Just recently, I received a tweet from my friend Shelly Terrell who ‘tagged’ me in her post about educators who have influenced her as a teacher, challenging me to reflect on my own teachers.

I have named this post after hers: Lessons Learned from Great Educator.  

My grandmother

The first teacher that I had was my grandmother.  She ran a Montessori school in the suburbs of New York City where I grew up.  My Montessori beginnings definitely helped mold me as a learner.  I learned through exploration and social interaction.  Those lessons continued as I spent my summers with her, my grandfather and two cousins on Nantucket Island as a child.  We spent our afternoons exploring the beaches, digging hot tubs in the sand and reading a collection of photo-laden encyclopedias.


The next teacher I remember was my Kindergarten teacher, Betty Raden (I don’t know if I spelled her name correctly, it was a while ago.).  We wrote in our journals every day, we spent a week in a homemade cardboard town with everyone working a different job every day.  I think I remember working in the post office, delivering letters that my classmates had written.  My parents and I stopped by an appliance store to get some big boxes to help build the city.

We also raised Monarch butterflies in the spring, watching our eggs hatch and our caterpillars change into butterflies, drawing and writing about the changes.  When they hatched, we had a butterfly room, which was in the corner of the classroom.  We could walk inside and feed the butterflies.  Then, they were tagged and set free to migrate to the South.

Mrs. Wittenberg
Most students didn’t like Mrs. Wittenberg. She made you WORK.  I had her for 8th grade Global Studies and 9th grade English.  She lectured us on the culture, traditions, history and politics of every corner of the world and taught us how to build a well-organized essay that addressed all aspects of the topic at hand.  In English class, she gave us a choice of how to show what we had learned (such as a movie poster).  She handed out a rubric at the beginning of the assignment, then had us fill it out to hand in with our work.  She would also fill one out so we could see how accurately we had graded ourselves.

My biggest lesson that I learned from her, however, is one that I describe to my students every year.  We were assigned to write a research paper about any topic we wanted.  I chose acid rain.  I spent weeks doing the research and writing the essay.  I thought it was pretty great.  When I got my essay back, it said “See Me” in big red letters.

Turns out, I had plagiarized nearly all of my essay.  She made me stay after school to sit with her and rewrite half of the essay.  I was able to resubmit it and though I don’t remember the grade (maybe it was a B+?) it was the best lesson I’ve ever had in restating facts in my own words.  She was patient with me and took the time to make the best of a ‘teachable moment’ when another teacher might have failed me without such dedication to her student.

The most influential part of my high school experience was my senior year in the Walkabout program.  The program was based on a rite of passage for young Aborigines.  In my junior year I applied for the program, which was designed for high school seniors who were either in risk of failing or looking for something more out of high school,  and was accepted.  I had been taking mostly AP and advanced courses, was yearbook editor and a member of a few clubs, and was pretty much bored with what high school had to offer.

In September, myself and about 25 other students from around Westchester County, NY found ourselves in a building on the BOCES campus in Yorktown with no idea what was in store for us.  Our year began with a week-long backpacking trip in the Catskills–carrying our food, tents and water with us–and progressed to a 4-week Community Service project.  We reported to our C.S. location 4 days a week for a full day, reporting to school only on Mondays for classes and reflection.  Next, came the 6-week Internship and extensive training in resume creation, interviewing skills and a lot of phone calls ending in rejection.  I was able to land 2 internships, splitting my 4 days ‘in the field’ between Vibe magazine and YM magazine.  On Monday, I went to class and reflected on my experiences during the week.  I did this all before my 18th birthday.

Our year concluded with another week-long backpacking trip, this time in the Adirondacks, and a graduation unlike anything I’d ever been to.  The graduations were spanned over 2 nights, with every student standing in front of their friends and family talking about their year, their accomplishments, their fears and their dreams.

I don’t even remember my ‘real’ high school graduation—except that I wore a pink skirt that I made myself and probably sneakers. I was, at that point, ‘beyond high school.’  I don’t understand why this kind of program isn’t available to all seniors.  It is the ultimate preparation for adult life.

