Monday, August 30, 2010

A Teachable (perhaps) Story

I had a most enjoyable and surprising morning.  For years, I have  gone out for breakfast and brought a book to read.  In recent months I bring my Kindle....wonderful device.  I suspect my delight of this activity goes back to the days of my undergraduate time at a university where I would walk in the cool morning air to the sorority where I was a houseboy and could have a free breakfast.  Well, the breakfast is not free anymore but I don't have to cook it myself... but the air at the moment is cool and fresh as I drive to one of my favorite cafes called the Skylark.  Two waitresses have smiles to make your morning along with a hot cup of coffee.  I really enjoy myself as I read my way into another day.

Thinking about starting another day, I have been blessed with a wife who is smarter then me and much more forgiving.   I still remember her reading a philosophy paper of mine, putting it down and saying, "so, what are you trying to say."  She continued on saying something about my not telling the reader anything they could make out.  It was back to the drawing boards and start over.  But perhaps I was starting over learning to write.  I still have a way to go.  Thanks, Lynn.

Not only is she smarter then me but she also overlooks my shortcomings.  I have been amazed that she has stuck with me for fifty three years so far (or is it fifty four?) but as I sat pondering at breakfast this morning I finally figured it out.  I can be a dumb ass at time, at least once a day and I now know that she is staying around wondering how I can top what I did today tomorrow.   It now makes sense.

Do you know what you have when two Ph.D. types live in the same house together?  A paradox.  (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

But the surprising thing that happened at Skylarks this morning was that a family came in for breakfast.  Mom, Dad and three children, two boys and a little girl--school age kids waiting for school to start.  But what surprised me was that Mom and Dad reminded me of years ago when I gave their little girl all "C's" on her report card.  They were at my classroom door the next morning waiting for me.

This couple looked just like them.  Spitting images.  Both were a bit over weight but this Dad looked like the one in my history of being able to pick me up with one hand.  He wasn't tall, maybe 5 foot 9 or 10 inches but he was big and had a few muscles I don't have.  I'm sure if he and I did chest bumps, I would be bounced about ten yards back.  Big man....even if he lost some weight.

Mom was a bit heavy but you wouldn't notice when she smiled.  It was a wonderful smile and she smiled a lot at her kids.  The kids were very well behaved.  Mom sort of coached them about the menu before the waitress got there and the kids order quickly and answer questions on some of the decisions they got to make.  "How would you like your eggs cooked?"  It was a great scene.  I wonder why more parents don't take their children out to breakfast instead of dinner to teach them how to behave in a restaurant.  Much easier on everyone.  It is a teachable moment for parents.  And these parents did it perfectly.

Anyway, I was impressed with this family.  I know I've told this story before but it bares repeating.  However, before I tell you the story keep in mind the latest political dance about how to evaluating teachers by using students' test scores.  The Seattle school district and the local Education Association are working on the problem right now.

I was teaching fifth grade and it was time for the first report cards to be sent home to the parents.  I remember struggling with my grade book, looking at the letter grades and numbers after each child's name. There could be "A's", maybe some "B's", then numbers ranging from 70 to 100.  Normally the way I thought in those days was that 70 to 79 was the letter "C", 80 to 89 was the letter "B" and from 90 to 100 was an "A".  But I would look at the name and then the grades I had, open a folder with a sampling of that child's work and then wonder what grade should I tell the parents their child is earning.  God, how I hated grading.  Sally was trying so hard her knuckles would turn white while she wrote her sentences.  She wanted to please me.  How could I say she was below average?  And Tommy would turn in anything he wanted to do that day--smart as a whip but not motivated.  Some days I could get through to him and other days I would never reach him at all.  How do you grade a kid like that.  He was an "A" student but he could do much better.  He wasn't trying.  Do I give him "B's" to motivate him--doubted if it would work and it would mean his folks would be down on him.

Each child was a problem of what grades do I send home.  A few of the parents I had already called and talked to them about what I was doing.  They would be no problem but for the most part the majority of the parents would be getting the first indication of how their child was doing in my class.  I still hate grading.

One child, I'll call her Elsie this time, was a quiet girl, who never, never gave me troubles in the classroom.  She didn't volunteer answers, never raised her hand, never changed her expression.  She was easy to overlook.  Elsie was just there in class.  I liked her.  When I did her report card I really couldn't remember much about her.  Her grades in my grade book were almost all "C's" or 75s or 76s.  I looked at her folder and it was bland--nothing leaped out at me.  So I put down "C's" in most of the categories and wrote something like, " liked by her classmates."

