Clearly, times were different when I was coming up because Mrs. Mann, as she will always be known to me, was my third-grade teacher. I looked her up during Women’s History Month when I was thinking about the women who influenced who I am as a teacher.
It may seem like a leap to connect my university-level teaching to lessons from grammar school. But after finding Mrs. Mann in the Southwestern community where she retired to talk about teaching, I realized there were more similarities than differences.
With quiet authority, she set clear expectations about how I should comport myself and the high quality of work I should deliver in her class. This is the dynamic I strive to achieve with my students. But until we spoke, I didn’t realize how long ago this attitude was instilled.
I recall being conscious of wanting to reach Mrs. Mann’s standards and the upset I felt for failing to do so consistently. She somehow impressed upon me that not only was the work my responsibility but being able to manage my feelings was also mine to address. As a teacher, I’ve yet to master that boundary. When my students are distressed, I still take on their emotional burden as my own on occasion.
The 34-year teaching veteran set equally high standards for herself. “My goal was to ensure that ‘my children,’” as she called students throughout our conversation, “would remember the school year as the best year they ever had in school.”
Doing What Comes Naturally
A lifetime before “flipped classrooms” became part of the pedagogical lexicon, Mrs. Mann engaged us in the process of learning through doing. We didn’t just read about social studies; she used real-life stories about people in other lands that made the world knowable. And, using techniques that were unusual at the time, she taught us about science with a classroom
snake and brought in fertilized eggs, so we could watch chicks emerge from their shells.
In the university programs in which I teach, the ability to draw on my professional experience to connect course lessons to careers is valued. From the other side of the desk, I know those personal examples do, in fact, make learning memorable. Mrs. Mann was the first person I knew who traveled internationally. She shared pictures and objects and stories from her
trips that exposed me to cultures from Ancient Mayans to contemporary Europeans.
Etched into my mind is her tale about being scrutinized by Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin and how the guard studied her face to ensure it matched the passport image. She was asked to pull her hair back to ensure that it was her travel document. Twenty years later I was given the third degree the first time I traveled abroad. I volunteered to pull my hair back in silent homage to my former teacher.
Having an active classroom, which is what I strive for, also allowed learning to be fun and creative. I remember acting in my first play as a lady ghost in her class and meeting her Great Dane during a lesson on Switzerland. No other teacher engaged our imagination as she did with high-quality children’s literature like Roald Dah’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach.
In my courses some active sessions are successful. To illustrate a project developing a PR fundraising campaign for Syrian refugees, I brought in quotes from a relevant New York Times article. I had the students read the lines aloud to construct a “found poem.” (The American Academy of Poets describes this form as: “Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems.” The result of this exercise was breathtaking.
Don’t Ever Say “I Can’t”
I learned during our recent conversation that I was in Lynn Mann’s first class. That year she recalls being unnerved by a pair of boisterous boys, but her path took a darker turn several years later. She was in a car accident that left her permanently paralyzed on one side of her body. After two years of physical therapy, she returned to the classroom. Doing everything
with only one hand was just one of her difficulties.
“I had a head injury. So I forgot a lot of things and had to re-learn teaching materials,” she explained.
Mrs. Mann embodied what she taught. She repeated to her children the life lesson learned from an inspiring woman in her life, an occupational therapist. “My therapist told me, ‘Don’t ever say I can’t. Say I’ll try. No matter how tough it is, you find a way to do it. Work at it until you succeed.’ Those words became our classroom motto every year.”
“An able-bodied person can do things without thinking, like putting papers into a filing cabinet. But I had to hold the papers in my mouth and open up the file. [My children] saw me struggle to do things, but I found a way to do them.”
Think of a Woman
Conjuring up an important teacher from one’s early days will often evoke a female. “When I think of a teacher I think of a woman,” Lynn Mann
says. She’s right. Nearly 8 out of 10 public school teachers are women.
In future Women’s History Months perhaps someone will reflect on my courses. I hope I have as big an impact on my students as Mrs. Mann had on me. What she left with me is the importance of hard work, discipline, and excellence. In short, she helped foster a positive attitude for learning that stays with me to this day.
Photo credit: Lynn and Paul Mann