Friday, March 13, 2009

Teachers make mistakes...

In the last few days it seems like a great many people are either talking or writing about educational reform -- and not one of them has ever been a teacher.  I guess having a kid or two makes you an expert on how kids should learn.  

And someone asked me if teachers (especially me) have ever made a mistake in the classroom--in front of the class.  Sheeesh--all the time.  Everyday.  Several per hour.  Lets face it, as a grade school teacher you have anywheres from twenty five to thirty five kids all asking questions or wanting to know something--talk about multi-tasking and you are bound to say "yes" when you should have said "no".  More then once I gave a girl permission to use the rest room only to realize later on I had given permission to three or four girls all at the same time, definitely a recipe for disaster at the fifth grade level.  But the high school disasters abound.  I remember one young lad asking to see the councilor only to read later on in my teacher's bulletin that that office would be closed for two days while the staff were at conference.  

Every once in awhile I could do a spectacular mistake.  I had a young boy in my fifth grade one year.  Ted or Teddy as we called him was a tall, angular, thin boy who was very quiet most of the time.  He was smart in busts.  He'd do well for awhile then fall off.  I never figured out the pattern or why it happened.  But he had one characteristic the bugged me.  He seem to always have a story about either himself or his family that was just off the wall. 

"Mr. Blackwell, do you know what happened this weekend?  I was skating on the ice on the lake and fell through the ice and I had to take off my skates and drag myself to the edge using the skates as picks."  Generally with stories like this I would find out that it really didn't happen but that the family discussed what might happen if they went out on the ice that was too thin.  Teddy would just embellish the story a bit from what actually did happen.  I knew that he was seeking some sort of attention and I tried to give that to him in class--make him in charge of something, give him special projects or jobs to help me.  But still the stories kept coming.  Normally all I had to do was look at Teddy and say, "Teddy, did that really happen?"  and he would mumble some answer closer to the truth.  And the day would go on....

One Monday, Teddy rushed into the classroom just bursting to tell me something.  "Mr. Blackwell, you're not going to believe what happened to me this weekend.  We had robbers at our place and my Dad and I got guns and we chased the robbers and we were running through the woods and shooting at the robbers and they were shooting back and I was hiding behind a log so they couldn't hit me and......"  I will have to admit he had more details to this story but I did wonder what ever was the conversation at home that begat this tale.  I began, "Teddy, did that really happen?"  He lowered his face and looked disappointed and mumble something about it really happening but I sort of just brushed him off.  End of story as far as I was concerned.

That evening I got the two Seattle daily papers and turned to the front page.  On both front pages was a large picture of adults showing how they protected their property from robbers on Squawk Mountain, near my school.  It appears that some young adults thought it might be a good place to rob some homes that appeared to be empty but didn't count on the neighbors being on the lookout and also well armed as well.  Shots were fired and the deputy sheriff had to get help to round up the suspects and get the full story.  And the full story was on the front page of each paper and Teddy did figure into the story.  Oh dear, now what.

Well, the next morning the class settled down to our routine while I collected the lunch money.  Then I stopped the class and had Teddy come up to the front of the room.  "Yesterday, class, I listened to Teddy who wanted to tell me and you what happened this past weekend at his house and I didn't let him.  I made a mistake in not doing so. So I want to apologize to Teddy for not paying attention to him and to let him tell you what really did happen.  And here are the pictures from both papers that have him in the story."  "Teddy, my apology."  Eating crow is hard no matter when and where you do it.  Teddy went on to tell about the gun fight on Squawk Mountain and I'll have to admit it was a good tale.  The class asked questions and Teddy was a hero for a number of days.  I also had Teddy autograph the two articles from the papers which I kept in my files for a number of years.  

So teachers do make mistakes.  We do try not to do them over and over however.  Another mistake took several years in the making.  At the grade school level we do try to teach all of the subjects--science was a hard subject for me to teach.  I'd had one class in the teaching of science in my undergraduate days and a lot of that I didn't remember.  But when faced with a problem I head to the books.  I found several books on how to teach science to the intermediate grade child and I tried a number of the suggestions.  

One idea talked about air pressure and it suggested that a teacher can take a glass of water, put a piece of cardboard on top, turn the glass over and pull the cardboard away.  The water would stay in the glass because of the air pressure.  I tried this at home and it work!  Well, I'll be damned.  So the next time we had science time, I moved the kids in the front row back, laid out some plastic tarps, got a dish pan, my glass and my piece of cardboard and proceeded to do my science lesson.  "IF I put water in this glass and put a cover on it and turn it over what do you think will happen?"  I got a ton of answers, mostly that the water will still come out because the cardboard isn't very thick.  My class sat back expectantly--they thought this was going to be good.  It was.  I turned the glass over with the water in it and carefully pulled the cardboard away and the water stayed into the glass.  Whoa! this was different.  How did he do that?  It was a trick.  It wasn't water but clear jello.  To be truthful I don't remember the discussion the class and I had but I suspect even now some of those kids understand a little more about air pressure.  Later on I let them try it over the sink.  Water and kids are a magnet, trust me.  

I did this several years in a row and it was always a good demonstration.  I got a lot of learning from that experiment.  The last year I did it however, we got more entertainment and less learning then was suppose to happen.  By now I had grown rather confident of myself.  I didn't move the front row back, I didn't move the kids out of the way.  But I still used the dish pan.  I filled the glass with water and took a piece of cardboard, placed it over the top of the glass and proceeded to ask all the questions, get the kids to write down their answers like I always did and then I removed the cardboard which for some reason it resulted in drenching the girl sitting in the front seat.  I didn't even hit the dish pan.  She got it all. Splat all over her.  

My class erupted in gales of laughter, some falling to the floor.  This had to be the best thing Mr. Blackwell had ever done.  It was total confusion amid the gales of laughter.  I remember a couple of the kids wanting to exchange places with my girl student and let me do it to them. "Get me wet, Mr. Blackwell."  I finally did it right--the water stayed in the glass but as a whole they all preferred the first way, dumping it all over a classmate.  The hell with science, this was more fun.

I'm sure I was the talk at the dinner tables that night.   The following year I went on to a different level of teaching and never tried that experiment again.  Maybe I should try it one more time by myself for confidence.

Yes, teachers make mistakes but they don't try.  Remember one of your teachers doing something funny?  Don't forget to go thank them for being who they were.

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