My hometown’s Tomball High School lost a teacher yesterday, Mrs. Mary W. Roach. She taught for over 40 years at the school. My family was close with Mrs. Roach and had a Thanksgiving dinner with her this past year. I never told her that she is my biggest inspiration as a teacher and educator.
I wrote the following over a year ago when I was a semi-finalist for Austin Independent School District’s Teacher of The Year.
III. What persuaded you to become a teacher? Describe your most significant contributions and accomplishments in education.
There are eight of us, but my brothers and sister all had Mrs. Roach’s World History class. We laugh together and share stories about her. We all listened to same history stories, read the same books, and prepared the same projects for her class.
From the first day I stepped into her class I loved Mrs. Roach. She was well-read, traveled foreign lands, had a parlance full of vocabulary words and euphemisms I’ve never heard, and carried herself in a beautiful, dignified manner (despite having grass stains on her denim skirt from gardening). Mrs. Roach spoke to my classmates and me like we were human- and not as if we were a separate, lower “student”. She didn’t sugarcoat anything and when we spoke, she listened. The idea is simple: students are humans too.
Mrs. Roach gave us an assignment over the Winter break to write her a letter telling her what kind of person we wanted to be as an adult. As a 16 year old, this rocked my world. I was shy and lacked confidence when speaking to just about any adult other than my own mother. I hadn’t put formal thought into my own adult future. When Mrs. Roach asked for a story of they type of person I would be in the future- not just my occupation, I had to dig deep. As I penned my beliefs in non-violence and equal rights to health and education for all, I wrote a personal mission statement that grounded me. I predicted that one day I would work for the United Nation’s UNICEF and help children of poverty have access to a quality education and health care.
While it’s far from the United Nations headquarters, I have been teaching mathematics in the same community for the past six years. I care for my students and see their well being deeply intertwined with their academic success. I hope that I speak and listen to my own students as well as Mrs. Roach did with my classmates, brothers, sister and me. I recognize my influence as a teacher of mathematics and know that through my efforts my students have opportunities to learn and become successful in ways many of their families have yet to see. I believe that social mobility should be attainable by access to education- no matter what conditions you are born into. I started teaching in the middle school that feeds into the high school where I now teach. Both schools are Title 1 schools. My first year of teaching will forever be a humbling experience. I lacked the skills to manage classroom misbehaviors and didn’t know or understand my students yet. All of my students were minorities and almost all from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Three other eighth grade teachers quit in the middle of that year, but I stayed. I worked long hours, listened to every word my mentor teacher and principal said, learned Spanish, connected with families, became impeccably organized and developed a very structured classroom. In the following school years, I made exceptional gains with my students.
Every day I stand not in front of my students but with my students and uphold the tenet that all children deserve a high quality education and can be successful. I grew up poor and am forever indebted to the gift that public education and teachers like Mrs. Roach have afforded me. She is one of the rare teachers, dedicated to a lifetime of teaching their own class and students. This has motivated me to hold the position that I love so much. I am proud that my work upholds the beliefs that I decided upon as a 16 year old.
At close to 80 years old, Mrs. Mary W. Roach still teaches World History at Tomball High School. My siblings and I visit her. She is still my favorite teacher.
This school year I left the classroom to work with The University of Texas’ Charles A. Dana Center whose mission is to improve math and science education for all students. Teachers, like Mrs. Roach, who spend their careers teaching keep schools stable and build the community that make a school a true school.
Unfortunately, our nation’s teacher attrition rate is the highest it’s ever been. Within their first five years of teaching, 46% of teachers leave the profession. These rates are worse for math and science teachers in poor, urban schools. What’s personally profoundly bothersome is that I don’t know a single teacher who says they plan on teaching math or science in an urban Title 1 school for their career.
Students are cheated out of a great thing if they return to their own schools, years after graduating, and are unable to find a single teacher that they know. What can you and I do to support teachers like Mrs. Roach who are dedicated to a lifetime of teaching in a school?