A Teacher's Champion
The Things You Learn Running a Junior High Classroom for 34 Years
Here in Philadelphia, we are almost back to school. For many across the country, you’re already there. Fortunately, several weeks ago, one of your fellow subscribers, junior high school librarian Kim Spradlin, reached out to suggest a profile about her wife, who had recently retired from the classroom and a 16-year tenure as a teachers’ union president. I love a good “pitch,” and Tammy Grubb’s story resonated, particularly as we face a shortage of teachers across the country.
In the spirit of new school years, let me launch into this profile with a speech that Tammy gave a few years ago to her fellow teachers, heralding in “Another start, another Opening Day.” If you read no further, you’ll have come away with a sense of who she is and her workcraft!
I always enjoy so much seeing your faces today. On one hand, you look so happy, excited to be starting another year, meeting up with friends… On the other hand, at the corners of a few eyes out there I can detect a slight sense of dread; that you haven’t had enough coffee yet…
I have to admit that I bounce back and forth between the excitement and the dread. Every year. It is sort of maddening, that jumping between a wonderful lightness across to the sobering heaviness.
But that is what this job gives to us. It is Yin and Yang, the light and the dark, measures of hope sometimes tinged with despair.
And what about our students? They, too, are feeling this. Hope. Some despair. Light and dark. Sometimes, more than the content we teach, this is where we focus our energy - finding ways to give hope, helping to provide some armor against despair. I’m reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
Maya Angelou was a remarkable woman. She wrote beautiful poetry, taught school, and, like many of our students, experienced a difficult childhood. I first read her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in college; it is full of joy, sorrow, wisdom, and insight. If you haven’t read it, you should. Every one of you. I am serious. There will be a test . . .
Several parts of the novel resonated with me. In one chapter, Maya falls in love with pineapple rings canned in heavy syrup. I, too, fell in love with the same when I was about 10. Sweet, exotic, so unbelievably good. For a farm kid on Wenatchee Heights, just like for Maya Angelou in Stamps, Arkansas, those delicious golden rings represented an unknown, exciting world.
Another part of her story is about Mrs. Flowers, a kind and genteel neighbor who represents everything that Maya hopes to be, but can’t seem to realize. With some help from Maya’s grandmother, Mrs. Flowers takes Maya under her wing, showing her a world beyond the hard scrabble of her segregated life, showing her that she matters, that someone cares about her for herself, as herself. She gave Maya books and expected them to be read - out loud. She made cookies and lemonade to share expressly with Maya, personal attention that amazed the young girl. To her, Mrs. Flowers was “the measure of what a human being could be.”
When I look back on my childhood, I had several “Mrs. Flowers” - teachers, coaches, even neighbors who made me feel noticed and valued just for being, people who became models, patterns, that mysterious measure of how to be. I am guessing you all experienced this, too.
We all have the chance to open up the wide world, to be that measure of what a human can be to the students we come in contact with every day.
For many, this is the greatest gift we can give, to see them as the individuals they are, to help them do the best that they can, to give them chances to grow and stumble, and grow some more, to be better. If we, like Mrs. Flowers, can build relationships, help foster a positive environment for our students, then they will grow stronger, more willing to work through setbacks.
We want our students to do exactly this – to do the best they can until they know better. It is our task to help get them there, and it is not simply about content, nor is it simply about test scores. We want them to be brave, to be kind, to be resilient, to be true . . .
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
And we must take this to heart, too. With the pressures and stresses we each face, we all do the best we can. We must not be afraid to seek out what is better and then do it. It might not be easy, and we may stumble as we learn, but we, too, will become braver, kinder, more resilient, more true.
Tammy Grubb was born and raised in Wenatchee, Washington. Known as the “Apple Capital of the World,” the town is located 150 miles east of Seattle and sits at the foothills of the Cascades. She grew up on a 70-acre fruit ranch that her parents owned and ran. From her earliest days, Tammy worked in the orchards, picking cherries and apples, as did her three older siblings when they were young. Amongst her family, if one did not go into the orchard business, education was the other likely path. Tammy chose the latter, and after graduating from Eastern Washington University, she sought her first teaching job.
At the time, the state had undergone a significant reduction in the number of available positions, so Tammy became a substitute teacher in Spokane first and then in the Eastmont and Wenatchee school districts for
In 1988-89, Tammy finally found a full-time job teaching literature and composition to junior high students in the Wenatchee Valley, specifically the Eastmont school district. Like many rural towns across the country, it is currently going through a transformation, attracting former city dwellers and retirees who want to enjoy the more affordable cost of living as well as the surrounding rivers, lakes, and forests. But Wenatchee remains a largely agricultural-based economy. It draws seasonal migrant workers. The population splits roughly 60% white, and 40% Hispanic. Politically, the towns tend to be a conservative, Republican voting bloc. Within the Eastmont School District, 43% of all students receive a free or reduced-price lunch, and English is the second language of roughly 18%. Many deal with poverty, drug addiction, inadequate housing, lack of parental support, and gangs. In other words, Tammy had not chosen Beverly Hills High or a tony East Coast boarding school.
