Saturday, February 7, 2009

One Fine School

I've lost count as to how many schools I have visited or supervised student teachers within the walls.  Mostly elementary schools, but a number of middle schools and a few high schools.  I've have also done storytelling in a number of these schools since for a time I was a registered storyteller with the American Storytelling Association.  I would tell Scottish stories and play the pipes and talk about culture.  Fun times.  More on this in another blog later on.  Remind me to tell you of the nylons and pantyhose at one school.

But I was supervising a couple of student teachers in this one elementary school located in an urban middle class, maybe upper middle class neighborhood.  Like many schools in our nation there was the old part of the school, probably built in the 1920s and then a new part built in the late 1950s and finally the newest part built in the 1980s.  It never really fit together in terms of architecture and heating was a bear for the custodian.  But still to this day I think this was my favorite school to visit because of the teachers....and the principal.

I still remember my first day there.  The office was in the oldest part, pretty standard type.  Reception area and principal's office.  A very gracious lady greeted me and like most school secretaries I came to know that Mrs. Nordstrom knew everything about every child, teacher, family, bus and bus driver AND principal.  She was a sweetheart with blackmail material.  The perfect school secretary.  The principal came right out to greet me (some principals use to make me wait for a time--probably to let me know they were busy or something) and Mr. Roberts and I had a great talk.  He was happy with the two student teachers--would help me in whatever I suggested, and even made some suggestions as to how we could improve their teaching experiences.  And what else could he do for me?  It was a very warm welcome.  And as usual I asked if there was anything I could or should do while I was in the building besides check in each time.  "No, just stay out of the teachers' way and watch some good teaching going on--I'm proud of this school."  "You'll notice that I also try to stay out of their way."

And that was that.  No rules. And enjoy myself.  It wasn't long before I fell in love with the school.  About sixteen teaching stations, a new library and a new covered play area.  Not enough parking (very typical) and a teachers room down in the basement next to the furnace with one long table, a refrigerator and if I remember correctly a copy machine.  It was almost hard to get to.....

But it was the teachers that made this school.  All of them.  Mostly young and middle aged seasoned veterans--they all knew how to teach.  And they all wanted to teach.  Oh, yes, all women except for one man at the fourth grade level.  He was an anomaly.  While all the women was vivacious and active, Anthony was quiet, somewhat plodding in nature and a very traditional type of teacher.  Desks all lined up in his room, not much on the walls and assignments for each student which he meticulously went over with a red pen and corrected, handed it back and had the students correct it or re-do it.   It was in my mind a dull classroom.  You could almost predict what was going to happen in his room, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day.  I didn't think if I had children that I would want them in his room

On the other hand in the teachers' room, Anthony was continuously picked upon by the women teachers.  He being a middle aged bachelor he was fair game.  "Anthony, how was your sex life this weekend?"  Or, "How many days in a row are you going to wear that shirt?"  He took all the ribbing in stride, just smiled and would then finish his lunch.  A few times he would join in on the conversation but it was a rare thing.

On the other hand the women teachers were all the time planning new ideas for their classrooms and a lot of joint teaching was going on where two classes would get together to learned something, see a movie, or hear a speaker.  I remember two primary teachers talking about a student:  "I can't get Jason going on his reading this year.  You had him last year.  What did you do?"  "You're right, he was a slow started.  How about you sending him into my room when you have reading and I'll work with him.  We might get his attention between the two of us."  They would share students to be sure that they learned.

But one of my favorite things was Wednesday.  Every Wednesday was declared a different subject day like..... mushroom day.... or bug day...  or rain day.  The entire school would have assignment, reading, demonstration or whatever on the subject of the day.  I spent mushroom day in the school and learned as much as the children.  Parents would join sometimes being the speaker(s) and sometimes helping out on the days' projects.  In many cases, it was sheer chaos but my oh my did a lot of learning take place.  Not all of it in the state or distric curriculum guidelines.  Can you imagine arithmetic assignments about mushrooms?  Or raindrops?  Wednesday became a special day at this school.  Children anticipated it each week and remembered it the last two days of the week.  You could sense it in the children coming off the bus each day eager to see what was going to happen or to tell their class something at home that related to the latest Wednesday special day.  Big time excitement in all grades.

What many visitors to this school never saw was all the extra work teachers did to accomplish these special Wednesdays.  Calling people to find speakers, asking museums to bring collections,  checking with the district office as to the availability of films or displays-----   And not the least, planning reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps science assignments for their children....and in some cases individualized for each child.  Every teacher in the school was involved.  Even the principal and custodian (and in a number of cases including me) would get involved in changing tables, or setting up displays or whatever moving and arranging needed to be done.  It was a wonderful school.

Except!      For Anthony's class which would join in on the Wednesday's excitement but Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday it was back to doing assignments, turning them in and correcting them.  In some cases it was read, answer questions and take it up to Mr. G's desk.  I felt sorry for his kids.  

So I went to visit Mr. Roberts.  I said, "Explain to me why you haven't gotten rid of Mr. G--he just doesn't fit the mold of the rest of this school."  He smiled and said, "we need him."  Pulling out some charts he showed me reports from third grade teachers who had evaluated the previous year students.  They were good reports, very professional.  This child doesn't know how to do assignments, or this child can't summarize the learning, or.....  In some cases there were initial diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  All were children who needed more structural learning--more classical learning situations.  And guess what--Mr. G was the perfect teacher for these children.  He was very patient with his students and they would go over and over and over.... and over until they got the learning or behavior in hand.  Mr. Roberts also showed me data on fifth grade students who had been in Mr. G's class who were now doing well.

It was a brilliant operation of a whole school working together to help children learn.   I understood why Mr. Roberts had said to me, "just stay out of their way."  He was right.  And I became good friends with Anthony.  He had a number of surprises in him--and he would just smile in the teachers' room.  I was also in love with all the women teachers.  They were terrific, everyone of them.  I loved to watch them teach.  More then once one of them would say, "Les, would you take this student and help them learn......" or "listen to this one read and help them."

They treated me as a teacher and I was honored.  

I need to make a political point here.  I observed this school back in time--before "No Child Left Behind."    NCLB would have destroyed this school as it then functioned.  And I suspect WASL might have done the same.  I watch this school in its golden age.  Thanks to all those great teachers who showed me what good teaching was all about.  And thanks also to a principal who taught me how it ought to be done.  What a great school.

And don't you forget to thank a teacher today too.


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