A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”. I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.
While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.
I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace. Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play. Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.
Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!
Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.
Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.
Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.
These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now. I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.