Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Blessed is the Influence

Blessed is the influence of one true loving human soul on another.

These words by George Eliot epitomize my teaching life. I believe each teacher is a loving human soul who has a tremendous influence on the lives of her or his students. I don't recall when I first came across these words, but they left a lasting impression on me. I think I probably happened upon them some day during my teaching career when I was utterly down. You know those days when you feel like your students didn't understand or care about a thing you said? These words reminded me that there was probably one student whom I did have an influence upon, and in truth, we may be that one truly loving human soul who affects the life of one other human being. And that is enough. It is more than many people ever experience.

Today, I rode my bike to school an entire two blocks and I happened to come up behind Mr. Haden, the 8th grade science teacher. I said, "Hey, Ron, it's the beginning of my 18th year of teaching here at Aurora. What year is it for you?" I really had no idea. "This is my 30th year." I just about wrecked my bike. I have known Ron for 18 years. We share a love of stars. He lives down the block. He coaches cross country. He is out early in the mornings like me; he runs, and I ride my bike to the fitness center to run on a treadmill (my shins and concrete do not like each other). But I had no idea he had been teaching here for 30 years. That is the beauty of teaching in Aurora. Most people stay for a very long time. We like it here. I have seen a lot of very good teachers stay here well ove r 30 years and retire here. We are all invested in this community.

So, I have been fortunate to teach juniors and seniors over the course of my career, finding my way through No Child Left Behind and standards to preparing curriculum for Wesleyan Honors Academy courses. I spent many years directing the three act fall play and the one act and coaching speech. Thankfully, after six years, I was able to just focus on coaching the speech team. I really do enjoy working with students on the team because it wonderful to see them gain confidence as public speakers. It's also just a lot of fun to be with adolescents outside of the classroom. My speech team teaches me over and over again that each student is facing something in their lives. In the daily work of the school day it is easy to forget that.

In 2006, I received an Excellence in Teaching Award from the Nebraska Department of Education, and I wrote a "Where I'm From" poem to commemorate that occasion:

I am From: Teacher Version
(an imitation of George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From")

I am from screaming at the top of my lungs to support a student participating in an athletic event.

I am from waking up when it's still dark on a Saturday during speech season and getting on a cold bus for a long trip to who knows where.

I am from Saturday nights at school grading essays while the football coach is in the next room compiling offensive, defensive and special teams statistics.

I am from nail-biting panic that my students won't memorize their lines for the fall play.

I am from standing backstage in awe when they do nail that line they missed for the past six weeks of rehearsal.

I am from finding the right words to say when a speech competitor doesn't make it to finals.

I am from the joy of a novice competitor who gets up on stage to receive a medal.

I am from young men telling me, confidentially, in their junior and senior years, “This is the first book I’ve ever read.”

I am from going off on a tangent in the classroom (and I do this often) for a spectacular learning moment.

I am from "Excellent," "Exceptional," exclamation points, question marks, triple underlined words, numerous editing marks, and sentences of response in the margins on student papers.

I am from sitting side by side a student and reading and writing and talking about the paper because they really care about writing well.

I am from fifteen years of tear drops on student papers, because each year, someone was depressed, someone was hurt deeply, or someone died.

I am from all the courageous students who have bravely shared their lives with me through their writing,

I am from the poignancy and splendor of their lives,

I am from over a thousand, truly loving human souls who have had

a lasting, a remarkable influence upon me.

Catherine Cave English
October 31, 2006


  1. Cathie,
    I enjoyed reading about your experiences at Aurora as a teacher dedicated to creating a connected, supportive atmosphere.
    I especially connected with your comments about coaching the speech team. I did speech for 6 years, 4 in high school and 2 in college and I credit that program with much of the success I've had since then.
    It's such a unique environment at a small school where you have the opportunity to really give every kid a chance to find their way to shine and it sounds like you are dedicated to that!

  2. I really liked this poem of yours, Cathie, especially the line: "I am from standing backstage in awe when they do nail that line they missed for the past six weeks of rehearsal." :) It brought back many memories from my high school speech days! (I never thought I would survive my first improv, or my first extemp, but I was lucky to have a teacher as supportive as it seems you are.)

  3. Cathie,
    It is nice to meet you! First off, I love reading your's like snuggling up with my favorite book on a cold day. It's comforting. Secondly, thanks for the passion you show about teaching. It is inspiring to me to see a veteran teacher who is still in love with her job. And I hear you with the speech and drama stuff! I am the ast. speech coach here at OHS and will be helping with the musical this year. I'm excited to read more from you...thanks for sharing!

  4. I am not a speech coach, but I was the wife of one, so I feel all your experiences as a coach and English teacher come alive and remind me of those days from the past. I did not get up on the bus at some God awful hour, but kept to one of my favorite places, under warm covers on a winter morning.

    Your description of Aurora brought many parts of it alive, the little places a person doesn't see by just driving through your town. I often think of Albion, Aurora, and Minden as sister cities. They are of similar populations, nestled in a verdant area of the state, and filled with beautiful homes. The history of those places beg to be explored, so your description of Aurora whets one's appetite for more.

  5. Cathie,
    I actually used your poem in my class this week as an example for my students who are writing "I am from" poems. When I read your piece aloud, it choked me up at one point. Perhaps your words rang true for me as I too am a speech coach who has spent time crying over student papers. Thanks for writing a piece that speaks for others. It truly connected with my own experience--I love it when art does that. Thank you.

    It is somewhat ironic that you are teaching this class, as my dear friend Sarah Meyer kept telling me, "Your doctoral work keeps making me think of my English teacher in Aurora, Cathie English. You should look her up." I guess we were somehow destined to meet.

    Evi Wusk

  6. Hey Evi,

    I LOVE Sarah Meyer! Yes, my students have been hearing about my doctoral work for about eleven years now! (I do hope I'm not boring them to death talking about it!) I do think talking about it and sharing my writing with them sets an incredible example, and I have been blessed to have students who have been supportive of me throughout the years. So many have been willing to allow me to use their writing. They are wonderful writers! I hope to meet you in person soon!


  7. I love hearing the stories of teachers who love their jobs and their students. It encourages me to keep going--even on Saturday mornings when I am in my classroom working :-) I did 5 years of coaching speech/debate and theater. While I miss the relationships with the students, I don't miss the cold winter mornings riding a bus that doesn't warm up until you are in the parking lot of the school. There is a special place in teacher heaven for the forensics and theather people!

  8. Cathie,

    You blow me away with this beautiful blog. There is an art to blogging, I know, and you have it. I love the way the photos are so well chosen to represent different aspects of your place. Your little sunroom reminds me of my home "office" with big windows and plants and books. These are some seriously cherished places.

    I also loved your I AM FROM poem about teaching. This is so poignant and speaks so strongly to composition teachers-- you should really think about publishing it somewhere. The line about the tear-stained papers really got me, since that is so true. At least one a year...

    Thanks for being so thorough about place. Your home, your school, your town-- I am feeling a bit inadequate about my own blog! But luckly I have you to learn from!

  9. Cathie,

    Having seen several ways of writing "I am From" poems, it is so cool to see one entirely about what YOU are from in terms of teaching. This poem form clearly has so many possibilities for helping us think about what shapes us.

    I also love the way you paint Aurora for us--through your experiences of riding your bike an "entire two blocks" to school and having a conversation with a fellow colleague you meet on the way. Your place is so different from mine--but one I envy in a lot of ways.

    Thanks, again,