Lessons From The School Where I Failed As A Teacher

Mar 14, 2016
Originally published on May 21, 2016 5:03 pm

Before I became a reporter, I was a teacher. After 27 years on the education beat, I've met a few fantastic teachers and a few bad ones. So I've wondered, where would I have fit in? Was I a good teacher?

Recently I went back to the site of the school where I taught so many years ago, just outside Tucson, Ariz. Treehaven was both a day school and a boarding school for so-called "troubled kids."

The actual school and the people who ran it are long gone. The property, now called Circle Tree Ranch, houses a residential drug-rehabilitation facility for families and children. The company that runs the place today has nothing to do with Treehaven, but one of the administrators was nice enough to give me a brief tour.

I look for something familiar. I'm told almost all the buildings have been remodeled. Most classrooms were torn down, including mine. But the smell of the place — 60 acres perfumed by desert flowers, palo verde trees and cacti — takes me back.

As I walk along a narrow dirt path, I remember how amazing the school seemed when I came here in 1977. I'd been hired to teach Spanish and English as a second language in grades pre-K all the way up through middle school.

Treehaven had a rigorous curriculum, a core of veteran teachers, instruction tailored to each student's needs and a focus on discipline and structure — and, best of all, terrific kids.

They were learning-disabled, they were brilliant, they were troubled, they were rich, they were poor. I was convinced that teaching these kinds of kids would be my life.

But I left after two years. And ever since, a nagging question has bothered me: Was I a good teacher?

This year, as we began a series reporting on great teachers and what makes them effective, I called one of my former students, John Putz. It's hard to believe, but he's now 47 years old. He was 8 or 9 when I met him at Treehaven.

I knew how to get hold of John because, some years ago, he had heard me on NPR and sent me an email: Was I the same Claudio Sanchez who taught at a boarding school in Arizona? And if so, did I have any reflections?

None that I wanted to share back then. But I do now. There was so much that John and I needed to catch up on. On the phone, he reminds me that he never thought of himself as a "troubled kid."

John says his family history is a long story, but basically his father didn't believe much in the nuclear family, and that's why he ended up at Treehaven.

"Not that I was a bad kid," says John. Abandoned — that's how he says he felt.

I wasn't surprised. You see, after I started teaching at Treehaven, it didn't take long for me to realize that many of the boarding students felt abandoned. Some came from broken homes, mostly the result of divorce. Others had been in and out of foster homes. A few kids had been expelled from one school or another.

I just thought they were all really smart. You know, the kind of kids who may be a pain in the neck, but, boy, are they fun to teach.

Besides teaching English and Spanish, I was a dorm parent with eight boys under my care, including John. I also taught creative writing and photography, drove the school van, helped coach our winless soccer team and cooked breakfast on weekends. Kids loved my French toast. I loved flying kites with them on Sundays.

One of the best things about Treehaven was its 4-H program. Kids cared for rabbits and hamsters, pigs, sheep, horses and chickens that they showed off at the county fair. I don't know why I never wrote down on my resume that I had once supervised a 4-H goat club.

But Treehaven's seemingly healthy, nurturing academic culture was, as John puts it, "one of two realities."

"I remember a lot of the teachers, their creativity and how they taught us," says John. "But what [Treehaven] did wrong was it had a cruel and mean headmaster. I remember one little girl. ... She was less than 5, I think."

John is referring to Candy, the youngest child at Treehaven at the time.

"She wouldn't eat her oatmeal, and they just kept her strapped in her chair, like, all morning," John recalls. "And at some point somebody dumped the oatmeal over her head. We all came in for lunch, and she was sitting there with oatmeal all over her head."

I confess, I felt complicit when things like that happened. That's probably why I didn't respond to John's email back in 1997.

I mean, not long after I left Treehaven, I really did struggle to reconcile my decision to leave teaching and the children I had grown so fond of. I felt I had failed as a teacher. I was young — and, in hindsight, totally unprepared to deal with children who emotionally required so, so much.

John says he understands.

"Yeah, I think that would be a hard thing to come to terms with. ... You were a victim of it, I guess, as much as the rest of us. ... You couldn't change how they ran the place. I mean, you must have been in your early 20s in this crazy environment."

John's comments help. In my minds eye, he's still that little boy who grew up without his parents. But he went on to get his Ph.D. in physics, married, had three children and today sounds like he's a happy human being.

I think of him as an incredible success story from Treehaven. John says he doesn't really think about that: "I kind of think of myself as somebody who survived and can lead a fairly normal life."

Which brings me back to that question I've asked myself over and over. Did I have a role, no matter how small, in any of my students' success? Was I a good teacher?

"I think you were a good teacher," says John. "I feel affection and gratitude for you and the other teachers. I mean, I don't have any feelings that you guys let us down."

It's good to hear John say that. It's what all teachers need to hear at some point in their careers, a validation of sorts. Even if it's only from one student, decades later.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Claudio Sanchez is the senior education reporter at NPR. Before becoming a reporter, though, he was a teacher. Since leaving the classroom, he has been haunted by one big question. Was he a good teacher? In search of an answer, Claudio went back to the site of the school just outside Tucson where he taught so many years ago.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The name of the place is now Circle Tree Ranch.