My Education, My Teaching Style
It is no secret to me that my own past education experiences have influenced my teaching style.  In grades K-3 I did nothing but project based learning.  I completed many hands-on projects and I was given freedom in what I chose to study.  I find that much of my teaching reflects this philosophy.  I tend to lean toward projects that span a few weeks to a month, and I always try to give my students some kind of choice in completing the assignment.

I use rubrics extensively and make them available to my students when we start the project and throughout the project.  I also take the time to teach my students about copyright and plagiarism, and I try not to miss ‘teachable moments’ when I see a misconception or a student struggling with an assignment.

I am aware that my experience is exceptional and that I have been blessed with a handful of wonderful teachers and varied, alternative learning experiences.  I know how much this kind of education meant to me and how it helped me become the adult I am today. This is why it saddens me to no end to watch my students stuck in classrooms with scripted, direct instruction lessons, curriculum timelines that require teachers to move on, and subjects taught in isolation with no real world application or student choice.

I see students’ curiosity stifled, their motivation hindered and their love of learning crushed at a young age.  Learning was fun and relevant for me as a child.  When you take the blocks and social play out of Kindergarten, and you teach standardized test skills to 1st graders, you’ve already begun the process of taking away a child’s natural curiosity and need for exploration.

The Challenge

So I’m tagging some fellow bloggers to reflect on teachers they’ve had that have influenced their teaching and personal lives.  Andrew Forgrave, Chad Sansing, Deven Black, Beth Still, and Kelly Hines and Ryan Wassink I have tagged you in this post, but please do not feel pressured.  I respect your blogs and your work as educators, and wanted to extend this challenge to you.

Please link back to Shelly’s original post (see above) in your post, as it is she who started the challenge!

Please leave a link to your post in the comments so that we can read them!

aborigine photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue_Mountains_Aboriginees.jpg
Monarch photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bestrated1/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


  1. Reply

    Hey, Mary Beth! You got it! What a great challenge — and one which I look forward to with relish! I know exactly where I can put my hands on an existing list of folks (hard copy, pen-and-ink journal) that have been instrumental in helping to shape my thoughts and beliefs as an educator.

    I'll just be honest with you in advance — hence my quick reply now — that I'll be taking a bit of time to do this one. But writing something like this will be an honour.

    Thanks for the invitation!


  2. Vicki


    Your memories of early childhood teachers are inspirational! Thank you for sharing how the teachers in your early years impacted your lifelong love of learning.

  3. Reply

    Mary Beth!

    I'm so glad I tagged you. It is really interesting to hear about what influenced our teaching. The program you attended was amazing and I wonder how it influenced the other members. Your post made me reflect on programs I attended that influenced me. I remember working with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce leadership program as a high school student. We were invited to attend Toastmaster's for free, give seminars, give speeches to famous business people in our area, given etiquette classes, do charitable events, then mentor others. For many of us who came from really poor areas in our city this was an amazing experience. All the friends involved that I speak with are very successful and I believe the program was a huge result of this.

    Thanks for a wonderful post and tagging some great people!

  4. Reply

    Thanks so much, Shelly, for finally putting the fire under my, well, you know, to write this post.  I am so thankful for all of my experiences and people who have shaped me as an adult.  It sounds like you had a similar experience.  You were given a chance to be independent at a young age, which made you the independent person you are today!

  5. Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to read my memories 🙂  I can only hope to give my students something close to my own experiences.

  6. educationontheplate


    Cool idea! It got me thinking about the teachers beyond the few I usually credit. Now I have a weekend project writing my response. Thanks!

  7. Reply

    Can't wait to read it!  I learned a lot about myself in the writing process for the post. I hope you have a similarly rewarding experience.

  8. Reply

    What an interesting read, Mary Beth. Thanks for sharing. I would like to hope that all educators out there are as passionate about their profession as you are! I doubt that is the case, but your attitude is something we should all aspire to. Keep working hard for the kids in Philly 🙂

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