When someone who has dedicated their life to the pursuit of excellence in education decides to move on to the next challenge in life, it is fitting that they are duly recognized and appreciated for their life-changing work. Teaching is a profession, like very few others, where you can literally change the world. Over the course of a career, a teacher comes into contact with and influences thousands of lives. When you consider the number of people who are then, in turn, influenced by those thousands; you begin to realize that a single teacher can create an incredible ripple effect which, over generations, can turn into a tsunami of epic proportions. That effect is further magnified when the teacher in question influences other teachers who will then go on to reach thousands more.
I was lucky enough to be placed with two fantastic master teachers when I began student teaching at West Hills and one of them is officially retiring from the profession today. Melinda Oliver (Yaple) was a perfect match for me and had a profound influence on my early development as an educator. I will be forever grateful that she allowed me the space to be myself in the classroom and allowed me the creative license to develop my own style. One of the most important tasks of a master teacher is to provide the perfect mix of support and structure while avoiding the trap of merely cloning themselves or being overly prescriptive. Too often, especially lately, that freedom is something that hasn’t been encouraged in our newest teachers. You can absolutely never reach the pinnacle of any profession, especially teaching, without falling on your face a few times. Encouraging experimentation while simultaneously providing an atmosphere where it’s safe to fail is essential. I know I screwed up more than once as a student teacher (and I continue to screw up as an experienced teacher) but I always knew at the end of the day I could count on encouragement, positive feedback, and an overwhelming sense of “Hey, you’re safe here, you’re valued, and get back in there and kill them tomorrow.” She made me feel like a superstar when I was her student teacher and I flourished in the creative and open environment she provided.
A few special memories:
- Fantastic lessons in how to deal with angry parents. She would say, “You have to give them emotional oxygen. Most of the time they just want to say their piece and feel like they have been heard. Let them breath.”
- I remember getting called up to the front in one of her workshops to demonstrate how to insert a certain female contraceptive. I kicked a leg up on the table and said, “First, you fold it like a taco…”
- Melinda’s famous STD slides that have probably scared the crap out of more teenagers than we’ll ever know. I love the moment where they move from being confused about what they are looking at as the slide comes up and then…bam, the look of horror and verbal groan as they realize they are staring at a (fill-in your favorite graphic word for male or female genitalia here)!
- Melinda’s famous condom demonstration that forever shuts up the boys who say that condoms won’t fit them because they’re too big.
- The birth video where Melinda would fast-forward and rewind to make the placenta go in and out over and over again.
- Team teaching a summer school class at Valhalla where we took two full classes, threw them all into one giant room with beanbags, took them on morning power walks, and then taught and bantered for hours at a time.
If I could distill what I’ve learned about teaching from Melinda into one sentence it would be, “Always remember that we don’t just teach content…we teach kids.”
Whether it is how she brought me in to this profession that I love, the support and kind words she has offered over the years, or the grace and strength with which she has dealt with everything from multiple family health challenges to cancer and chemotherapy; Melinda has been an inspiring force in my life. How do you put a price on inspiration? It’s simple…you can’t. All I can really offer in return is to try be the best teacher I can be and to encourage other teachers to avoid the cookie cutter crowd of conformists. While I’m at it, I can offer my students that same gift. You don’t have to fit in to be successful in my room. Someday, if you have a few spare hours, Melinda and I could tell you some stories you wouldn’t believe!
Bottom line: Thank you, Melinda…you did it right!