My Friend Speaks My Mind: Conversations with Pat Dalton

I have had many close friends and mentors in my life, but none were as monumental and influential as Pat Dalton.  When I was a junior at NC State I "officially" interviewed Pat for a course assignment - I already knew much of Pat's history and teaching philosophy from our time spent together.  I wrote and submitted the following as evidence of the assignment, and nostalgia (and digital hoarding) urged me to dig around, find the text, and share it with the web.

Pat passed away in September 2006.  I love and miss Pat so much.

My Friend Speaks My Mind: Conversations with Pat Dalton
by Matthew James Ross, September 2003

Pat Dalton is the most incredible person I have ever met.  Her spirit and zest for both life and education has been a powerful force in my life since I met her in January 2002 as a freshman at North Carolina State University.  When charged with the assignment of interviewing a teacher with the ultimate goal of acquainting myself with the life of a professional teacher, I knew exactly who to turn to—Pat.  No other person has influenced my educational philosophy so greatly; the decision was almost made for me!

As I prepared for the interview and began thinking of what to ask Pat, I realized that I already knew quite a lot about her and her teaching history.  Indeed, perusing the suggested questions seemed to reek of false authenticity.  My conversations with Pat over the past 16 months proved to be many levels above these listed examples.  Despite my ill feelings, I decided to continue with the interview as planned and let “life happen”—one of Pat’s favorite sayings.  The interview was a smash, as all interactions with Pat are, but I left still struggling with myself on how to collect my thoughts about this dynamite woman and her life.

I soon realized that an interview was not what was needed in order to prepare for this assignment.  All I needed to convey about what I know to be true about Pat and what she has meant to my life was locked away in my memory, in the countless conversations that we have had throughout our fledgling relationship.

I have always wondered how I would ever be able to reciprocate what my favorite teacher has meant to me.  Hopefully, in some small way, this will be a start.

Finding the Path

Pat, beginning with her involvement with SNCAE in high school, has always wanted to be a teacher.  She loves school—she loves the materials, the learning, the newness each year.  When she entered Wake Forest University as a freshman, she chose biochemistry as her major.  Pat soon realized, however, that researching and teaching biochemistry was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. In her search for a new major, she stumbled across English, and found a match therein.  Not because she wanted to necessarily teach English, but because she loved to read!  Quoting Pat, “…it wasn’t the best way to pick a major!”  Alas, she found herself in English and came to realize that her move from biochemistry was a positive one.

Ever since then Pat has been teaching.  She has taught everything from fifth grade through graduate school in her more than 30 years of educational experience.  Pat laughs when she is queried about her teaching style and its development over her varied interactions with students and schools.  She confirms to inquirers that in her first few years of teaching she taught as she was taught: through lecture.  She makes it a point to note that she considers herself a moderately good lecturer.  It was not that her lectures were boring, per say, but that they did not adequately meet the needs of her students.

Pat returned to graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, followed by a period of time at seminary which is a footnote in the life of this master teacher that many do not know.  She credits her time at seminary not only as part of her “journey”—another Pat-ism—but the place that confirmed the important things about teaching for her.  Such things include compassion, mercy, and the need for relationships between and among her students.  Returning to the classroom, Pat taught English at Chapel Hill High School and eventually became their English Department Chair.

My Friend Speaks My Mind

The title of this piece is a direct quote of a Quaker saying meaning to reduce repetitive dialogue when two or more persons are in agreement on something.  Pat moved from Chapel Hill High School into the position of Head Teacher at Carolina Friends Middle School, a Quaker school, where she remained for 16 years.  She is fond of this phrase, as well as other Quaker-speak, and I believe it to be true about the nature of our interactions.

Pat is not a Quaker, however, and will be the first to let you know.  However, Carolina Friends Middle School was a place that honored what was known about young adolescents at that time and strove to mesh it with a Quaker philosophy.  Much of what Pat speaks today was influenced by her years leading and teaching at Friends School.  One such example is her belief in the power of silence, which is highly valued in the Quaker community.  Many Quaker-based theories and activities can be seen sprinkled throughout Pat’s classroom today.

A Journey of One

Pat is a dynamic and individual person, and such is reflected in her teaching.  In discussing those instances where “life happens,” one will often find parallels and connections in her feedback to her philosophy of education.  “A Journey of One” is a semester-long project that students in Pat’s ECI 205: Introduction to Teaching in the Humanities and Social Sciences class must complete.  Students’ Journeys are to reflect their experiences throughout the semester, focusing on the students’ growth—whether or not it is in relation to the class.  Pat lives her life daily, in and out of the classroom, as a journey of one.

The most important aspect of teaching and education for Pat is the student.  She holds very near to her heart the relationships that she builds with her students and believes that a student-centered classroom (as well as relevancy) is the key to effective education.

Pat believes that all students can and want to learn, even though they might not want to learn what she is prepared to teach—and that is okay.  She sees her role to be more a facilitator of learning and often relinquishes control of her classroom so that she does not “get in the way” of their learning.  By conveying and showing students that she is authentic, caring, and humane, Pat believes that her students will be able to do amazing things.

Structure is important, and Pat recognizes this.  She believes in a form of tough love and is in favor of structure that makes sense, is sane and humane.  She avoids the rigid format many teachers employ today as well as the knee-jerk response to situations.

Pat believes in the power of question-asking and proclaims regularly that her students have lost the ability to ask questions.  In avoiding those knee-jerk situations, many times Pat moves in to reach further clarity about what is going on instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming.  Pat’s ultimate goal is for her students to regain their ability to ask questions—a skill, she tells her students, that is the key to the creation of knowledge and interactions with other human beings and nature.

Currently, Pat is teaching pre-service middle school teachers at North Carolina State University.  Through her contact with these future teachers, she expresses a greater love of teaching than I have ever seen.  She urges these students to take themselves seriously—a plight of many current teachers in the public schools.  This and the giving away of a teacher’s power is what Pat declares as the reason American society does not view teachers as professionals.  She is quick to add that teachers must also take responsibility for the influence that they have.

Speaking My Continually Revealed Truth

While Pat’s philosophy of education and teaching style has meant so very much to me, it is the daily interactions and discussions about life that have impacted me the most.  My life has taken a new direction since I met Pat—I found my own journey and am doing my best to travel on it day by day with the lessons that I have learned.  Pat’s impact is so great, in fact, that my peers and myself often refer to things as before Pat (B.P.) and after Pat (A.P.)!

This woman has taught me so much: the universe is a good place and people are inherently good, life is all about choices, believe that people are doing their best until they prove to you otherwise, do not judge—under any circumstances, the power of brief speech and just breathing, life is made up of lessons that you learn and will continue to face until you learn, don’t sweat the small stuff, creating and maintaining guilt-free relationships, and finally (maybe the most important) always speak your truth and be mindful that truth is continually revealed.

Thank you, Pat Dalton, for everything.


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