One Teacher, Thousands of Minds

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When I was in junior high at my parish grade school, St. Peter’s, I walked home on warm-weather days with my good friend from up the block, Andrea. We chatted about mundane events of the day, caught up on vital social matters, and made plans for the next sleepover. About halfway home, we’d hit Edgevale Road, a side street that sliced through the grid of our neighborhood at an angle.

At that point, our conversation would turn to English class, and, more specifically, the short story we were reading in our literature anthology. We’d discuss the piece, kick around some ideas raised in the critical thinking questions which appeared at the end of each story, and try to decide which question we were going to select for our one-page responses.

Why would adolescents just let out of school talk voluntarily and excitedly about homework? Because they had an inspiring teacher like Mrs. Shirley Renaud, the 7th and 8th grade English teacher. Mrs. Renaud created a classroom environment like no other we had ever experienced: she allowed us to choose which critical thinking question to answer, she expected us to generate thoughtful and complete responses supported by evidence from the story, she highly valued originality in our ideas, she had us read our responses aloud in class so we could consider and discuss perspectives different from our own, and she gave us immediate feedback in class and later in writing when she collected our responses.

A recent photo of Mrs. Renaud and me with my brother Mark.

A recent photo of Mrs. Renaud and me with my brother Mark.

This was the first time an adult had really paid much attention to what we thought about anything. She clearly respected our views as long as we could support them. And did we ever notice! We stepped up to the challenges she issued, took pride in our work, and strove to exceed her expectations, all the while developing confidence in ourselves and our ideas and a healthy respect for the ideas of others. She also taught us to plumb the depths of the literature we read, mining the language for clues about the story, the plot, the characters, and the images the author had presented. Her approach made us want to come back to class the next day to find out what everyone else had to say.

Those learning experiences in junior high forever changed how I operated in school and in life. I didn’t realize it until much later, but I took with me to high school, college, and graduate school the lessons Mrs. Renaud taught us about critical thinking, audience, multiple perspectives, feedback, critique, collaboration, discussion, originality, insight, evidence, support, and writing.

These lessons eventually informed my own teaching and powerfully influenced my interest in helping other teachers foster the same teaching and learning strategies in college classrooms through the Writing Across the Curriculum program I directed.

Most of my schoolmates didn’t end up in the field of education, but given their extraordinary successes in all kinds of industries and endeavors, it would appear that the early cultivation of critical thinking and communications skills more than paid off—in school, in work, and in life.

Such is the power of a single teacher on upwards of 1,000 minds over the years. And that conservative estimate doesn’t take into account her indirect impact on my students and the hundreds of instructors I trained. In faculty workshops, I would invite instructors to share the story of a previous writing experience and connect it to their path to teaching. I would then trace my own teaching and writing life back to Mrs. Renaud.

In 1972, we were just kids, after all, focused on navigating the complex whirl of the school cafeteria and negotiating terms for the next slumber party. Mrs. Renaud masterfully saw to it that our brain development far and away surpassed what our social psyches would have ever permitted. And for this, I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

And now for the obvious question: who was your Mrs. Renaud?

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9 thoughts on “One Teacher, Thousands of Minds

  1. Hi Mary, your Mrs. Renaud sounds like a jewel. I went to the lamest high school in the country. Most of the teachers there taught me nothing about critical thinking. I learned most of that on my own from reading everything under the sun. I did have one English teacher in freshman and junior years who I really loved and who taught me everything I know about grammar and Shakespeare and poetry and as much as she could about writing. Until her classes, I had no idea how to even read a poem properly. Unfortunately, she was a reticent little mouse and most of those rowdy farm boys gave her a really hard time, so she had very little control over her classroom. She didn’t last long at our school, and I was sad to see her leave. I always wanted to contact her and never did, because I had no idea where she lived or which school she went to from ours. Her name was Patricia Sublette. I’m going to go now and google her name. 🙂

    • I hope Google yields her contact info or at least helps you locate info about her. I am glad you had someone who sparked that literary interest for you as well. Kudos to you for pursuing that interest despite the rowdy farm boy distraction! I do feel pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to thank Mrs. Renaud in person.

  2. Pingback: Random musings—hump day | Sweet Life Farm

  3. Mary,I was fortunate to have more than one Mrs. Renaud. The first was an elementary school teacher, Mrs. Garnet. Her gift to me was more about kindness and less about education. She was very attentive to this sad little girl. She was beautiful and smart and kind, and I wanted to grow up to be like her. Another wonderful teacher was my high school English teacher, Mrs. Gay. I had her in my Freshman and Junior years. She was a taskmaster but fair. She would not be so happy if she had to use a red pen on some of my blog posts. 🙂 Maybe she would be happier with the content. 🙂

  4. Mrs. Renaud WAS my Mrs. Renaud! I had her in ’77 and ’78, at St. Peter’s, and she was my favorite as well, for all of the reasons you mentioned. What a lovely tribute.

      • What a lovely message you wrote and obviously she taught you alot because that was really well written.
        I wasn’t fortunate enough to have Mrs Renaud.

        My Mrs. Renaud came later in my life; His name was Mr. Lambriola. He was tough and all we did was write and discuss.
        I LOVED his class and when he gave me high marks on my papers I did not walk out of his class, I floated.

        I loved your piece and somewhere out there Mr.Lambriola I love you for teaching me so very much.

        Jennifer

      • Jennifer:
        I love that you “floated” out of class—that is when you know a teacher has had an impact! Funny, too, how those really good teachers make you work so hard. Thanks for sharing this about Mr. Lambriola.

  5. Thank you, for leaving me such a nice message, teachers can be such a huge impact on a childs life, I’m grateful to have had him in mine. I remember my senior year finding out what teachers I would have, when I saw his name
    I groaned, ugh why me? Now I’m so happy it was ME!!!

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