The People in My Balcony
Sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning I experienced one of those moments where I felt that the pastor had written the entire sermon for my benefit. The sermon was about important people in your life. He referred to them as the people in your balcony; the people that supported you, made a difference in your life, and molded you as a person. It is the people that are in my “balcony” and the hope that I one day will be in the “balcony” of someone else that sustains me.
A turning point in my educational career came at an early age. I was the type of student that did enough to get by. Why work harder than I needed to if I could make B’s without much effort? One afternoon during my fourth or fifth grade year I told my mom that I had finished my homework and asked to go out and play. I had hoped for a quick “yes” and just to be on my way, but as was our routine, my mom had wanted to review my work first. I could tell by the look on her face that she was aware that I had rushed a bit on some of my math problems. Next thing I knew my composition notebook was hurled back at me. I could not believe that my own mother threw a book at me! She had told me that I was better than the work that I was producing. Her expectation was that my effort would match my ability. Through a combination of wanting to please my parents, realizing that getting things right meant I got to go outside sooner and fear (did I mention the book throwing?) I strived to improve my efforts and began to produce work that represented what I knew. I see myself in many of the students that I teach. I also understand that many students today are not growing up the way that I did. Not all of them have a parent pushing them to be better. I’m not advocating book throwing, but that was what I needed at that time. I want to encourage my students to reach their full potential. I want them to see that their grade is not something that I gave them, but rather something they earned. Helping students to reach their full potential sustains me.
Another person in my “balcony” was my fifth grade teacher Mr. Feinstein. He was significant because he was my first male teacher. On that first day of school my eyes were opened to a new possibility. I could become a teacher. For some of my students I am their first male teacher. I didn’t truly realize how significant being a male teacher was. However the world that I live in includes absent fathers as a result of divorce, incarceration, and death. I am a father figure for students, sometimes their only father figure. What an awesome task! I thought I just had to get them to be successful in class but for some students I also need to be a confidante, counselor, coach, protector and advocate. As Frederick Douglass said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” The great responsibility of building strong children sustains me.
In Junior high Mr. Hauk was my math teacher. He was a short man, but what he lacked in height he more than made up for with enthusiasm. As is sometimes the case with students in their early teens our class was less than enthused about the math lesson. I don’t think this was planned, but while still talking to us, Mr. Hauk jumped up in the air and landed on his feet on top of his desk. Stunned silence ensued. This was something not seen outside of some sporting events and perhaps an acrobat show at the county fair. It is a moment that I have never forgotten. From that day on we as a class were always waiting and watching for the next time that Mr. Hauk might do something out of the ordinary. I liked that he was willing to be a little silly to get his point across. Our students know when we are not passionate about what we are teaching. Although I may not be jumping on tables every day (although I have stood on a couple) I try to share my enthusiasm with my students. Taking chances, being silly and doing something unexpected in the interest of keeping students engaged in learning sustains me.
My first teaching position began as a long-term substitute. I had some pretty big shoes to fill. My responsibilities were to teach math, science and social studies. It was here that Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Norris joined my “balcony”. Mrs. Wilson taught language arts and Mrs. Norris was our special education teacher. The three of us would teach Social Studies together in a large classroom. Mrs. Wilson was my mentor teacher and I learned so much about the craft of teaching from her. I often joke about her being the best sixth grade teacher I ever had because of our age difference (its mathematically possible that she could have taught me) but truthfully I’ve learned so much from her that she really is one of my best teachers. When it comes to planning there is no one above Mrs. Wilson. She has every contingency accounted for. The students in Mrs. Norris’ class received their math and science instruction from me. Mrs. Norris would join her students in my class, which was really our class. We would collaborate and co-teach the lessons together. The information I gleaned from Mrs. Norris regarding classroom management, making sure students were really listening and the beauty of the graphic organizer I still utilize today. I will forever be in their debt for taking a chance on a “newbie” teacher. I know their impression of me is what allowed me to continue teaching in the same school and on the same team when the person I was subbing for chose not to return. Knowing that my colleagues believe in me sustains me.
When I think about the people that are in my “balcony” it is not the amount of knowledge they possessed that placed them there, rather it is the relationships that they built with me that were so important to my development as a person and teacher. I wanted to be successful because I felt important to them, that what I did mattered. Knowing that I can have a similar positive impact on students as the people in my “balcony” makes me come to work everyday. I hope that someday I might find myself in the “balconies” of my students and colleagues.
Ian Linden is a sixth grade math teacher in the Harrisonburg City Public Schools. He is originally from Babylon, New York. Ian earned his undergraduate (’02) and graduate (’03) degrees from James Madison University. He has worked at Thomas Harrison Middle School for the entirety of his 11-year career. Ian currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia with his wife Rachel and two children Noah and Amelia. He is thankful for the opportunity to be involved with the What Sustains Us project.