This week is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. (This week also contains National Hoagie Day, National Tourism Day and Lost Sock Memorial Day, but that’s neither here nor there.)
I am a teacher, though it’s usually the riding part that I refer to when someone asks me what I do. “I’m a horse trainer,” I say first. Then, “I train dressage horses.” And then, “I teach horses and riders how to get along better.” (And then, unless I’m talking to someone who knows anything about horses, something like, “No, I’m not a jockey.” You would be amazed how often I’ve been asked that. At 5’10”, I could eat a jockey, people.)
And while, yes, I am a trainer, bringing horses along the levels or keeping them at their levels, making them easy to ride for their owners or advancing them for sale; yes, I am also a people manager, veterinary assistant, truck driver, executive assistant, website manager and psychologist; at my heart, what I really am is a teacher.
If I didn’t do what I do, I would be a people teacher. Probably high school English or History. That was actually the plan, for a while, before I accepted the fact that I like riding more—and am better at it—than anything else.
I became a trainer because of a deep passion for it, of course, but also because I was so lucky as to have such wonderful trainers in my own young life. I had great instruction as a kid, but the credit goes mostly to Lendon Gray for starting me down this path, and to Georg Theodorescu, Carol Lavell, Rosalind Kinstler and Pam Goodrich for keeping me on it. Those are five incredible voices to have in a young trainer’s head—Lendon’s work ethic, Georg’s love for the horse no matter how weird or tricky, Carol’s eye for the teensiest detail, Roz’s unfailing kindness and Pam’s diligence, not to mention all of their collective knowledge, had me plenty inspired by the time I was 22 and setting out on my own.
But they aren’t the ones who kindled my passion for teaching. That credit is due to two of my high school teachers, Mr. Bulak and Mr. Breig.
Mr. Breig taught, of all things, Honors Physics. I had about as much business being in Honors Physics as I do performing open heart surgery, but there I was, one of four young women in a class of really, seriously smart people.
I’m not an idiot, but Physics and I did not really get along. I kept up OK for the first semester, but by the second, I was really struggling, not just because the work was hard, but also because, like a lot of pretty bright kids, I’d never had to work—REALLY work—to make sense of a school subject before. And it scared the hell out of me.
In addition to being a gifted teacher, fun and funny and infinitely approachable, with a passion both for his subject and for his students, Mr. Breig knew exactly when to extend a hand. He let me struggle just enough, rewarded what needed to be rewarded, and always had another way to get a point across. From him I learned that when you’re trying to explain something to a student who is just not getting it, don’t give up—there’s always other way.
I learned that sometimes you have to knuckle down and work, but there’s almost always a way to make it light and playful. I learned that you can sneak lessons into fun. I learned to be fair, and to give credit to others when credit is due. And I learned to never, ever, ever give up.
As much as I struggled with Physics, I excelled at reading and writing. My first class of my first day of high school was English, and I lucked into class with Mr. Bulak not just that freshman year of high school, but again as an upperclassman, and both in and out of class he was really the hero of my high school story. And he did the absolute best thing anyone could ever have done for me—he kicked my ass.
I was the Star Student of the English department through my elementary and middle school years, and arrived in high school with an extensive vocabulary, tons of talent, and absolutely no diligence whatsoever. He gave my first paper a C. I’d never gotten a C before. I was devastated.
He didn’t have any sympathy for me. He told me to dig in and do better. And he taught me how. Effort is important, as is talent, but neither is enough alone to cultivate excellence. Think outside the box. Make connections. See the big picture as well as the small ones. And be gritty.
They both were not only good teachers—smart, funny, creative in finding ways to keep teenagers (ugh) engaged in subjects they might not really give a damn about (complicated equations about wind resistance and acceleration by racing tricycles down a hallway; the words of old dead white guys through contemporary movies, song lyrics and Nerf guns)—but they were also passionate teachers. They loved their work. And it was infectious.
I think, above all things, this is what I learned from them. Love is contagious. Work hard at what you love and someone will notice—maybe not everyone, maybe not all the time. But you’ll get through to someone.
I am so grateful for this lesson, for the countless others; for these two great teachers, and for all the others I was so lucky to know as a young person. We don’t ever thank our teachers enough. The job is long and hard and thankless. Many of my high school and college friends went on to be teachers at the junior and high school levels, and I hear the stories about how they have to juggle parents quick to place the blame on them for their childrens’ sloth, increasing demands on their time to meet testing standards, and reduced pay in a public school system entrenched in battles over taxes and spending priorities.
I count my blessings daily that I answer to me and my clients alone. I know a retired special education teacher who talks about the acronyms with which they labelled students—ADD, ADHD, LD—and how they often used PD: Parenting Deficit.
The one thing my teachers didn’t teach me was why they did it. Why, with the pay and the parents and the hours, would anyone pour their heart and soul into teaching?
Because of the feeling I get when a student feels their first half-halt. The first time they make a horse round. When they feel medium trot, or piaffe, or a flying change. Because of the way my heart sings when they tell me that the dressage lesson I taught them last week paid off in their jumping lesson this week; because of the way I tear up when they nail their musical freestyle, their first FEI ride, their USDF medals, a spot at the National Championships.
Because it is one thing to achieve something yourself; it is another thing entirely to help bring achievement to someone else.
There’s nothing new under the sun, nor does anything happen in a vacuum (something that, hey, I learned in high school Physics!); I’m not a policymaker, nor do I have any brilliant solutions on how to teach our children better, how to make every school in this nation the great kingdom of learning, staffed by vibrant and passionate and talented (and appropriately-compensated) teachers that they should be.
I just want to say thank you, to Mr. Bulak, to Mr. Breig, to Lendon Gray, to all my great teachers, to all teachers. You make us into what we are. You are owed a great, great deal.