The Best Teacher I’ve Ever Met

It was a damp  March morning when I noticed, with some surprise, Ms. Shilling had beat me to school.  Ms. Shilling had a 30 minute drive1 , I had a subway/subway interchange.  Neither of us were adept at small talk.  We would quietly split the copiers (the better one is one the first floor) and share the USB-based printer.  But today, Ms. Shilling needed a favor – she was sick.  She needed me to pop my head in during the day and make sure her class was in reasonable shape.

To review:  On her sick day, Ms. Shilling  had come in to set up all of her papers and lessons for the students, and was hoping to beat the morning rush hour so she could recuperate.  She was the best teacher I’ve ever met.

I’m not sure if Ms. Shilling was  physically imposing or if my recollection is tinted by her personality.  She was a force of nature.   Students who were problems in other classroom were quiet and responsible for no other reason than because Ms. Shilling willed it upon them. When she talked, they listened.  When she threatened, they were scared.  When she spoke about their future, students knew she cared.  When she quit, I’m told she was in tears.

I still remember a student who had the Freshman-itis – the disease where a 15 year old swears they are a grown man, responsible to nothing and nobody – with his head in his hands, staring at a paper.  It was 3:30.  The student knew he wasn’t going home until he aced his assignment.  Ms. Shilling would not quit, would not tire, would not budge.  Asking Ms. Shilling to let you slide was like asking a oak tree to hurry and grow, or asking a snowstorm to move just a bit later in the morning.

This is not to say she was perfect.  She wrote more disciplinary referrals in a month than I did all year.2 This was a constant headache for our school officer and Principal.  For our purposes, it illuminates the power and peril of Ms. Shilling:

The School District of Philadelphia has a dastardly form of teacher autonomy – do what you want, but make sure you document.  All the documents.  Documenting a detention is a form and a phone call, two forms and a call for a referral, a whole meeting plus documentation for a suspension.  But this structure has a flaw, which is that the District simply assumes people have limited time, energy, and willpower to deal with their layers upon layers of nonsense.  Ms. Shilling, not bound by the laws of bureaucratic physics, was unconstrained.

Anyway, it was winter in West Philadelphia.  Stuck in a windowless room which smelled of copy residue and fast food, we would commiserate about the urban teacher life.  Ms. Shilling would talk about her lack of a social life, or ask how I had time to go to the gym.  I would smile awkwardly and crack a bad joke3.  She was low on sleep, always sick, frustrated that, despite being an incredible presence in her first year, she wasn’t making the headway she wanted.

So I can’t say I was surprised to find out she wasn’t returning.  Ms. Shilling had been accepted into an elite writing program on the West Coast.  In retrospect, she probably applied during that week where she commuted-while-sick.

All of use worked to change her mind.  Our Principal would have given his off-hand thumb to keep her around.  My colleagues regaled her with the tidbits all new teachers are fed – it gets easier after your first few years4, you need to keep time to yourself for sanity’s sake5, that she’ll feel refreshed after the summer6.  All I could add was a simple truth – she was beloved by her students, and she was needed.

I didn’t keep in touch with Ms. Shilling, although others did and I’m told she was particularly curious on the progress, academically and emotionally, of her students.  But she left, and I’m sad to say that this is where the story ends.

I was reminded of this story on reading “Why Teachers of Color Quit” in The Atlantic.  Here’s what the author wrote in his resignation letter:

“The physical and emotional commitment that are required to teach well became overwhelming and left little time for me to focus on myself and the other aspects of my life that truly made me happy,”

Every teacher hits this point where you ask the question:  “Can I continue doing this job and still be a real person?”  And for most of us, the answer is “probably not”.  So we cut corners:  We breeze through paperwork, we only call the parents when their child is failing, we do our PowerPoints on the bus and our lesson plans during staff meetings.  This is why schools use bubble tests7 .  This question is what drives teachers to recycle lesson plans and delve through8 Teachers Pay Teachers in hopes that the time they save can be time spent with family or with friends or not being 3 seasons behind on your favorite TV show.

I’m still very concerned as to what goes on in my classroom.  Like many teachers, I put a ton of time and effort into my plans, my assessments, and my interactions with students. I have held on have done so because I know which corners to cut.  Ms. Shilling, on the other hand, refused to cut a single corner.  That’s why she was great, it’s also why she is no longer teaching.

Since Ms. Shilling left, Philadelphia schools have gone through wave after wave of layoffs, closings, and chaos.  Many of the same people who claim a desire to “save” schools are quietly cheering on the chaos as a means to an end.  How many Ms. Shillings have we lost because of politics?  And how many will we attract with lower pay, fewer protections, and more paperwork than ever?

 


  1. “Really easy if you leave before sunrise,” she would explain 

  2. Just be be clear – I discipline. Starting at Kensington means I was taught to clean your own plate. I’ve found Pink Slips to be ineffective, a lesson I’m certain Ms. Shilling would have leanred 

  3. For those who don’t know me, this sentence could be used to describe my interaction with females from the age of 12 

  4. sort of true 

  5. definitely true 

  6. Not really true – as a new teacher I had residual anxiety until July and expectant anxiety come August.  I still do. 

  7. Making standardized tests the goal is a massive time-saver in both preparation and assessment.  It’s still dumb 

  8. ugh 

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