Sunday, December 12, 2010

In Memory of My First Mentor: My Mom

I have not posted in a few months with I guess would be good reasons. My mom Carolyn died quite suddenly in late October and the fatigue from that experience left little time for wanting to post on my blog. I also returned to the usual busy of school and dissertation work which left little mental energy for blogging.
We were able to celebrate Carolyn’s life with a beautiful service and remembrances written by my two sisters and me. The one thing I have not had a chance to pay tribute to is my relationship to my mom as a teacher. So, here goes.
Carolyn had and still has an enormous influence on my career as an elementary teacher and now an elementary principal. She taught mostly third and fourth grade for a total of 28 years (she stayed home with us kids until we started kindergarten) in a suburban Chicago school district. My first memories of mom as a professional teacher were of how hard she worked. I knew this as a child because she would spend lots of time planning on weekends and on school nights. I also knew it because she would be tired on many weeknights from putting so much into her teaching day. My parents were both hard workers and took their professions very seriously but they were always there for us kids as well. They were amazing role models. I will always remember in junior high watching the show MASH on Monday nights with my mom. By the end of the show, she was always asleep on the couch from that hard Monday at school.
My senior year in college, I decided to try to become a teacher. While I was not sure if I wanted to do it as a career, I wanted to at least give it a try. While going through this process, my mom was enormously proud of me. I knew it because she would tell me all of the time. Many public school teachers discourage their children from going into the profession. Carolyn took the exact opposite approach. She talked to me often during those decision making times and was supportive throughout. She viewed teaching as the most important job you could do. And with that view, she was honored that her son would think about following her in the profession.
I taught fourth grade in Baltimore City Public Schools my first year of teaching. That year my mom was also teaching fourth grade. She was my first professional mentor. Our classrooms may not have had a lot in common, hers was mostly white and middle class, mine was mostly poor and African American, and our level of proficiency was vastly different, she was a master teacher, I was just surviving, but despite all of that we still managed to have frequent professional conversations. We talked about reading instruction, classroom management, dealing with principals, and probably more important, dealing with teachers’ unions. Through those conversations a few things carried through: the importance of planning and hard work, the power of a good book with a class or individual student, and always with mom, having a sense of humor about things.
She helped me out in material ways those first few years as well. In trips home, I would go over to her school during some “off hours” and load up my Ford Escort station wagon with “gently used” sets of books from her school’s book room and slightly faded construction paper that was deemed unusable by her school. I would often bring so much back to Baltimore that I would share this bounty with my team mates.
I will always remember that we both taught Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli to our fourth graders as a read aloud and I was always fascinated by how much both of our groups of students, despite all of their differences, just loved that book.
After five years of teaching, I decided to move into administration with a first step in the graduate program at the University of Virginia. I think she was a bit nervous about this move. I was young, and in her view had probably not taught long enough to become a principal. Despite these misgivings, I will never forget her one bit of advice she gave me before my first assistant principal job. She said, “Matthew (she always called me that), never ask your teachers to do anything that you would not do yourself.” Good advice, all could probably agree, and it has had an amazing impact on me throughout my career. Often when I am struggling with a decision, or with the direction my school needs to take, I think about those words and I can always hear my mom’s distinct voice saying them. The words have helped my leadership style because although I have high expectations and want great things for the schools that I have worked in, I also know that every action we take is an enormous human enterprise with people watching me to see if I will roll up my sleeves and do it too. Since that start, I have had the chance to introduce myself to two different staffs as a new principal. One of the first things I always say to the group of people that I am about to start working with is that my mom was a teacher.
My mom and I talked school quite a bit. I will miss those talks greatly. I will also miss my Virginia snow day tradition. Whenever we had a snow day, I would call my mom and let her know and she would always say the same thing, “How do you all ever accomplish anything in that school district?” She was a teacher in Chicago, where there is never a snow day.
The last professional gift my mom gave me sadly came at her funeral. As I stood at the receiving line, in the midst of receiving condolences from old friends , family, and strangers, I got to meet some of her old students. The meetings were quick but the students would always say the same thing, “ your mom was the best teacher I ever had”.
The impact of a teacher goes farther then we can ever imagine. All of Carolyn’s hard work, planning, and patience was worth it. I don’t think she ever had any doubt about that though. I just hope I can continue to live up to my first mentor’s example. Thank you Mom for everything!


  1. Have you noticed teachers often run in families? What a wonderful connection to have had with your mom. I lost my dad last year, so in that way I can relate to your loss, but of course no one "knows" what you are going through.

    Sending you positive wishes from afar.

  2. I'm sorry for the loss of your mom. I'm really glad that you were able to share your memories of her here. I enjoyed reading your post.

  3. Matt- the web of impact that a teacher has can never be under-estimated by us who work in the profession, and the spread of good, or not so good, that will occur as a result of the work any educator does. I have always known that people who do good in life are typically either 1) battling the demons of mistreatment to do good so others have a different world or 2) doing good because they grew up understanding and valuing that as a way of life. Your mom represents the latter influence on you, her son... and her former students including you, (if anyone can ever really be a former student), represents the impact of her good in the learning web. Thank you for sharing this- and know that you miss your mom every day.