Turns out, Penny Kittle loves to fish. Considering she grew up in Oregon, this is no surprise. In the introduction section of her book The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching, Kittle explains how fishing was the way she bonded with her father. Yet the relationship with her father was not the only place where fishing bridged gaps. Kittle paints a picture, “My father caught a beautiful steelhead that morning and I caught nothing but trees across the river with my errant casts. I loved the trying, though . . . A warm sweater, grey dawn, and Dad and I in love with the water made a sweet harmony in life I continue to seek. And then I became a teacher. And it was a lot like fishing” (2). Kittle carries this comparison throughout each section of her book, many of which chronicle an experience with certain students from her twenty years of teaching. Though I could easily write an eager account on all of Kittle’s stories, I am only going to share two in this blog post.
The first is a chapter entitled “grace” and in addition to making me laugh out of relatability, it taught me a truth that often is not toted in teacher education programs. Let me set the stage: in this scene, Kittle is observing a class of first graders. She got caught up working with the same group of children during reading time for five days in a row, so her mentor teacher sent her outside with a book and a different group of students.
Once they reached the playground, two girls ran away. Kittle called them back, and the girls came sprinting with arms outstretched. Kittle reached out with her arms too. Focused on the girls, she failed to notice the jungle gym… and the bar collided straight into her nose. Ouch. As a side note, I did the exact same thing as a 5th grader after I had moved to a new school— except I was playing chase with a group of kids and it was the support beam to the big slide that I ran into. Luckily, I did not break my nose! But Kittle did. Naturally, she was in extreme pain but she did not want to leave the students. Its quite amazing what happens next. A little first grader offers to read the book for the hurt Miss Ostrem. Kittle states, “I nodded. She held the book before her and made sure we could see the pictures as she turned the pages” (29). I don’t think kids get enough credit. Sure, there are tough cases, but so many are willing to rise above and beyond the occasion. As she writes a little later on, “Teaching has taught me about the essential goodness in people—in teenagers, even—the wish to help, not hurt” (Kittle 30). It seems as though there is a constant drone about how difficult our given profession will be, and a lot of it is true. However, what this drone fails to take account of is the fact that teaching is a profession steeped in humanity. This means that people, especially students, will surprise you over and over again by providing grace, even when you expect it least.
The second chapter that had a profound impact on me is entitled, “our last day of school.” Let me preface this with a short story. Last summer a teacher I knew ended up fostering one of her students from the previous year. I do not know why she was taken away from her parents in the first place, but when CPS asked the student who she would be most comfortable staying with she immediately answered, “My teacher.” How powerful is that? Kittle writes of a similar situation that occurred when she was just starting out in education. She had a set of real money that was used in her elementary classroom as practice for counting change. After two years of no issues, money suddenly disappeared… as did other classroom artifacts. Eventually, she deduced it was a student named Darlene who had been sexually abused by her father for much of her young life. As punishment, Darlene was sentenced to detention on the last day of school while the other students enjoyed playing games during field day. Darlene accepted this penalty, and used her time to write Kittle a letter. Upon opening the note after all the kids were gone for the summer, she read a plea. “Her apology was sincere” Kittle describes, “her explanations a jumbled mess of things she herself did not understand. She just couldn’t control herself no matter how she tried. And then she asked if I’d let her come and live with me. She begged. She said she knew I’d say no, but she’d never wanted anything as much as this and couldn’t I please just let her live at my house and be her mother? She promised to be good and my sobs absorbed her pleas of forgiveness and mercy” (42). My heart broke reading this section. For $30,000 a year, teachers are tasked with not only assigning A Separate Peace or grading vocabulary worksheets but helping students endure the unthinkable. When home is no longer home, students search for love elsewhere—often the first place they look is at school, within the teachers who consistently show students that they are valuable in so many other ways than a grade in the gradebook. As teachers, we should strive to make our classrooms this sort of safe haven. Life is messy and difficult, but we have some power to be a steady presence in a student’s tumultuous existence. Remember that.
Ignore my poor attempt at drawing a fishing pole, and focus instead on the fact that Penny Kittle’s book is amazing—fishing metaphors and all! Picture is my own.
I suppose I will end this review by saying that what impacted by the most about Penny Kittle’s book was not necessarily the words, but the way it made me feel. When I closed the final page there was a tightening in my chest that embodied the weighty responsibility our chosen career path entails. Our students are going to look to us for much more than assignments, and we would be wise to live each day with that in mind. I don’t mean to sound like a downer—but at the same time I recognize that it is a serious calling. This book is heavy, but it is even more inspiring. I HIGHLY recommend every teacher, regardless of subject, to read it. I am blown away. Like her own students, through the teaching in this text Penny Kittle has caught me hook, line, and sinker.
Kittle, Penny. The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching. Heinemann, 2005.