Treehaven, the school where I once taught, is long gone. The property now houses a residential drug rehabilitation facility for families and children. I walk up to the gate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Over intercom) Can I help you?

SANCHEZ: My name is Claudio Sanchez. I used to teach here when this school was known as Treehaven. And I just wanted to chat with someone about what happened to that school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Over intercom) There's a gentleman behind you that can answer some questions.

SANCHEZ: I just saw him.

An administrator arranges a brief tour. I'm told the company that runs the place today has nothing to do with the people who once operated Treehaven.

That was the administration building. I remember that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.

SANCHEZ: I look for something familiar.

Even that's been remodeled.

Most classrooms were torn down, including mine. But the smell of the place, 60 acres perfumed by desert flowers, Palo Verdes and cacti, takes me back. In 1977, Treehaven hired me to teach Spanish and English as a second language - pre-K through junior high. It was both a day school and a boarding school for so-called troubled kids.

JOHN PUTZ: You know, it's funny because I guess I didn't think of myself as a troubled kid.

SANCHEZ: That's John Putz, one of my students.

You weren't in my dorm though, right?

PUTZ: I think I was.

SANCHEZ: Oh, were you?

PUTZ: For at least one year.

SANCHEZ: I called John when I got back from Arizona. It's hard to believe, but he's now 47 years old. He was about 8 or 9 when I met him at Treehaven.

PUTZ: How I got there is a very -it's kind of a long, complicated story. I don't know how much you know about this. But our parents were in this sort of quasi cult.

SANCHEZ: They didn't believe in the nuclear family, says John. So they sent their kids to boarding schools.

PUTZ: They didn't want to deal with them or whatever - not that they were bad kids. Parents had chosen to ship them off to some, you know, godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere.

SANCHEZ: Abandoned, that's how John says he felt.

PUTZ: You know, I was kind of in shock I guess.

SANCHEZ: Still, walking along the winding dirt path encircling the campus, I remember how amazing the school seemed when I arrived, with its rigorous curriculum, a corps of veteran teachers, instruction tailored to each child's needs, a focus on discipline and structure and best of all, terrific kids.

They were learning disabled. They were brilliant. They were troubled. They were rich. They were poor. I was convinced that teaching these kinds of kids would be my life. But I loved teaching here. I really did.

Besides teaching English and Spanish, I was a dorm parent with eight boys under my care, including John. I taught creative writing and photography, drove the school van, helped coach our winless soccer team, cooked breakfast on weekends. Kids loved my French toast. I loved flying kites with them. One of the best things about Treehaven was its 4-H program. Kids cared for rabbits and hamsters, pigs, sheep, horses and chickens that they showed off at the county fair. I don't know why I never wrote down on my resume that I had once supervised a 4-H goat club. But the seemingly healthy, nurturing academic culture was, as John puts it, one of two realities at Treehaven.

PUTZ: I still remember a lot of the teachers and their creativity and how they taught us. What it did wrong is it just had a cruel and mean headmaster. I remember one little girl who was there. And I don't know if you remember this. But she was less than 5 I think.

SANCHEZ: Her name was Candy.

PUTZ: Candy, yeah. And she wouldn't eat her oatmeal. And they just kept her kind of strapped into her chair, like, all morning after breakfast. And at some point, somebody, like, dumped the oatmeal over her head. You know, we all came in for lunch, and she was sitting there with oatmeal on her head. I mean...

SANCHEZ: And there were so many instances in which I felt complicit in some of the stuff that went on there.

I'm sure that's why I didn't respond when John first reached out to me way, way back in 1997. He had heard me on NPR, so he sent an email wanting to know if I was the same Claudio Sanchez who taught at a boarding school in Arizona called Treehaven. And if so, did I have any reflections? Well, none that I wanted to share - until now. I mean, I struggled to reconcile my decision to leave teaching and the children I had grown so fond of. But I had quit after only two years. I felt I had failed as a teacher. I was young, and in hindsight totally unprepared to deal with children who emotionally required so, so much.

PUTZ: Yeah, I think that would be a hard thing to come to terms with, being in that situation.

SANCHEZ: John understands more than I would have expected.

PUTZ: You were a victim of it I guess as much as the rest of us. So much of it was way beyond what one individual teacher could deal with. I mean, you couldn't change how they ran the place. I mean, you must have been, you know, in your early 20s in this crazy environment.

SANCHEZ: With all kinds of kids who had ended up at Treehaven for all kinds of reasons, among them John, a sweet, quiet boy who grew up without his parents but who went on to get a PhD in physics, married, had three children and today sounds like he's a happy human being.

I mean, you are now, in my view, an incredible success story from Treehaven. Do you see yourself as a success?

PUTZ: I don't really think about that. I kind of think of myself as somebody who's kind of survived and can lead a fairly normal life.

SANCHEZ: And that, what John just said, brings me back to a question I've asked myself over and over. Did I have a role, no matter how small? Was I a good teacher?

PUTZ: You know, I think you were a good teacher. I think you were serious, but you cared.

SANCHEZ: That is very important for me to hear, John.

PUTZ: I feel, you know, affection and gratitude for you and the other teachers. I mean, I don't - I don't have any feelings of you guys let us down. So...

SANCHEZ: Listening to John, it dawns on me. This is what all teachers need to hear at some point in their careers, a validation of sorts, even if it's only from one student decades later. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.