by Christopher Lehman, Founding Director
The Educator Collaborative family grieves with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project family this evening on the sudden and unfathomable loss of Kathleen Tolan, Senior Deputy Director and champion for children.
For those of you that knew her through institutes, workshops, materials, or worked directly with her as former members of the organization, she was a powerhouse in personality, depth of knowledge, and drive. Many of us at TheEdCollab are former members, recent speakers, colleagues in mission, and admirers of both Kathleen and TCRWP. This loss cuts us personally and also hurts so deeply for our profession.
Since I heard the news this afternoon, I have replayed in my mind one vivid snapshot, over and over. It is a video lesson of Kathleen Tolan in an elementary classroom in New York City, reading a love-worn copy of The Giving Tree. Kathleen had, I recall, complex and passionate feelings about the book, just as she carried complex and passionate feelings about all things. She loved nothing more than bringing that complexity and zest for digging-in directly to children. She believed they were capable and deserved to be challenged.
In that recorded lesson, Kathleen reads a bit, then with her trademark intensity, turns to the class of elementary students and asks them to take up a conversation: “turn knee to knee and talk!” The classroom becomes a wash of little voices. Kathleen moves amongst them, nodding, prodding, asking. What you see in the video, as in all of her work, is Kathleen looking eye-to-eye with each child. Every child is and was as worthy of deep listening as any adult, perhaps even more so.
Kathleen gathers the class back and returns to reading. As the lesson progresses she deftly pushes the children to think beyond their first thoughts, to support their partners in seeing more and more, she navigates the room while pushing and growing their budding ideas.
The pages turn and the tree gives its apples, then its branches, then its trunk.
Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.
And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.
Telling this story now I am reminded of my official on-boarding to TCRWP. It all began with Kathleen Tolan as my official interviewer. Twice.
The first time was a mess. It was a terrifying ordeal. Kathleen is not someone who leaves you ambivalent to her thinking about you. It was clear by answer number two that I was not ready in her eyes. Yet, as she so often does, she left me with the understanding that she saw something in me, maybe a not yet something, but something that had promise. I left sweating buckets. I also left on a mission to be better in my craft and knowledge.
A year later I found myself once again with Kathleen in an upper Manhattan elementary school. She said she had a group of Teachers College graduate students going for a visit with her and that would be a perfect time for me to do some demo lessons.
Within moments of entering the building Kathleen sat next to a child on a bench, invited me to sit as well and then said: “Now, I’m going to act like a teacher, I want you to coach me on giving a conference.” She then sat inches-close and stared.
While Kathleen was never one to shy from pressure there was also something else. In her eyes she sent me the message: “you can do it. Just do it. I know you can do it.” Those eyes always, forever and always in every interaction, carried with them the challenging belief that you are better than you think you are.
The frozen-fear of the moment thawed a bit and I began to work into a rendition of: “compliments in conferences are important because…”
As soon as that conference ended, without skipping a beat, Kathleen said, “okay, now go do a lesson and we’ll watch.” As she got up, she walked over to the graduate students and said, within my earshot, “so what Chris is going to do next is the sort of thing he’ll be doing as a Staff Developer.”
The Giving Tree.
These moments are not singular. It was not only that one classroom on that video that learned with Kathleen. Not only me being supported and pushed in an important step in my professional life.
Kathleen Tolan gave her apples, branches, trunk year upon year. Not for personal gain or to be lauded with accolades, instead, I believe, because she believed that the labor of her intense work would make those around her stronger, more steadfast, and able to shine.
We have lost a heart and drive. We have been given a legacy to live within and a call to work to honor it.