Our first Educator Spotlight is Flory Sommers, a teacher at Franklin Middle School. Flory was nominated by Rebecca Froehlich of the Minnesota Urban Debate League. 

Here’s what Froehlich had to say about Sommers: 

“Flory is so appreciated. She really sets a model for what makes a good teacher and a good coach. She is inspiring and motivating and I hope that other people can learn from her approach to bringing out the best in all students in whatever activity they’re doing, whether that is school or an extracurricular.”

Flory Sommers has been a teacher for 41 years. For the last four years she has worked at Franklin Middle School. A bilingual educator, Flory taught elementary school in Texas and Wisconsin before moving to Minneapolis 36 years ago. 

“I always thought I would want to teach middle school one day, but I didn’t think I was ready. The principal, this was at Webster Open in Northeast, assigned me to middle school and I loved it. This is my 36th year teaching middle school,” said Sommers. 

We sat down with Flory to profile her for this piece. Here’s what we learned: 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What have you taught? 

I was teaching English and Spanish at Webster Open. I taught one year at Chiron, which doesn’t exist anymore, but it was a middle school. We did a lot of field trips throughout the community. I taught for 13 years at Emerson Spanish Immersion and 12 years at Barton Open School, and this is my fourth year at Franklin. Spanish has been a part of almost all of my teaching, English and Spanish. I coached basketball for a very long time, about 30 years. Different extracurriculars too. I would do a big play. And debate. Debate started about 16 years ago. Middle school debate and I continue to do that at Franklin, as well as teaching Spanish. 

That is quite the storied teaching history…

It’s funny, 41 years feels like a long time and it doesn’t. Plus, it’s always really fresh. No matter where you are and who you’re working with. It’s always about creating what works for who’s in the room, it’s about what you’re creating with a community of learners, no child is a replica of anybody else. Whatever I do tomorrow is going to be tailored to what happened today. It’s always new.

Was teaching the thing you wanted to do as a young person? 

Well, no. I’m the oldest of 13 children and I had just graduated from high school. I was 18 and my youngest sister was 4. My parents sold our house - I grew up in Detroit - and they didn’t buy a new house. We traveled around the country for six weeks in a station wagon. There were 15 of us in a station wagon. And then when we got back, we didn’t have a home. My parents rented a cabin in northern Michigan for a couple months and my dad said, ‘Well, we’re going to tutor the kids so they can go start the second semester at their grade level.” He said he was going to teach all the kids except for the youngest two school-aged children, who were in second and third grades. He told me I was to teach them. Their learning styles were very different and, though I had never thought I was going to be a teacher, I so loved what happened when I was able to make it make sense, when I could make that lightbulb go on. And because their learning styles were different, it meant there were very different types of activities I needed to create to adapt, to find what worked for each. I decided I wanted to be a teacher, a city teacher. I loved languages and I thought I would go into bilingual education.

At that time I thought I would teach high school, but they didn’t have a bilingual program for high school at UW-Madison, where I got my undergrad. They had bilingual education for elementary school, so that’s how I started with elementary. After my first year teaching middle school, I realized I was meant to be a middle school teacher. 

In my mind, that is the hardest age group to teach, because they are starting to come into themselves in a new way and they are discovering the bounds of their personalities and they are trying to test those edges and figure out who they are going to be. How do you maneuver that with so many young people every year? 

Well, you try to figure out who each person is and you try to guide them. There are certain things they are able to think about, more abstract things, they are able to think about them more in-depth. It’s very exciting and a lot of things are new to them. They are often open-minded and interested in exploring ideas they haven’t contemplated before. They are vulnerable, going through all these changes. It’s really important to cast a wide net, even in my classroom, to give them a variety of options. Somebody might find there is an area they really like or they hadn’t realized they could be good at a particular endeavor. It’s important to keep encouraging that and to help kids find their own learning styles, help kids take ownership of their learning. There are activities we can do - dancing and art projects and we used to have a kitchen and we could cook real food. We ran a little restaurant in the school. We taught them how to run all aspects of that restaurant.

Are there things you hold onto, as a teacher for the good days and the not-so-good days? 

I don’t have a lot of memories of not-good days because I’m the kind of person who is always looking forward. I journal a lot so I have realized that about myself. I do focus on the positive a lot so I will focus on things that went well for kids. But, 41 years, I have a lot of memories. There are so many good things. 

You must have had hundreds if not thousands of students in 41 years! 

It’s really wonderful that a lot of kids stay in touch with me. I say kids but some of them are getting close to 50 themselves! Many of my former students are now friends. I think it’s easier for middle school students to make friends with you after they become adults, to stay in touch, because it hasn’t been so long since you were their teacher and a lot of the discussions you have in class are at the level you might have as adults whether discussing literature or current events or philosophical viewpoints. I have friends now that were in my classes, they are in their forties, in their thirties, in their twenties. I’ve been to a lot of weddings and quinceañeras. I would be heartbroken if I had to say goodbye after 8th-grade graduation, if I wouldn’t see them again, but they have stayed in touch with me. 

Who are teachers who influenced you? 

Growing up, I went to first through eighth grades at a Catholic School and then I went to a public high school. Those experiences really helped me as a teacher, both the benefits of each and the things I didn’t want to replicate. I did have an incredibly influential eighth grade teacher. This eighth grade teacher, Mr. Barnhorst, he did so many cool things and he opened our minds to a lot of ideas. One thing he did is he told us we were going to write our own poetry books. [The students] would choose the poems that would be included in the books. We would submit poems if we wanted to, and he put all of us in groups to review and vote on whether to include a poem or not. The school had cliques, but students weren’t voting on poems based on whether or not the person who wrote the poem was in their clique. They wanted the book to be the best book it could be. Then my teacher got fired with five days to go. He had been an Anti-War activist. There was a zealous teacher at the school, recently converted to Catholicism, and she had the principal’s ear and they got him fired. On a day when all the girls were gone on a field trip and many of the boys didn’t show up to school, Mr. Barnhorst and another teacher had let the boys who were present go outside for some extra recess. Other teachers at that school had given students extra recess, there hadn’t been a rule against it, but they fired him for that.  There was no union, no protection, he was fired with five days left in the school year.

