Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

The Sincerity of a Teacher

The Sincerity of a Teacher

Less than an hour ago, I was sweeping an inch of powdery snow from the driveway. Our driveway is long and sloped as our home sits in the middle of an incline that runs for an acre. The repetition of the swish-swish of the push broom lulled me into thinking about the writing and reading I want to accomplish today...along with taking down the remaining lights from the holidays...along with sneaking in a bit of the NFL playoffs.

Pushing the snow into small ridges framing the driveway, I couldn't remember anything that I wrote when I was an adolescent or a teenager. Mostly, I recalled sketching in class. And I remembered when teachers were genuine and kind to me. For example, Ms. Grasso (an 8th grade teacher) drove an hour on a school night to watch me play ice hockey. I wasn't very good, and I didn't play on a school team. Yet, I recall being on the ice and glancing at Ms. Grasso among the parents and friends watching from behind the cyclone fencing atop the boards. I couldn't believe she came. I don't even remember for certain which subject she taught, but I still remember the black corduroy jacket she wore inside of the chilly arena, and the visible soft clouds of breath when she spoke with the woman next to her. And I remember her sincerity.

Another teacher exhibiting a different level of interest in me, Sister St. Christopher, helped me get a part-time job as a delivery boy for a pharmacy in 8th grade.

No essay that I ever wrote in 8th grade comes to mind. No notebook entries. Nothing. But I remember some teachers suggesting library books for kids they pulled aside. A friend, Paul, was given About the B'Nai Bagels. I still remember the title of that book, a book I never read, I think, because as a thirteen-year-old I wondered why a book was suggested for Paul and not for me too. Secretly, I wanted a book suggestion. But I never received one.

Two teachers, Mrs. Rubino and Mrs. Cochran, were nice enough to me in class, but they never invited me to stay after school like they did other kids. I may be confusing who taught what, but I believe Mrs. Cochran invited selected students to stay after school to participate in science experiments, and Mrs. Rubino met with selected students to dig deeper into social studies. I don't really know what happened when those exclusive groups met after school. I just remember that I noticed that they met. And I remember wondering why I was never invited.

That said, since I asked my students to start blogging this week and to continue doing it weekly for the rest of the year, and since I am not sure how they will do, I am very interested in reading and tracking the development of their thinking. I expect a bit of struggle. I expect a wide range of struggles from the publication of writing with errors to growing pains with the discipline of writing something meaningful once a week, to a host of other yet to be encountered obstacles. I did not give the students rules to follow. There is no magic rubric. Sure, some students want to know how many words to what should I write about to check my post to see if it is any good.

And their questions are ok and welcome.

My hope is that their questions shift from tell me what to do, Mr. Kelley to conversations with each other about the choices we make as writers. I know that kind of growth occurs over time. I am more interested in their growth as writers than the blogs themselves--if that makes sense. But what I am wondering is how much will they notice when I do not comment on all of their blog posts each week? Do my comments matter? Are there students who are, very much like me in 8th grade, sensitive to not receiving a blog comment each week from the teacher?

I am struggling with this uncertainty because all of my kids are writing at least one blog post a week. It isn't realistic in the real world (let alone in a classroom) to read and comment on 130 weekly blog entries. I imagine a similar concern existed for Mrs. Rubino and Mrs. Cochrane. I imagine the adult who fed Paul About the B'Nai Brith Bagels as a book suggestion felt a pang of regret that he did not choose a book for everyone. It is impossible to reach out to every kid, every day, in every capacity. But I have to be honest, I want to. And sometimes I feel guilty when I don't.

Like right now in the midst of reflection.

Thirty years from now, my students may not remember what they blogged in 8th grade (although their writing may be available online forever) but some most likely will remember how I tried to help them become better writers. Why will they believe this (I hope)? Because I have to remind myself on a daily basis to leave some comments, talk with some students, sit and watch some students write, listen-in to some collaborate together, and reach out in many other little ways so that all students experience the sincerity of a teacher who truly wants to reach and help all of them. Many of us are out here trying to accomplish that same level of influence on all of our students even if we execute our sincerity in many different ways for our many different kids and many different communities.

When I step back and look at the bigger picture, maybe that long-lost friend, Paul, has often wondered why Ms. Grasso took time out of her night to drive from Philadelphia to Springfield, Delaware County just to watch me play ice hockey, or why Sister St. Christopher singled me out of the entire 8th grade for the part-time job at the pharmacist. 

And I wonder if Paul remembers About the B'Nai Bagels as powerfully as I do, even though he is the one who read it. Not me.

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