I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the stuff that goes into my teaching life the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Early last Saturday morning, the first morning when Fall felt as though it had really arrived, I showed up at Wing and a Prayer Farm for sheep shearing school with Tammy White and the gentleman in the photograph: shearing legend Fred DePaul. Perhaps because I am still in the mindset of a classroom teacher (it will be a while before I can call myself a shepherd, the new profession I have chosen), I saw so many parallels between the way I learned what I learned that day, and what I know to be great teaching in practice.
First, there was Fred himself. It is no small feat to wrestle a sheep into shearing position, methodically go about the process of taking its coat of wool off in such as way as to render the wool most useful for spinning, and explain the process to a group of people who have never done this before so that they would be willing (excited even!) to get in line and have a go right away. Oh, I forgot to add to the above list the act of storytelling, which Fred is a master at. That is great teaching.
Once he had shown us the way, he guided each of us through the process, encouraging and advising, prompting and cajoling. It couldn’t have been easy to watch us stumble over the steps, and struggle to maintain control of the sheep (docile as they are, they are also stubborn and wily). But, never once did Fred waver in his patience, in his faith that we could accomplish the task. We made many mistakes, but Fred never made us feel that any of those mistakes made us failures. That, too, is great teaching.
Then there was Tammy herself, fiber farmer extraordinaire, who had opened her farm and cleared her very busy day so that farmers-in-the-making could have first hand experience in a low-stakes way.
Tammy is in the foreground, in red flannel.
She conferred with each of us, got to know our interests and concerns, managed shearing school even as she managed the work of the farm (with over 100 animals in her sole care, she is a woman with a LOT going on), and opened every aspect of what she does (did I mention that she does a LOT?) to her visitors for inspection and query. She was honest about the hard work involved, but also about the joy inherent in that work – and that joy was so evident and genuine, that it could not but inspire each of us to want to take on the mantle of that work as well. That’s great teaching.
As someone brand new to fiber farming, the moment I stepped onto the grounds of Wing and a Prayer Farm, I was both in awe and ready to learn. Like a great classroom, the farm revealed the messy and fascinating intricacies of the day-to-day work in progress, everything had a purpose, and was used and cared for. Like a great classroom, it represented the work unique to those who lived and worked there:
There are a wide variety of living things on Tammy’s farm, but should a sheep, goat, alpaca, donkey, or dog wander past, she will know exactly who it is and what they are all about and let them know this with a quick pat or a gentle word. Having a caring, genuine relationship with those you work alongside every day is painstaking but essential work – whether it is running a farm or leading a school.
I learned a lot about sheeping from my day at Tammy’s farm…and re-learned some lessons in teaching.
Today, I will turn in my classroom key and my building pass, and leave the middle school which has been the heart and soul of my teaching life. What lies ahead is somewhat clear: caring for my aging parents, bringing a farm back to life, writing the books that I have been wanting to write.
Today is the end of one path, and the beginning of another. Even as I grieve for the turning, hearing (always) the call of the children I have loved and taught and learned alongside these many years, I know that the other path is the way now. I have arrived at Frost’s diverging roads…I know where I must go.