This was ‘71, they were so afraid of us eighth graders after they fired our teachers that they believed we were going to set a bomb in the school. They evacuated the entire student body, sent us to the church basement across the street! Anyway, this zealous teacher left her sixth grade class to come ‘save’ us and, about the poetry book, she said, ‘The poetry book is fine but for one poem, you have to take it out,’ and I knew odds were it was my poem because I had a lot of poems included. I had never even had a boyfriend, I just made up what I thought it would be like, and then what it would be like if my imaginary boyfriend broke up with me for another girl. Very innocent thing. We were going to eat hamburgers and French fries and chocolate shakes, take a walk in the snow and swim in the lakes, that kind of thing, lines that rhyme. I asked her about the poem and she told me, “You wrote ‘I cannot bear it now, it cannot be fair,’ and you could be talking about bearing a child.” That had never occurred to me. And then she quoted, “‘I buried my face in the leafy clover.’ I needed something that would rhyme with over,’ without a word it was simply all over.’  But she said,  “You know what happens in the clover, hey hey hey.” So I went home for lunch and I told my mom, “This teacher is putting these thoughts in my head.” I called Mr. Barnhorst, I don’t know how I had his number but I found it, and he said, “You don’t let them take that out of the book! That's your poetry book, that belongs to the students. We’ll publish it underground!” 

I went back to school. The principal didn’t really know me, but I had been fourth in the Detroit City Spelling Bee that year and she knew me for that. She was a nun and nuns at the time, they were showing they were changing, showing the front of their hair, using their birth names. I asked Sister Patricia to look at my poem and I asked her opinion as a woman. She really didn’t read it, she glanced at it and said she loved it. Then I entered my classroom just as this zealous teacher was telling the class, “You chuck the poem or you chuck the whole book.” And I said, “Really? Sister Patricia really likes it.” And so the poem stayed in the book and we published it. 

The reason this matters is that in my second year up here, I gave my students that same assignment. Kids were writing poems, choosing which poems to include in their class poetry book themselves. We had a new principal that year and he said that a couple parents on the PTA had concerns about a couple of the poems and we had to take them out of the book. I said that I would ask the kids but it was up to them. I loved the school, I loved my colleagues, but I did not have tenure. Still, I thought: I had benefited from what my 8th grade teacher did for me, I cannot just say I will wait until I have tenure. If I am going to become that kind of teacher…if I do something that I don’t think is ethical, that doesn’t have integrity, because I don’t have tenure, if I do that, then I’ll always be that kind of teacher. I’ll go down that road. But if I act as Mr. Barnhorst did, then I will be on the road to becoming the kind of teacher he was.

I presented what the principal said to my students and they said they didn’t want to take the poems out. Students who didn’t have a poem in the book empathized with those who did, with those who might have their poem censored. So I told them we wouldn’t take out any poems.  One mom told me she would be able to help us publish - publish ‘underground,’ so to speak - echoing Mr. Barnhorst.

I was really afraid as to whether or not I would still have my job when I approached the principal to tell him we would not be taking any poems out of the book. We would publish it ourselves.

But he wasn’t upset at all. “That’s fine,” he said. “The school will publish the censored version and you can publish the uncensored version.” 

All of the Webster Open teachers bought the uncensored version.

One of the poets from that year is a poet today. She has published two poetry books. She’s also a teacher and an activist. It was one of her poems that they wanted to take out of the poetry book. One of her poems from that time is in her first poetry book. Shout-out to Jessica Winnie!  She got excited about poetry as a middle school student. If her poem had been censored, would she have continued to write poetry? That’s why it’s important, in my mind, the decisions we make regarding our students. There may be a ripple effect far into the future. In many ways, my eighth grade teacher influenced me. I wish I could find him to thank him.  I searched the white pages before Google, and the internet since, but I can’t locate him.

There was another teacher that influenced me greatly. Ms. Wright. She was my Spanish and French teacher. My family had fallen on hard times. We didn’t always have a telephone, our car was repossessed. Once our electricity was turned off and we were in danger of losing our house. 

I used to have to miss a day of school each week to babysit and there was a policy that if a student missed 20 days, the teacher had to drop the student’s grade even if they did all the work. Ms. Wright went to bat for me and other students so that we got the grade we deserved; she refused to deny a student an “A,” for instance, if their work deserved an “A,” if they missed 20 days because they were ill, or because, like me, they had to babysit younger siblings. I didn’t know what battles she had to fight, but I knew she fought for us.

I worked three jobs in high school and sometimes I was so tired I fell asleep in Study Hall, which Ms. Wright supervised. She understood what I was going through. When she found out I wasn’t going to college because I had to work to support my younger siblings, she became really alarmed. She got all the materials for me to apply for financial aid. I was really touched by how much she cared, how worried she was for me, how much she believed in me.

I’ve tried to find her, too, to tell her that not only did I go to college four years later, but that I became a teacher, I taught Spanish! I wanted to tell her how much her going ‘above and beyond’ meant to me. But I wasn’t able to find her either. I just really wanted her to know.

Those two teachers influenced me, because of what they invested in their students of themselves, as human beings.

Come back next week to hear about Flory's skydiving experience in part two of her spotlight!