My mother, Rebecca Worthen Chandler, was named Teacher of the Year at a charter school in North Carolina where she teaches English, bringing an unexpectedly buoyant end to what has been one of the toughest years of her 36-year career.
The award “floored” her, she said, because by the last day of school, all she could think about was what she wished she had accomplished. She didn’t give personal feedback on all her students’ papers. She wasn’t able to set up individual writing conferences for everyone. She never made it to the games.
“You know in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where the Queen says she thinks about six impossible things before breakfast?” she said. “I feel like teachers do six impossible things and probably don’t have breakfast.”
For most of her career, she taught middle-school English at a private girls school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where class sizes were small and college ambition was assumed, and where she was able to make a first-rate education affordable for my sisters and me (and to be our eighth-grade English teacher.)
As she and my father neared retirement, they moved to sunnier Charlotte and she started working, first at a private school and then at an eight-year-old charter school where she was excited to bring the same high academic standards to a more diverse student body.
So instead of slowing down, she took on her most idealistic and toughest teaching assignment in the last years of her career, helping many students become the first in their families to attend college. And for the past few years, we’ve watched — with some concern — as she has worked like a 20-something headed for burnout.
My mom comes from the old school. She believes English students should learn to diagram sentences and appreciate books in their entirety, not in test-prep passages. When I was growing up, she liked to wear a well-sharpened pencil tucked behind her ear — easily accessible for marking up the margins of a book or conducting music at church.
She has never been good at hiding her disdain for what she considers educational fads. The whole language movement was not popular at our house. And her interest in technology plateaued after she learned to set up a film projector to show “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which she did for our family every year before showing it to her class.
Like many women in her generation, she graduated with a Masters in Education from Brigham Young University at a time when professors advised that it was wise to “have something to fall back on in case, heaven forbid, you ever need to support yourself.”
She went on to raise eight children while working full time.
Her first job was in West Jordan, Utah, where she taught 10th-grade English to mostly farmers’ kids. By November, she recalled, students started coming to her with green sheets of paper asking her to release them from school forever. Dropping out wasn’t considered a tragedy then. Many teens went to work or started families at that age.
More than three decades later, opportunities for those without a higher education have all but disappeared. At Union Academy, her new school outside Charlotte, the lowest-level classes are called “college prep” classes. There are also Honors and Advanced Placement classes.
The economic downturn has taken its toll on the school’s budget, and teachers are stretched thin. This past year, my mom taught all three levels and two different grades — all told, six classes and 117 students. And she prepared different lessons for each class each day.
The number of students meant a huge volume of paperwork. By the time she would get home at 5 p.m., she would crash for a couple hours, and then wake up and work until 1 a.m., when she would go to bed with the alarm set for 5:45 a.m.
Her job is to get every student ready for college. In many classes, she starts with the middle-school level materials she used to teach. She brings in my father, a retired college professor, to talk about what college life is like and the hard economic reality for those who don’t continue their education.
She thinks she’s making progress. Her Advanced Placement class is open to any students willing to put in the work, and she said between 80 and 90 percent of her students in the past three years have gotten a 3- or better on the test.
Graduates have come back to visit and told her they got A’s in freshman English or tested out of it, she said. One former student who came back in his military uniform said he started reading for fun in his down time.
Then there’s this award, which was given to her by her colleagues.
Next year, the pressure may ease a bit. She’s agreed to a significant pay cut so that she can teach one less class, have a little more preparation time, and maybe start going to Curves to exercise again.
And when she pulls into the parking lot, she’ll have a reserved parking space with her name on it: Rebecca Chandler, Teacher of the Year.