Mrs. Looney- who taught me how much I love coloring in the lines.
Mrs. Cone- who helped me advance my reading skills.
Mrs. Chapman- who taught me about US geography.
Mrs. Gordon- who taught me how to count money, which I have certainly perfected over the years.
Mrs. Fornier- who helped me improve my multiplication skills.
Ms. Mercier- who helped me improve my long division skills.
Mr. Prestes- who helped me with problem solving skills.
You never forget your first teachers. As a child you think your teachers are old and lame; that they have nothing better to do but grade papers and get ready for the next day of school; that their entire life revolves around their students. In hindsight, if students think this, then perhaps it means their teachers are doing a great job. And as the wife of a teacher, I can tell you it’s not that far off sometimes!
You don’t appreciate a teacher’s life until you witness it as it’s happening. It was not until I did AmeriCorps that I really understood what teachers do for a living—it’s not just about teaching math, science, English, and Social Studies. It’s about being a mentor, a role model, a sounding board, an enforcer, and sometimes, if cautious, a friend. Teachers really do it all (the great ones).
When I met Eamonn he was in his second year of volunteer teaching for Inner City Teaching Corps in Chicago, and I had just started working at Peabody Elementary School in Chicago. He used to tell me that had we met during his first year our relationship would have never had a chance—he just couldn’t handle dating while learning how to be a teacher. As I was just entering the world of education myself, I didn’t quite understand that, but I quickly learned. Having kids a third of your age, but able to see the top of your head, telling you how big your nose is while you’re trying to help them with a science lab really takes a toll on you. Having a 5 year old boy with stronger muscles than you refuse to come out of the boys bathroom because he knew it took up classroom time was just exhausting. So, I suppose I’m just lucky that I didn’t move to Chicago one year earlier!
Eamonn may have had his most challenging year as a teacher back then, but what I can honestly say now, with only a little bit of bias, is that he has grown (and still is) into an outstanding teacher with so much love, care, and positivity for what he does every day and for the children he teaches. Without a doubt in my mind Eamonn learned much of how to be a great teacher from his mom, but with that said, he didn’t have to choose a career in teaching at all, especially as teaching is physically very taxing. Every day you are on your feet constantly, taking care of 20 (give or take) children and their individual needs, staying calm and patient when all you want is to do is pull your hair out. Spending nights lesson planning, making sure materials are provided for the right science projects for the right grade levels, on the right days. Eamonn has chosen a career based on what he loves, not based on what could have limited him.
As I have watched his health pose more and more of a challenge, I have also watched how the demands of being a teacher have impacted how he deals with every day. As careful as he always is about germs spreading, he is that much more careful now since being on the transplant list. Being with little kids every day means drying out your hands from too much Purell. It means constantly watching where kids put their hands, and reminding them of the importance of washing them after they sneeze, cough, or pick their noses. I remember when he was told that he needed to be on oxygen all the time—his first reaction was about teaching. He knew immediately that it would be a challenge. He knew climbing three flights of stairs to get to the 4th grade classroom would be a struggle. He knew carrying his bag with the oxygen tank would be tiring. He knew the kids, especially the littlest ones, would ask him questions and that his health was no longer something he could ignore with his colleagues. But he didn’t know just how much his school community would support him. The kids did ask plenty of questions but didn’t consider him to be any different than who he was the school year prior. When he misses school for being in the hospital (luckily this hasn’t happened in a while) the teachers are flexible with their schedules, and have the kids make him cards.
Eamonn could have chosen a number of careers—ones that would have involved sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day. But instead he chose the career that he loves, and one that he is great at, that challenges his physical abilities all of the time. It’s pretty simple—teaching is his joy and it’s so much of who he is. It’s never easy, but when he needs to stop and catch his breath on his way to class, he still never doubts that it’s what he should be doing. However, he may not always have the choice. The most difficult post-transplant decision will be about his career. He has been told, and we have discussed at length, that teaching is possibly too risky to continue with the constant threat of germs and getting sick. Eamonn will likely have to give up what he loves, but it doesn’t mean he will not continue to teach. Yes it’s cheesy, but Eamonn teaches so many of us every day, how to be better people, and how to not allow the negative to define who we are and what we are capable of.
Eamonn’s students will definitely remember him for being unique, creative, fun, and most of all for being a great teacher. He teaches his kids that it’s ok to be different, and that in the face of a challenge, bring it on.
As we celebrate teacher appreciation week, I thank all teachers out there who, in my opinion, are often undervalued because what they do every day takes courage and a lot of wine! I want to personally thank Eamonn’s colleagues for being such great supporters and friends for him. And of course, my mother-in-law, who taught Eamonn, and still does, how to be the best teacher he can be for never discouraging him from doing what he loves despite the obstacles.