Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two Tough Softhearted Teachers

Although the two teachers I want to write about have the same first name (we'll call each of them Susan K and Susan J) they were not alike in any way--well, perhaps in one way. 

 Susan K taught in an urban elementary school--fifth grade.  A professional seasoned veteran teacher she was not very tall, maybe 5 foot 3 inches or so but wiry--and she moved around the classroom like a cat.  If a fifth grader started to day dream she was beside him or her in a moment softly reminding them what they were suppose to be doing.  Learning was important to Susan and she did not want her class to be wasting time.  Learning started at nine o'clock sharp and continued to noon with a short recess about 10:30.  And learning started at 10:31.

Although I had known Susan from earlier times, this time I had a student teacher in her room.  The student teacher showed much potential and I knew she would be picking up valuable techniques with Susan.  Indeed, if there were to be problems it would be that Susan would be forever coaching Janet right in front of the class.  "No, don't do it that way--try going over and showing him how you want the paper."  This really didn't bother the fifth graders--they were already used to being told how to do something or to re-do it for the fifth time.  This was life in Mrs. K's room but I wanted Janet to gain some experience on her own.

Mrs. K believed that being on time was a virtue.  When she told the class to open their textbook to page 89, the kids did it.  If someone dilly dallied or was slow putting the last subject material away. Susan would glide over and supervise the child's behavior.  As I said she moved around the room like a cat and no child went unnoticed.  Some university professors like to measure the efficiency of a classroom by "time on task."  If so, Susan K's classroom was highly efficient.  Very efficient.  Everybody working.

Except.   Except.......  After sitting in the back of the room several days I noticed a girl come into the classroom maybe twenty minutes after school had started.  She hung up her coat and went over to her desk.  I was expecting Susan to send her to the office or ask her in front of the class why she was late.  But it didn't happen.  Susan went over to the girl, helped her find where they were in the subject and helped her catch up a bit.  Strange behavior for Mrs. K.  I'd have to say that if Mrs. K had a favorite student it was this child.  I'm always interested in a good mystery and it was several weeks later after this had happen several times along with other special help for this girl that I finally asked Susan to perhaps bring me into the loop.

It turned out that the girl's mother had died about a year and half ago and Megan (the girl) was preparing lunches for younger brother and sister as well as making a lunch for her Dad.  He worked in construction and left early in the morning leaving this chore to his oldest daughter.  Megan also had to walk several blocks to buy groceries and bring them home after school.  As Susan said, 'this child has lost her childhood and it bothers me."  "In the morning she makes the breakfast and lunches for the two younger ones and for her Dad and then cleans up the kitchen before coming to school after getting her siblings off."  Susan also told me that she occasionally puts a twenty dollar bill in an envelope and gives it to Megan.  Megan was in fifth grade which made her about eleven or twelve years old.  

I saw a side of Susan K that she really didn't want the world to know.  This hard boiled teacher with a soft heart.  

A few blocks south and hang a right was a modern urban high school with one of the better libraries I knew at that time.  The librarian, Susan J was a big woman with a commanding presence.  She ran the library--trust me.  High school students did not go to the library to chat with their friends.  Several students could work together but only in certain areas and it HAD to be on a school project.  Susan J moved around the library asking students what they were working on and then would make suggestions as to where material could be found.  Students knew she was a valuable resource and they did like her.  Many would seek her out and explain their school work and ask for advice which was freely given.  She spent much of her day helping students find the material and then compose what they wanted to say.  She also taught proper formatting of material.  What always intrigued me was she always seem to be one step ahead of the students request.  She would have books and materials ready to go when they would initially come up to her for assistance.  Very intelligent librarian.  I admired her greatly.

One of the rules of her library was that you HAD to be working on a school project or homework.  No chatting and NO sleeping or dozing.  Except (you knew there would be an "except", didn't you) for one pretty girl (Alisha) who was one of Mrs. J's student assistants.  Occasionally I would see Alisha in Mrs. J's office with her head down taking a nap.  Mrs. J noticed that I had notice and told me of the situation.

Alisha was a bright student but had been having problems at home with a step-father.  She had run away from home and was found sleeping at the back of the high school when she was only a sophomore.  She did not want to go to a foster home and had found an after school job as well as a job at the mall on weekends. And she found her own place to rent.    That was when Mrs. J caught up with her.  Susan watched out for Alisha and I suspect, slipped her some money from time to time--I don't know that for sure.  But I know that Alisha was watched over carefully.  A new prom dress provided by Susan.  

One day I wandered up to the library.  Susan was on point--she was working on her own project looking for colleges with full scholarships for some of her students....I have no reason not to believe that Alisha was one of those students.  Computers and the web being relatively new at the time I was not surprised to hear, "Les, do you know how to work this computer?"  And Susan started me looking up grant and scholarship information.

A number of years later I saw Susan and her husband (an equally provocative teacher in the middle grades--I'll tell you about him someday--shop teacher) on their boat and I inquired about Alisha.  Susan told me with quiet pride that Alisha had completed college and was entering law school in order to work with children who had been molested.  Susan would not agree but I think I saw a wet eye or two but you definitely could understand the pride in her protege.  Another teacher who went out of her way to help students--and one in particular.

All over this country as you read this there is a teacher helping some student achieve and accomplish the skills necessary to be successful in life.  They have to help--it is the way life is for teachers.

Did a teacher help you?  Don't forget to say "thanks for what you did."  It is how teachers get paid.

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