My career has always been grounded in the academic environment. I taught college-level writing for almost 25 years and then moved into serving as an academic dean in the California community colleges. One of my favorite activities as a dean is conducting classroom evaluations and holding the follow-up meetings; these activities provide a chance to be in the classroom again and to talk shop. No matter what else we do, teachers always seem to stay teachers at heart. That is one reason I seek out blogs devoted to teaching—they give a glimpse into the classroom. One of my favorite blogs is Classroom in Microcosm written by Siobhan Curious.
Siobhan has recently started a recurring theme on her blog where she is asking readers to share their experiences about teaching and learning. She is calling this experiment The Writing on Learning Exchange. The first prompt she offered is “What are your first memories of going to school?” In encouraging her to start this Exchange, I committed to providing responses. My response is listed below. But please do more than read my response. Explore her website and consider participating as well. Hers is a great site!
FIRST MEMORIES OF GOING TO SCHOOL
It feels like I have been in education my entire life. I went straight from high school to college and then into the teaching profession. My general experience with being in school is positive, probably part of why I chose my profession: I did not want to leave the academic environment.
When I look back on my educational experience, I can point to favorite teachers and specific positive activities and events. In 6th and 8th grade respectively, Mr. Dixon and Mrs. Perkins both helped instill my love of reading. In 7th grade, I ended up owning a tarantula as a pet, a carryover from a classroom exhibit. In 8th grade, Mrs. Welch helped me see the advantages and excitement of teaching as a profession. In high school, our science field trips were exciting and got me started on trekking into nature to marvel at the beauty and diversity that could be found. My favorite high school classes were my English classes. We read some great literature, and I started writing short stories and serving on the literary journal and yearbook committees. I had great arguments with my junior English teacher about the composition process of all things. She tolerated me well and did not squash my spirit.
Thus, my general memory of being in school says I always did well in my classes, and teachers were my friends. However, when I look to remembering my first experiences in attending school, my mind is blank. When we moved from Chicago, Illinois, to Temple City, California, I was five and a half. I was enrolled in first grade at Gidley School. For years, I thought my education started at that time. But years ago, as an adult, I was helping my mother sort old photos and found a school group photograph from my semester in kindergarten in Chicago. I have no memory of that experience—and my mom remembered very little as well. In the photograph, I look very very sad. From later classroom experiences, I know I was always a “good” kid, not causing trouble or demanding attention. Given that perspective, I can only assume that I was quiet but behaved and thereby possibly overlooked by an over worked teacher.
Once in classes in California, my memories are not much sharper. My only vivid memory from first grade is being teased by other kids. I have no clue if or how the teacher responded. At that time, I loved to draw. My drawings were of what I knew—snowmen and snowball fights, birds from the yard. As an adult looking back, I recognized that my general birds were actually wrens with their little upturned tails. In Southern California, there was no snow, no snowmen, and no birds that looked like the ones I drew. The kids looked at my drawings and laughed and teased—and I stopped drawing. I do not think it was bullying as much as kids are insensitive when reacting to things that are new and different.
Looking back, I realize the power of feedback—or lack thereof, at least for me. It is so important for those first teachers to connect one-on-one with each student, to give some positive feedback, to somehow try to minimize the teasing that might come from other students. Our children need to feel wanted and welcomed at school, to get excited by learning. Kids are impressionable and react as best they can to fit in, to be accepted. The teachers can help guide those reactions and adjustments. I was lucky: by about third grade, I was getting positive feedback and the love of learning and of school kicked in. In retrospect, I worry about our kids who do not experience that turn-around, who always feel out of it in the classroom, possibly overlooked by a busy teacher.
As an adult, when I was making a decision to pursue teaching as my profession, I was adamant that I did not want to teach at the elementary level. I always said it was because I did not have the patience, but I am now wondering if it is in part because those early education years were not good for me. I opted, instead, to teach at the college level, but my area of specialty was developmental students, the adults who did not master the learning from their earlier education and needed help with a second chance. For me, lots of positive reinforcement and one-on-one interaction were the core of my teaching philosophy. Students, no matter what the age, need positive intervention on their efforts, so they can see what works and what doesn’t, make changes, and improve. As an administrator, one of my top concerns has always been providing the training for teachers on classroom learning strategies that would help them better interact with their students as individuals.
Through this writing prompt I am realizing that my non-memories may have had a bigger impact on my approach to education as a teacher and an administrator than I ever realized.
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Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself. Chinese Proverb
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. William Butler Yeats
The teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring a pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron. Horace Mann
Knowledge—like the sky—is never private property. No teacher has a right to withhold it from anyone who asks for it. Teaching is the art of sharing. Abraham Joshua Heschel