I really loved being a classroom teacher for 37 years, and I still miss being in my own classroom every day. In fact, if my husband had not been diagnosed with stage four colon cancer in 2009, I would have taught for forty years, with this school year, 2013-2014, being number forty. Throughout those 37 years, I always made the effort to be compassionate and considerate to every student, especially those students who were not kind to others. I always felt that they needed some extra special attention. Many times for those students, my attempt at kindness took a Herculean effort, but it was an effort that I felt was necessary. Part of my philosophy of teaching has always been that standing in front of a classroom is not about teaching a subject; but rather, about teaching human beings, and to get the best from human beings, teachers must show students that they are valued. I believe that we, as teachers, lead by example, and I do believe that the maxim “Actions speak louder than words” is especially true where young people are concerned. As I wrote in my book Rittman Rules!, students are constantly scrutinizing the teacher – what you wear, how you look, your body language, your mannerisms, and your actions. Teachers share many lessons every day without even realizing it.
I have been very fortunate to have my many kindnesses returned throughout the years I taught. I probably have hundreds of great stories, but I am choosing to share one with you today that is very close to my heart. I want you to see and feel the kindness and generosity and sympathy that I felt from my students, and you will understand why I chose that particular Emma Golmam quote to introduce this blog.
My late husband, Scott, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer on December 12, 2009, a few weeks before the Christmas vacation. Many students knew Scott from our years of co-directing the school talent shows and musicals, as well as from Scott’s volunteer assistant coaching position on the Varsity Boys’ Golf Team, for which I am the head coach. Additionally, Scott would stop by the school and my classroom occasionally, and I always introduced him to my students at the football games, track meets, library, or wherever we happened to bump into students. Additionally, I showed some clips of Scott on stage in my Theater classes, and Scott and I worked on a recorded oral presentation of the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, so all of my students felt like they knew him, at least a little.
After Scott’s seven hour surgery and ten days in the hospital, he came home to recuperate two days before Christmas. School had been out for several days, but I was not able to go to school and have any interaction with my students, except to email my substitute and ask her to tell my students that I missed them. All educators know that in sickness and in health, the teacher’s responsibilities never stop. A teacher friend called to say she was going to stop by to drop off a few papers for me to grade; after all, I had not been in school for almost two weeks. Upon opening the bag of what I thought were essays, inside were at least two handmade cards from every one of the students in my five classes - a get well card for Scott, and a Christmas card for the two of us, or a card of encouragement for me. The messages were heartfelt and sincere (I am crying as I am typing this, just thinking about it), and they were exactly the lift we both needed after Scott’s long stretch in the hospital. They wrote letters, made up funny poems, and collaborated on both long and short notes of encouragement. Unbelievably, some of them wrote the very words that we had said to them earlier in the school year! One boy wrote to Scott: “Mr. Rittman, you told me not to give up when I was trying out for the golf team, and you were there to cheer me on. Well, I’m telling you not to give up just because you have cancer, and I am here to cheer YOU on.” One of my more difficult students wrote “You were really nice to me even when I wasn't nice to you. I am sorry that your life is so sad now, and I hope it gets better soon.” We were stunned by the generosity of spirit, the sympathy and love, and the true sense of kindness and caring that we received from all of the students. All of the kindness and concern that Scott and I had shown the students as role models was reflected in these earnest and genuine notes and letters. These gifts of cards and letters were exactly what we needed to help us through the most frightening time in our marriage. We both cried with joy as we read the notes aloud to each other. I have these precious manuscripts tucked inside a box filled with classroom memories, and I will never throw them away.
Kindness inspires more kindness, and in the relationship between teacher and student, kindness and caring are of the utmost importance. Scott and I were so fortunate to receive such a wealth of sympathy, kindness, and generosity from my students. And so, the lesson is learned.