On the Death of a Former Student

On Monday evening, I walked out of work while checking my phone only to see a photo photo of Stephanie Hardawar as prom queen with a caption of “RIP”. I hoped that I was misreading the situation, but I knew I wasn’t.  She had been killed in a car accident on Valentine’s evening.  She was now 25 and working for the Department of Children and Families.  I stopped myself from crying while sitting in traffic near the college so that I didn’t make a fool of myself in front of anyone I knew.

I taught Stephanie at Bulkeley High School in 2005.  She was an Honours student in my sophomore English class.  She was bright, beautiful and brazen.  Ten years later, I can hear her giggle as she’d call “Miss!” whenever I would challenge her about something.  Last night I found one of her essays about Lord of the Flies where she refuted my opinions on the novel.  She even had the courage to disparage The Simpsons in my presence.  I loved teaching her.

I often thought about her over the years.  I keep in touch with many former students via social media, but Stephanie wasn’t on my radar.  I saw someone mention her a few weeks ago and I searched for her to no avail.  I wish I had tried a bit harder.

I saw my former students rally together online this past week sharing stories and pictures.  One of my seniors, Glenn “Hookz” Jones, shared this song in her honour:

My mother offered to go to the wake for me in absentia, which is what prompted my first blog post.  When she explained who she was to Stephanie’s father, he broke down in tears.  He said that he remembered Stephanie talking about how much she loved my class.  This was a bittersweet moment for me.  Of course it reduced me to tears, but it didn’t coax my ego.  It reminded me that making an effort to create change in the classroom is what really creates a lasting impression with students.

In 2005 I walked into inner city Hartford completely unprepared for teaching.  It wasn’t that I had poor training.  I was terrified.  To this day, I can’t honestly say I  like speaking in front of crowds.  The thing that saved me was that I fell in love with helping my students.  I lived for it.  Reflecting on this, I realised where my interest in educational technology actually started.

In that first year, I started class blogs and wikis using Blogspot and PBwiki.  I was finishing my Masters at night and I had taken an excellent module with Lisa Drenc-Kerr on technology in the English Classroom.  It wasn’t one of these how-to courses, it delved deeply into the issues.  We wrote weekly journals discussing how technology could enhance pedagogy in our classrooms.

When I started the blog, I didn’t have promotion in mind.  This was pre-Twitter.  I wanted to give my a space to showcase their work.  It wasn’t for the school, the parents or even the wider community.  It was a space to showcase work for the future and help promote them academically.  I wanted them to be able to reference it in job interviews, college applications and beyond.  I used it to promote their writing to literary magazines. Some students did get published.

I used the wiki with a study skills course that had little structure.  Students didn’t take the class seriously, and I didn’t blame them.  I put students into groups to do research and work collaboratively on essays and multimedia projects.  I insisted on annotated bibliographies and evaluations of sources.  I was teaching digital media literacy ten years ago, and I’ve only realised it this week.  We even weighed the pros and cons of Wikipedia.  I wanted to give students an engaging space to work collaboratively where I could monitor their progress and admittedly, avoid the drama that could result in face to face group work.  I did eventually end up locking it when a student deleted everything.  I may or may not have reverted as far back as writing with quills for a while…

I didn’t get any particular accolades for using technology in my teaching, but I know that my methods, albeit not always popular with management, made my class memorable.

I moved home to Ireland eight years ago and was job hunting just as long. I’ve now moved on to higher education as a Learning Technologist and Senior Technical Officer.  There is a small part of me that panics every time that I realise that I’m not currently teaching, but I’ll always be a teacher.  When I begin to panic, I think about the fact that I am now in a position to change the way others teach, and that’s exciting.

Next weekend I’ll be speaking at the CESI conference and as I continue to think about my presentation, I’m beginning to realise how my career path has led me to this presentation:

Bridging_the_gap_–_preparing_students_for_the_expectations_of_higher_education.jpg

I’ve attended CESI conferences since 2012.  For a while I focused on networking and self-promotion, all in the interest of securing a job.  It seems odd that I would decide now to submit a proposal when I’m not teaching.  I worry that I am trying to appear smug now that I have  moved on to better things, but I know that isn’t the case.  Stephanie’s untimely passing has helped me to connect the dots.  I care about what happens to my students after they finish school.  I follow up, keep in touch and try to offer advice.  I made decisions about my teaching based on preparing students for the future. I’m not putting myself out there at CESI to show off what I’ve done, I’m hoping to reach educators from both sectors and help them to think about that transition, how we can use technology to make it that bit easier, and ensure that our students are successful in the future.

Stepanhie’s death has reminded me that all of it – the pursuit of change, the experiments in ed tech,  the tears – is about how much I care.  I’m now in a position  where I can reach a lot of educators and help them to create change.  I might not work directly with students, but it’s unavoidable that what we do affects them.

When I was teaching, I was always able to spring out of bed with ease.  I liked to think that they needed me, and that I was getting up with a purpose.  It always reminded me of one of the most touching moments from The Simpsons.  In a flashback episode, Bart and Lisa question where all the pictures of Maggie are.  Homer tells the story of Maggie’s birth.  He had quit his job at the plant to take a dream job at the bowling alley.  When Marge gets pregnant, he is forced to beg for his job at the plant back.  Mr. Burns obliges, but in typical Burns fashion, puts a sign over Homer’s work space that says: “Don’t forget, you’re here forever”.  Homer finally explains to his children that the pictures are where he needs them the most:

yssmfSource: http://i.imgur.com/YSsmf.jpg

This is the closest comparison I’ve ever found to my philosophy of education.  It doesn’t matter if them is Stephanie’s small third period English class at Bulkeley High School or a training session with academic staff helping them to become better teachers.  The effects will trickle down eventually. The heart of what we do should remain the same – we need to do it for them.

 

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5 Responses to On the Death of a Former Student

  1. A touching story that all teachers should read, especially those who are mourning a former student. I think Stephanie’s family will be happy to read it in their sadness. See you at CESIcon, Ms Molloy. me to you

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  2. What a beautiful and heart-breaking post, Katie. Thank you for sharing some of Stephanie with us, through your writing. Your first blog post – a tribute to a wonderful young woman, a deep reflection on your work and identity as a teacher, and a powerful piece of writing to start your blog. I hope you’ll keep writing.

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  3. whitneydukes says:

    are you mourning the death of my friend or merely self promoting?

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    • Kate Molloy says:

      I’m definitely mourning, Whitney. I’m very sorry if you’ve taken it as otherwise. Teachers that care never forget their students, no matter how many years pass. Stephanie’s passing hit me hard, as no teacher wants to see a bright light fade so soon. It’s hard to make sense of and it hurts a lot. When students go on their way, all you want is for them to have great lives. I taught her during my first year teaching. After a slight career shift, I wrote this post after coming in the door on a Friday night just to make sense of it all. I’m pretty private, and not much of a self-promoter, so it was really hard to publish this. But, I’m glad that I did. It helped me to realise that through the good and bad, as educator, our every move is for them. Stephanie’s memorial card is on the whiteboard by my desk so that I’m reminded of that whole I work. I hope you are coping week as we approach her first anniversary. May she rest in peace.

      Liked by 1 person

      • whitneydukes says:

        Hi Kate, I appreciate you taking time to respond. I just didn’t understand how the title went with the rest of the blog when most of it seemed to focus on your career development. I’m sure you are a great teacher and person so I don’t mean harm. Thank you for clarifying.

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