It is already week 5, year #18 in this school, and year #29 teaching, and I am constantly struck with how quickly time went by, and yet how every year has me feeling like I am a new teacher, with the worries, anxieties, and hours of preparation.
I don’t remember my very first day of teaching, but I know I must have been queasy with anticipation. I was only 8 years older than my oldest students, and 13 years older than my youngest students. I remember that every day I would go home and prepare for 2-3 hours for the next day, until I finally got the hang of it and learned to prepare for a whole week, and then sketch out plans for the whole month. I taught 5 different levels of French, with 0 educator preparation classes, 0 hours of student teaching, but a high level of French thanks to a few years living in Paris, and also, some pretty good instincts.
That first teaching experience was transformative, difficult and wonderful. I’ve written in other blog posts about my mentors at that school and how they helped me develop as a teacher. A big part of what made it so transformative, though, was meeting Claire Lecomte DuNouy.
Claire started as a part-time French teacher during my second year at our independent school. Shewas static with energy, in nonstop motion and hysterically funny. Complete opposites, Claire and I quickly became friends. Claire had an incredible knack for teaching and was the perfect person for middle school. She could be funny and goofy and get on their level, but also could explain things in a way they would understand. Neither of us really remembers, but I have a faint memory that I was assigned as a mentor to her. However, I think I learned more from her than she did from me.
One year, Claire and I were both teaching 5th grade French sections. Though we each had our own class, it morphed organically into a coteaching situation. We planned together and often brought our 2 sections together for activities. Claire excelled at anything performance-related, and I shied away from it. She loved to play guitar and lead the class in games and skits. Being half French, she was familiar with French children’s songs and games, and though I had been a nanny in France for two years, I didn’t know all the songs and games she did. So, when we were going to include one of them in our lesson, we would unite the classes and she would take the lead teaching them the song or game. I still remember the words to one that would probably no longer be allowed, but that was the 90’s:
Promenons-nous dans le bois, pendant que le loup n’y est pas. Si le loup y était, il nous mangerait, mais comme il n’y est pas, il nous mangera pas” (Let’s take a walk in the woods, while the wolf isn’t around, If the wolf were there, he would eat us, but since he isn’t, he won’t)
As I would watch Claire leading the students in this and other games, I would marvel at how she was so genuine, playful, and sometimes even a little crazy with the students. They adored her, of course. Class was fun with her, as it should be when learning French as a 5th grader. Our job, as I see it now, was to introduce them to the language and get them hooked so that they would continue studying it. Claire did not ascribe to the “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas” school of thought. She was more “let them see you be yourself and laugh raucously with them sometimes” school of thought, and that rang more true for me. Observing Claire helped me see that I could also be more genuinely me, but also playful, with the students. Claire helped me let go of some of my timidness and reserved nature by modeling it unknowingly.
When we were in the faculty workroom, Claire's jokes and antics were so outrageously funny that she had our other teacher friends and me literally rolling on the floor laughing sometimes. I am 100% positive that if I were one of the older teachers in the room at the same time, I would have been super annoyed! But for us it was about community and stress-release.
After way too many years of not seeing each other, Claire and I recently got together with two of our other original colleagues from those years. When I say that I laughed so much I spurted out my drink, I am not exaggerating. My cheeks hurt from laughing and I could barely catch a breath. It was as if no time had passed, and we were still those late twenty-somethings embarking on our teaching careers. We laughed as we reminisced about one student we had who really struggled with -er verb conjugation. She just could not seem to get it, no matter how we explained it. Then one day, correcting quizzes the class had taken, we were ecstatic! She finally got it! Well, sort of. Though she had conjugated a noun (table), she got all the endings correct: je table, tu tables, il/elle table, etc. We gave her the credit for it, and I imagine we explained that table was a noun, not a verb – but who cared! We finally got through to her.
If my father’s death last December taught me anything, it is to love, appreciate and spend time with your family and friends right now. Not later. Not in “we should see each other soons” or “let’s get together sometimes”. The other thing that has stayed with me is to tell people I love them, appreciate them, or am thankful for them. When my dad was dying, I told him I loved him all the time, even when he could no longer answer with words. I spent as much time with him as I could. I knew if I didn’t, I would have many regrets.
When I saw Claire, I told her what a huge influence she had had on my teaching practice, and how our time together still shows up in my teaching, especially in the moments I allow myself to be silly or more myself with my students. It might sound cliché, but life is fleeting and unpredictable! I hope to keep my intention of appreciating and loving the people in mine.
Je t'aime, Claire Lecomte DuNouy!