Slice of Life Tuesday: What did you teach?


It was several years ago, but I remember my Institute sessions with Kathleen Tolan at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project so well.  She brought an intensity to our learning that went deep into my teaching heart – I left each session filled with ideas, enthusiasm, and (most importantly) idealism.   That last bit, idealism, is what gets to me in this stage of my teaching life – new ideas are wonderful and enthusiasm  helps us reach our students, but idealism is something else entirely, it elevates the work we do and gives it a meaning beyond the lesson plan or learning objective of the day. Idealism is the hope that our work will live on in the hearts and minds of our kids long after they have left the four walls of our classroom.

On Sunday, I heard of Kathleen’s sudden passing, and I remembered back to that Summer Institute.  As the evening wore on, I read account after account about her influence over those I consider my mentors: Chris Lehman,  Kate Roberts, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Vicki Vinton, and others.  Then, this post by Tom Marshall stopped me in my tracks:

December 4 at 7:32pm ·

 What did you teach? These were the words Kathleen Tolan pushed us with at the end of every reading conference. Yes, it’s easy to say nice things throughout a conference with a child. Sometimes, it’s easy to be clouded in the complex acts of reading and teaching and say too many things, because there is so much to say when you’re emotionally involved (like I am right now!) However, Kathleen’s words, “What did you teach?” ring true for me in every interaction I try to have today. What meaning does your life as a teacher, as a friend, as a person have? How will this person you just interacted with remember you and feel better, because they spent these moments with you? 
Kathleen taught me and so many of my professional friends so much. She leaves behind a legacy of having helped millions of kids find meaning in their lives through reading. She leaves behind a legacy of hundreds of thousands of teachers who are more empowered to make the world a better place for kids because of all she’s taught them. We can each strive to do just a shadow of that. If we make that our aim, we answer Kathleen’s question, “What did you teach?” so much more than naming a teaching point in a conference…it means we leave behind a legacy. Maybe like Kathleen’s! We’ll all miss you, my friend! Thank you for teaching us so much more than you ever realized!
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
The question changes as I vary the inflections of each word – but, in essence, the answer remains the same, for it points toward and measures our legacy.  And, of course, the legacy we leave our students stretches beyond how well they can write and read; the legacy work runs much deeper.  It’s about the joy we bring to their learning attitudes, the purpose we reveal their learning lives to have, the habits of kindness and compassion we nurture, and the awareness of the greater world we introduce.
In this post-election apocalypse we now inhabit, where every day there are new revelations of greed, corruption, misinformation, and hate, that legacy work seems to have taken on an added import.  As I drove into school this morning, thinking about what to write my slice of life about, I was filled with gloom.  Every idea seemed trivial, somehow, and unworthy of the time it would take to write.  I felt uninspired…and that felt wrong.
I turned on the radio, something I have stopped doing since the election, and heard the headlines on NPR: Standing Rock, the mistrial in South Carolina, Trump’s Tweets…
…what did you teach?
Today, we will read and write and talk about how we do both.  But today (and every day) we will also engage in the larger world, we will think about how our actions can change and shape a better world.
What will I teach?  I will teach towards a legacy my students can carry with them  into the world.

14 thoughts on “Slice of Life Tuesday: What did you teach?

  1. A question we should all ask ourselves no matter where we are in our teaching career. I hope that I taught my students to ask questions and never stop learning.

  2. Your words look to the past and to the future. What we do now matters in years to come. I hope that I teach my kids to make wise and kind choices.

  3. What a great memory of a great teacher. I too am hoping that my teaching guided by Tolan’s memory will focus on learning from the past, reflecting on today and looking towards to future.

  4. I love Terje first sentence. Powerful message. The line from your Slice that grabbed me is “Idealism is the hope that our work will live on in the hearts and minds of our kids long after they have left the four walls of our classroom.” I am still struggling with this concept and will continue to ponder what my students will remember long after they have left fifth grade.

  5. Wow, a powerful question, Tara, and important to keep at the forefront of a teacher’s quest. To offer ways of caring for our world through respect and learning, and to model for them was much of what I wanted to do. Thanks for helping us reflect on this from Kathleen Tolan, then Tom Marshall’s words.

  6. What a tribute and what a great question. I try to remember this daily. And especially today, conveying kindness and compassion are critical to our students.

  7. I wish every teacher could read this post and reflect on Tom’s words. What a powerful phrase to leave behind. Your post makes Kathleen’s legacy that much more powerful. What did you teach? Four important words when placed together no matter what inflection you choose. Thank you, Tara.

  8. Love how you emphasized a different word each time – it does truly change the meaning. I too was so sad when I heard the news – she was an inspiration. Legacy is an important idea – I blogged about a different person’s legacy today. We do need to slow down and truly think about what we are (and at times are not) teaching.
    Thank you

  9. Tara,
    I love how you used “intensity” as that does describe Kathleen’s impassioned quest for the best learning/teaching! I also love the precision of: “What will I teach? I will teach towards a legacy my students can carry with them into the world.”

    A legacy!

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