Teachers of New Jersey: Puppies, Eighth Graders, and a Beautiful Soul

NJ Teachers’ Lounge is excited to continue its Teachers of New Jersey series in 2017. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the series, it now comes out twice a month. This editorial series is curated by photojournalist, Gregory Andrus, creator of the social media series, Portraits of the Jersey Shore. These stories highlight the joys, struggles, and personal reflections that surround being a teacher.

“I teach English to 8th graders at Toms River Intermediate South, in Beachwood. I have been there since they had opened, and this will be its 13th year. I love working with 8th graders. There are a lot of ups and downs for them at this stage in their lives, but one thing I have come to understand about them, is it’s all about respect. If you show them you respect them, they will in turn respect you. If one of the kids is giving me a hard time, I will never ridicule them. Instead, I will say something someone taught me a long time ago, which is, ‘When was the last time I disrespected you?’ And they won’t even know what to say, because I haven’t, and it makes them stop and think, and I think they respect that and understand that.”

“I take great pride and great care in the content that I teach. I spend a great deal of time on Civil Rights, tolerance and the Holocaust is a big one for me too. And kids will later tell me how they remember what I taught them about these important issues, and how they were impacted by them. One time a parent told me how her daughter was in college and brought all of my papers and notes into college with her because she didn’t do well on a paper, and she brought the stuff, and she told the professor, ‘I got this information from my 8th grade teacher, and she had her grade changed because she was able to justify her position. And that makes me so proud that years later that I have helped prepare these students to be good readers and writers.”

“I love that I have so many kids who have gone on to high school come back and visit me. And they have a great program at Toms River High School South where they have the students each pick a teacher from Intermediate South, and will write them a letter, and mail the letter to that teacher. They can pick any teacher they want. And I have kept every single letter sent to me. Sometimes it surprises me who the kid is who sent me a letter. It is sometimes one I didn’t at the time realize I was reaching. That is so meaningful to me, more meaningful than my Teacher of the Year award, even. My Teacher of the Year award came from my colleagues, and I certainly am so grateful for it, and I cherish it, but the letters from the students to me, those symbolize my life’s work. I tell my family to bury me with them.”

“My biggest challenge in life was when my mother was diagnosed with onset Alzheimer’s when she was 63. She was in a nursing home within a couple of years after that, and by the time she was 70 she didn’t know anyone anymore. It was very hard to go through that.”

“When she was first admitted to the nursing home I shared with my students during various journaling exercises where it was appropriate. If I asked my students to free write, I would write with them and share as well. This helped me tremendously during that first year of “losing” her to the disease. It’s amazing how intently they would listen and the depths of compassion young adults have. Also, my dad had given me my mom’s long pearl necklace that she loved and I wear it often but especially the first week of school when we are all getting to know one another. I use it as my explanation of something that is close to my heart.

“I grew up with a Golden Retriever, named Ginger, that my mom loived dearly. When she went into the home, I got her a Gund Golden Retriever dog, and put our old dog Ginger’s collar around it’s neck. She always has that dog in the home with her. A little while ago, our Beagle had passed away, and my daughter who is in college, and my son who just graduated Penn State, twisted my arm to get a new dog, so I got a Golden Retriever puppy named Ranger. When Ranger was 4 months old, I decided to take him with me to visit my mom with my daughter and my dad. My mother at this point doesn’t really make eye contact with people. She is just far away, talking about things that tend to be jumbled together, what I call a “word salad.”

“When we went to visit her, I took her out onto the patio, which is this beautiful outdoor area, and I picked up our 30-pound puppy, and I introduced her to Ranger. Her hands had atrophied, so I put her hand in mine, and helped her stroke his fur so she could pet him. You could see there was a little something come alive in her. She really can’t talk, and she hasn’t said anything coherent in a while. But during this visit, while petting Ranger, she said, “I want to go home.” We all kind of got choked up, my dad especially. Something was connecting in the deep recesses of her brain. That’s really struck me that I could possibly raise Ranger to be a therapy dog.”

“Ranger is 5 months old now and currently we are in obedience training. Then Ranger will begin therapy training. He can be certified a year after passing the test. I believe everything happens for a reason. Although we were saddened by the loss of our family Beagle, Lucy, I believe I was meant to have Ranger. I will be retiring in five years, and I can now see my journey beyond the classroom continuing but in a different way.”

“Looking briefly into the future I can see Ranger becoming a Therapy Dog that might work with reluctant readers at the library, troubled youth at juvenile detention centers, or maybe even visits to a nursing home to bring joy to the residents. I plan on continuing to bring him to see my mom as well since there was a connection made. I really believe this was meant to be.”

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