But she knew the Wenatchee Valley, its people, their struggles, and their ambitions for their kids. Of course, she had her growing pains those first years as a full-time teacher, establishing classroom rules, creating engaging lesson plans, and navigating the interpersonal world of any school—other teachers, the administration, and the building staff. “Being on good terms with the janitors was most important,” Tammy assures. She also coached softball, volleyball, and basketball. The hours were long, involved, emotionally exhausting, but also rewarding. She connected well with her students—and they found her classroom a safe harbor in the storm of adolescence.
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In her 34 years of teaching, Tammy impacted thousands of students. She engaged them in lessons in writing and literature, bringing to life Beowulf, Shakespeare, poetry, mythology, and so much, much more. To draw out students, she used everything from circle time, to boom boxes blaring KD Lang, to making collages. After 9/11, her students cut out passages from the New York Times coverage of the terrorist attack to make “found poetry” and come to terms with the horrors of that day. Tammy later sent these poems to the lead Times writer, Serge Schmemann, who published them in the newspaper. Two decades later, Schmemann returned to interview these same students on how their perspectives over the events had changed. “For me,” Tammy says, “This is the great metaphor of teaching come to life: you never know which seeds will take root or when or how they will bear fruit. You hope that at the moment it is enough, but rarely do you see it become more.”
Some of her greatest impact on students did not come from the lessons she taught. If students simply wanted some quiet time during lunch, Tammy kept her classroom open for any and all comers. As Tammy remarks, “The old building was cramped, the cafeteria a jungle, so I let kids eat in my room. The shy, the marginalized, the lost, they came and we ate and talked.” Many regarded that simple midday invitation as the refuge that saved them through some tough years. One, a girl named Erin who had lost her stepsister to a violent home invasion, looked back at that time in Tammy’s classroom as the opportunity she needed to “find herself again.” Erin later became an English teacher as well.
No doubt managing junior high classes of 13-15 years old for that long and at such a high level takes a particular kind of talent. Tammy was kind enough to make a punch list of lessons learned in her workcraft.
Things That Students Have Taught Me
● Treats are a big deal.
● Jalapeños are great on pepperoni pizza!
● Very few 9th graders really know how to use scissors.
● Reading books still saves those who need it.
● The best learning moments aren’t in the lesson plan.
● They want so much to understand their world which has helped me find patience and understanding in my own.
● They want to talk with adults, discuss nonsense, share their passions, learn about yours, ask all manner of questions about all manner of things, and, perhaps most importantly, be seen.
● After my 34 years, I know that teenagers continue to be full of angst, hormones, cynicism, and silliness. They are still searching for themselves, and they still don’t know what they don’t know.
● My attitude about what I teach is an enormous factor in their learning. When I show my passion, they tune in.
● Laughter is always the best thing.
Things that Help you Reach/Impact Students
● Laughing with them
● Admitting my mistakes, apologizing.
● Clear expectations and flexibility
● Honest conversations, separating the student from their behavior.
● Discussion-based class - Lots of in-class discussion, enrichment & background materials.
● Connecting anything and everything back to their world, their experiences, and knowledge.
● Unconventional lessons and materials to spark interest and involvement.
● Sharing my personal experiences to help draw them in - travel, Holocaust study, etc.
● Not being afraid to challenge their thinking with new perspectives and materials. (e.g. The Power of Myth, Darmok episode from Star Trek, A Brief History of Time, A World Lit Only by Fire, Tolkien and the Great War)
Although Tammy jokes about being “bamboozled” into her role as president of her district’s teachers’ union, she found a great deal of intellectual and professional fulfillment in the position. She states her mandate in a rather humdrum way: “To protect the integrity of the teacher’s contract as it relates to the members who pay their dues for membership.” Over her long tenure, however, this meant a great many things: negotiating better salaries and benefits for her teachers; overseeing dismissals and suspensions; threading the constantly changing morass of rules/protections during a global pandemic; dealing with school security and a rising gang presence; managing the press and local politics; and, helping teachers in her district “to not only be better at their job, but also to have a more balanced life.”
Throughout our interview, Tammy was steady, calm, and rather unemotional in her answers. Her wife Kim said keeping an even keel was the key to Tammy’s success as president for so long. But, it was this last point in describing her role in helping other teachers that a fire seemed to alight in her answers. She drummed off a list of issues they face:
● Every year it’s about workload, because the work never ends. Teachers are in the classroom 180 days in Washington State. An awful lot of teachers are working six days a week during that spread, some seven. If they’re not in the classroom, they’re prepping lesson plans, grading homework, reading essays, or doing administrative work. The workload becomes such a burden that it drives people out of the job all the time.
● State testing. I understand why people think standardized tests are so great. People want to know they’re getting their money’s worth for their investment in education. But what’s happened is that teachers spend 2/3rds of their year teaching their subjects, then a third prepping the students for the state tests. Yet everyone wants a full year of growth and learning for the kids. If we want the critical, adaptive thinkers that we need for the future, there’s no test that will gauge that.
● There are so many outside variables that teachers have no control over that impedes learning. Do our kids have enough food, what’s their family situation, are they getting enough sleep, is someone monitoring their social media distractions, do they have clean clothes to wear, or even homes to go back to after school.
For almost four decades, Tammy has fought that fight. She is proud of the impact she has made on so many lives. Now she plans to travel, spend time with her older sisters, and maybe do some writing. It is for the next generation of teachers in Eastmont to take up the mantle. Hopefully, we as a country support their calling.