“Hey, aren’t you that teacher with the bear?”
Sometimes, life in a fourth classroom can be exceedingly hectic. As a “seasoned” teacher, I have found ways to work with whatever a gaggle of 10 year olds may throw at me. Most of the time, I can direct the chaos like a Tai Chi master. That said, on occasion, a lesson can go up in flames like firecracker paper.
A lesson can blow up for any number of reasons. For example, recess has just ended, and just as I’m getting the class settled down and about to begin my math lesson, Johnny barrels in, shouting about how the Dodgeball teams were not fair. A volcano of agreement (and disagreement) erupts from the rest of the class, quickly ending any chance I have of getting my lesson off to a smooth start. In Johnny’s mind, the Dodgeball game is much more important than anything that I might have to say. If I am going to engage him, he has to somehow felt heard. So as a teacher (and human being), how do I validate what he is feeling, without taking too much time?
That’s where Sam, my classroom bear, can help:
“Here Johnny, take Sam and hold him for now. I’ll talk to you at the next recess, and we’ll see if we can’t figure out a good solution.” The student has been acknowledged, and I can carry on with my lesson.
Over the last fifteen years, Sam has helped diffuse many emotional powder kegs, and smoothed out quite a few rough edges. He has been cried on, fought over, and sneezed at. Yes, he is a bit of a vector for airborne pathogens, but the emotional support he has given students in my classroom far outweighs any little sniffle he might be responsible for.
Over the course of this expedition, I have discovered that he is not just a great pacifier. He excels in many other arenas as well.
He makes a wonderful model. I initially brought him along so he could star in some of the pictures that I was taking. I wanted to give the photos scale and context. My hope was that he would help make a very far away place seem close and homey for my students. I think that he did a wonderful job in that regard. I expected that he would.
I did not expect him to be such a conversation starter. People loved him! His presence elicited so much genuine curiosity and interest from the other passengers on board the Explorer. A smattering of regular questions that I was repeatedly asked:
“Did Sam have a good time on the hike?”
“Did he like the Arctic plunge?”
“How come Sam isn’t at dinner?”
“Why is Sam sitting in the corner? Is he in trouble?”
It actually got to be somewhat comical. The other fellows on board, Chris and Alex, joked that Sam was the fourth Grosvenor Teacher Fellow. And I think it was Chris who quipped that I was actually just the bear’s Sherpa, and that Sam was the real Fellow.
The bear also acted somewhat like a therapist for me. When fellow passengers asked about him, I would often process my experiences by projecting my thoughts and feelings on to Sam:
“Oh, he had a great hike. He LOVED seeing the Kittiwake colony, and looking at the different kinds of reindeer scat”
“Yes, Sam did the plunge. He got really, really cold, but he loved the shot of whiskey afterwards.”
“Sam is sitting in the corner, because he really needs a nap. He was up late last night working on his blog.”
Sam has played a variety of important roles. He has become a virtual Swiss Army knife of usefulness. He is a pacifier, model, conversation starter, and therapist.
So when another passenger asked, “Hey, aren’t you that teacher with the bear?” I replied, “No, I’m just his Sherpa.”
It’s now three months later, and Sam and I are home. We are getting back into the work-a-day schedule of school. My world traveling adventures are over (for now), but it would seem that Sam’s are just beginning…
I have begun to get my fourth graders involved in my Arctic wanderings. They went nuts over the pictures that featured Sam. I was continually peppered with questions and comments throughout the week:
“Did Sam really do the polar plunge?”
“Was the water cold?”
“How did Sam get on that big piece of ice?”
“Why is he climbing up that ladder?”
“I think Sam is cute.”
“I wanna go to the Arctic!”
Students were so fascinated with Sam’s travels that I decided that his fun shouldn’t end with the Arctic. Until the end of the year, Sam will be going home with a different student every weekend, and will also travel to strange and exotic places with them over the holidays.
Families are asked to take pictures of Sam and all that he experiences. Students then share the pictures and stories the following week. As you can see, Sam’s adventures are continuing. Bungee Jumping? Really? Lucky bear.
One of the tenants of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship Program is that the best way to learn about the world is to see it. Experience it. In my estimation, having somebody (or some bear) share stories about his experiences runs a close second. Add world traveler, and story teller to Sam’s bag of tricks.