After 34 years in the classroom, a move from Baltimore to North Carolina, three children, one husband and many, many classrooms and students, Vanessa Diggs decided to retire from teaching in the Chapel Hill school system. But before leaving, the Burlington resident spent the 30 days before her retirement reflecting on her career with daily Facebook posts. Here are some of them.

Day One

I have to give Winston-Salem State University a big shout for taking a chance on an average student and giving me an education for a lifetime.

Day Two

You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage.

I was assigned to a middle school in King for my student teaching. It was a bit challenging not only because of the lack of reliable transportation, but the unfair treatment I received from the principal and staff. I complained to my supervising professor and to the administration, but to no avail. I was told that in 1981, WSSU had an abundance of student teachers who needed to be placed in Forsyth County and there were no other placements available. So, I alone traveled the 18 miles to an uninviting and hostile environment. The principal made it very clear, with a pointed finger, that “you people” didn’t stay last time they were in his school (other student teachers quit) and I had better “get it there.”

I stayed the course and finished. The junior high students were my refuge. I ate lunch with the students every day after being ignored and rejected by the staff in the lounge. My supervising teacher talked endlessly about her daughter at UNC-Chapel Hill as she sat upon her throne (literally … she sat on a platform in front of her class and directed students throughout the day). I am thankful for Dr. Jo May (WSSU) for helping me organize my lessons in a way that was not offensive to my supervising teacher but engaging for the students.

Lessons learned:

1. Be still and know you must stay the course.

2. Your students are always first. They accept you and are waiting to build a relationship.

3. Discipline in the classroom is a must. My supervising teacher was not one of those touchy-feely teachers, but she could sit on a throne and run her classroom like a boss.

Day Three

If you’re not reaching back to help anyone then you’re not building a legacy.

Before there was mentor teacher training, there were Jill, Jackie and Joan. There were veteran teachers at Thomas Johnson Elementary School No. 84 in south Baltimore. They didn’t get paid or given anything extra to mentor a new teacher like me. They simply jumped in with helping me write lesson plans, encouraging me to come in early and stay later to get the work done. I was not the only one they mentored. Thanks, Jill Riley, for the years that we spent together at your house going over lesson plans, practicing full-out lessons and the honest feedback.

I am thankful for not being able to sit at the big table with the veteran teachers during lunch. They taught us respect and how to wait for our turn to become veteran teachers.

Lessons learned:

1. Never be too busy that you can’t help young teachers. Go out of your way to do so.

2. Know when it’s your turn to sit at the big table.

Day Four

The road less traveled.

During my teaching tenure with Baltimore City Schools, I worked as a Parent-Infant Early Stimulation teacher. I worked in one of four programs in the city. These positions were really hard to get and I know that it was only by the grace of God that I landed in one of the programs.

Service providers, which included occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists and teachers for the visually impaired, gathered in one location to work with children ages birth to 3 years old. These children were identified as having developmental disabilities. Parent and child would come to our school and we would play and provide information to parents on how they could stimulate their children to promote developmental growth.

When I was working on my master’s in education, I had the opportunity to go into the hospital and attend the support group for parents whose children had been identified and were still in the intensive care unit. The parents were already dealing with the separation and I had to introduce myself as their child’s special education teacher and invite them to come to be a part of the program. The anguish and pain that I saw in these parents’ eyes stays with me today.

As a special education teacher, I sometimes complain about too much parental involvement and the lack of parental involvement. But then I remember the parents in the hospital with their babies, and I readjust my stinking thinking. God always reminds me that I have not traveled the road that my parents have been on. I have only been with their child from one to four years, and the majority of my parents have been on this highway since birth.

Lessons learned:

1. Tolerance is not the same as empathy.

2. Be willing to listen to a parent’s story.

3. Don’t judge.

Day Five

No child left behind.

Every teacher has that one student they lost or left behind. Our job is to ensure that every student is successful, but that is not always the case.

There is a young man somewhere in Chapel Hill whom I owe an apology. I failed in getting him the help he needed. This young man and I would battle almost every day (when he was present). I was his case manager and his co-teacher in one of his classes. He could raise hell in a class in 0.0 seconds. He was street-smart, but he could not read. Many days I would have to chase after him when he would raise hell in the class and just walk out the door.

We had teacher-parent conferences (his grandfather was the only one to ever show up). This young man drained me. I started to feel as if he came to school just to torture me. I wrote so many discipline referrals that my principal used my data (no less in a staff meeting) to show the frequency of black males being written up by teachers. I was No. 1 on the chart.

That was a turning point for me. Not because of the embarrassment I felt in the staff meeting but because I could hide behind this student’s bad behaviors. I could feel in the pit of my stomach that I was wrong and I could do more. Well, by the time I thought I had a plan, he quit school. He never came back.

Over the years I have asked other students about him. He has a son. He makes money, but he doesn’t have a job. Even writing this reflection I feel a deep sense of loss and sorrow. I left him behind.

Lessons learned:

1. Choose your battles.

2. Learn from your lost battles.

3. Get back up.

Day Eight

Called to duty ...

In 1997, I moved back home. With the help of John Freeman, my former high school principal, I was employed in one of the high schools. This was my first experience in a high school. I had never wanted to work in a high school setting, but the district did not have the same kind of service delivery for infants and toddlers as Baltimore City Schools. I was both excited and nervous about working with teenagers.

