Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Our Impact

I was a conscientious and anxious five-year-old, desperate to please adults and follow. all. rules. I couldn’t wait for kindergarten because I just knew I would love my teacher and she would love how good I was.  I imagined myself settling into my seat on the bus, hanging my coat in my own personal cubby, and organizing my desk in perfect, sensible order.   I saw neat rows of sharpened pencils, stacks of art materials, and the freedom to read for hours on end. 

But the reality of school was nothing like that.  The moment I lay my eyes on my teacher, my stomach flipped over in dread.  My teacher—I’ll call her Mrs. Mills— was a very large woman with a huge poufy haircut, a sharp chin, and dark, glinting, narrowed eyes.   She wore black pumps that clumped angrily as she walked.  She spent the first several days listing all the rules of the classroom and describing the dire things that would happen if we broke them.  She kept all books and art supplies locked in the closet behind her desk. 

I was genuinely frightened of her.  I tried to stay little, be small, and stay out of her way.  It worked for a while; she seemed unbothered by me—in contrast to two or three rambunctious boys, for whom Mrs. Mills seemed to thoroughly hate. 

Once, she even dolled out a smile just for me.

But in just the third week of school, she broke my heart. 

I remember the scene as if it occurred this morning.  It started when Mrs. Mills taught our class how to make an “8.”  She was firm:  “We never make an “8” by making two circles on top of one another, like a snowman.  No snowmen!  You must make them with one fluid line—start at the left top, circle around…” She showed us several times on the chalkboard, and then handed out a practice sheet.  There were probably 20 spots to practice—first with dotted “8”s we could trace, and then several more practice spaces for us to make the number on our own.

The problem was, as I began to practice, my 8s looked horrid.  They were awkward and shaky, like a baby was trying to make them.  I decided I couldn’t possibly turn these 8’s into Mrs. Mills.  So, desperate to make her proud, I began making all my 8s with stacked circles.  Snowman after perfect snowman. 

Mrs. Mills clomped around the room to check our work.  I felt her looming.  As she got closer, my shoulders slumped and shrunk.  I waited. 

Pulling up alongside my desk, she made a triumphant harrumph.  She snatched my paper and held it up to the rest of the class.  “Boys and girls, put your pencils down and take a look.”  She shook the paper a little. “This is exactly—exactly! —what not to do.  Jenny has made her 8s like snowmen.  This is not acceptable.  You must learn to make them in One. Single. Motion.  Do you understand?  All of you?”  Everyone nodded.  Mrs. Mills reached into her pocket and pulled out the inkpad and stamps that she always kept there. She stamped a large blue frown-y face on the top of the paper.

I bit down hard on my lip to keep the tears from springing up.  I stared down at my paper, mortified and devastated. The frown-y face was huge, and angry, and—oh, just horrid.   

Mrs. Mills moved on to another student.  Oblivious.

I announced to my parents that I wasn’t going back to school. 

Oh, yes, you are, they told me.

No. I’m not.

Yes, you are.

It was a brutal few days. When the bus was due to arrive, I crawled deep under my bed or into my closet; my mother had to call my father home from work to drag me out.  I cried.  I begged.  I hyperventilated.  But my father’s arms were too strong.  Their admonishments were too heavy.  My sisters’ bewilderment at my unprecedented behavior began to feel like scorn. 

So I accepted it.  I shrunk into myself and clenched my jaw and made it through each long, awful day. 

That was the only frown-y feedback I got that year, but it remained a bruise that wouldn’t fade.  The experience is never far from my mind when I am working with young learners.  It guided my philosophy when I was a teacher, and it guides me now that I am a principal.

The important message here is that the impact we have on students cannot be overstated.   Young learners can be deeply affected by something we say or do—something we did without even thinking about it.  It’s a powerful, enormous responsibility we bear as educators.  Whether a kindergarten teacher, a middle school Algebra teacher, or a high school American History class, we must never forget our first role is to lift and give—not take away. 

Although I had flashes of hot hatred when I was her student, if I saw Mrs. Mills today, I would be careful, cautious, and kind in my words.  I certainly would thank her, genuinely, for all those years she spent teaching kidnergarteners.  Because teaching is really hard.  It had jaded Mrs. Mills by the time I was in her class, and I can understand why.  Now that decades have passed, I don’t hate her at all.  I’m just sad for the whole bit:  me, her, the boys who got paddled in front of the rest of the class, the slivery 8s I made on the paper she frowned upon.  Just sad and sorry. 

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