Monday, June 5, 2023

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Reporter’s Notebook: Appreciating the teachers in my life

With this week being Teacher’s Appreciation Week, I dwell on the fact my entire life has been influenced by teachers.

Arlyssa Becenti portrait

Arlyssa Becenti

I’m not talking about my own grade school, high school or college professors, most of whom I’ve long forgotten. I’m talking about the teachers in my family.

As a daughter of a middle school language arts and computer teacher, a little sister of two ladies who teach with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Scottsdale, and the wife of a middle school administrator who started his career in education as a middle school social studies teacher, there is no getting away from teachers for me.

These individuals each have their own way of teaching and their own reasons as to why they decided to go into the tough, thankless field known as education.

Their teaching techniques correlate with their personalities and, as someone who is a little hot-headed, I think only teachers with the patience of a saint and heart of gold are the only ones who can tolerate me.

Some of my fondest memories growing up are of going to my mom’s classroom at Tsehootsoi Middle School and hanging out. Her classroom smelled like paper and school supplies. She has somewhat of a reputation for being a strict and “mean” teacher. She ran her home the way she runs her classroom: you listen to her, you don’t give her attitude, you show respect, you can’t be lazy and you read.

If I stepped out of line she’d give me that glare that sent chills down my spine and her voice would get lower as she scolded me. This was the same for her students. It’s safe to say her classroom was under control and the same went for her home, which is why I spent most of my childhood reading and not getting into any teenage shenanigans.

Before the age of tablets, cell phones and the internet, when I proclaimed I was “bored” my mom would look me dead in the eye and tell me to “read.”

Yeah, there was no throwing of technology at me to keep me quiet like today’s parents do, which in hindsight is fine since I have a degree in English literature and am a writer.

You would think my mom was the most despised teacher ever. Nope. On occasion we would run into former students who would get excited to see her and hug her.

Today, when former students find out who my mom is they tell me how much they loved and appreciated her as a teacher, even though they were afraid of her. I may have been a sulky pre-teen and teenager, but now as an adult I see her house rules and her stern upbringing were for my benefit and I too appreciate her for it.

My mom told her four children, “Don’t be a teacher,” and I obviously listened. My older sisters, on the other hand, didn’t. Before their current jobs, they both started out as teachers at the UMOM New Day Center, a shelter in Phoenix. Both worked there in order to afford college, and my eldest sister went on to become a children’s counselor at UMOM.

With her critical thinking, problem-solving skills, leadership and experience, I always think my sister would make a great Navajo Head Start director – but that’s a whole other subject.

When visiting my sisters for spring or summer break, I had to go with them to work. I would sit in their classrooms among kids who were my age, whose parents or guardians were down on their luck and couldn’t afford the rising rent, or who were escaping an abusive living situation. All types of unfortunate situations brought them to UMOM – and my sisters taught them.

Sitting amongst the diverse group of children, I always knew how fortunate I was that I only had to be there for the week.

My sisters’ teaching regime was a lot different from our mother’s. They were softer, not as demanding but still stern. They were respected, and there was no problem for them in the classroom management department because they ruled with kindness.

They didn’t have the low voice to use as a warning to unruly kids. They had the glare, but it wasn’t as threatening. Their pleasant and sweet nature, along with their charming smiles, were a calming mechanism for their students, who weren’t in the best situations.

These traits are why I believe we have a strong sisterly bond and why their students fall in love with them.

Before he was my husband, Andrew Lawrence, the young social studies teacher at Tsehootsoi, raised his hand toward the landscape outside his window and said, “Look how beautiful it is.”

This was our first introduction. I was doing an article for the Gallup Independent while on winter break from college about my old middle school’s new building and I interviewed him.

Andrew, whose dad is also a teacher, had moved from Michigan to Arizona for a teaching job a couple of years before I met him. Now an administrator, Andrew was an effective teacher who had exceptional classroom management. He was runner-up for Apache County Teacher of the Year, a successful cross-country and track coach and is also National Board Certified.

Watching him teach was like watching a drill sergeant. He told his students what they needed to know and expected them to do the work using the information he gave them.

He didn’t tolerate students who slacked off. He is goal-oriented and a perfectionist, and he expected his students to live up to his expectations and standards.

But beneath his tough teacher exterior he wanted to interact with his students and let them know he cared. He shook each of his student’s hands, he always asked how they were doing, and if he saw that they weren’t doing well he’d pull them aside and with concern he’d ask them what was wrong.

It’s not uncommon for past students to yell, “Mr. Lawrence!” and run up to him as they extend their hand to shake his. This interaction makes him extremely happy and touched.

From the beginning of our courtship, Andrew always told me that it’s the students that keep him here. He’s always said the kids on Navajo are the best students who deserve quality education.

These are the four teachers in my life that I’ve learned so much from and from whom I’m still learning. They have a demanding job being responsible for teaching, caring for and putting their students on a course to educational success. That kind of work deserves recognition this week for all teachers.

Teachers may differ in what they teach, how they teach, and why they continue to teach, but they all see education as a priority. Thank you to all the teachers out there for your work and your efforts.

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About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reported on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent.


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