I sent the report cards home really thinking I might get a few phone calls that night but nothing came of it.  But the next morning as I walked to my classroom there were Elsie's parents and her little sister and Elsie.  They looked a lot like the parents I saw this morning at breakfast but these parents weren't smiling.  Elsie's Dad started in and I don't remember getting many words in edgewise but I did get them invited to my classroom where we could sit down.  Dad's main theme was that I was a poor teacher because his daughter was an "A" student.  He also continued on the theme that if Elsie didn't do well, it was my fault.  Let's just say it was a bad morning, hair and all.  They left and I told Elsie she was to raise her hand if she wasn't understanding something, okay?  Okay.

But Elsie, quiet girl that she was, didn't raise her hand and her work did not improve.  All "Cs".  I'd work with her from time to time but when you have 38 or 40 kids in a classroom it is hard to get to everyone.

The next grade report card time arrive and I struggled as usual with all the kids.  Elsie was an exception, indeed I really sat back and thought about her.  I didn't want her folks hassling her or me for that matter.  What to do?  I looked at my grade book, all "Cs" and decided I'd give her all "Bs" .  This time I wrote, " making good progress on improvement."   I'm a born lier.

The next morning there was Elsie, her sister and her parents at my classroom door.  I let them in and got a good talking to about how I was improving but I still wasn't the teacher I could be.  "Elsie is an 'A' student!"  I got the message.  Dad was a scary guy.  I was not about to argue with him in anyway.

So class continued except......Elsie started doing "B" work.  I don't believe I did anything different with her--she just started to do "B" work.  I remember looking at her papers and wondering what was going on.   I even watch her more often--still quiet, not many friends but one of the nice kids in class.  Didn't smile a lot but then I hadn't seen any smiles from her parents.

Well, the next reporting time came and I have to admit I did a lot less contemplating Elsie's scores and grades.  They were all "Bs", solid B work.  I put down on the report card all "As" .  Right down the line.  I don't remember what I wrote but it had to be complementary.  Strangely I didn't feel any guilt.  At least i wouldn't have to face her parents this time.

Or so I thought.  Next morning after report cards went home, there were her parents and the two girls waiting for me at my classroom door first thing in the morning.  "See, I told you you could be a good teacher if you tried." Her Dad did all the talking, the theme was much nicer but he wanted me to keep up the good work.  He was sure I could be a good teacher if I worked at it.  Mom smiled (the same smile I saw this morning with the other family).

Somehow I was not surprised when Elsie started to turn in "A" work.  I was fascinated, watched her work and still to this day have no idea if I had anything to do with her improvement except for lying on her report card.  She rose to what i expected of her.  In fact, she not only did "A" work but I started using her to help some of my other kids and she immediately began to have many more friends.  Toward the end of the school year she was becoming one of the leaders in the class.  She still had a quiet voice and I have to ask her to speak up but she was a leader.  My oh my.  What a turnaround.

I had other kids improve and I had other kids not do as well as I thought they could.  It was always a challenge every day.  How to get children to learn--that was my job.  It is not scientific, it is not precise, maybe a touch of voodoo thrown in.  I don't know.  When a student learns, it's payday for the teacher.  When they don't learn it is problem time.  What to do?  Some parents help, some don't want to be bothered.  Some parents aren't there--grandma or grandpa come in to see the teacher.  But they have problems too and sometimes are looking for help from the teacher who in turn is looking for help from the grandparents.

I wonder how teachers work with children whose parent(s) are in the military and are stationed overseas.    That much be particularly hard on both the kids and the teacher.  I cry openly when I watch a television news broadcast of a military parent coming home and surprising their child at school.  It's emotional.

And I will cry emotionally when teachers are graded by test scores they have little or no control over.  I hate this system of evaluating teachers by student scores.  Maybe we should give them all "As" and they will improve like Elsie because we expect it of them.

At the beginning of school the next year after I had Elsie in my class, I heard that there was a big argument in the Principal's office with a parent.   So, I wasn't surprised when I got Elsie's little sister in my room.  Strange, she got all "A's" when the first report card session came around.

Thank you teachers.  I know you are doing your best.

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