For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”


The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.


58 thoughts on “For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

    • I enjoyed sharing it, Dan. After reading your comment, I thought back and counted the teachers I had who made a difference in how I thought, acted, or approached life. I counted seven; and I thanked three of them — all three taught me when I was an adult.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I find it amazing the people who come into our lives and challenge and change our thinking for the better. Neil sounds like such a person. He sounds like an amazing teacher. Where would we be without them?


      • Oh Janet, I have several! The one who stands out is Mr. Carey at the Lander High School. He was a coach and teacher. I took several classes from him. Driver’s Ed, Economics, and 2 Civics classes. I really learned a lot from him. Another is my 9th grade English teacher in Carson City. I think her name was Mrs. Bennett, but I am not sure. She taught me to “beware of frightening generalities” when writing. That has always stayed with me.

        I want to add that I always admired teachers because of their ability to handle large groups of students. Truly a wonderful skill!

        As a parent, I think it is our duty to have our children ready to learn when they go to school and to make sure that we do our part to enhance their education at home. I always felt that being able to read and comprehend was the most important skill to learn, followed closely by learning how to obtain knowledge and that education is a life long journey. I guess nurturing curiosity would be a key component to have.


      • I like “beware of frightening generalities;” it is true — and has a ring to it that probably helped lodge it in the minds of teenagers. You are so right about teachers needing management skills. Often those who either leave the profession or fail to thrive in it do so because they lack the skills necessary to manage both small and large groups of students. But most of all, I enjoyed your thoughts on the role parents should play in their children’s education; and I agree with the concepts you listed as being most important.I think teachers everywhere would appreciate this comment, Janice.


  2. “. . . rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details.”
    ” . . . . any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.”
    Dear Janet: Your post shows me how I love “simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line”. It is great that you remember Neil’s teaching so extra ordinary well. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!


    • Your phrase “fondly remembered” is one of the rewards of teaching. It doesn’t pay the rent, but it is affirming to hear years later from former students who learned and enjoyed doing so in your classroom.


  3. Oh what a great story! It’s too bad that most of the time we don’t appreciate the teachers when we are in the classroom, but then reflect back on that teacher years later realizing just how great they were! I know I had several teachers who left a lasting impression on me! 🙂


  4. I did not pay attention in class until one year the windows were painted over black. I am going to try this exercise- see what comes along- thank you auntie!


    • Oh, I can’t imagine sitting in a classroom without seeing out a window — and agony I didn’t have to endure until college. Did the painted over windows help you pay attention because your mind couldn’t escape into the world outside the window? I kept my attention pretty well corralled, but loved gazing out the window for a break now and then. Let me know if you try the exercise and how it worked for you. Your writing is so rich in dialogue and detail, it probably won’t make much difference.


    • What a lovely thing to say, Lorie. Thank you. The course I took from Neil was offered by the Northern Nevada Writing Project. I took the invitational course the next summer and my teaching and writing life changed as well. Do you know if it’s still important in the Reno-Carson City area?


      • I still get emails from them. I finally (and somewhat reluctantly) tossed overheads from presentations I did when I was a consultant. I did the Invitational, an exchange program in Oregon, and a second Invitational focused on social action. Then I taught a couple of Opens.


      • So NNWP gave your opportunities for growth and for sharing your expertise the same as they did with me. Good for you for taking advantage of those opportunities and excelling. I still have a few of the mind maps I used to make for my NNWP presentations, though, like you, I finally managed to throw away overheads once I could admit to myself that technology had made them obsolete.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautiful tribute to a beloved and gifted teacher, Aunt Beulah, and so wise that you knew how he changed your life and thanked him. It was only years later that I remembered how sister Lorita changed my life by sharing her secret as a botany teacher. Much maligned by students because of her size and passion for a subject that didn’t interest them, she told me what inspired her. “I don’t care what they think of me if they learn to see the wonder of life in a blade of grass.” Sadly, I didn’t have a chance to thank her but I try to keep her memory alive by following her example.


    • I think I had the wisdom to thank Neil because I was in my forties and had developed some common sense. I was touched by your anecdote about sister Lorita. It’s lovely. She must have known you appreciated her and liked her or she would’t have commented to you as she did. Thank you for finding my blog and taking the time to comment. I’ll visit yours soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As I gobble up your tribute to Neil, I think on those educators who changed my world; I feel tears well up as I can only shudder and imagine who I would be today without them.

    My Sister who teaches Special Needs kids in Phoenix, just finished striking for improved conditions for teachers in Arizona. The most memorable thing of that week was her excitement at getting back into the classroom to her Kids.

    I marvel at her, at you, at Neil – these important Giants in our lives who toil away quietly for the most part, while we are eye-rolling and grumbling under our breaths. Not realising that we are, in fact, thrilled for the opportunity to learn, to grow, to improve, until we are so much older. Hopefully, that means we have become just a little wiser, thanks to you Teachers!


    • Oh, my dear friend, this is a marvelous tribute to teachers in so many ways: your acknowledgment of their influence in your life, your personal connection to your sister, part of the struggle for equality in Arizona, who could hardly wait to get back to her students, and the phrase you used to describe teachers: “Giants in our lives…” You brought tears to my eyes. I copied your comment to share with teachers I know and love who are in classrooms this morning motivating the minds of our young.


  7. What a great teacher! How much he taught in so little time speaks to his ability. I present workshops on writing, and is lesson of simplicity valuable to me, too. Thank you for sharing this post and remembering a great teacher.


  8. Happy (belated) National Teacher’s Day!

    As you might imagine, I love this post.
    You were so fortunate to have participated in this brief “writing improvement” class with a talented and gifted instructor. These days—as I struggle to keep up my blog—I could use an inspirational class such as that one.
    But here’s my problem: I can’t find a class that fits my schedule. I’ve been traveling or on vacation for 30 of the past 60 days. And I will be gone again next week. It seems that my traveling is interfering with my travel writing!


    • Time is an issue for me as well, Rita. I’m struggling with it more and more with trips for numerous family occasions, to Las Cruces and trips Joel and want to take for the pleasure of traveling. But our travel days don’t compare to yours. I’m not sure you should worry about the writing so much and instead adopt a travel now and write about it when I don’t want to or can’t travel so much.


  9. Hi Aunt Beulah
    Oh my gosh! Neil certainly makes writing seem simple, your second version of feeling cranky with your Mum sounded far more dramatic and interesting. I was right there in the garden with you, thinking you were making a very valid reason to be upset with your Mum.
    I would need a decade of lessons in writing with more simplicity, I find I literally get verbal diarrhea when I write, I am a lost cause Aunt Beulah. Nevertheless I continue to give it a go, I remain invested in reading and especially love simple uncomplicated stories about real people.
    A belated happy teachers day, Neil would be so proud to read this budiful story dedicated to him, I love this story Aunt Beulah…another beauty!! Thanks for sharing ☺
    Lots of love and big ol’ hugs headed your way
    Annie in Australia 🌴🌞🌊❤❤


    • Another thing Neil had us experience, discuss and develop in our writing was our authentic voice or writing personality. You have a wonderful voice, Annie, and I would not change the fluent, exuberant way you express yourself. Each of us is unique. He said when we are true to our voice, our readers are secure because they trust us and know what to expect as they delve into our writing. And thank you for thinking I had a valid point! I thought so too.


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