandma) and big dogs. I like to tease her and say that in my next life, I’m planning on coming back as one of her dogs. Never have you seen such loved and cared for dogs! I was hired the year before her. In my second year (Linda’s first), we were fourth-grade teachers. I shifted grades a lot during my career, but there was a large chunk of time when we taught sixth grade together. Linda often taught the straight sixth grade, and I was usually a combination fifth/sixth-grade teacher. We made a good team, even though our strengths were varied. She was/is one of the most organized people I’ve ever met, and my classroom was a colossal mess.
During our sixth-grade teaching years, we took several classes to Patrick’s Point for an end of the year, three day-two-night campout. Those are good memories. How fun it was to watch the kids trying to problem solve and figure out how to put up a tent! Linda was the far better organizer and planned the entire stay. With sixth graders, Linda and I knew that the best strategy was to keep them active and tire them out so that they would sleep rather than consider some late-night shenanigans. (Sixth grade was a special place that I refer to as “The Hormone Zone.”) We took several long hikes during the day, much to the protest of the students. When we were back in camp, we often gave the kids a choice between some quiet time (reading, crafts, etc.) or a more active alternative, such as playing whiffle ball with me. The kids were also assigned cooking assignments in small groups and cleanup chores during our short stay. Linda organized it all.
One of my fondest memories of Linda during those campouts was her demeanor. She dressed the part, wearing military fatigues, with an assertive take-charge attitude. Those sixth-graders didn’t stand a chance, as she was not about to take any guff from them. When you’re away from school, there aren’t a whole lot of disciplinary actions one can take. If a student presented either one of us with a discipline problem, we first talked and allowed them to correct the behavior. If they didn’t shape up, they often were sent to their tent for a timeout. Some isolation time when everyone else was having fun was a useful tool.
Linda’s students always respected and liked her. She was one of those teachers who they never wanted to disappoint. Another admirable quality about Linda is she would do anything for her students. One of the things I respected most about her was that she always looked out for the less fortunate kids. Around Christmas, she organized a gift exchange for her class. If a student couldn’t participate for financial reasons, she would secretly get a gift for the child, so he/she wouldn’t be left out.
After several years teaching at that level, both Linda and I were ready for a change and began asking for a move to the primary grades. We both had to wait for positions to open up, and my turn came sooner than Linda’s. While I moved to primary grades after waiting a few years for an opportunity, Linda remained in sixth grade. Her reward for being such a fabulous sixth-grade teacher was that the administration kept her there.
Around this time, Eureka City Schools underwent a significant change and opened up Winship Junior High for the first time to sixth-graders. Many of our families faced a difficult choice. Should they keep their children at a smaller school or transfer their kids to a larger one that offered more opportunities in sports and other extracurricular opportunities? The split was fairly even, but quite a few kids moved over to Winship between their fifth and sixth-grade years. My wife and I were faced with the same decision, as our son was entering sixth grade. Many of his closest friends were moving on, and he wanted to switch schools. Even though we knew he would do well in either situation, we wanted him to have Linda for his sixth-grade year. Parenting is not easy sometimes, but that was one decision we got right. Because of Linda, our son had a fabulous sixth-grade year.
After a few years, Linda’s transfer to the primary grades came through, and we became teaching partners again in third grade. She is a person of many talents, and one of those skills is arts and crafts. Since that was something I never had much aptitude for, she bailed me out numerous times when it came to class projects around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. She enjoys crafts so much that she holds craft parties at her house. There’s no risk of me ever crashing one of those parties.
Another one of her strengths was her ability to bring leadership qualities out of her students. She was the Student Council advisor for many years, and frequently took on projects to improve the school and the community. One enjoyable Student Council sponsored event was our annual 50’s ice cream social. It seemed like she dressed up half of the kids in the school. Somehow, she found the time to make poodle skirts for the girls and helped turn the boys into slick hipsters.
Another one of our regular fun activities at the end of most school years was the Talent Show. (I use the term “talent” quite loosely here.) If you know Linda’s quiet personality, it may seem odd that she has this other more outgoing side. The Talent Show was primarily for the children, but if we were going to have one, Linda encouraged the teachers to get into the spirit of things, too. She had us learning dance steps and routines that were fun, not only for us but also for the students. I remember one year, early in our careers, when she and I were the Blues Brothers, decked out in suits, ties, and sunglasses, doing cartwheels on stage. I remember thinking, “Who is this woman? I thought she was shy.” It wasn’t long before she had more than half of the staff learning dances to all genres of music. Sometimes she brought her daughter, Erin, a high school cheerleading coach, to help teach us a dance routine. Talk about a challenge! Erin wasn’t exactly working with candidates for America’s Got Talent.
In retirement, Linda continues to be a fantastic supporter of children and teachers. When it comes time for the Science Fair or History Day, she guides and helps children, who might not get a lot of support from home. She still comes up with ideas for craft projects for whole classes, and often refuses money when you try to pay for the materials.
As if that wasn’t enough, one of her latest projects has been to create face masks for others. She takes the initiative to do things like this without anyone asking. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. The masks below are some of her latest creations.
Linda may not be a boisterous person, but everything about her demonstrates leadership. I am proud to call her a friend.