Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Tale of Two Teachers

I lost a valued colleague about 6-7 years ago. He wasn’t at our school more than a decade, but he made a lasting impact. Jon was a born teacher. When he arrived at our inner-city school, he was assigned to the 4th grade class across the hall from me. He brought fresh air into the building and new ideas. His enthusiasm was contagious and all of us on the third floor enjoyed his presence and respected his tenacity, talent and wisdom. As a male, he taught me methods to make the class more active for the boys in my room. He made learning into a game in many instances and the boys in his room rose to the occasion to be attentive and learn. We need more males in the elementary classrooms.

Jon had a sense of humor and much patience. Really, he was exactly what we needed at the time we needed it on the third floor of our little school. Most of us had been teaching 20 years and had perhaps fallen into a comfortable way of teaching. But Jon made us examine how we were instructing our young mean and made a challenge he didn’t know he issued. We all looked at our instruction and perhaps tweaked it here and there to step it up. He always had great suggestions at staff and grade group meetings and was always eager to try any suggestions we had for him. I would meet with Jon every so often to discuss possible field trips, projects, and performances at school. Our meetings always had a give and take about them that we were both comfortable with. We even traded papers to grade so we’d be sure the kids were getting a fair shake in their essays. He was a joy to work with.

He was fun, but relentless in his demands of the class. They didn’t get away with much, believe me. He was consistent and creative in his handling of discipline problems and the kids always knew what the consequences were. I’d like to think he learned a few things from us oldies but goodies, too. One thing I know we pushed him to do was to step it up where assembly programs for our grade groups were concerned. On particularly memorable assembly was when he cast one of his behaviorally-challenged kids as the Grinch. The young man in question happily stayed up at lunchtime to rehearse. He went from no confidence to a fairly good rendition of the Grinch. I never saw him happier than when he was learning his lines and songs. Although the actual performance didn’t pan out exactly as Jon had planned it (T. got stage fright), it did boost his confidence, which I took advantage of the next year when he was assigned to my class.

Jon worked tirelessly at classroom management and planned his lessons with the class in mind. He always was fair, extremely competent, and a great spurce of ideas and comfort when I had “one of those days.” Unfortunately, or perhaps it is fortunately after all, he had a higher calling and is now running a church in Brooklyn, NY. I cannot express how much I missed his camaraderie and friendship. He was a true educator. I am sure his congregation values him as much as I do.

Jon was replaced by a Charter School ship-jumper. I was in on the interview process when she was hired, as I would be her grade partner. She was the opposite in personality, but seemed to be a very competent educator. She had been in an administrative position at the well-known charter school and now she had a child, couldn’t deal with the time she had to put in at the school. Pretty much, administrators had to work until after 6-7 PM during the week and on Saturdays, too. But she had some great ideas and seemed to be a valuable asset to our school. So she was hired.

Our grade group meetings were interesting; Alice (not her real name) was your basic Type A person, always super-organized and needing to know her schedule way in advance so she could plan every minute of her day. She had a system for everything and her class had to be just so. It was almost like walking into my Catholic grade school with children sitting with hands folded and all facing the same direction. My class, on the other hand, was loosely arranged in tables and rarely super-organized. Wait, I should be honest here, NEVER super-organized. I believe that discussions and projects that happen spontaneously have more merit than most lessons in the lesson plan. I am fine in going with the flow, but I am always aware and can relate to you exactly how this discussion or project relates to the Standards for our grade. I have never been one to be strictly held to a schedule or a script. In fact, my wonderful principal came up to me several times to see how laid-back Mrs. T was dealing with Type-A Alice. I dealt.

Alice thought that all of the children in her class ought to be able to change their ways and bend to her rules. She worked on the theory that she knew what she wanted, how she wanted it, and the kids better step up. Many of the children in her class did, in fact, step it up and made it through the school year successfully. The handful who didn’t conform to her rules protested loudly all year long and consequently, so did their teacher. She seemed to think that ALL the behavior problems in grade 5 were in her room, and that ALL the kids who couldn’t read were assigned to her class. During our faculty meetings, she incessantly complained about her teaching conditions, not realizing that we were all in the same boat. She hardly ever listened to any suggestions given by teachers with many more years of experience. People learned to tune her out.

The year before I retired, we were required to plan lessons together so that our students would be doing the same things each week. THAT was a mistake. I really could not reconcile my teaching style to hers and finally just let her plan the lessons with some of my input. When I went back to class, I just did my own thing regardless of what was on the paper. I really don’t see how teachers can make one lesson plan since you don’t have the same combination of kids in each class. Since I was very patient, I was often given students who were a bit out of the ordinary, and I have found through the years that I can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as the saying goes. Kids that flew off the handle easily were assigned to my class because she would push the kids to the brink on behavior.

At any rate, out of the five years she spent at the school, she was out on maternity leave twice, so she only actually spent 2 years from September to June teaching. After I retired, she stayed one more year and lo and behold! She is now acting Principal at a charter school. The staff, I think, was relieved at her going. I have my suspicions she just stayed for the medical benefits and left as soon as she could. I have read that she is the same kind of principal as she was a teacher – driven, strict, and inflexible. Good luck to her in her future endeavors.

So here is an example of two teachers who only stayed a while, but who had totally different impacts on our school.

The most valuable thing I learned from Alice was the tricks that the well-known charter school uses to “counsel out” those students with behavior problems and those who couldn’t hack it academically. I learned that the school’s curriculum consists only of that information and concepts that are tested heavily on the standardized tests, and anything else doesn’t get taught, no matter if it’s in the standards or not. Out of the hundred or so standards each in Math and Language Arts, this charter only teaches 38 of them. I was grateful for this information and it has encouraged me to become more informed about the truth of the charter schools. In fact, she is probably the reason why I joined the Badass Teachers Association, to fight against the charters and standardized testing. There is so much more to education than bubbling in answers to 70 multiple choice questions. Much more.
Jon helped me add to my teaching repertoire. He was and remains a trusted friend to whom I would trust the education of my own children. He opened my eyes to great new ideas and made me a better teacher. I cannot express how much I learned from being his grade partner and neighbor teacher. I admire his tenaciousness in sticking with it in our urban school, and I know that his students are the better for his being there. Jon’s contributions to our school community were great and lasting. A true educator.

Badass Teachers Association -

Still learning!

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