Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Power of a Teacher

Tomorrow (Wednesday, May 25, 2011) will be the last talk show by Oprah Winfrey and the news pundits have all made an effort to know who will be on the final show.  Early returns indicate that no one person will be on--it will be Oprah herself reviewing those that have had an influence on her.

I suspect one of those flashbacks will be Mrs. Mary Duncan, Oprah's fourth grade teacher who got Oprah to open up and be the smart girl (woman) that she is.  Oprah has repeatedly said that Mrs. Duncan was highly influential in getting her (Oprah) to be what she could be.  

I hope I had a positive effect on my first fourth grade class.  I still remember the kids even if they don't remember me.  I had already taught three years as a fifth grade teacher and one more as an elementary music teacher for three schools and I had asked the school administration to let me go back to the elementary classroom.  I wanted experience in the lower grades although as the music teacher I did have the opportunity to teach from Kindergarden to the sixth grade. But my school district had a policy at that time that male teachers were not to be assigned below the fourth grade.  Don't ask me why--I haven't the slightest idea why the policy was in place.  However, I was assigned a fourth grade class in the school I previously taught fifth grade in.

I still remember setting my goals.  I was going to be the best teacher in the school and my kids would learn twice as much as the other fourth grades.  Right!  As did all the teachers, I had gone to the school before classes were started, got my room arranged for the time being in rows.  I matched the chairs to the desks so that big chairs weren't with little desks.  Didn't know teachers did that, did you?  I got the text books out that I would pass out on the first day, pile high on a counter and I had written some stuff on the blackboard.  I also had put together some material on the bulletin board--not much but a start.  I'd want to put student's work on there as soon as I had some good examples.  And of course I had gone to the office to get the files on the kids I would have that coming year although I didn't look at them until a month or two into the school year.  

First day of school.  The children's names that I would have were posted on the windows of my classroom and pretty soon a small pile of kids were peering in the windows and bunching up at the door eager for the school year to begin.

[an aside:  I get tickled by the kids.  By April of last year they were bored with school and couldn't wait for summer to begin. "No more school, no more books......" And then summer comes and within a few weeks the kids are saying, "when will school start again?"  I love 'em.]

The school bell rings and I opened the door and stood there.  "I want the girls along the wall line up and I want the boys to line up next to the girls."  "And do it quietly!" And then I said, "I want you to go into the classroom, do not take off your coats or jackets but sit down at the first open chair that you come to and be quiet."  The kids were apprehensive but excited--first day of class!  Then I stood in the front of the room and looked at all of them.  For some I was their first male teacher so they didn't know what to expect.  I just stood there.  The room got quiet, still, I just stood there and looked at them.  Finally I spoke, "I hear breathing!"  As I looked around the class I saw one little girl with tears coming down her cheeks.  Oh dear, this was not what I wanted--I had to smile and tell them how well they had done so far.  I remember going back to my little princess and saying "everything will be alright."   My oh my how to screw up an opening day.

Well, coats were put away, books were distributed, lunch money was collected [I remember asking who were Jo Tyllia's kids and picking three of them to collect the lunch money--they could do it better than me anyway].  School was underway.  Yes, we did the flag salute with the pledge of allegiance and I forget what else we did but but my opening salvo was shot down by some tears.  I do remember we had a good year and yes, my kids tested out well.  That was the year that one of the kids came to me and said, "we pretty smart, aren't we, Mr. Blackwell?"  They were and I had a good time.  I hope they did.

A few years later I left the school district to study full time at the university.  I've always wonder what might has happened had we stayed in the district and had I become a principal as I had planned.  But you don't look back except in satisfaction and the past will never be that again except in your memory.  I'm sure all my kids would have a different perception of what when on that year.

Several years later when I was a wet behind the ears professor at what I now call "my university,"  two freshman girls knocked on my door, one short, the other tall.  They were from that fourth grade class so many years back.  We had a wonderful time talking about what went on during that year and I was aghast at some of the things they said I did.  One of them said I teased her about her boyfriend.  I didn't do that!  The tall one said that I harassed her about her penmanship.  No!  Yes, you did.  So I had her write something and she still had horrible penmanship.  It was really bad.  The funny thing about that is that she eventually got her Master's degree with that horrible, terrible, miserable penmanship.  Oh well, you can win them all.  They were wonderful kids.  I miss them.

Go thank a teacher today.  They need it.  

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