I was sitting in class, taking part in the discussion, when the stench hit me. All of a sudden, the room went from normal to nasty, and I had serious concerns that I forgot my deodorant that day. The whole body odor thing was still new to me, and I took it very seriously. I nonchalantly stuck my nose in my shirt to smell my pits but the smell wasn't coming from me.
Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Degler had a Tupperware container of diced onions in the back of class. While circling the room she stealthily opened the container and let the smell waft past her students, internally chuckling at our reactions. I am certain there was an educational objective to this exercise, but I'm not sure what it was. (That was more than 30 years ago!)
This was, however, my earliest memory of learning by experiencing in school.
Fifth grade in my school was a big deal, because it was the last year of elementary. To be in fifth grade meant you were the top of the heap, the big kid, and I got to be a safety! (You know... the nerdy kid with the day-glo orange belt and shoulder strap who kept kids in order coming and leaving the school.) But, those of us who got to have Mrs. Degler as our fifth grade teacher were in a special kind of heaven. She was young, fun, funny, and brought onions to her science class!
Looking back on things, I firmly believe that Mrs. Degler's influence in my life is a large reason why I became an elementary teacher.
Mrs. Degler's influence didn't end when I left fifth grade though. I was very fortunate to learn the craft of teaching from Mrs. Degler as her student teacher. I learned about organization, meaningful student praise, and the use of humor in the classroom. She also gave me freedom in to explore "out of the box" teaching strategies, but what else would you expect from a teacher who spread onion smells through the room?
It's hard to believe it's been 21 school years since my second round of learning in Mrs. Degler's room. My career has taken me to three schools in three states, far from my little hometown in suburban Philadelphia. And, let's not fool ourselves. It's no coincidence that a large majority of my career was spent in upper elementary grades. The first 18+ years of my career spanned fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, and I'm convinced Mrs. Degler had a hand in that. Now, in my current capacity, I have the chance to influence students of all ages and help teachers of grades PreK-12. And I have always tried my best to be unconventional, helping students learn by experiencing.
I don't know if Mrs. Degler will ever read this, but if she does, she needs to know that by crossing paths with me twice I have had the chance to pour myself into over 1000 students and help numerous teachers along the way.
Thanks, Mrs. Degler! Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!
NOTE: I'm frantically trying to find Mrs. Degler on social media, but I did find her in the picture in this article - center, with the pink shirt.