Before school could start I learned that I would have lunch duty at different periods throughout the year. Lunch duty! Didn’t “teachers” know that they had a right not to serve lunch duty? I talked to a few teachers, who had befriended me, about this lunch duty thing. I was not going to do that. I had been unionized for the last 15 years and that was not my job.

I complained and cried to Billy (my husband) about lunch duty. The teachers just needed to speak up and understand they didn’t have to do it.

Well, I served my lunch duty. But no one bothered to tell me that this is where teachers got to know their students better. The cafeteria is one of the best places where you can see your students interact with their peers and teachers.

The cafeteria staff members treated us like gold. They prepared side dishes or saved teachers an extra portion. We celebrated our birthdays and special events in the cafeteria.

I had a student teacher this year and she asked me about one of my students. I directed her to go to the cafeteria and observe him during his lunch. She will find more out about him than from some of the written records.

Oh, I have lunch duty this week. ...

Lessons learned:

1. Same rules don’t apply to different places.

2. Stop crying.

3. Be willing to learn and observe outside of the classroom.

Day 12

In the wilderness ....

My first-year teaching in North Carolina was a blast. I knew that high school was for me. The students, teachers and the administration were supportive of me learning the new system. I had an opportunity to work with the cheer teams and we had da’ bomb pep rallies. It was all working out — until April.

During the month of April, school districts notify teachers of their employment status. You must have a teaching license from the state of North Carolina to continue to teach. My license was from Maryland. I was given a year to complete the licensure process, and I did not.

I tried to tell myself that I got so busy with my students, getting my kids settled in North Carolina and the nonprofit that I co-founded with my best friend, that I didn’t have time to take the tests. But the truth was I was scared. I was afraid to take the National Teachers Examination (Praxis) because I thought I would fail.

So, in order not to fail, I didn’t take it. Crazy. But fear had me paralyzed.

So, for more than three and a half years I wandered in the wilderness. My wilderness experiences taught me to lean on God. I continued working with my best friend in our nonprofit mentoring programs. We touched a lot of students in our community. But it was just that — nonprofit and I didn’t have a salary. Billy and I operated free summer camps and after-school programs. I also worked for a grant program to collect data from schools in a district over an hour away.

I was offered a position in a nonprofit organization to implement a new early childhood program. I enjoyed working in the community, but my heart was still in the schoolhouse.

My son was struggling during his junior year and I felt the spirit of God telling me to go back to work. I studied for my exams and passed with flying colors. I was back in business.

Lessons learned:

1. Don’t let fear dictate your future.

2. Even in the wilderness, God will take care of you.

3. When fear comes upon you again (and it will) remember your wilderness experiences and know that you can do it, even if you have to do it while you are afraid.

Day 13

I was called to the office to meet parents of a new student. They were very pleasant and our discussion was going great until they said their son had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order.

Did I hear them correctly? They continued their conversation about his past experiences at his previous school. I don’t remember one word that they said after the DNR. I tried to recover after hearing my name called. I must have been visually shaken as well because his parents started to speak words of comfort to me.

This young man was awesome. He would roll down the hallways, speaking to everyone in his path. When he entered the classroom he would say, “Good morning, Dr. Diggs, you look fabulous!” He would always be in a great mood. He participated in all classroom activities. He loved to dance and we danced in the room, in the hallways and wherever we met up. We danced. He was everything.

He would always greet me, but I could see him getting tired. He started to have more headaches. During the summer he was put into hospice. He called me on my cell and greeted me in that same cheerful voice. He returned to school as a senior the next fall.

I could see that his illness, one he’d had since birth, was taking a toll on him physically. But he came to school and he was always ready to learn. He started to miss days in school. Then it was weeks.

In January his mother called us and told us that Jake wanted to have a graduation party. It was a beautiful graduation party. The room was filled with people who loved him. We spoke about his kindness, goodness, his funny jokes and his love of dancing. Yes, we danced.

This young man would brighten anyone’s day. He never complained. He never spoke of his illness. He was truly a gift to our school, students and staff. I loved this young man and I miss him. I am grateful that God allowed him to share his beautiful and blessed days with me. He passed not too many weeks after his graduation party.

Lessons learned:

1. Live every day to your full potential.

2. Enjoy life.

3. Don’t complain.

4. There is goodness and kindness in this world.

Day 19

In 2000, I worked at the community college as a part-time teacher in the high school program. Students had dropped out of high school, and they were there to earn their high school diplomas. Many of these students didn’t like traditional high school.

Students could come to the center anytime of the day. One of the requirements was to punch in to record their seat times. Students could work at their own pace to complete the required 22 courses. The students came from several nearby counties from various high schools.

My husband and I also had started an after-school program for students in grades 3-5. I had written a grant proposal to pay high school students to work as tutors for our program, but we were having a hard time keeping reliable teen workers.

One day in class, I was talking about the after-school program. One of the students said she would love to teach dance. Her boyfriend, also a dropout, said he liked kids. They both were interested in working.

I was hesitant because they barely showed up to clock their course hours in the four months that I had been there. Between the both of them, they maybe had completed one course.

Both students were the best workers I have encountered in any of the programs I’ve worked. Neither missed a day and they volunteered to come on Saturdays to help students with their science projects. Their attendance improved in the high school program. The after-school kids loved them as well. Glad I took a chance.

Lesson learned:

1. Sometimes you have to take the risk.

Day done!

We danced. We laughed. We cried.

Thank you, God, for the opportunities you provided me to “dance with the children” for 34 years!

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