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Drinking Up Inspiring Words

Who hasn't smiled at the memory of a favorite teacher, student, or teaching moment? Teachers and their admirers share inspirational stories in the book, A Cup of Comfort for Teachers.

Everyone has favorite teacher stories. For many, they are memories of teachers who changed their lives or their children's lives. For educators, they often are reminiscences of students or events that reminded them why they entered a classroom.

Now, teachers and teacher fans can read about some of those memories in A Cup of Comfort for Teachers, a book of 50 essays written by and for teachers, to inspire and encourage educators.

"Reading [the book]," said Rita DiCarne, a contributor and music and language arts teacher at St. Catherine's school in Horsham, Pennsylvania, "gives you the chance to be reflective, not only about your own teaching and the students you have impacted, but about the men and women you teach with, and those who have taught you over the years."

HANDY INSPIRATION

A Cup of Comfort for Teachers is one of a series of books of inspirational essays, all but one of which was edited by Colleen Sell. To gather material for the teacher book, Sell sent invitations to teacher and student organizations and Web sites, as well as to the general public. She also advertised in the mass media.

"We wanted to get students' and teachers' perspective on rewarding experiences," Sell told Education World.

The popular topic generated 2,500 submissions, leaving Sell with the wrenching task of reducing the pile to 50. "We were looking for good variety in point of view and age group, and a good enough compilation that any teacher, mentor, or student could pick up the book and find something that struck a chord with them," she said. "I also looked for appealing themes and emotional impact. I looked for essays that are positive and have a deeper message. I tried to vary the emotional impact, and find stories that hung together."

Most of the essays were positive. "I expected a lot of stories from teachers complaining about their working conditions, but I didn't get them," Sell said. "What surprised me is how many teachers think their profession is a blessing, and how much they feel they've learned and gained from their students. I can't tell you how many times I said, 'Wow!'"

THE TEACHER STORIES

Teachers who contributed to A Cup of Comfort told Education World they were eager to share their stories and read about other teachers' lives.

Several wrote about an event or student that stayed with them throughout their careers, in some cases affecting not just their teaching, but their lives as well.

"'They Wanted to Teach' is personally important to me; it's a story I really wanted to share," said 18-year middle school science, social studies, and reading teacher Tony Phillips about his essay. Phillips wrote about Robert and Nathan, two very different former students who aspired to be teachers; Nathan came from a loving home, while Robert had bounced through foster and group homes.

All teachers -- if they're in education long enough and are making a personal investment -- have similar powerful experiences. I have many others myself. We each need to reinforce our purpose from time to time. I love reading short stories about real classroom experiences and finding out how others have dealt with their issues and situations."

Phillips said he continues to draw inspiration from the two boys featured in his essay. "The memories of Robert and Nathan give me the emotional energy and desire to reinvest in new student-teacher relationships each year," Phillips told Education World. "Every student doesn't have a wonderful home life and some just need an adult to show interest and compassion."

"I can't tell you how many times I said, 'Wow!'" says Colleen Sell, editor of A Cup of Comfort for Teachers
Vicki Cox, a former teacher from Missouri, was moved by how a gift from a student and his mother offset a tumultuous last day of school one year. A telephone threat that someone would die on the final day of classes prompted building searches and police patrols. "The juxtaposition of such a grim last day of the school year and the gratifying reminder of just what I spent my career trying to achieve could not be ignored," Cox said about her essay, "Guns and Roses."

"Jason," the high school sophomore in Oregon who paused to "grieve" for the one F he received out of a month of outstanding assignments, set former English teacher Samantha Ducloux Waltz thinking.

In retrospect, Ducloux Walz said she could have woven into her lessons ways to help students cope with their sharp, inner critics. "Using an appropriate short story, film, or novel, I could lead a discussion on the pros and cons of perfectionism," she told Education World. "In that discussion, I could have made sure students understand that when they are disappointed in themselves, they need to take a moment to 'feel' that feeling, focus on it, and 'go through' it. Then they will be able to better see and appreciate their successes. I would make sure they identify some of those successes before I close the discussion."

Ducloux Walz hopes other teachers become more aware of their students' mental health needs after reading her story. "Students who are over-achievers might please their teachers, but they can be very hard on themselves. Teaching them Jason's lesson can help them with all life experiences."

LESSONS COME HOME

For some, the student who taught them a lesson was very close to home -- in their own homes, in fact. Elementary school teacher Christine G. Law was frustrated and embarrassed because her son refused to read, despite encouragement, pleading, and bribery. Finally, she broke through his reading aversion by finding a series of mystery books that engaged him, a process she described in the essay, "Lizard Boy."

The lesson? "After my experience with my son, I learned to make every effort to bring real life into every lesson I teach," Law told Education World. "The more meaningful and practical a lesson is, the easier it is for students to apply it and carry it through to their own lives."

Law's advice to other teachers with hard-to-reach students is "make it real and keep it simple. Find out what the child is most interested or involved in; what he or she most enjoys. Then, bring that enjoyment into the lesson. Recently, I used my son's love of baseball to teach a math concept by showing him how to calculate his batting average. Everything else I had tried meant nothing to him because it wasn't something he could see an immediate need for."

Still other teachers reflected on the cumulative effect students have had on them. DiCarne, the music and language arts teacher, wrote about the joy she gets watching students grow over the years. "The students I have written about have taught me a great deal about myself as a teacher and as a person," she told Education World. "My teaching style, sensitivity to student needs and feelings, and the way I measure success all have changed over the years as a result of these children."

"When I think of them, I am reminded that I hold fragile egos in my hands and I need to be gentle. Yet it's my obligation to encourage my students to step outside their personal boxes and let themselves experience the performing arts. I know now that from the moment I first meet these children in kindergarten I am preparing them for the day I must push them out of the nest and watch them fly on their own."

For Greg Beatty, who teaches courses online, A Cup of Comfort was a chance to honor a former teacher, Mr. King. In "Because It Matters," Beatty recalled that Mr. King was not content just to teach social studies, he wanted to research, write, and analyze his subject as well.

Beatty told Education World he has yet to share the essay with his former teacher, but he hopes to show it to Mr. King and his colleagues.

Mr. King's motivation for caring so much about everything his students did continues to fascinate Beatty. "That still mystifies me. I teach college, and that can be draining enough. To teach high school has to be even more work, and the year that I had him, he was returning from a serious illness, but he never relaxed his standards."

Although Beatty did not set out to be a teacher, once he started teaching, he found plenty of role models from his own school days. "After I began to teach, I found myself trying to live up to the fine teachers I'd had in the past, so Mr. King and my other teachers inspired and sustained me."

At the core of A Cup of Comfort is the idea of a legacy; that a teacher's influence can touch a student and affect generations. "The message is never give up on any student!" said Law. "You never know when just one word from you could be the defining moment of their lives."

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