At the Heart

The belief at the heart of what I do in my teaching practice is to always do what is in the best interest of students. This belief goes back to my first days of teaching at Tolleson Union High School in the chalk powder, maps-from-1952, musty-carpet smelling Old Main.

One of my colleagues, Patricia “Pat” Gordon, was a spindly, former nun, tough as nails, the New Jersey kind, 40 year plus veteran of teaching. She was not easy on me, and even though my last name was Solley, she would deliberately say in her commanding raspy-from-being-a-smoker voice, “See Sully? This is what you have to do,” when referencing anything she thought I did not know how to do. Apparently, I knew nothing.

Pat would take on anyone from administrators to students, pointing her finger, and they would end up thanking her for it. Her toughness paired in equal measure to the compassion she showed her students. They, simply, loved her. One of Pat’s To-Dos (given over teacher’s lunchtime lounge conversation in-between the ones about the good ‘ol glory days) for me was to read The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher by Harry and Rosemary Wong: “Sully, you gotta read this before every school year. It’ll get you ready.”

Out of curiosity and open to anything that would calm my I-just-graduated-from-college-first-year- splotchy-neck-red-in the-face-“I’m teaching seniors in high school” teacher nerves, I found the book at Barnes & Noble. Initially, I thought, what kind of old school antiquated crap was this? It was so rigid and matter of fact, definitely distorting my textbook-ripping John Keating perception of what teaching could be (“Oh Captain! My Captain!”). The Wongs’ book contained such crazy notions like: set clear expectations, be organized, be consistent, what you do on the first day will set the tone for the whole year, and, oh yes, classroom management is paramount. Looking back 23 years later, I have to laugh because I don’t know what I was thinking or why I scoffed at it.

It turns out, Pat was right. Of course she was. She knew that by practicing these matter-of-fact things in her classroom, she indubitably kept her students’ best interest in the center of her classroom. Eventually, Pat became my mentor, and, in her retirement, asked me to take over as sponsor of Interact Club, a service organization paired with the local Rotary Club, “Sully, you can do it. It’s easy. You sell the popcorn. You raise the money. You go to meetings. You volunteer. The students love it. Win-win.”

In 2003, Pat passed unexpectedly after a long day of teaching; at her memorial service, I had the opportunity to publicly acknowledge her enduring impact on my career. To me, she is one of the first people, professionally, who guided me, albeit many moons ago, into the belief that the most effective teaching is always doing what is best for students.


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